Nealan of Queenscove, Owen of Jeeslaw, Seaver of Tasride, Cleon of Kennan, Merric of Hollyrose, Faleron of King's Reach, and Balduin of Dissart were all grouped together as they were relaxing at one of the balls. Their band of friends was attracting no little notice from various interested parties around the hall. As future knights of the realm, they were under much speculation from scheming mothers and daughters who were looking for marriages. They had no real notice of this, excepting Neal of course, and continued as usual, making small talk. Neal had joined the Pages much later than all the rest, and in his five years at the University had been quite the court gossip and sweetheart. It gave him a slightly different perspective on court life.
He was also the only one who noticed that his younger sister's companions were not behaving as they usually did at balls. Normally they stuck together and chatted between themselves. They were a close-knit group due to the training they went through. Generally one or two would be dancing, but quickly return afterwards. Today however they all seemed to be present and engaged in a very intriguing discussion. Immediately forgetting that thought, he idly wondered where Kel was.
Interrupting in Neal's speculation was a voice asking,
"Who would you choose?" Neal started, and glanced around for the speaker. It turned out to be Merric asking the group of friends they were presently with. The royal ballroom was packed with people, as they were lazing about in Corus. Much to the squire's happiness, the Grand Progress had stopped there so the fourth year squires could go through the Ordeal. All of the younger squires had just been released from serving duty, and were allowed briefly to mingle with the guests.
"Why whatever do you mean, my lovely Squire Merric," Neal quipped, being intentionally dense.
"The ladies you dolt!," He exclaimed, "Who of all the ladies here would you pick?" As if this was a new revelation, the group curiously began to look around.
"I don't rightly know," mused Seaver as he began to covertly peer around the room. "We're barely given enough of a respite to even wash ourselves, let alone keep up with the court gossip." As he was glancing around the room, he spotted their comrade Roald in a bit of a pickle.
Roald was over with the royal family, safe from scheming eyes and next to his bride to be, Princess Shinkokami. They were being unfailingly polite and making stilted conversation. He could tell from across the ballroom that they were both rather uncomfortable, but didn't know what he could do about it.
"I don't know who I would pick," Seaver began slowly, "but it does appear that Roald needs some help with his bride to be."
"And what a bride to be she is," Owen exclaimed, "Have you ever seen the Yamani ladies and the Queen at morning glaive sessions? It's jolly, that's what it is. I swear I'm never setting one foot wrong with any of the royalty ever. Especially the Queen. But oh isn't she glorious? "
Snorting a little, Neal responded, "I'd much rather set a foot wrong with them than with Kel."
"Agreed," two voices said in unison, from behind him. Neal turned around in surprise, and Faleron and Merric were both nodding vigorously, before Merric continued, "None of them could be as scary as Kel when she thinks you've done something you shouldn't have." Neal glanced around the group, and saw all of them nodding in agreement.
"She's scary when she's angry," put in Faleron.
"I don't know if any of us have ever seen her really angry yet," Neal pointed out, "But those jousting sessions with Lord Raoul my cousin told me about would just make her slightly more frightening. I mean... she already was the best of us at jousting, and he's possibly the best in tortall."
"She's willing to joust with The Giantkiller?" Balduin asked in awe.
"Oh yes. I simply think it means she's touched in the head," Neal quipped. And chuckling, the lads when back to their inspection of all the pretty ladies at the ball.
Earlier in the night, Lady Yukimi noh Daiomoru had pulled Kel from the boys as soon as they had finished serving, and politely requested her help with the Princess. Kel, of course, knew no other option than to help. The nightly discussions in the library were informally begun, and it soon gathered quite a crowd. Shortly after the discussions had finished, Kel was approached by a tall figure that she hadn't seen in a very long time.
"Iness!" Kel exclaimed happily, giving him a hug and a kiss on the cheek, "It's good to see you well. How is the border?" Laughing, he extracted himself from her arms and said,
"Quite well." And after looking at her for a few seconds shook his head. "Mithros, Kel, you've grown so much. You may be taller than Conal by now. Are you well?"
After a minute or so of small talk, Iness seemed to remember something, and said "Why don't you come over to meet my friends? I assure you they won't have a problem with you being a girl." and to himself, he muttered, "Or we would be having problems," probably not expecting Kel to hear that. It comforted her quite a lot that he actively defended her honor. She also took a bit of vicious pride in the fact that she would be bigger than Conal. After a very short time, Kel found herself heavily in conversation with Iness and a few of his friends. They were all about Iness' age, and (to the general public) green knights.
Iness began by introducing her to his year mates, Evard of Knightsbridge, Dolan of Hollyrose, and Gydeon of Port Caynn. After talking about Merric with his brother, she talked with the four about jousting, Raoul, and then politics. After about half an hour of quite interesting conversation, Iness was distracted by his current lady, and his friends began to wander off. Their small group began to disperse, and Kel was immediately approached by none other than lady Uline of Hannaloff, who was looking splendid as usual.
"My lady!" Kel exclaimed in surprise, "It's good to see you well."
"And you as well. How is your Knight master?" she enquired politely.
"He's much kinder than I could ever have hoped for," Kel responded happily. "How is your engagement to Kierin haMinch?"
"Quite wonderful. I was very lucky to be matched for love, rather than power." After a pause, she continued hesitantly with, "There was something I particularly wished to speak to you about. I'm a member of the Queen's Ladies, and there are a few of my sister's in waiting who very much would like to meet you. You've left them very impressed." Kel quickly consented to this particular favor, after offering her congratulations to Lady Uline for being asked into a part of such an elite group.
All too soon, Kel found herself in discussion with around ten of the most interesting court ladies. Although some of the ladies were very young, the youngest of them was 17. Though this was daunting at first, the three years soon disappeared and Kel was eagerly interrogated and then incorporated into their group. She was surprised to learn that one of the ladies was Maggary of Cavall, Lord Wyldon's second eldest child, and another was Dania of Queenscove, Neal's younger sister. Names and faces began to spin past her, but she quickly got her bearings, and earnestly began to talk to the ladies.
Their discussions ranged from politics to men, and all were looking at Kel very curiously. Finally, one of them voiced a question that had been in all of their minds,
"How do you like living surrounded by only men?" Kel, though not surprised by this question, took a while to answer.
"Well, it's a very rough and tumble life, but all of my friends are very sweet. The one thing I really miss is being looked at like a girl. Sometimes I wear a dress to remind them, but I never really bother with my appearance. I'm actually looking quite squire-like right now. I'm lucky I even got to wear a dress tonight. Milord had a tunic and hoes ready. Thankfully Lalasa had a dress in Goldenlake and Malorie's Peak colors." All the ladies giggled at that last one, and after a few inquiries about Lalasa and where she might be found (because the dress was an excellent one), Kel found herself surrounded completely. It seemed the ladies had passed a little silent fan talk, and Dania finally spoke,
"Kel, would you like a little assistance? We are offering a trade of services. If you assist us with glaive work so we are able to eventually join their Majesties in the mornings, we can spend time with you for any female companionship you may be lacking. Lady Yukimi was telling us how all Yamani noblewomen were able to wield the glaive, and it seems like a sensible weapon. Plus, we find you interesting. What do you say?" Kel, rather shocked by their offer, stammered for a minute, and then really thought about it. With a wide grin breaking across her face, she said,
"Of course. I would love to do that. I'm traveling with the progress for the future because the King is rather angry with my Lord at the moment and keeping him close. I'll be free for quite a while. I'm not sure I should be looked at as a court lady while I'm doing squire duties, but now and then it can't be bad." and then continuing with the unexpected, Dania asked one more question,
"Kel, would you like us to make you slightly more girly? I know you must enjoy dressing up at least a little if you miss being around other girls." Shyly, Kel nodded a little bit and began to grin when the ladies produced all manner of unexpected items from unexpected places. Two minutes later, Kel got directions to the set of Queen's Ladies rooms very near to the royal suite, Kel agreed that she would come visit with them after her glaive work in the morning. She also promised that everything they had lent her would be returned in pristine condition the next day.
Unbeknownst to the squires, across the hall a very similar discussion to theirs was just starting to take place. Maggary was the first one to notice the squires who were looking around the hall, but she soon brought it to the attention of all the ladies present. Giggling, she asked slyly,
"So, all you lovely unattached ladies, which man here would you willingly chose to dance with first?" Her question was greeted with more giggles, but it was also taken rather seriously. Dania shrugged and said,
"I don't really know. My brothers have tried to keep me as sheltered as they possibly could, but I think that is coming to and end. Neal is the only one here, and I'm sure I could persuade Kel to distract him for a while." and then grinning, she added on, "That tall, dark haired one next to Neal, Kel, what is his name?" also smiling, Kel said,
"Well, stop looking over there, because they're looking around too, but I believe you're talking about Balduin of Dissart. He should be turning 18 within the year." Dania sighed, thinking, oh, he's just my age. How charming. The giggling group of ladies soon realized that Kel was an excellent source of information about men in the armed forces, and came to her with many questions. Still grinning, Kel gave them some of the best gossip and embarrassing moments of some of her friends and the men in Third Company.
She idly thought I wonder if this is what my life would have been like if I had decided not to try for Knighthood.
Owen, after looking around at the ladies for a while, poked the body next to him to tell of his decision. Neal grunted in consternation, and snapped "What?"
"I'd probably pick one of those ladies over there, the Queen's Ladies. Plus, I thought I saw Kel in there with them."
"Wait. KEL? Our Kel?" Neal exclaimed, "With the Queen's Ladies? What do they want with her?"
"Well," Owen began, "It appears that she's made some friends and is quite the conversationalist. She blends right in. I only picked her out because of the Goldenlake colors."
"Huh," Neal said, rather stumped. He had never really noticed Kel acting particularly girly, but then again she was a girl. And he knew she did have friends that were girls, as evidenced by the Yamani ladies. And she seemed to be getting on quite well with his sister it appeared. And lady Uline. Repressing a sigh, he just turned to Owen and said,
'Who would have thought." And then much to their surprise, Kel was asked to dance by a young nobleman. It seemed that they weren't the only ones who had noticed the Ladies. Kel gracefully accepted, and much to Neal and Owen's shock, she accepted.
Quite gracefully, the two began to perform an elegant foxtrot. Gathering his resolve, Neal waited for the dance to end before approaching Kel himself.
"Milday, would you honor me with the next dance?"
"Neal!" Kel nearly shouted as she whirled around, startled, "I wasn't expecting to see you there."
"I wasn't expecting to see you dancing." he returned quickly.
"I quite enjoy dancing. Just not when I need to learn the men's part." Neal snorted at that last part, and remembered that Kel had held their etiquette instructor, Master Oakbridge, in particular contempt. He now knew one more reason why.
"I thought you just didn't like him because he was so stuffy. Where did you learn to dance? You were rather abysmal at it I recall."
"Nealan, what you know about my dancing skills is quite unrelated to how well I can actually dance. As a page, I'm essentially a boy, and I know the boys steps because I learned them with you. In the Islands, I learned how to properly dance as a girl. It was one of my lessons after the glaive because Nariko decidemmph-." Kel began, and finished by incoherent mumbling at the end, when she realized what she was about to admit to.
"I'm sorry, Kel, could you repeat that last sentence?" Neal asked with a glint, to her chagrin, "I think you were mumbling."
"Terribly sorry, Meathead."
"Hey! But please, continue."
"I said she decided I neededalittlemoregrace." she replied incredibly softly.
"One more time, my dear, " Neal said with a full-blown grin.
"I said she decided I needed a little more grace. Are you happy now?" Kel was seething.
"Quite, but what do you say to that dance?" Rather shocked that he saw her as enough of a girl to ask to dance, she just grinned and agreed as foxtrot music came on.
Across the floor, all of the squires saw who Neal was dancing with. In a bit of a daze, Seaver muttered, "I didn't realize Kel knew how to dance like that." Owen just grinned and replied, "I don't think any of us did."
After the foxtrot finished, Kel and Neal made their way over to the Queen's Ladies. All of them grinned at Kel, and asked her questions about her dances while Neal talked to his sister for a little bit. After a couple minutes, when all parties had a satisfied curiosity, Neal prodded Kel in the back.
"I'm going back over to the squires, as I would rather not be pounced on as soon as this ball is finished. Would you care to accompany me? I know for a fact that they're going to have questions for you."
"Sure Neal, you go ahead. I'll be there in a minute." As Neal wandered off, he heard them talking, and a promise to meet the next day. To himself, he wondered if any of them knew all the different sides of Kel. She had turned out to be a most excellent dancing partner though. He would definitely have to ask her again.