Disclaimer (applies to all chapters): I do not own any characters, places, or objects created by Tamora Pierce. Oh, how I wish I did.
A/N: Well, here it is finally! It's taken me long enough, but I've been so busy. Anyway, this is only the beginning, so here it goes!
Chapter One: Midwinter Musings
"When Dom saw Kel, he smiled at her. Her stomach did flip-flops. The old worry stirred: was she hopelessly fickle? She liked Cleon, but she still melted like butter when Dom looked her way…"
-Tamora Pierce, Squire
Midwinter morning dawned crisp and bright, newly fallen snow generously covering the palace land. The afternoon was not much warmer and the grounds were still devoid of life. The only thing disturbing the sereneness was a lone horse trotting along a riding path. The rider atop him was a tall, sturdy girl that fit perfectly with the large strawberry mare that was her horse. Her face was expressionless as thoughts ran through her head. So much had happened this Midwinter.
The recurring thought of Vinson confessing to assaulting three village girls still made Kel steam. She should have reported him when he had attacked Lalassa, but didn't on her maid's plead. She still regretted that decision.
Trying to chase the thoughts of Vinson out of her head, she urged Peachblossom into a gallop. Then remembering the way Joren had threatened her in the hallway, she soon had Peachblossom running. As the wind whipped through her hair and the cold air stung her face, her thoughts seemed to blow away as she reveled in the feel of the wind in her hair and the strong horse beneath her.
It felt as if they could keep going forever, a girl and her horse, away from the palace and the callous louses like Vinson and Joren.
But she knew she would never leave. Kel would never run away from any hardship. She liked to meet any task face-on.
As these stubborn thoughts rolled through her head, something bumped against her face as she leaned her head close to Peachblossom's neck. Feeling it, she looked down to see the small brooch attached to her tunic. It was of a small gold griffin, adorned with emerald eyes. She smiled softly. Cleon had given it to her that morning as a Midwinter gift.
Her thoughts of Vinson, Joren, and entertaining the idea of riding away immediately disintegrated. In light of the bad things, the good things still outweighed them a hundred to one.
Cleon was knighted a few days ago, and that morning Roald had emerged from the chamber shaken, but alive and well. She smiled as she remembered the cheers that had resounded throughout the room. Midwinter morning had brought wonderful things.
Peachblossom slowed back down to a trot as Kel again looked down at the griffin brooch. It was beautiful and she reminded herself to seek out Cleon and thank him. She grinned wryly as she thought about the dramatic response he would give her. He would probably call her 'sunrise' again. Or was she now his 'pearl of squires'? She chuckled as she admitted that she couldn't keep track of the silly names he insisted on calling her. There were too many.
Her eyes then wandered from the brooch to her saddle. Her brand new saddle from her Benefactor. It was beautiful as well- and expensive- and she racked her brains to try and figure out who to thank for it. When still no answer presented itself, Kel sighed as her mind continued to wander.
She thought of Raoul and grinned. He would be leaving for his great-aunt's family gathering just about now. And he would be going with Buri. Kel grinned more at this thought, remembering well Raoul's slight apprehension, and openness, to the invite and Buri's genuine willingness to accept.
"He'll owe me big for this one," she said to Peachblossom, "Maybe he'll give us both a break from jousting." Considering the thought, both Kel and Peachblossom then made a sound of disbelief. Chuckling Kel told him, "Well, maybe he won't pop me out of my saddle then…at least during the first bout…Or perhaps he'll make it so I at least don't fall into the mud. He knows how fussy I am about my clothes," she added sarcastically, looking down at her worn- and slightly small- outfit. Lalassa was already after her and sewing new breeches for her. Again.
Seeing two familiar figures in the distance, Kel steered Peachblossom toward them, reining him in when they got close. She smiled as the two short Yamanis walked toward her, treading through the snow. It looked strange, the two of them dressed so nicely in their colorful kimonos while she was on the back of a mammoth horse wearing worn-out clothes. Kel could have almost laughed at the oddity.
"What brings the two of you out of the palace?" she asked, seeming to look miles down to where the two ladies stood beside her horse. Peachblossom was watching them cautiously out of the corner of his eye. Observing this, Kel pulled his head away from them. Just in case.
"We came to find you," replied Yuki, "and when we saw someone out here riding their horse on Midwinter, we figured it could only be you."
Her eyes twinkled with laughter as Shinko said, "We wanted to invite you to have tea with us tonight, after the traditional festivities of course."
Kel accepted at once. She had no plans, and with Raoul at his great-aunt's party, she did not have to serve that night at the Midwinter celebration.
They planned to meet in Shinko's quarters that evening.
That night the celebration was wonderful, with delicious entrees and beautiful decorations adorning the hall. Everyone seemed to be in good spirits, despite the threat of Scanran invasions predicted to come that spring.
Following the celebration, Kel, Yuki, and Shinkokami were walking together to the palace's royal wing when Kel suddenly announced to her two friends, "You and Roald seem to be getting along quite well, Shinko."
"Yes," she replied, somewhat demurely. "I was so worried for him this morning. That chamber of the ordeal is such a horrible thing. Why do you Tortallans stand for it?"
"It tests our strengths and makes sure we're fit for knighthood."
"And what if you aren't?"
"Then you don't become a knight, like Vinson of Genlith who the chamber forced to confess to his wrongdoings, or if you're that unfit, you may even die." Though Kel stated this matter-of-factly, the thought of the chamber still shook her to the core.
"That's awful," said Shinko.
"But it's necessary," Kel replied. "Look at Vinson. He would've been knighted without anyone knowing of his terrible past. I don't think anyone would want someone like him protecting our kingdom. The chamber works because it isn't biased, it does what humans cannot do- assess the person justly."
"Aren't you afraid?" Shinko asked Kel.
"Out of my wits!" she responded, almost laughing at loud at the question. "You'd be crazy if you weren't!"
"I already think you're crazy for wanting to become a knight, meaning you have to face that chamber. You should have stayed in the islands and become a shang."
Kel gave her friend an amused glance. "Why? Because they have easier, longer lives?"
The Yamani's eyes crinkled in laughter as she realized what she had said. Shang warriors had harder lives than knights and living into their thirty's was considered fortunate- and rare. "I see your point. Besides, if you hadn't decided to become a Tortallan knight, Roald and I would probably still be having boring, polite conversations that led to nothing."
"And I have an inkling that they are now beyond boring, polite conversations," Yuki chimed in, her face radiating mischief.
Shinko ducked her head, but Kel was still able to glimpse a small smile on her face. Her friends were slowly adjusting to Tortallan ways.
"He's really sweet, and he actually cares about my opinion. That happens so little back in the Islands. I'm so glad to be here."
"Especially since you'll be away from that dragon who would've been your mother-in-law," added Kel, smiling.
Shinkokami was unable to respond for Yuki unexpectedly asked Kel, "Is that your healer friend ahead?"
Kel turned around, and looking to where Yuki had indicated, she suddenly began to feel slightly flustered. This was not because of the sight of her best friend Neal, talking a mile a minute as usual, but because of the young man walking beside him. She knew the young man almost just as well as Neal. In fact, they shared the same nose, arched eyebrows, and sharp tongue…However she much preferred Dom's sparkling blue eyes over Neal's emerald green ones.
The two young men were conversing and had yet to notice the three ladies they were walking toward. As they neared, Kel was able to overhear their conversation.
"Don't make such a big deal out of it," said Dom, "You blow things way too out of proportion, Meathead."
"I am not blowing it out of proportion," said Neal resolutely, "I am just expressing my honest opinion on the matter."
Kel grinned and spoke up, "It's just too bad that he seems to have an honest opinion on every matter known to man."
Both men stopped and looked ahead of them.
"What's so wrong about sharing my opinion?" Neal questioned, "Do you want me to be some passive, dim-headed knight that people walk all over?"
"Like you are now?" teased Dom.
Neal shoved his cousin.
"The world would be in ruins without opinions such as my own," he defended further.
"Perhaps," replied Kel, "But it would be a lot quieter."
Neal sighed in indignation as his cousin laughed. Dom sent her a warm smile for her response. Kel's pulse quickened.
"And it would be undecidedly happier," added Dom, turning back to Neal. However Neal looked far from happy.
Kel couldn't hear what Neal mumbled under his breath, but whatever it was, it caused Dom to smile and clap his cousin on the back, saying, "Lighten up, Meathead. It's not like we're critiquing your healing skills. And, from experience, I know there is plenty to say about that."
"As much as there is to say about your fighting skills?" Neal retorted quickly.
Dom smiled good-naturedly, "Perhaps, but I think we both need to work on our manners." Turning to the young ladies, he greeted them in a Yamani-style bow. Neal followed suit, both of them expressing their apologies for their rudeness.
After bowing to the two Yamanis, Dom said to Neal, "Remember your manners, Neal. There is still yet another lady to greet."
Kel wondered who Dom could be talking about. There was no one else besides the five of them in the hallway.
That's why she was stunned when Dom then turned to her and bowed.
Neal, apparently thinking along the same lines as Kel had, announced, "Why in Mithros's name are you bowing to Kel?"
Kel gave Neal a raised eyebrow. Then she said sarcastically, "Thanks, Neal."
His eyes widened slightly before he scratched his head embarrassedly, "Oops, sorry Kel." He gave her a sheepish smile.
She shook her head and smiled.
Dom, on the other hand, whacked Neal on the back of his head. "And you wonder why ladies aren't attracted to your charm."
Kel laughed as the other ladies' eyes showed amusement.
Turning back to Kel and the others, Dom said, "You'll have to excuse my cousin. We don't know what happened to him at birth."
Neal's face reddened as the three ladies again showed amusement at his expense.
"Are we going to go play chess, or are we going to waste these ladies' time all night?" Neal asked Dom, changing the subject.
Dom smiled. "Ok, lead the way." Back to the ladies, he said, "It was a pleasure talking to you, but I have a chess game waiting for me. Happy Midwinter to you all."
Then he added to Kel, "I'll see you later," and gave her a smile and a wink.
Then, trailing behind Neal, he asked loudly, "So what are the stakes tonight, Meathead?"
As the two young men continued down the hallway together, they heard Neal's fading voice respond, "You know, one of these days I'm going to pop you one for using that idiotic name…"
"Well," said Shinko once the men were far enough away, "They're handsome. That's definitely something you have going for you, Kel."
"Well as you can see, sometimes it's not all that wonderful. Most of the time the majority of them just see me as another guy," replied Kel. But not Dom, she thought to herself, then pushing that thought out of her mind almost immediately. She was still trying to recover from the smile and wink he had directed at her.
Shinko shook her head at her friend before asking Yuki what she thought of the two cousins.
She gave the Yamani equivalent of a shrug before answering, "They are handsome, but the green-eyed one is far too stubborn for my taste."
"No wonder Kel's keeping the one to herself," said Shinko slyly, turning back to Kel. "He's handsome and nice."
Completely baffled, Kel asked Shinko what she was talking about.
"Why, aren't you and the blue-eyed sergeant together?"
Kel stared at her friend. "You mean Dom? Where did you get an idea like that?"
"Yuki told me you were secretly courting a young man and by the way he winked at you…" replied Shinko somewhat hesitantly.
"And you thought it was me and Dom?" Kel was still so shocked at the suggestion, and the thought that Shinko actually thought it was true, that she had to laugh about the absurdity of it. Things like that only happened in her dreams- not real life. Besides, she was courting Cleon.
Seeing Shinko's bewilderment at Kel's reaction, Yuki informed her, "No, no, Shinko, she and Cleon of Kennan are secretly courting."
"And apparently we aren't doing so great a job at the secret part," Kel said dryly.
"You mean Roald's red-headed friend?" Shinko asked, dismissing Kel's reply.
Kel nodded her head in affirmation.
"Oh." Shinko replied simply. Then noticing the curious look Kel was giving her, she brightened up and said, "Oh, he's such a nice young man, too. And good-looking," she added.
Kel's inquiring glance turned into one of slight suspicion.
"Ok," said Shinko, interpreting the look, "I will admit that I thought you and the sergeant would go well together. But don't get me wrong, I like Cleon too."
Kel smiled, "That's a good one, Cricket, but seriously. Me and Dom?"
"I am being serious," she defended.
But Kel just shook her head. Then she glanced secretly down the hall to where Neal and Dom were almost out of sight. Kel felt guilty to think that there was a hidden part of her that wanted Shinko's words to be true…
A/N: So that's the beginning of a new story, I hope you liked it! The next chapter will be up soon!