Hello dear readers! Welcome to Eventfully Ever After—the continued chronicles of Penelope and Dalton (and Neal, and Kel, and Dom, and Wyldon, and Selena and Jeck, and Rissa and Vina…). There will be blood (and tears, and sweat, and kisses, and laughter, and sarcasm…) in just about every episode. The location and certain key characters belong to Tamora Pierce. This chapter begins a few weeks after the last episode of Love and Money—so a few weeks after the midwinter during which Selena was knighted. Enjoy!
"Lady knight," a voice called just as Penelope was leaving the practice court. "I'd like a word."
Penelope turned to find Gregory trotting up behind her. "Very well," she muttered.
"You're looking well," he began.
Penelope chose not to reply.
"Listen," he continued. "I know we haven't…encountered one another for months, but I had a lot of time to think since that night at the border—when we got knocked in the frozen river. I've grown more open minded."
Penelope frowned, hoping to discourage the distasteful proposition that seemed imminent.
"I'd like to apologize," he said quickly, surprising her, "and to thank you for lying that night—about why we were distracted."
"Was that your full expression of regret and gratitude?" Penelope shrugged into her cloak. "Or do you plan to give me forewarning before every utterance?" It was the sort of thing Neal might have said, but she hadn't seen Gregory since her squire days and he was bringing back memories. "If so, please don't. My husband and squires will be waiting."
"Husband?" It was his turn to raise an eyebrow.
"Oh," he said. "You never were particularly receptive to anyone el—"
"I've never been particularly interested in anyone else," Penelope hissed.
"Well." Gregory apparently didn't care for metaphorical thin ice any more than he had cared for the real thing. "Congratulations." He seemed to mean it. "And you've taken a squire—must have been a busy year for you."
"Two squires," Penelope corrected automatically. "The Lanton twins."
"But aren't they—"
"Girls. Yes, what an observant remark," Penelope snapped.
"I had been going to say identical," Gregory said, "which would have been nearly as unnecessary. But I don't believe we're well suited for casual conversation. I should like—"he smirked just long enough to let her know this was deliberate—"to bid you good day."
"An excellent idea," Penelope nodded her farewell and set off for the room she and Dalton shared.
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 absently. "It killed him instantly."
"Probably not the way he'd have wanted to go, but then no one has much choice in the matter. The funeral's in—" he paused to reread a line and make a few calculations—"three days." He shrugged and let the letter fall from his hand.
"I'm so sorry," Penelope murmured, because she had no idea what else to say. She had no idea what a father was, really, because she'd never had one. Neal had given her a rough idea—but he was also her friend and mentor—like a brother as well, though they shared no blood. And the thought of losing Neal was unbearable, incomprehensible.
Dalton nodded. "Me too."
Penelope crossed the room and stood beside the bed. She bent and kissed him tentatively.
He sighed and scooted over so that she could stretch out beside him. He pulled her close, his arms remaining tense as they settled into their customary spooning arrangement. Penelope traced her fingers soothingly over his knuckles and wondered which of them ought to break the silence.
"I'm sorry mostly because he left behind so many unfinished arguments," Dalton murmured finally. "That sounds terrible."
"They were about me," Penelope said, sounding as guilty and grief-stricken as he felt. "Weren't they?"
"In name only," he said, trying to convince himself as well. "He's—he was hardheaded—like me, only worse in his old age. I was his youngest boy—his last chance at a perfect son. He wanted me to be a priest at one point. We fought over everything. You were just an excuse."
"You'd have visited him if it weren't for me."
"Maybe." Dalton sighed. "I wouldn't have wanted to. It's too late to worry about it now."
Penelope snuggled sympathetically against him. "When do you—"she hesitated—"we"—she turned, shooting him a questioning gaze.
He smiled and kissed her forehead. "My surviving family would love to meet you." His father would not have wanted her at his funeral, but his mother had specifically invited her.
Penelope swallowed. "When do we need to leave for the funeral?"
"Actually, if we got in a few hours travel tonight—"
"I'll go make arrangements for the twins—I think it might be best if they stayed here."
Dalton nodded and kissed her quickly. "I'll pack and meet you at the stables."
Selena—as Penelope had expected—was at the smithy, chatting with Jeck and occasionally passing him necessary tools and water buckets. She listened sympathetically as Penelope explained the situation and asked for her help.
" Of course. I'll find them at supper and let them know where you've gone." Selena smiled. "I can tell them apart"—Jeck and Penelope blinked disbelievingly at one another as she said this—"even if Queenscove can't."
"Thanks," Penelope muttered, wondering if she ought to warn Jeck that Selena was mad and deciding that he probably already knew and didn't mind.
Neal was examining a page's throat when Penelope arrived in the infirmary, but he stopped after a single glance at Penelope.
"You'll live," he told the boy. "Drink plenty of fruit juice and get to bed early."
"If I'm wrong, you'll be the first page ever to die of the fictional sniffles and I will personally write a note excusing you from your morning practice."
The page scowled and disappeared.
"You're here in one, unbloodied piece at fourth bell," Neal observed. "Should I be worried?"
"I have a small favor to ask."
"I thought as much."
"Dalton's father's dead. He has to leave tonight to make it back for the funeral. I'm going with him." She started stacking the dirty teacups on Neal's desk. "To meet his family." She abandoned her stack. "We'd like you to watch the twins—help watch them—
"Selena's already said she would too. Just keep them from doing anything tragically stupid. Or comically stupid, for that matter."
"And I suppose you want me to prevent any further snow this winter while I'm at it."
"Just while we're traveling and only if it's not too terribly taxing." Penelope tried to smile.
"The lightest of burdens," Neal assured her. "But you knew I would." He wrapped his fingers over her shoulder. "And at their age, you considered my supervision mostly superfluous. You didn't come here to ask me to help watch your squires."
Penelope's eyes widened. "I just volunteered to meet his family," she hissed. "And I'm the least suitable—they're going to hate me."
Neal shrugged. "Not much they can do about it. You're already married."
"But you want them to like you." Neal poked her between the eyes.
"They are Dalton's sisters and brothers and mother." His mother who'd written her to assure her that she trusted Dalton's judgment in marrying her, but the thought of mentioning this made Penelope a little queasy.
"Precisely why you have nothing to worry about," Neal assured her.
"By which you mean everything of course."
"You can't take all the credit." Neal took her shoulders and backed her into a cot so that she was forced to sit. "For Dalton, I mean," he clarified, taking pity on her.
"He won't let me take the blame," Penelope muttered, "he did propose first."
"You're having a rather dense moment, aren't you, my dear girl?"
Penelope forced a cynical, slack-jawed grin onto her face. "Tense? How perceptive of you."
"Deliberate density." Neal sat beside her. "Family has a way of shaping people. I married Yuki and our children are entirely too clever for their own good. With Dom for a father and Kel for a mother, it's never occurred to Kefira that she can't take charge of whatever she wishes with mischief and hard work. The Lioness's daughter went so far out of her way to avoid knightly responsibility that she became a spymaster in another country."
Neal pressed a finger to her lips and continued. "Your lack of parents made you fierce and independent."
Penelope nodded slowly, still puzzled.
"Dalton did not magically arrive on this earth the day before you met him. And he didn't come walking, talking, taking his tea black, and working well with strong, independent women."
"I suppose not," Penelope murmured thoughtfully.
Neal cleared his throat. "Having done so myself, I feel well qualified to tell you that the best—and possibly the only—preparation for befriending a girl page and surviving four years under the Lioness's tutelage is a strong-minded mother." Neal paused. "And possibly a few formidable sisters."
"And I'm supposed to find that reassuring?"
"Good point." Neal shrugged. "Good luck."
Penelope nodded. "Good afternoon." She stood and pressed her forehead briefly to his chest. "Goodbye."
When they were five miles from Dalton's home, the snow began to fall in thick, clinging flakes. After another three miles, they'd concluded that "soaked" and "chilled" were marvelously inadequate descriptions of misery. And one mile from Dalton's house, they were attacked by a hurrok.
It flew low—weighed down by the snow, which it used as cover, coming out of nowhere. They just had time to draw their swords before they were knocked from their horses. Penelope rolled instinctively to her feet, lifted her blade, and pressed her back against Dalton's.
"This had better not be Arielle's latest pet," Dalton muttered.
"So long as she doesn't have a herd." Penelope peered into the darkness, unsure which side the hurrok's next attack would come from.
"That might be just like old times."
The hurrok's wingtip hit Penelope's face before she could answer. She screamed and swung sideways, slicing through the wing membrane. The hurrok snarled, lurching sideways, and swiped at her arm. But Dalton spun around and stabbed its side. It knocked them both down again with its good wing and landed to charge on foot.
Dalton just got his sword up in time to thrust at its chest before it trampled them and Penelope darted around to slit its throat once Dalton had it impaled.
"Alright?" he asked.
"Bruised, hungry, cold, wet, tired, and missing our horses," Penelope muttered. "But quite cured of nostalgia."
Dalton sighed in agreement and wrapped his arm around her shoulders as they set off after their horses. "That cut on your arm that you haven't mentioned had better be a genuine superficial scratch."
Penelope lifted her arm to investigate, but was interrupted by a shout and shrill neigh and the sudden approach of four riders, pulling two rather sheepish and very familiar horses after them.
"Dalton is that you?" the front rider called.
"Are these yours?" the man behind him added.
"Yes," Dalton answered emphatically. "Alwin? Darren?" He waved at the second rider.
"That's Lutz actually—he's just put on a bit of muscle," the third rider explained, already dismounting
"Of which Darren isn't the least bit jealous," the fourth rider put in, holding up her lantern without dismounting. By its light Penelope saw that Dalton looked nothing like his three older brothers—they were all blond, blue-eyed, and stocky. But there was something very familiar about the way they smiled as they clapped Dalton on the back.
"Is that your kill?" Lutz asked, pointing to the hurrok. "We've been tracking it the last week."
"Joint project," Penelope muttered.
"Is this your squire?" Alwin gestured to Penelope.
Penelope pulled back her hood. "Actually—"
"This is my wife, Penelope." Dalton deliberately wrapped an arm about Penelope's waist and drew her close.
Penelope swallowed and offered Alwin her hand.
Alwin frowned, but Lutz—or possibly Darren, Penelope couldn't quite tell them apart yet—elbowed him out of the way and pulled Penelope into a soldierly hug to plant a brief kiss on her temple. "Welcome kinswoman and lady knight."
"Yes, welcome," Darren added, giving her a very proper handshake and kissing her knuckles in a distant, respectful manner so that she could not tell whether or not he approved of her.
"Forgive me, Dalton" Alwin grunted, "I had forgotten—I'm afraid I haven't read many of your letters."
"I can't say I blame you," Penelope told him, "his handwriting's rather untidy."
Dalton scowled, Alwin snorted approvingly and offered Penelope a warm handshake. Lutz meanwhile whispered loudly to the others, "I told you she'd be good humored."
"And I told you she'd be pretty," the woman with the lantern answered.
Lutz surveyed Penelope once more. "You were right, Gran, keep your coin."
Penelope blinked at the woman's dark hair and unlined face; she was like a feminine version of Dalton, only her eyes were grey while his were green. She sat elegantly in her sidesaddle. She wasn't pretty. She was stunningly beautiful.
"You can't possibly be that old," Penelope muttered as they all mounted again.
"No." She laughed. "Just an old maid at twenty-six. I'm Grania. Dalton's sister."
"His half-sister," Darren clarified quickly.
"And my cleverest," Dalton added, guiding his horse to Grania so that he could kiss her cheek.
"Not that they ever listen to me." Grania gestured to her other brothers.
"You lost your credibility when you gave us raw garlic and told us it was sweets," Lutz called over his shoulder.
"You believed me," Grania reminded him. "And you deserved it."
It seemed to Penelope to that she barely had time to laugh and catch her breath before they were riding into Dalton's courtyard. She hesitated a moment before dismounting, which was a mistake since it gave Darren time to step around and offer her a hand and she had to turn awkwardly to pretend she didn't see it.
Dalton laughed. "I don't think she knows how to get down with help," he said, helping Grania to the ground.
"Erm sorry," Penelope and Darren muttered simultaneously.
"They're just accustomed to me." Grania's voice held just a trace of bitterness and she leaned heavily on Dalton's arm as they passed their horses to a servant and started for the door. It was only then that Penelope noticed that she walked with a terrible, graceful limp. Her left leg was stiff and shriveled as though from an old injury.
Penelope was saved from inventing a polite murmur when the door flew open, releasing a flood of golden light and girl about Rissa and Vina's age.
"Dalton," she called, practically throwing herself at him. Grania sidestepped hastily to lean against Penelope.
"Arielle!" He spun her around. "Goddess, you've grown."
"So have you," she accused.
And then a trio of small children came pelting out the door. Fortunately, they were even more startled by Penelope's presence than she was by theirs and two tangled themselves in Alwin's legs and one in Darren's legs until they were picked up.
"Our devious nephews," Lutz informed her, taking Alwin's son from him.
"And our wily niece," Dalton added, reaching for the four-year-old in Alwin's other arm. She appraised him suspiciously for a moment before deciding she remembered him enough to squirm into his arms.
Grania laughed and kissed Penelope's cheek before shifting to Alwin's arm. This left Penelope standing before Arielle, who was green-eyed and exactly her height. They nodded awkwardly at one another, neither sure what to say.
"Let them come in, children. Supper is waiting." Dalton's mother—a tall woman in her late thirties, with dull-gold hair and green eyes just like Dalton's—stood patiently in the doorway.
Penelope tried not to gasp and Dalton wrapped his free arm around her waist. Their niece slid out of his arms to trot up the steps and suddenly they were standing alone before Dalton's mother.
"Oh Dalton," she whispered pulling him into her arms and rocking slightly back and forth. Penelope's gaze dropped automatically to the floor so that she was almost surprised when Dalton's mother took her shoulders and drew her into a close embrace, welcoming her without a word.
Supper was simple lentil soup and bread. Penelope ate silently, too hungry to do anything else and quite content just to listen Grania's sharp-witted commentary and Lutz's enthusiastic replies. The rest of the family spoke more somberly, grief slowing their conversation. It was only as she reached for a third slice of bread that she realized Arielle, Darren, and Dalton's mother—Meril, as she'd ordered Penelope to call her—were watching her intently.
She blinked, trying to contain the blush flooding her cheeks.
"I don't think she wants us to mention it," Arielle said, her tone implying that this was a good reason for mentioning it.
Penelope swallowed and glanced at Dalton. He frowned at Arielle.
"Relax, dear," Meril whispered. "No one's going to make any tactless remarks about your potential for childbearing. But," Meril raised her voice slightly, " I do think you ought to let me take a look at your arm."
Penelope glanced down at the dried blood on her sleeve. "It really is just a scratch." She met Dalton's eyes to assure him that she wasn't about to keel over as she usually did after making such pronouncements. "It can wait till supper's finished. I can barely feel it."
Darren frowned in disapproval and Arielle flinched, but Grania nodded understandingly. Penelope suspected she'd dealt with her fair share of pain in life.
"Too bad nobody bet she'd be tough," Lutz said.
"You ought to have assumed so," Dalton replied, wrapping his hand discretely over her knee.
Penelope woke the next morning to find that Dalton had left their room and to realize that she had nothing suitable to wear for the funeral. She was glaring at her bag—in the hope that this would force proper garments to appear—when someone knocked.
Penelope opened the door and Arielle thrust a dress at her. It was a simple, long-sleeved grey, the skirt delicately embroidered in black. It was exactly what she needed.
"Thanks," she murmured.
"It's Grania's," Arielle explained. "She shortened it; I just carried it down. It's what Father would have expected." She bit her lip and shut the door to hide her tears from Penelope.
The dress fit astonishingly well and Penelope thanked Grania effusively when she knocked several minutes later to appraise her handiwork. But she found herself shuffling awkwardly before Arielle's silent gaze.
"Well," Grania said finally. "We'd best hope Dalton doesn't die young. You're dreadfully unsuited for mourning colors."
"He doesn't wear them well either," Arielle put in, glancing down the hall at Dalton. She stuck her head back in the door and blinked at Penelope. "Guess you'd better stick around."
They were all laughing when Dalton returned, but completely unable to explain why. Dalton took Grania's arm to help her downstairs to the family chapel and Arielle shrugged and laced her own fingers through Penelope's.
Penelope spent the entire ceremony hoping a latent Gift for disappearance would suddenly manifest itself. It didn't. And there was no avoiding the fact that she was attending the funeral of a stranger who'd disapproved of her very existence—not to mention her marriage to his son—and listening to an authoritative speech from a conservative priest. At least until said speech drove Arielle and Grania to roll their tear-filled eyes—simultaneously and gracefully—and sent Dalton and Lutz into otherwise unexplained fits of coughing.
Then the priest stopped and Dalton and his brothers carried the body into the field for burning. Penelope watched hesitantly—aware that, as a knight, she ought to join them, and that, as Dalton's wife, she didn't want to create a fuss by doing so. And she didn't particularly want to bid him a symbolic farewell.
Meril came to walk beside her. Penelope swallowed and took her hand.
"I'm sorry for—" Penelope began.
"I know." Meril smiled sadly. "Never mind." She sighed, gazing at Dalton, who was marching beside his brothers, his shoulders stubbornly straight. "He takes after him."
"So he tells me," Penelope muttered.
"Just as steadfast—just as handsome—only his eyes are mine. And his gentleness, I think."
"Well, then," Penelope said slowly. "I am immensely grateful to both of you."
By then they had reached the pyre and they both stood in silence again. Then, because Dalton was supporting Grania, Penelope walked beside his mother once more.
"You're immensely welcome," she murmured, as though no time had passed. Penelope smiled and darted forward to hold the door for her, trying to ignore the I-told-you-sos that Neal seem to be singing in her head.
By the time they left the next afternoon, Neal had an entire smug and gleeful chorus; Arielle had shyly asked for instruction in archery; Grania had managed to take Penelope's measurements and threatened to make her a dress; Lutz had warned Penelope that said dress would be ready in one week, Alwin had bet that it would only take six days, and Darren had actually smiled at her. And, waiting twins aside, Penelope wasn't sure that she wanted to leave.
I'm almost sorry to leave Dalton's family too, but duty and exciting plots call in Corus. So, thanks for reading (and maybe even reviewing) Eventfully Ever After—I'm anticipating slightly longer chapters for this story and I plan to return to familiar faces in the next episode. See…
Penelope and Dalton arrived at the palace well after dark, but Lord Wyldon still managed to greet them outside the stables as soon as they'd finished with their horses.
"Good evening, sir," Dalton said, trying to read Wyldon's expression and wondering if he'd ever seen the man yawn.
Wyldon nodded curtly and gestured for them to walk alongside him. "We've several matters to discuss. The twins, for starters. Their weapon work isn't at the level I usually expect of students their age."
P.S. The garlic anecdote was pulled straight from Real Life. My brother still has selective hearing.