Many thanks to all my wonderful reviewers. This story-in-a-story would never have appeared without your encouragement. Here's another epic for you. This chapter, which follows 3 months or so after chapter 11, contains characters and real estate created by Tamora Pierce and material from chapters 29 and 30 Training Master Mindelan. Enjoy!
Dalton yawned widely as he picked the lock, too tired to be either pleased or alarmed by how quickly he managed it. Then he glanced down the hallway, long since darkened for the night, and let himself inside.
Penelope was curled beneath her blankets, her knees tucked nearly to her chest. She woke suddenly, starting when she sensed the door closing. She uncoiled, reaching vaguely for a weapon, and then recognized Dalton by the way his fingers fit around her shoulder.
"Hey," he mumbled, kicking off his boots and shrugging out of his tunic and trousers to crawl under the covers. "Go back to sleep." He wrapped his arm around her, his eyes already drifting shut.
She rolled over to face him. "But you and Alanna aren't supposed to get here for another two days." It wasn't a complaint, just a logical statement to remind herself that she was probably still dreaming.
"Rode straight through…," he mumbled, "traded spare horses…probably crazy. She should be here tomorrow night."
In answer, he lifted his head just enough to kiss her cheek.
He sighed sleepily against her hair.
Penelope smiled and snuggled closer. "But how did you get in?" She was careful about locking her door even when Dalton wasn't with her.
"George's extensive locking pictorial—"he yawned, but didn't open his eyes—"lock-picking tutorial—essential for surviving the Swoop and occasionally useful..."
"Remind me to thank him," she murmured. But Dalton was already asleep.
They had a few blissful days, which they spent riding, and supervising the pages' morning training—and one impromptu afternoon of sledding on trays commandeered from the Riders' Mess—before they learned that their ordeals would fall one after another in the middle of the midwinter holiday. First Penelope's, then Dalton's.
Then the countdown began and their days were spent pacing—in companionable but anxious silence. Penelope polished both of their extensive weapons collections at least once a day and Dalton made several trips to the temple.
Dalton woke to find Penelope's bed empty on the morning of her ordeal. She was pacing the practice courts and he had to grab her shoulders to stop her before he could invite her to come riding with him.
He could feel her pulse hammering through her shoulders while she nodded, as though she knew exactly what he meant to say. They both took longer than usual to saddle their horses, their fingers stumbling over the familiar buckles.
Dalton reined his horse in as soon they reached the edge of the Royal Forest, a place where they'd picnicked the previous summer. Penelope and her horse both inhaled skittishly.
"Dalton?" she murmured, wondering what was making her mouth too dry for real speech. It wasn't her ordeal—that seemed a distant impossibility compared to the look Dalton fixed on her as he dismounted. She mirrored his actions, throwing her reins over her horse's neck and stepping hesitantly forward.
He took both her hands and held her gaze for a long moment. "Will you marry me in two days?" He swallowed. "Just after my ordeal."
Penelope still couldn't speak; she was too busy remembering that this plan hinged upon their both surviving their ordeals and realizing just how soon they'd be carrying it out. But there was no reason to wait—she might as well go after everything she wanted at once, while everything was changing. So she settled for nodding vigorously, kissing Dalton, and lowering her forehead to the safety of his shoulder. Then the full reality of what he'd proposed hit her.
"Yes?" Dalton wrapped his arms around her, reminding her just how much she wanted to marry him.
"Don't we need a—"
"I've talked to a priest," Dalton said and Penelope suddenly understood all his uncharacteristic trips to the temple. "All we need are witnesses—a man and a woman preferably—they're each supposed to know both of us." He stepped back so he could watch her face and twined his fingers through hers again. "Who will you ask?"
"Neal," she said automatically because she could think of no else she trusted so much. Then she wondered what Dalton would think of her asking another man, especially one tied to her by rumor. "But if you'd—"
"Good," he said. "I was thinking of asking Alanna."
"Are you sure?" Penelope bit her lip.
"You'd rather have Mindelan?" Dalton frowned.
"No, it's just that I thought you might not want…"
Dalton chuckled and stilled her befuddled lips with one finger. "It doesn't bother me. You love Queenscove."
"I don't!" Penelope stepped back angrily.
"He loves you too." Dalton chuckled again. "I'm not jealous."
"We've never so much as—" she stiffened and went silent as Dalton grabbed her shoulders.
"I know you haven't even thought about." He shook his head. "Like I said, I don't care. I wouldn't want you to see me as a big brother or whatever."
"Oh," she whispered, her shoulders relaxing. "Sorry. I'm a little high-strung at the moment."
"You were an orphan," he murmured, as though just remembering the fact. "You're still figuring these things out." He pulled her to his chest.
"Sorry," she muttered, muffled by his shirt. "I think it's going to take me a while. You might have to be patient."
He tugged gently on her braid. "It isn't easy when you insist on stating the blatantly obvious," he told her through gritted teeth.
"Forget I said that then," she muttered and then kissed him so that he began to. "Right," she added rather breathlessly, "I'll ask Queensove this afternoon then."
"Good," Dalton said. "I really enjoy watching him try to hide sentimental tears." He kissed her and then stepped away and swung into his own saddle. "But if you aren't comfortable with it, you could always invite George or—" he grinned wickedly—"Wyldon."
Penelope mounted and took the bait. "What about Gregory?"
"Or his father?" Dalton glanced back at her as he turned to ride along the forest's edge.
"Lord Lanton?" Dalton offered the name of a notorious conservative.
" Ha Minch?" Penelope returned. "Race?"
Dalton urged his horse into a gallop. "Duke Astor?"
Fortunately it was a cold grey day and no one was there to see or hear as they galloped along the meadow, shouting the names of various ill-suited witnesses.
"Lunch?" Dalton called finally.
"Truce?" Penelope reined in her horse.
"Until we have time to peruse some obscure court records," Dalton agreed.
"Have a good ride?" Neal asked as Penelope stepped through the infirmary door.
She nodded mutely, telling herself this was because there weren't words to describe her afternoon with Dalton and not because she'd suddenly lost control of her lungs.
"You're nervous," he muttered.
She nodded again and glanced out the window—as if she hadn't just come inside—gauging the hours until sundown. He sighed and shoved aside his chart, beckoning her closer. She walked over and gripped the corner of the desk with her left hand.
"I know we've avoided talking about it," she said—this avoidance was mostly her doing, though Neal generously refrained from mentioning it. "But is there a plan? For me, I mean, with the bath and—"
"Apparently, you're not the only one who thinks I'm incapable of handling these things. Both the Lioness and Mindelan have already offered their opinions on the matter."
Penelope relaxed slightly and hopped up to sit on the corner of his desk.
"Both of the lady knights were instructed in the code after they bathed. And their ordeals seem to have been normal—well, not typical—the Chamber seems to have had rather expected rather exceptional destinies of them—but successful anyway." Neal tweaked her nose and she shot him a tiny smile.
"So after you bathe, the Lioness and I will instruct you in the code." She blinked at him, resisting the urge to laugh at the coincidence. "And yes, you will be the first knight—other than my illustrious self, of course—that she has instructed since her own ordeal."
"Mindelan and I discussed the matter at some length and we decided that Lady Alanna's presence would be beneficial. And, then, you have already been at the heart of so many scandals that she is unlikely to cause another. She is the king's champion, you know, and well-respected by a majority of the court."
"Oh," Penelope said softly.
"And of course, I'll be returning the favor tomorrow night and instructing Dalton while he bathes—a sight you would presumably enjoy far more than I will but won't have opportunity to witness."
Penelope rolled her eyes.
"Especially," he continued, "since I plan to have you tucked in bed by sundown tomorrow so that you can be well-rested to greet Dalton when he emerges from the chamber."
Neal grabbed her shoulders and shook her lightly. "No ifs. You will both be fine." He lifted her chin, forcing her to meet his eyes.
"I was just going to say that if that's everything, perhaps I should go try to get a little rest." She twitched her nose pointedly at his grip on her chin.
"No perhapses," he said, releasing her chin and pulling her down from the desk. "You need to sleep. It's about five hours until sunset; I'll wake you in time to try eating something beforehand."
"Thanks," she muttered. "For everything, I mean, all four years of it," she added as she made her way to the door.
"Three years, eight months," he corrected. And she smiled back at him as she shut the door.
She stood outside it, trembling and wondering how she would face her ordeal when she couldn't find the courage to ask Neal to witness her wedding. But she could think of no one she would rather ask—Dalton had been right of course. She needed Neal's blessing. So she locked her shaking knees and pushed the door open again.
"Sir," Penelope began tentatively.
Neal blinked. She hadn't called him 'sir' for years, except when she was being cheeky, of course.
"I need to ask you something." She fidgeted shuffled her feet and twisted her hands together.
"Go on then," he urged, pushing back his chair and standing to approach her.
She bit her lip and bobbed her head before letting all of her words out in a jumbled rush. "I—Dalton and I are going to be married the day after tomorrow if—after his ordeal that is. Only I haven't any family to—and his father is unhappy with the match so his family won't come—and we need witnesses for the ceremony and—"
Fortunately she ran out of breath and Neal was able to sneak in a few words. "I'd be honored to present you if you like."
She nodded, and practically leapt into his open eyes to hide her tears against his shirt. "Thanks," she whispered. "I knew you would, only I didn't like to ask for…" She trailed off and wiped her face on her own sleeve, stepping back and nodding at him once she had pulled herself together.
"Look," he said, "it's not many squires that manage to make their knight masters this happy and proud the day before they earn their shields. And I'll enjoy watching all the conservatives who can't manage to marry off their perfectly conventional daughters trying to wrap their minds around your success." He bent slightly to kiss her forehead.
She shrugged cheerfully. "Glad to oblige, sir. Even if it means you have to devote another day to my supervision."
He nodded once before surveying her sternly and taking her by the elbow to lead her to the door. "Now, you are to proceed directly to your nap," he ordered, giving her a light shove towards the squires' wing.
Dalton greeted Penelope in the squires' corridor with a kiss and a raised eyebrow. She tucked herself comfortably under his arm before answering his unspoken question.
"He agreed," Penelope murmured happily. "And the Lioness?" She asked unlocking her door.
"She asked how I changed your mind and was very disappointed when I couldn't give her a straight answer. We're forgiven of course, and she'll come witness, but apparently we've wrought havoc on a certain betting pool."
"Serves them right for betting on us," she muttered cheerfully, tugging him into the room after her. She sat down on the bed and unlaced her boots.
"I should go," he said reluctantly, bending to kiss her again. "You need sleep."
"So do you." She wrapped an arm around him to keep him from leaving. "And it's your own fault I'm used to having you here."
"I can't argue with your logic," he muttered, kneeling to pull off her boots. "I suppose if I tried you'd threaten to pace yourself into exhaustion after I left."
"I hadn't thought of that," Penelope said, "but it's an excellent idea." She pulled off her tunic and curled up on top of the quilt.
Dalton gave a sigh of mock resign as he removed his own boots and tunic. "I suppose I ought to see you properly settled at least, since you haven't even bothered to tuck yourself in." He grabbed a blanket from her trunk as he climbed onto the bed, wrapping it around both of them as he pulled her into his arms.
"Much better," she whispered settling her head against his shoulder and closing her eyes, glad that she would have this moment of being warm and safe and content to remember during her ordeal.
Dalton smiled as her breathing softened.
Her eyes popped open a moment later though. "I think I might be too happy to sleep," she confessed. "I was nervous before, but now I feel ready, excited to get the ordeal over with so I—we can go on with our lives together."
Dalton resisted the urge to tell her that Alanna had offered—among other things—to lobby with the King to get the two of them (since they would be sharing) one of the large corner rooms in the wing that housed young knights. That sort of planning could wait another day.
"at least close your eyes," he ordered, rubbing the tense muscles of her neck until they loosened. "So you can be ready and rested in a few hours."
She obeyed, yawning despite herself. And within a few moments her breathing had softened once more. Dalton told himself he would wait to leave until she was properly asleep, but his eyes fell shut before he could summon the will to get up.
Neal tapped gently on Penelope's door and then opened it when he received no answer. Dalton woke just as he stepped inside, lifting his head to blink sleepily at Neal. They nodded at each other and then Dalton brushed his lips past Penelope's cheekbone and shook her shoulder gently.
"Hey," Dalton whispered. "It's time."
Penelope sat bolt upright and nodded at both of them. She stretched deliberately and pulled on her tunic. Dalton passed her her boots and her fingers shook only slightly as she laced them up.
"Here," Neal said, handing her a napkin full of the spiced midwinter cakes that were her particular favorites. "I thought something sweet might go down better."
Penelope sighed. "It's almost a pity I'm finishing now that I've got you so well-trained."
Neal chuckled. "Alanna said the same thing just before my ordeal." He watched her eat a cake with small deliberate bites before adding, "and if you think I'm finished with you, my-dear-soon-to-be-no-longer-a-squire, I'm afraid you're sorely mistaken."
Penelope managed to smile as she bit into another cake. Then she stood and brushed her hands clean.
Dalton pulled her into a quick hug and mumbled, "love you, see you tomorrow morning." Then he kissed her and fled, as though afraid a lingering goodbye might be too difficult.
Penelope nodded at Neal and laced her fingers trustingly through his as they set off down the corridor together.
Since there wasn't any tradition to regulate their behavior as they waited for Penelope to finish bathing, Neal and Alanna considered themselves free to attend to an important matter of business.
"I understand Keladry visited the infirmary this afternoon," Alanna said pointedly, raising her eyebrows.
Neal ducked his head, dug out a coin, and passed it to her. "You were right. She is. If you ask me, though, it's not very sporting to use your women's intuition."
She somehow managed to look down her nose at him even though he was nearly a foot taller. "I did not ask you. And 'women's intuition' had nothing to do with it. Do you have any idea how rarely I manage to beat her with the glaive. Last week was the first time she's lost to me since before Kefira was born. If you made a habit of waking early, you might have seen it for yourself." Alanna sighed loftily and then her face softened. "And then there's the fact that she's absolutely glowing."
Neal smiled. "That I did notice this afternoon."
Alanna nodded. "How is she?"
"She's a little worried about managing all her responsibilities, but I'm sure she'll arrange something clever. And, aside from morning sickness—I gave her tea, of course—she's as fit as ever. The baby's healthy too, as far as I could tell."
They both turned to find Penelope straightening her simple white clothing.
Alanna nodded slowly and winked once. "Remember, knights are not to speak of anything they learn between their bath and the moment they emerge from the ordeal." She pointed a stern finger at Penelope. "Particularly not if they are so insistent upon keeping their own marriage plans secret for the next two days." She dropped her hand and assumed a formal stance. "Are you prepared to be instructed in the code of chivalry."
Penelope nodded. "I am."
Dalton met Alanna and Neal just outside the temple door when they'd finished settling Penelope at her vigil.
"Is she—" he started.
"Breathing hard, sweating harder, and trying not to vomit?" Alanna finished. "Absolutely."
Dalton nodded, deciding it might be just as well that he wasn't with her.
Then Queenscove tapped his shoulder and Dalton thought he might prefer to be far across the country.
"Might I have a word, squire Dalton?"
"Of course, sir."
He glanced at Alanna who indicated that she was headed in the opposite direction, back towards her own quarters and watched them with suspicious eyes.
Dalton—who was well and uncomfortably aware that Penelope and Alanna had probably discussed him during several of their private conversations—and Neal shrugged at one another and walked in silence towards the squires' quarters.
"Congratulations," Neal said finally.
Dalton glanced sideways, waiting for Neal's next clause. It didn't come.
"That was a word—one exactly, by my count," Neal informed him.
"Thanks," said Dalton.
"Also a single, sufficient word," Neal pronounced. "And perhaps as much as Penelope would permit of us in her absence."
Dalton smiled and shook Neal's hand. Then he glanced about to make sure no one else was present before walking to Penelope's door. He nodded in answer to Neal's knowing raised eyebrow before stepping inside. He'd already decided that since he was going to spend the night thinking about Penelope, he might as well spend it among her things, and, in any case, by now most of his clothing was stacked beside the chest at the foot of her bed.
Dalton sat with Neal, Alanna, and Mindelan as they waited for Penelope to emerge from the Chamber. Lord Wyldon stood nearby, his eyes fixed intently upon the door.
At last, it opened and she staggered out, shivering.She had a large collection of bruises and scrapes and a strange burn mark on her right hand fingers, but otherwise looked unharmed.
"Are you alright?" Dalton asked, hugging her and wrapping a blanket about her shoulders.
But she could only nod and scan the familiar features of his face happily. Her jaws were so tightly clenched that she could not open them to speak.
"That happens occasionally when they come out," Wyldon told them from a few paces away. "It is only muscle tension. I suggest you use your Gift, Queenscove."
Neal nodded and stepped behind her so that she would not have to leave Dalton's embrace. He set his fingertips beneath her ears, applying Gift and warmth until the muscles loosened enough to allow movement.
"Thanks," she muttered, and then, "it wasn't too much worse than I expected."
"Liar!" Neal rolled his eyes in exasperation.
"Guilty," Penelope admitted and she added quickly, " I'm tired, cold, and hungry. And everything hurts. And I'm currently weak as a kitten and not entirely certain where I am in relation to the floor. But all things considered, that's not so bad."
Dalton and Neal nodded at each other as they each took an arm and began escorting her back to her room. There, she consumed an enormous bowl of stew and sizable hunks and bread and cheese, much to the consternation of Dalton, who found that his appetite had abandoned him completely.
Neal took out the dish and returned to find them both lying on their stomachs, heads turned toward one another. They stayed that way for the rest of the day, not talking—because they couldn't talk about the only thing on their minds—but simply waiting with their fingers interlaced. Penelope liked knowing that neither of them had to say anything—they were comfortable simply being—but she rather suspected that Dalton would eventually find out what she had seen, one way or another.
Penelope sighed when Dalton sat up just before sunset.
"I should eat something and report to Lady Alanna."
Penelope nodded. "And I'm in dire need of a hot bath."
They walked together down the squires' corridor. "Thanks for waiting with me," he told her.
She smiled. "Just returning the favor." They kissed and she set her cheek briefly over his heart. "See you in the morning," she whispered and then she forced herself to walk away so that he could focus.
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.
There, they sat crossed-legged on the bed to consume the bowls of stew Neal brought them.
"Nervous?" Neal asked as they blew on the soup to cool it.
"No," Penelope smiled at Dalton. "I used it all up the other day." Then she shrugged, realizing that just hours before she'd been more nervous about marrying than about facing her ordeal.
Dalton very nearly fell asleep in his empty bowl as soon as he'd finished eating. 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.
"Just trust me." Alanna shoved Penelope into her room.
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 dull 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 a feminine and elegant of her everyday practical and athletic self.
"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 one 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'd 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 then 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." He turned to Penelope and added, "now hurry up and kiss him properly—none of this cheek-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."
"Congratulations," Mindelan told Dalton when she arrived at the small gathering Lady Alanna had arranged that evening. "You're looking well. Did you have a restful afternoon?"
"For the most part," Dalton replied. The wedding hadn't taken long and he'd spent a few hours packing the rest of his things—or rather, watching dazedly as Penelope packed the rest of his things—to move them to their new shared quarters.
"I heard it was a quiet ceremony," George muttered, smirking at the two of them, "but since they eloped, I wouldn't know."
"You what? That's wonderful." Then she narrowed her eyes at Penelope. "You aren't pregnant are you?"
Dalton forgot how to breathe. Wyldon—who had taken a fortifying goblet of wine immediately upon entering Lady Alanna's territory—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, easily ducking the hand Neal tried to plaster over her mouth.
It was another hour or so before Dalton understood the significance of this remark. Mindelan was speaking quietly with Wyldon in one corner when he suddenly 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." Then Wyldon continued speaking quietly to Mindelan.
Dalton turned to find Penelope watching them with a disappointed frown, like a child denied a fireworks display. Her eyes widened, however, when Mindelan pulled Wyldon into a sudden hug, burying her face against his chest. The entire room watched as Wyldon blinked down at Mindelan and tentatively stroked her hair.
Penelope and Alanna both made soft, feminine—and apparently involuntary—cooing noises of a sort he'd never heard from either of them.
"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.
George explained the matter. "Your training master plans to devote the worry-free hours she gains with your departure to producing another glaive-wielding youngster."
"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.
Dalton covered Penelope's smirk with his fingers before she could get them both in trouble.
Mindelan shook her head and turned back to Wyldon, who was openly glaring at George. "So I was wondering," she said in a voice loud enough to carry across the room "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 they'll be stuck here for the next few years. Goodness knows I would rather see them helping you then gadding about flaunting conventions."
Penelope adjusted her seat in their shared armchair and lifted her face to brush her nose against his cheek and whisper in his ear, "or we could do both."
"Especially now that we know Wyldon's a betting man," Dalton murmured back.
"You don't have to ask, lady knight," Selena said.
"We'll do almost anything for room and board," Penelope agreed.
"With the noted exception of retrieving lost pages from trees," Dalton added hastily.
Dalton kept up with the conversation for another hour or so before his exhausting morning ordeal and the Penelope's sleepy weight against his chest lulled him into a heavy doze. His snoring had a similar effect on Penelope and her eyes drifted shut moments later.
George shook them awake as the other guests were leaving and they staggered to the door.
"Enjoy your wedding night," Alanna called after them.
"Don't be cruel," they heard George mutter. "They've both gone two days without sleep."
Penelope's head drooped against Dalton's arm throughout the walk back to her room and Dalton fell asleep against her shoulder while she opened the door. Both bride and groom collapsed on the bed without removing so much as their shoes and just had time to shoot one another rueful glances before their eyelids slid shut.
Dalton woke an hour or so later and managed to blow out the candle, remove Penelope's slippers and his boots, and wrap an arm around her before he fell asleep again. Later still, Penelope woke long enough to wriggle out of Dalton's grip and her dress, slip on a nightshirt, and pull off Dalton's tunic and trousers. This prompted Dalton to pull up their covers the next time he woke, so that by dawn they had comfortable sleeping arrangements.
And by noon they were rested enough to wake properly and gaze at one another. Dalton swept a bit of hair from Penelope's cheek and she tilted her head to kiss his fingers.
"Just imagine what this will do to our reputation as lustful young knights," Penelope muttered, wincing as she thought of the endless teasing Neal and George (and, for all she knew, Wyldon, given his unexpected behavior the previous evening) were certain to supply.
"Well," Dalton murmured, trailing his hand down her neck to her shoulder so that he could pull her closer and kiss her, "since we're never going to hear the end of it, we might as well earn it."
They did not start moving their things to their new room—a larger corner room, thanks to Alanna—in the knights' wing until late afternoon and, even with Selena's help, it took them longer than expected. Admittedly, Penelope interrupted the process with a few bouts bout of inexplicable, hysterical laughter—which Selena joined in and Dalton watched with a bewildered expression—and several kisses—during which Selena stood by with a tolerant smile and crossed arms, refusing on general principle to work while they weren't.
Still, they were well rested enough to drag themselves to the practice courts at dawn the next morning.
Mindelan approached them afterwards, as they were leaning happily against the wall, passing a shared waterskin back and forth.
"I know it's a ways off," she said. "But I've been thinking about the spring's new squires—and I was wondering if you could take two." She smiled encouragingly. "That is if you would each take one—I'm sure I could work out some sort of favorable financial arrangement."
"Of course," Dalton said automatically because he was still used to obeying Mindelan's requests. And Penelope was still so wonderfully happy and tired that she found herself echoing him.
It was only after Mindelan walked away that they realized what they'd gotten themselves into.
Neal sauntered over to pat her shoulder. "It'll be an adventure," he said, cheerfully. "I believe that was the word you used the first time we were wet, hungry, tired, and in imminent danger of decapitation."
"You're exaggerating—"she sighed—"and I was a rather irritating, little optimist."
"Nothing's changed," Neal said sweetly, impossibly sweetly for such an early hour. "But with a little luck your squire will be a paranoid pessimist prone to glum pronouncements and morbid imaginings." He nodded at Dalton and started back towards the infirmary.
"I hope not," Dalton murmured, kissing her temple. "I've developed a soft spot for impossible little optimists."
She smiled and tucked herself under his arm. "We are rather endearing, aren't we?"
Which is why the adventure continues in Love and Money and Eventfully Ever After, which picks up just days after the end of Love and Money. Anyway, I want to thank all my readers for sticking with my stubborn little characters so long—you're proving all those people who say the Internet is shortening our attention spans wrong—and invite you to stick around for more romance, drama, action, comedy, and Neal-and-Wyldon baiting!
A preview of EEA:
It was only when Gregory followed her—at, Penelope had to admit, a polite distance—that she realized they had a new neighbor.
The twins had left a note pinned to the door. They were with some friends from the Queen's Riders—probably up to something mildly illegal—and would not be back until suppertime. Penelope shrugged and went inside to find Dalton slumped on their bed, gazing lethargically at a recently opened letter.
"Hey," she said, discarding her cloak and boots.
"My father had a stroke," he muttered. "It killed him instantly."
Coming in August!