[Updated 1/12/09] I'm going through the story now, as several kindly reviewers have pointed out grammatical and other mistakes, and I've finally taken it upon myself to fix them. Yeah, I probably should have done it long ago, but sometimes it's easier to push forward than to go back.

Well, this is my first Tamora Pierce story. The premise is Squire from Nealan of Queenscove's point of view. How exactly does he enjoy being squire to the famed Lioness, and what exactly happens while he is her squire? These question's and more will be answered in the one, the only…

The Lady Knight's Squire

Plans: a proposed or tentative project or course of action

Lady Knight Alanna of Pirate's Swoop and Olau was a common sight in the palace. As the King's Champion and close advisor, any time she was at the palace, she could often be found with either the King Jonathan himself, or one of her many friends that also resided within the ancient walls.

Perhaps that's what made her destination so unusual; as a healer herself, Alanna had no real reason to see Duke Baird of Queenscove, yet that was her sole reason for visiting the castle instead of staying at home at Pirate's Swoop, despite the month of leave that she had been given.

A wide-eyed healer stammered upon seeing Alanna's violet eyes fixed upon her, babbling about how the Duke was with a patient and thus unavailable at the moment. The knight's temper sparked a little at the silly behavior, but time had taught her how to bite back on criticisms. "That's fine," she announced instead, taking a seat in the open area that lead to the various healers rooms. Instead of putting her at ease, this made the young healer even more nervous- she hovered around Alanna until the woman just wanted to gag her so as to enjoy a moment of silence.

Duke Baird rescued her from the healer's insistent attentions. "It's okay, Lea," the Duke reassured the young woman, and beckoned for Alanna to follow him. "Thank you for coming on such short notice," The Duke's warm smile made his green eyes glitter. He led Alanna to his private office, pouring her some fresh grape juice and offering her some food. She declined, eager to find out what could be so important that the Duke wanted to speak with her in person.

Despite of Alanna's wishes, Duke Baird didn't seem willing to broach the topic of concern which had forced him to send a letter to the lady knight earlier in the summer. The Duke dawdled for a moment or two over his own drink, staring at the soft reflections from the streaming sunlight that had bounced of the glass. "Do you know of my son, Nealan?" Duke Baird began almost abruptly, intense green eyes finding Alanna's violet ones.

"I know that he was Keladry of Mindelan's page sponsor, and that they are close friends," Alanna cautiously agreed, unwilling to admit to the Duke just how closely she had been following the girl's training. "I also have been told that he didn't start page training until he was fifteen, and was at the University before that."

Duke Baird nodded. "Until Jared and Aiden died in the Immortal's war, I was perfectly content to see Neal follow in my footsteps and become a healer by studying at the University. After they passed, Neal decided that he would become a knight, despite all of my wife's- and my- protestations. He had gotten it into his head that someone living from the family had to be a knight. Neal announced it was his duty as a Queenscove, and would begin training as soon as possible. I'm sure you can understand our distress- after losing two sons before him, we weren't as willing as he was to dedicate another Queenscove to becoming knight."

Alanna thought of her youngest, Aly, and smiled a little tightly. I think I know more of failed expectations than you might admit, she thought. Her own daughter had no interest in becoming a knight! It was hard for parents to see children choose paths that the parents themselves did not wholly advocate.

Duke Baird barely stopped to acknowledge Alanna's agreement. "It was fine, for a while. Neal, though the stubborn boy he is, he did well enough as a page. However, after those bandits…"

Alanna didn't need Duke Baird to tell her of the story. She was one of the first to know about the bandits that had attacked the young pages, and she felt that familiar swell of pride whenever she thought about Kel, and how well she was doing, even beyond Alanna's wildest dreams. "Continue," she said, shifting in her seat so as to be more comfortable.

The Duke paused, almost unwilling to continue. "He had nightmares for a long time," Neal's father admitted quietly. "After he realized he could do nothing to heal the other injured pages, the stubborn child took it into his head that he was going to become a healer too, studying as much as possible during summers, free time- whenever he could manage, actually."

"Duke Baird," Alanna began, a little sadly. She knew where this was heading; she could understand Neal's feeling, but she had other thoughts about having a squire.

"Please, Lady Alanna. You are a healer whose talent equal to mine, and if you devoted your time solely to healing, in my old age, I would be out of a job. I cannot dedicate any time to Neal's studies, even if he were here at the palace to take them. Few other knights are able to heal as well-" the Duke's voice became unmistakably pleading, but Alanna continued shaking her head.

"I'm sorry," Alanna said. "I am not going to take anyone on as a squire right now."

"Is there anyway for me to get you to reconsider?" Duke Baird's green eyes were begging Alanna to say yes, but Alanna shook her head, making sure that even Duke Baird felt the finality of it.

"The King might know someone who is willing to take on a squire with Neal's unique talents," was all the comfort that Alanna could offer, and Duke Baird nodded, acquiescing to the female knight's refusal. He had knew that there was no way to change his friend's mind.

Alanna stood, and the two nobles bowed politely to one another, before the stocky knight took her leave, sedately making her way to the rooms that were kept should she ever stay at the palace.

The rest of the afternoon was spent relaxing; it had taken a long time for her to realize that not every single spare moment needed to be filled with work. It was nice, on occasion to take a break. As the sun began to creep towards the western horizon, however, Alanna stirred, knowing she needed to get ready for the evening's meal.

The woman changed into a deep bronze dress that made the color of her hair sparkle and glitter. Discreet chocolate brown embroidery danced its way at the edges of her sleeves and across her entire skirt. Tiger's eyes, set in gold, completed the look, and satisfied that her appearance was proper for the evening's entertainment: a quiet dinner with Jon, Thayet, Buri, Myles and Gary, she gave her reflection in a small mirror a brief nod. Before joining her friends, however, Alanna opened her hand out in front of her used her magic to open a speaking portal about six inches across. "George?" she questioned.

George took a moment to look up, but smiled widely when he noticed his wife.

"Hello, lass," George said. A smile blossomed on Alanna's face, love for her husband growing in her chest.

"Hello, laddy-me love," Alanna returned, eyes glowing softly with happiness.

"Are you calling to answer just why Duke Baird needed to see you?" George asked, curiosity over the unanswered question filling his eyes.

Alanna scowled a little. "He wanted me to take Neal on as a squire."

George needed no explanation as to who the boy was. After years of listening to his wife speak of Keladry, the man felt that he knew the girl and her friends as well as Kel's own mother. He whistled for effect though, raising his eyebrows. Alanna didn't need to hear George's voice ask the question to know it was there, hanging in the air. "I said no," she informed tartly.

"Are you sure that's wise?" George's level eyes prevented Alanna from bristling to far.

"He would be my squire," Alanna shot back. "And don't think that I'm holding out, hoping Jon will let me be her knight master. He made that clear enough." It was still a sore spot, and though there had been wisdom in Jon's decision four years ago to keep her out of Kel's life, it would probably ache for a while yet. At least the King didn't suspect that Alanna was the source of Kel's mysterious gifts, assuming he knew of them.

"Then why don't you take him on?" George asked. "If I'm not mistaken, love, this is the first time someone has sought you out as a knight master. Perhaps it's a good idea. You could probably round out his learning as a healer."

Is there nothing he doesn't know? Alanna asked herself. "I want a female squire for my first squire," she finally announced as flatly as she could. It was a tone that she felt brooked no argument.

Apparently, her husband wasn't in the same mind about that tone, because he opened his mouth to make another good point about taking Neal on as a squire. He shut his mouth though, and Alanna hoped that would be the end of the matter. She held back an annoyed sigh as George opened his mouth once more, only to say, "Just sleep on it, Alanna. Don't waste a good knight-healer because you want a female squire."

Alanna made a face, but agreed, allowing their discussion to stop before either was aggravated. Their talk turned to other pleasantries, but too soon for the pair the first bell of the evening rang. "I have to meet Jon soon," she told George, and the former thief smiled.

"Tell Johnny I say hello," George said wickedly, corners of his eyes creasing with laughter.

Alanna laughed outright. "I will, I promise. I love you."

"Love you too, Alanna."

With their goodbyes said, Alanna allowed the portal to disappear, and she considered cosmetics for a moment, before hastily applying some face powder, blush and lip color. Satisfied, Alanna tucked her hair behind her ears and left her rooms.

Dinner was both relaxed and thoroughly enjoyable. The friends teased one other with easiness that they rarely had time for these days. Laughter floated around the room, as memories from their childhood were told as stories for the entertainment of Thayet and Buri. Even Myles was surprised by a few retellings.

Too soon the dinner ended, and the friends slowly parted. Gary was the first to go, claiming Lady Cythera was eager to discuss their eldest's daughter's possible engagement, and his pained look had Alanna and Buri cackling while Jon and Myles shook their heads. It was Buri who left next, toting a tipsy Myles back to his rooms and leaving the rulers and Alanna together. The three friends saw each other rarely enough that any time alone was appreciated. However, after no more than ten minutes of peace, both Jasson and Vania came tearing in to the room, having escaped from their nurse and the guards in order to see their parents.

"Mama! Papa! Auntie 'Lanna!" Jasson shouted, chubby face proud of having run away, and even happier that he found his parents. Vania's shy face could barely be seen, for she had run to her mother and buried her face in Thayet's skirts at the first opportunity.

After calming the children's nurse and sending her back to Jasson and Vania's rooms, Thayet, Jon and Alanna spend a few moments listening to Jasson's eager story, which could only be deciphered to the point that it seemed to involved an ogre, an ear of corn, and river. After nodding appropriately at the right places (namely when Jasson paused to stare at his family expectantly) and trying to get Vania to remove her face from the queen's skirts, Thayet gently pulled the two children out of the room, promising that after they were tucked in, Jon would come and read them their bedtime stories.

The excited squeals left Jon smiling fondly as the threesome left.

However, the light-heartedness was not to last. "Alanna, I need to speak with you about Nealan of Queenscove" Jon began as soon as Thayet had closed the door behind her.

The good mood in the air began to disappear, and Alanna frowned. "It's my choice as to when and whether I choose to take on a squire, Jon," Alanna reminded him crossly, but Jon held up a patient hand.

"I know. But just hear me out, okay?" Jon waited until Alanna nodded stiffly, and then continued, saying, "First off, I can't deny that having another knight who is also a healer is not unwanted by the crown. However, you should also know that Squire Nealan is a close friend to Squire Keladry, and as such, you would have a legal and obvious excuse to speak with Keladry. In a public setting, of course."

Alanna rolled her eyes at his attempt at coercing her. "Have you lost your mind?" She asked softly, temper lacing the oft-uttered words with a hint of anger. "You know perfectly well that realistically no one will want Kel as a squire. They fear the conservative's anger, if they're progressive, and of course the conservatives themselves won't touch her. Even then, they'll have her in bed with her knight-master before the day is out."

"And you still can't be her knight master either, Alanna." Jon reminded, "Or you'll just make life even more difficult for her, because even the progressives will wonder how fairly she got her shield."

"I know!" Alanna said tightly, eyes snapping. "But that doesn't mean I should take her best friend!" Alanna could only imagine what Kel must be going through. She remembered vividly how worried she had been when she had thought Jon would pick someone else for a squire. Ilane of Mindelan had met her once, many years ago when the family had come for a trip to Tortall to see her family. Even then the young Kel had heard stories of the great Lioness, and told her family that she was going to be just like her. Ilane had told her, laughingly, that she pretended that she was Alanna's squire, and though her heart was warmed at the time by the sentiment, Alanna didn't actually believe that the girl would go through with it.

Yet here she was, and Alanna was sure that dream hadn't died. To take Keladry's best friend might be too harsh an injury to recover from, and Alanna had no interest in alienating the girl.

Jon let her mull over her thoughts in silence, recognizing the deep thoughts that his friend and Champion was processing.

"You know," Jon said aloud as Alanna seemed to reach the end of her thought. "There is one way that Squire Keladry can earn her shield and not a single person will be able to make a peep about it."

Alanna made a questioning noise.


Alanna's eyes flashed up to meet Jon's, her thoughts instantly starting to race with the possibilities. "She'll be obvious. She'll be all over with the King's Own, and more than enough people who want to see her fail will see that she has no magic workings on her. It will also get her used to the conservatives, and the conservatives to her." Lips curled up into a smile. "Were you always this devious?" Alanna accused Jon, eyes sparkling with more light then there had been in a while. Alanna's smile dimmed the more she thought, however. "But Raoul doesn't ever take squires. He doesn't need them," she fretted.

"Then you'll just have to convince him," Jon told her promptly.

"But how…" Alanna trailed off, deep in thought once more.

"Jon?" Thayet stuck her head in the room. Alanna, still in thought, barely acknowledged the woman, and waved an idle goodbye as Jon left the room to tend to his children.

Thayet looked up at her husband through curled lashes. "Are things all solved?" she asked, one eye on her friend, still sitting in front of the hearth.

Jon grinned, flashing a white smile in the dim corridor. He tugged Thayet against him, and she put an arm around his waist. "You know what, my dear? I think they are."

Raoul arrived at the palace late afternoon two weeks later, perspiring. Even for summer the day was unusually hot, and the Third Company of the King's Own was happy that cool baths were nearly at hand.

Alanna was waiting for him in the stable, lounging back against the stable wall. She glanced up at him, greeted him with a smile that had a touch of something hidden beneath it. Anxiety perhaps? Before Raoul could get to questioning though, Alanna was greeting him and the others of the Own that were familiar to her. Then, having extended her greetings, she took a few steps back and waited patiently for the members of the Own to empty out of the stable. Taking the hint Raoul lingered, taking his time caring for Drum.

Once the stable was empty, Raoul dragged a weary hand across his brow. Alanna frowned, as if just noticed the knight's sweat-stained clothing and damp dark curls. Her tense expression softened a little bit. "It's not that important. Bathe and relax. I'll get a meal together for us. I need to talk with you about something."

"That much I gathered." Raoul's eyes were snapping with good humor, but he wasn't about to wait any longer for a bath, and trusting Alanna to be as good as her word, waved a quick goodbye.

They met up again about two hours later, Raoul joining Alanna in her chambers. "Now it's time for a proper greeting," the big man smiled, and swept the short woman up in a crushing hug that she joyfully returned.

"How was your trip?" she asked courteously.

Raoul laughed outright at that. "Come now, Alanna. I know you far to well. No pleasantries, as if we were nobles fit only to sit and smile. What's on your mind that you were waiting in the stable for me to arrive?"

Alanna bit her lip. "I want you to take Keladry on as a squire," she said bluntly, violet eyes boring into Raoul's black ones.

Raoul blinked once and then twice, before breaking out into a full bodied laughter that had him visibly shaking. Alanna couldn't muster a reply, the laughter being far out of the realm of what she had considered an appropriate response.

"Raoul?" she asked tentatively.

Raoul wiped his streaming eyes. "Do you think the Trickster God plans these things out?" he asked, still chortling happily.

"Why?" Alanna demanded, beginning to get impatient with her friend. "What are you talking about?"

"Alanna, when I came back, one of my goals was to ask you and Jon what you thought about me taking Kel on as a squire!" Raoul exclaimed, and Alanna's wide-eyed surprise only made him laugh more.

"Really?" she said, astounded. "I didn't expect…I mean, you never…"

Raoul nodded his head. "Normally I have no use for this sort of thing. I simply don't need a squire, because the Own has standard bearers and such." The smile took on a more serious tone. "But think about it Alanna. Even you probably know more about the Yamani people then I do. I've been on the road so much, I hardly know anything about the people from who will be our allies. And with the Grand Progress coming up, I'm going to need all the help I can get."

Alanna nodded her head, and when she didn't open her mouth to add anything, Raoul continued, saying, "She also shows the possibility of being a strong commander. She has a level head, is smart…I've spoken to most of her teachers in combat and in books, and they have all given solid reports. All in all, if I'm going to have a squire, Keladry is the sort of person that I need with me." Raoul ended his speech with a shrug.

Alanna nodded her head, agreeing with everything that Raoul was saying. "I didn't realize that you'd put that much research into asking her to be your squire."

Raoul shrugged again. "The only reason to have a squire is that you can teach them something they'll find useful. In this case, she'll be particularly useful to me as well. There are many commanders that might take Kel on, but her skills with Yamani's are useful to me more than anyone else in the progress at this point."

Alanna could understand Raoul's train of thought, and a wave of relief, tinged only with a touch of jealousy, crashed through her. "Thank you, Raoul," she finally said, her voice barely carrying across the small table between them.

"It's no problem, Alanna," Raoul reassured her.

Raoul's stomach rumbled, expertly breaking the emotion that was rising between the pair, and they exchanged identical grins and Alanna laughed, saying, "Let's eat!"

After her complete refusal, Lady Alanna was the last person Duke Baird expected to see let into his office by Lea.

"Please, come in, Lioness!" the Duke was quick to stand and motion at the chair across from him.

Alanna shook her head, leaning casually against the doorway. "This won't take more than a few moments," she promised.

The Duke waited for Alanna to reveal what she needed. A tiny hope flared, praying that Alanna had reconsidered, and was willing to take Neal on as a squire.

"I've thought it over, and I'll accept the offrt to take on Neal as a squire, as long as he doesn't have any protest," Alanna declared.

Duke Baird nearly fell out of his chair with surprise. He hadn't actually thought that might be the reason. "Truly?" he asked, needing to hear the agreement again.

Alanna was tempted to roll her eyes, but resisted the impulse, instead saying, "Yes," in a steady voice.

"Thank you!" Duke Baird exclaimed, the words barely processed by his brain before they were in the air, and many more profuse thanks followed.

Alanna casually waved them away, blushing uncomfortably. "How soon can I meet with Neal?" she asked, focusing the healer's attention.

"He's with his mother in the city at the moment," Duke Baird answered. "I can ask him to come back tomorrow, though, so-"

Alanna was already shaking her head. "When would he normally be coming back?" she asked instead.

"Three days from now," Duke Baird said.

"Am I interrupting?" King Jonathan of Conté asked, rapping on the wood frame. Lea fluttered nervously around the King, unsure of how to handle things. Duke Baird kindly motioned that she could return to he seat in the other room.

Both Alanna and Duke Baird paused then, to bow to their ruler. "No, Your Majesty," Duke Baird said with a smile. "We were just discussing when Lady Alanna would like to speak with my son about being Lady Alanna's squire."

The King smiled a little. "That's perfect then. That's exactly what I wanted to talk to you both about. I would like to be there when you talk with Nealan. As I understand, he is a very forthright, intelligent young man- who will most likely protest the position he is being offered in deference to Keladry."

Duke Baird winced a little, but didn't argue. "Of course, Your Majesty. When would you like to speak with him?" the Duke deferred to King Jonathan, who turned to Alanna.

"May I join you when you make the offer?" He said as though it were a question; as it had come from her King, however, Alanna knew that there was no choice in the matter.

"Of course," she agreed evenly. "When Neal gets back from visiting his family in the city, I'm sure Duke Baird will be more than happy to make the arrangements with his son for, say, the following afternoon?"

Duke Baird nodded, declaring that should present no problems.

"Then we are in agreement?" the King asked, studying both Duke Baird and Alanna's face carefully. They both nodded, faces serious with their intent.

King Jonathan smiled a little more widely, and nodded and acknowledgement of their decision, before leaving the Duke's office to resume his normal duties.

All I can hope, Alanna thought, a touch annoyed. is that Neal accepts the offer after we've gone through all of this trouble!

Though will I really blame him if he doesn't?

Duke Baird rode out into the city with a broad smile on his face, ready to see his wife, two daughters, and two remaining sons.

"Hello!" he called out as he entered the casual abode near the outskirts of the city, where his family stayed for part of the year.

"Daddy! Daddy!" And excited voice shouted. "You're here!" Torri came pelting down the steps at full tilt, followed by her younger sister Odelle. His wife followed them at a more serene pace, while Neal and Alex were nowhere to be seen.

Duchess Illia somehow found a way to cheerfully kiss Baird's cheek despite the two wriggling little girls that were very eager for their father's attention. He spared them a joyful hello, and sent them back to their lessons, promising to spend the afternoon with them, but he took his wife by the arm, leading her to the sitting room, where he asked urgently, "Where's Neal?"

"Out tending to his horse," Illia responded, brow furrowing at the intent look that the Duke was giving to her. "Why?"

Duke Baird clasped his Duchess's hands in his own. "You know how I told you that I might have an excellent prospect for Neal?"

Illia nodded, but a perplexed frown quickly overcame her features when Baird didn't continue. "And?" she prompted.

"Well, the prospect was Lady Alanna," Baird told her.

The Duchess's eyes widened in awe and shock. "Did she agree?"

Baird nodded, wide smile creating crows feet at the edged of his eyes, and creasing his cheeks.

"She has agreed to give Neal the offer!" he exclaimed, unable to keep the excitement out of his voice. "But whatever you do, please don't tell him. I want this to be a surprise."

His wife agreed readily, and Baird kissed her cheeks again, embracing her in a hug. "I want to go tell Neal that he has another prospect, dear."

"Of course, of course!" Pride for her eldest living son glowed in her eyes. "Be off with you!" She made a shooing motion with her hands, and Baird left, chuckling at his wife's glee.

When he found Neal, Baird raised an eyebrow. Neal had long since completed tending to his horse and was now sitting on a hay bale, completely absorbed in a book. "Neal," Baird said softly. Sharp eyes turned from the book to look at him.

"Father!" Neal was clearly surprised, but a smile crossed his face as he stood up, giving his father a brief hug. "I saw your horse come in. How are you? What are you doing here? Did something happen?"

Baird laughed. "I'm fine, and I'm here to tell you a knight spoke to me about taking you on as a squire."

"Who?" Neal asked curiously, tilting his head, bright eyes staring at his father.

Duke Baird smiled. "That's a secret. The day after you come back, come to my quarters, and I'll introduce you."

A wrinkled nose marred Neal's features. "Father, it's not like the Sir Alex of Olen's Cliff, whom you claimed would be a perfect match, is it?"

Baird rolled his eyes. "No, son, it's not. Just come and see. At worst you spend a little bit of time with the knight."

"I suppose," Neal frowned a little, considering. Baird heaved a sigh of relief.

"Promise you won't be late?" Baird asked.

Neal rolled his eyes. "This must be a big shot, if you're so eager to impress him," he teased.

The Duke just shook his head, lips curling in a smile as he noticed Neal's use of "he" and not "she". Neal clearly had no idea who the prospect was. "You'll see," Baird told his son. "You'll see."

Three days later, Neal was curled up on his bed in the palace, trying to finish his latest book before he had to go meet this potential knight master that his father was so eager for him to be introduced to.

Something shook the bed, and Neal glanced up from his book to see Jump beside him and Kel leaned casually against the doorway.

"I'm off to the practice courts," she said. Neal could see her body itching for something to do. "You want to come?"

Neal lowered his book, resting it on his chest. He raised his eyebrows, giving Kel a look filled with equal parts disdain and humor. "I'm about to commence four years obeying the call of a bruiser on a horse," he was quick to point out. "I refuse to put down what might be the last book I see for months." His fingers tightened a little on the book.

"I thought you wanted to be a squire," she said, and locked her hands behind her back.

Neal sighed. "I want to fulfill Queenscove's duty to the crown," he reminded her. "A knight from our house-"

"Has served the Crown for ages, is a pillar of the kingdom, I know, I know," Kel finished before Neal could say his entire speech.

Neal huffed a little, but continued by saying, "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," Neal informed Kel. Her mouth twitched a little, as if she was swallowing a smile. "I'd as soon read. Besides, Father said to wait. Another knight's supposed to show up today. I hate it when Father gets mysterious."

"Well, I'm going to hit something," Kel stated firmly. "I can't sit around."

Neal sat up, feeling a pang of sympathy for his friend. He couldn't imagine what it was like for Kel. "No one still?" He asked, kindness filling his voice and eyes.

Kel shook her head, a touch sadly. "I thought if I survived the big examinations, I'd be fine. I thought somebody would take me, even if I am The Girl."

Neal could guess where her highest hopes lay, and instead said gently, "There are still knights in the field. You may be picked later this summer, or even this fall."

Kel opened her mouth as if she was going to say something, shut it, and then smiled. The smile was a little strained; although Kel still used her Yamani mask, Neal had long since learned to read how she was feeling, and could tell, even with the mask, that the smile wasn't real. "I know," she replied, "and until then, I mean to practice. Last chance to collect bruises from me."

Neal shuddered, exaggerating the moment in hoped of drawing a laugh from his friend, but to no avail. "Thanks," he said. "I've gotten all the bruises off you this year that I want."

"Coward," she swiftly returned, and whistled for Jump, who sprang off the bed to follow her back out of the room.

Neal paused for a few moments, brooding sadly. He desperately hoped that someone one would choose her, and as unreasonable as both their hopes were, Neal hoped that Lady Alanna would come forward, asking for Kel to be her squire.

Putting the thoughts firmly out of his head, to keep them from dwelling inside his skull until they drove him insane, he resolutely set to work finishing his book.

The first bell of the afternoon rang just as Neal reached the last chapter. He smiled, pleased that he would have time to finish: He wasn't to meet this mysterious prospect with his father until the third bell of the morning.

Once finished his book, he straightened out his clothing, and ran a comb through his unruly locks. Shrugging at his appearance, he trotted down the hallways, dodging servants here and there.

He was nearly there when the third bell of the afternoon rang. As it finished, he knocked crisply on the door, curiosity rising in his body as he wondered why his father was being so mysterious about this knight. He didn't give so much as a hint!

The door was opened by a smiling Duke Baird who greeted his soon warmly. "I'm glad you're here." He ushered his son in.

Neal first noticed the King; King Jonathan had a presence that was unmistakable, and Neal bowed, wondering why in the world the King was here. It couldn't be- no, the King can't possibly be my prospect. He has a squire. His attention consumed by the king, he nearly missed the brilliant red head that was seated across the room.

He didn't even notice his father cross the room and sit down; it was impossible to draw his attention away from the woman who sat behind his father desk.

"Please, have a seat," Lady Alanna offered, violet eyes clear.

Neal's mind was overwhelmed with surprise, and he could only squeak one phrase.

"Lady Alanna is the prospect!?"