Warning: in addition to Tamora Pierce's characters and location, this epilogue contains roughly 200 of your daily recommended value of fluff. Preliminary anecdotal (and completely unscientific) studies suggest that high concentrations of fluff may alleviate PMS, tension headaches, and the common cold, however, high doses have been known to cause hysterical squealing and giggling as well as procrastination.
So, we're fastforwarding through about three years because Dalton diplomatically suggested it. I promise nobody has died and I think you will all like the results.
"This is the eighth morning in a row, isn't it" Dalton murmured.
Penelope nodded from where she crouched miserably over the chamber pot. "So good of you to keep count."
"Perhaps, you should go see Neal," Dalton said, unable to keep from smiling with wonderful suspicion.
"You'd look more convincingly concerned for my wellbeing if you stopped grinning like an idiot," Penelope said, smiling slightly herself. "I might be horribly ill." She lifted her head gingerly—there couldn't be anything else left to bring up.
"I'm not an idiot." Dalton bent to wipe her lips with a wet cloth. "You aren't sick—you never get sick."
"May I present evidence to the contrary," she muttered, rolling her eyes at the pot. Then she sighed and scrambled to her feet, already feeling slightly better. "I'll go make sure though," she added. "I'd hate to think my overactive imagination was doing this to me." She sighed and glanced out the window. "Only I don't have time this morning, not with—"
Dalton silenced her with a quick kiss. "Go. We're volunteers. Kel will forgive you for being late—especially if you wake Neal up. Anyway, she'll understand." He passed her a tunic and boots so she could finish dressing. "I'll clean this up," he added, indicating the chamber pot.
Penelope stepped into his arms before he could reach for it though, and buried her face against his shoulder. He wrapped his arms around her and they lingered together for a moment before she kissed his chin quickly and hurried away.
Penelope couldn't pinpoint a moment when she'd changed her mind about children in general—that had happened gradually over time, though her twin squires were undoubtedly to blame for convincing her that she was capable of nurturing--but she could remember the exact moment when she realized she'd wanted one of her own.
She and Dalton had been returning from a long summer—their first without Rissa and Vina—spent roaming as knights errant in the North (dealing with Immortals mostly, though occasionally joining with larger groups to tackle bandits) and at the palace gates they had met Kel and her children, just leading a group of pages back from fall camp. As soon as they'd dismounted, little Peregrine and Wilda had come rushing at them. Penelope had lifted Wilda—barely four—into her arms, spinning the little girl around so that she shrieked with laughter. She'd looked over and seen Dalton doing the same with Peregrine and they'd grinned at each other. And then she'd known.
She'd murmured Dalton's name that night as they were undressing. He'd turned to smile at her and she'd deliberately unfastened her charm and dropped it into the bottom of the clothes chest while he watched, wide-eyed.
"I think," she'd said, her voice mostly steady, "that we should stay near the palace for a while."
He'd swallowed, unable to speak at first, and reached to trace her body with his hands. "As long as you need." His lips brushed hers. "We've nowhere else to go."
Neal was already awake, as it turned out, though he was still working his way through his second mug of tea.
"What has Nessa done now?" he grumbled.
"Nessa," Penelope told him, "is one of the few pages who manages never to get caught in any wrongdoing. She must take after her mother."
Neal scowled and offered her a cup of tea—which she refused for fear of upset—and they chatted as though it were one of their ordinary visits. It wasn't until she'd stepped out the door a few moments later that she realized she hadn't managed to ask him.
She took a deep breath and forced herself to turn around.
Neal blinked at her as she entered, suddenly aware that they were going to have one of those talks. He sighed and opened his arms wide as she darted suddenly into his embrace.
"Neal," she said hurriedly, "I think I'm pregnant."
"I did wonder why you came to see me instead of joining the queen for glaive practice," Neal murmured, pushing her gently away so that he could look at her face. He was tempted to smile, but unsure whether or not she'd want him to.
"I haven't quite been myself in the mornings," Penelope admitted, smirking at him somewhat shyly.
"Oh." Neal raised an eyebrow at her as she lifted her shirt.
"Please, I—we need to know for certain."
Neal nodded and extended a green-fire rimmed hand. Then he nodded again, more decisively, and pulled her into a quick hug.
"Thanks," she whispered.
"Two months, I would guess," he said releasing her so that he could bustle around the room blending herbs. "I'm assuming, given the er—care you took during your squire years, that this is…"
"Welcome," Penelope finished calmly, lowering herself to sit on the edge of one of the cots. She felt slightly dizzy with the enormity of what Neal had just confirmed. "So, I should be due around—"
"Midsummer," Neal finished, "give or take a few weeks. It's becoming something of a trend among lady knights for reasons I have no particular desire to investigate." He pressed a mug of tea into her hands. "This will settle your stomach."
Penelope sniffed tentatively at it and frowned critically. "That's assuming I can drink it without gagging."
Neal scowled and added a large dollop of honey. "Any other complaints? Headaches? Stiffness?"
Penelope shook her head, "I'm mildly terrified, but for me that's a rather familiar condition. I'd be bored otherwise."
Neal leaned over and kissed her forehead. "You're both—you and Dalton and the baby—all of you are going to be wonderful." He watched her quietly while she drank her tea. She wasn't glowing, he decided, she was sparkling. Which, given that she was Penelope, made perfect sense.
"Morning practice started twenty minutes ago," she muttered, standing up. "And don't tell me I can't do that because you let Kel—"
"Just make me one small promise," Neal said, ushering her out the door.
She blinked at him.
"Let Dalton take care of you every once in awhile, when you're tired."
She smiled. "Who do you think dealt with the chamber pot this morning?" And she positively seemed to skip away.
He was in the midst of demonstrating proper stance to a first year, but Dalton's gaze met Penelope's as soon as she appeared at the edge of the practice courts.
I am, she mouthed and he nodded at her, grinning broadly and resisting the urge to run to her and spin her around. Or at least, resisting it until Kel called a halt to training, at which point he sprinted straight to her.
Although she was no longer responsible for helping with their training, Selena found Wyldon beside the courts just as the pages' practice ended for the morning. Out of long habit, she found herself helping him gather up spare equipment, which was just as well because it gave her something to do with her hands.
"I asked Jeck to marry me this morning, sir," she said quickly, "I'm not looking for your approval, my lord, but I thought you'd want to be informed."
And Selena wanted to be the one to inform him herself this time. She hadn't told him directly when she'd moved into Jeck's quarters beside the smithy—thinking it would allow him to pretend that she was sleeping alone—and they'd had a few awkward silences before Wyldon sent her midwinter gift to Jeck's quarters with a note reading, I know you wouldn't take such a step lightly, but I do wish you'd seen fit to keep me apprised of your whereabouts.
Wyldon glanced awkwardly at her. "You aren't ah—that is?"
"Are you attempting to ascertain whether or not I'm pregnant?" She asked quickly, but she spared him quickly. "I'm not."
Wyldon looked away for a long moment. If he raised his eyebrows, he'd lowered them before he turned back to her. "I presume he agreed—otherwise I gravely overestimated the lad's intelligence."
Selena nodded. "We thought you might like—that is…"
"Are you attempting to invite me to your wedding?"
His eyesight was fading and his hands had begun to tremble with age, but his looks still had the power to silence her on occasion. Selena nodded again.
"Incidentally, lady knight, you both have my approval and my blessing," Wyldon muttered, stepping close just long enough to kiss her forehead.
Penelope laughed as Dalton tugged her into the stables, spun her around, and kissed her thoroughly.
"You're alright then?" He gripped her shoulders gently.
"I'm starving. I think my stomach's caught up with me." She knew he hadn't been asking about her physical well-being per say. But at the moment, aside from being unsure how she was going to share the news with Wyldon and Kel—not to mention the Lioness, and Selena and Rissa and Vina—she felt wonderfully alive (and hungry).
Dalton smiled and wrapped an arm about her shoulders, enfolding her in the warmth of his cloak. "I suppose a trip to the kitchens is in order, then"
They stepped out from the stables just in time to see Wyldon plant a kiss on Selena's forehead before the two nodded at each other and parted.
Selena blinked in surprise and waved when she spotted them.
"Wyldon reserves physical gestures for extreme circumstances," Penelope told Selena. "So you've either just lost a relative—which your giddy smile rules out—or saved the kingdom—which is possible but I think I'd have heard of it." Penelope smiled. "Or you and Jeck have finally worked around the like-must-wed-like nonsense."
"Something like that." Selena grinned, her eyes dancing over Penelope's face. "Someone looks awfully pleased with herself."
"Someone's going to have a baby." The words fell from her mouth, surprising all three of them. There was one announcement over with.
Selena glanced from Dalton—who nodded and tightened his grip around Penelope's shoulders—to Penelope—who grinned widely—and then pulled both of them into a hug. There were a few tears and more than a few giggles. Fortunately Dalton had grown rather accustomed to mild hysteria during his years with Rissa and Vina and emitted a few deep and contented chuckles before disentangling himself.
"Don't worry," Selena told them. "I won't tell anyone. But you might want to give Wyldon a day or two—let him adjust to one thing at a time."
Alanna arrived at the palace early the next afternoon. Penelope and Dalton rushed to meet her beside the stables just as she dismounted.
"Could we have word?" Dalton asked rather breathlessly.
Alanna nodded and then they froze.
Penelope blinked at the Lioness. The words that had come out so freely in front of Selena suddenly stuck in her throat. Dalton swallowed at his former knight mistress.
"I'll spare you—some things aren't easy to say," Alanna told them. "And I've a theory of my own." She set a violet-rimmed hand on Penelope's shoulder. "Which has indeed proven correct." She cleared her throat and extended a palm towards George who set a coin in it before he'd dismounted. She stuck it in her belt pouch and wrapped both arms around Penelope's shoulders, winking at Dalton.
"I do hope you'll find your voice again soon though, so you can raise your daughter to be as forthright as you usually are." That seemed to have the desired effect.
"Daughter?" they murmured together. Some men's voices might have registered disappointment, but Dalton's was just as delighted as his wife's, possibly more so.
"Yes," Alanna said. "As in female—"she paused just long enough for emphasis—"singular."
Penelope cast her eyes skyward in relief and Dalton grinned even wider, thinking he'd never yet fully appreciated the beauty of those two words.
George kissed Penelope's cheek and then clapped Dalton heartily on the back before dragging him away to deal with their horses.
"So," Alanna murmured when they were alone.
"I want this," Penelope said, laying a hand over her still-flat belly, "more than I've wanted anything since Dalton—or earning my shield even, but I'm afraid I won't be able to—"
Alanna took Penelope's hands in her own. "Are you good at breathing and blinking?"
Penelope was so puzzled by the question that she immediately ceased both functions until Alanna lifted one hand and gently tapped her cheek.
"Birth is also—usually—something your body just does. You can't be good or bad at it. Raising children is a little different—it is possible to smother them and end up with whiny incompetent brats—but it's also something you just do. You'll make mistakes—Goddess knows I did—and you'll make amends." Alanna sighed. "But you shouldn't measure yourself up to Kel or Daine or whichever wonderful mother you're comparing yourself to—it had better not be me—because you'll have to do it your own way, whatever way is best for you and Dalton and your child."
Penelope nodded, sniffling slightly. "I never knew my mother," Penelope muttered. And then she buried her head on Alanna's shoulder, crying quietly. "Sorry. I don't know what's gotten into me."
"I think we both know exactly what's gotten into you," Alanna whispered wryly. She lifted a hand to stroke the back of Penelope's braid. "I never knew my mother either. But I managed to find—and then make—a family of my own. You've done the same. At least, Neal and I—and probably Rissa and Vina—would both claim you and Dalton as part of ours. See—" she fished a handkerchief out of her belt-pouch and held it up to Penelope's nose—"blow."
Penelope did. And she felt immensely better afterwards.
"I was bettin' news of the babe wouldn't come till after midwinter," George explained. "Thought it might take you a few months longer to recover from Rissa and Vina."
"We must have short memories," Dalton said, quite cheerfully. "Possibly we've gone mad."
"There's no possibly about it, lad."
"You do have a knack for instilling confidence," he told the grinning thief.
"Wait till you meet her," George predicted. "It will be like fallin' in love all over again—except without all the fighting. You won't forget that in a hurry."
Selena and Jeck were married in the early morning and Wyldon hosted a small breakfast gathering afterwards in his chambers. Kel took advantage of the opportunity to ask Penelope and Dalton if they could take on another pair of squires in the spring.
Penelope bit her lip and they glanced hesitantly at one another.
"I'm afraid not," Dalton said finally.
Kel blinked in surprise. "Are you certain? Perhaps just one?"
Penelope shook her head. "I'm pregnant."
There was a long moment of silence during which Kel actually dropped her fork in shock. Vina squeaked and Rissa managed an astonished burp. Selena smiled in an unsurprised way and rolled her eyes at George. Alanna and Neal exchanged knowing nods. Dom shook Dalton's hand heartily and Jeck clapped him on the back.
"Oh," Kel whispered, leaning across the table to kiss Penelope's cheek. "This is wonderful."
Then Vina and Rissa launched themselves from their chairs, momentarily burying Penelope and Dalton in an expansive hug before peppering them with questions.
" or a girl?"
Here, Alanna nodded her affirmation. And Neal nudged Dom in the ribs, mouthing, inevitable.
"Why didn't you—" Rissa continued.
"tell us straightaway?"
"And how come Selena knows already?"
"Only for a few days," Selena put in.
"But you might have told us you were going to…" Rissa shrugged happily. Both twins were too busy grinning to be truly angry.
"We thought you didn't want—" Vina muttered.
"When did this happen?" Wyldon murmured dazedly.
"I couldn't tell you exactly, sir," Penelope shot back cheerfully. "My best guess would be the night of that thunderstorm a few weeks after fall camp."
Wyldon choked on his toast and turned an astonishing shade of maroon under this onslaught of information. Jeck pounded him calmly on the back. George muttered that the night in question had probably been a "pleasant evening for everyone." Dom suddenly had a great deal of trouble swallowing and Kel plastered her fingers over her mouth. Dalton raised his eyebrows mildly and Vina and Rissa blinked with interest.
"Didn't I teach you not to answer rhetorical questions?" Neal demanded as soon he'd downed a few restorative swallows of brandy-laced tea.
"You made a few half-hearted attempts, sir, none of which were successful."
Dom glanced at Penelope. "That was deliberate provocation."
Penelope nodded. "Indeed." She didn't sound the least bit sorry.
Wyldon shrugged—an unaccustomed gesture—and murmured, "actually, it was rather preferable to Mindelan's unintended provocation."
Alanna turned disbelieving to Kel. "What did you do?"
"I believe my lord was looking for a delicate way to ask who Kefira's father was but he used the words 'how did this happen?'" Kel told her.
"And you answered?" Rissa asked, her eyes dancing with glee.
"Quite forthrightly," Wyldon added. "She nearly launched into an anatomy lesson. Perhaps I ought to stop asking imprecise questions of pregnant knights," Wyldon mused.
"I'm willing to wait a few years to be sure you've dropped the habit," Selena informed him. "I'm not sure I want to be the one to tackle 'why did this happen?'"
"I'm sure you'd come up with a suitable explanation," Jeck assured her. "But you might want to give him something for his cough beforehand?"
"Undoubtedly," Wyldon muttered, splashing a bit of brandy into his own tea.
After breakfast, Penelope and Dalton wandered with Rissa and Vina to the practice courts, where Penelope beat Dalton at two duels before accusing him of holding back. He only shrugged guiltily in response.
"Told you," Vina muttered, elbowing Rissa.
Rissa, however, had gone suddenly pensive as she watched Dalton kiss Penelope's forehead.
"Tell me," she said. "Did we drive you to procreation—"
"Or keep you from it?" Vina finished.
Penelope and Dalton blinked at each other before answering together. "Both."
"That's because there were two of us," Rissa said, as though they'd made perfect sense.
Penelope nodded rather stiffly before announcing that she was in the midst of a "philosophical dispute" with breakfast and dashing away.
Rissa spotted one of her many male admirers a moment later and hurried to join him, leaving Vina and Dalton standing awkwardly at the edge of their practice court.
"I'm sorry," Vina murmured. "Now that I've earned my shield, I realize we must have been quite the cursed encumbrance."
"Occasionally." Dalton shrugged. "You two were a double-edged sword," Dalton muttered. "And you were almost always worth it." He smiled at the competent young woman whose life he had saved more than once over the past few—and who had occasionally saved his own. "And how is Vina these days?"
She grinned back. "Confident, sir, and quite content."
"You appear to have started another trend," Neal told Kel as her family lingered with Alanna and George over third mugs of tea.
"I believe I'm rather more than a trend." Kefira brushed a few crumbs off her new page's uniform and stood to glare properly at her godsfather.
"Indeed?" Neal gazed steadily back at her.
"One might go so far as to call me the beginning of a movement," Kefira informed him.
"One might go so far as to declare you late for your afternoon classes if you don't hurry," Kel interrupted.
Kel lifted an eyebrow, silently reminding her daughter of that she must remain above all hints of favoritism.
"Yes, lady knight." Kefira ducked her head politely and darted from the room.
"You know," George remarked. "I'd almost say Kefira has it harder than the rest of them and you're the one with the special advantage—as a parent."
"And to think she's mislead a couple of young knights into parenthood," Neal muttered. "What has she got to say for herself?"
"I am happy for them," Kel murmured, "but they have a long road ahead of them."
Alanna reached over and squeezed Kel's elbow. "Neither of us is in a position to comment." She glanced meaningfully after Kefira.
"We've told Wyldon, so I suppose the worst is over," Penelope said, as they wandered back to their chambers that evening.
"You mean the best," Dalton told her. "I'm never going to forget his face."
And then they both laughed because they knew the best and the worst had only just begun.
So there you have it. The End. Sad as I am to say goodbye to these characters, who have taught me so much about writing, I am looking forward to using the winter to clean up my novel for attempted publication and to writing it's sequel (eek!). However, I tried to end this story nineteen chapters ago (and we all know how that turned out). I really think it's done now, but I'm fairly certain I'll alleviate my January writer's block by posting a few one-shots. Meanwhile best of luck to everyone suffering through finals and happy holidays to all! And heartfelt thanks to the reviewers who have followed this story from the beginning—your comments and encouragement have really kept this story going (and kept me growing as a writer) through the years and your attention spans are seriously praiseworthy… Farewell and best wishes for winter writing and reading!