Epilogue, eleven years later.
Keladry of Mindelan trotted away from the practice courts, sweaty. Though she was incredibly busy these days, she still liked to find time to let the young knights try their skills against her. She sighed, tipping back her head to let the warm breeze push back her hair. Summer was dying, squires and returning pages were filtering back into the palace again, and the new pages were readying themselves to be presented to Padraig haMinch, still training master after a decade. It was a good time to be in Corus, in Kel's opinion. Her favorite.
A muscle twinged in her calf and she winced, slowing her gait to a walk and then pausing to stretch. Having hit the age of thirty, she wasn't quite as flexible as she used to be and had to be careful to keep limber. But she was still one of the top knights in swordplay and unparalleled with her glaive. The Crown had finally realized the value of naginata training, and Roald and Shinkokami had invited some trainers from the Yamani islands to teach willing Tortallan nobles their skills, with Kel's help. It had become especially vogue with young girls, having grown up on tales of the Lady Knight's prowess on the weapon and being completely enamored with the graceful Yamani princess. King Jonathan and Queen Thayet still sat firmly on their thrones, and Kel enjoyed being a defender of that prosperity.
Bracing her hands against the side of the building, she bent her right knee to give her left calf a stretch. She was out and about more often than not these days, both on the occasional bandit-hunting errand and also to maintain her shelters.
When she had docked with the Kraken's Supper eleven years ago, Kel, as leader of the rescue mission had become an instant hero, credited almost single-handedly with the rescue's success in bringing the Crown Prince home. Kel had protested vehemently against the claim: after all, she had been stabbed in the back and half-dead for most of the final battle, but nobody seemed to want to listen. The bards' songs she heard composed in her honor made her shake her head ruefully: to listen to them, she was a twenty-foot-tall giant slaying Scanrans by the hundreds with one swipe of her mighty glaive.
If that's all it takes to be a legend, Kel thought, shaking her head and turning to switch to her second calf, legends are made from baskets of lies.
But in reward for her bravery, she was richer than she had ever imagined being. More money than she had ever conceived of existing lay in her coffers, with several hundred thousand Crowns invested in gold and silver holdings throughout Tortall, which paid monthly dividends that were larger than Mindelan's original holdings had been worth when she was a page.
At a loss for what to do with so much wealth, she had turned her eye over the past decade to a greater good: throughout Tortall in many of the larger towns and cities she had used her skills gained by directing Haven and New Hope to set up shelters for abused women and girls. The temples of the Goddess latched onto the idea, and most temple precincts now had one, even ones that had been too impoverished to support them before. The temples that had already had shelters got renovations and improved supplies.
Of course, Kel was now able to pay staff to oversee the running of the shelters, so she wasn't as bogged down with the details as she had been when directing Haven. She was essentially the treasury and figurehead of the shelters, but Kel didn't mind.
Her quieter operation was a parallel center set up for men and boys. It was still a rather alien concept in most parts of Tortall that men could be abused, but the Mithran priests had been surprisingly eager at the opportunity when Kel presented it. It made her believe that males had gone to the sun god's temples asking for asylum before, but the Mithran circuit had been unprepared to provide.
She had never married. When people asked, she always smiled and said she was just too busy to settle down and raise a family, but the real reason was that the right person had never come to ask.
Or rather, the right person was unable to ask, as he had died over ten years ago.
Standing up again, Kel leaned backwards to stretch her spine. She was due to leave to Pearlmouth in about four days, to look at newly-erected shelters on both the grounds of the Goddess and Mithros. She needed to pack.
Jump turned around the corner, yipping and breaking her from her reverie. In old age not much had changed about the dog, except that he might have gotten uglier. "Hey, boy," Kel greeted him, opening her hands to show she didn't have any treats. "I just got finished- hey!"
Jump had latched onto her boot with his teeth and was tugging towards the temple gates. Moments later, sparrows – there were so many sparrows that knew Kel now it seemed she could go from city to city and encounter a friendly flock at each one – peeped in her ears and hopped on the ground in the same direction Jump was pointing.
The message was clear enough. "All right, all right," she told the animals, turning around to follow them back towards the castle gates. "But nobody else seems to be alarmed."
She trotted behind the menagerie, and, just as she expected, there was nothing of note going on. Soldiers patrolled on the ramparts as usual; castle flags cracked assertively in the calm breeze. "Jump, what in Mithros'-"
"Girl, you've got no business here," one of the guards was saying, obviously looking at something shorter than he was. "Run along."
"I want to be a knight," a sharp, girlish voice said mulishly. "It's my birthright, so get out of my way!"
The guard standing next to the first one sighed, and put his hand against his helmet like his head hurt. "You need to be a noble to become a knight," he said. "Go do something to get yourself ennobled, and then we'll talk."
"I am a noble!" the girl shrieked. Kel edged closer, intrigued.
"You're a noble, and yet you come with no escort and no herald and you're dressed like a street urchin," the first guard sighed. He prodded forward with the blunt edge of his spear. "Run along, miss, before we- ow!"
He hopped angrily on one foot – the girl must have done something to him. The second guard slid forward with a practiced move and there was the thick sound of wood hitting flesh and a child's yell, and then the air flared with green-and-gold, knocking both men back.
When the guards advanced again, Kel had stepped forward, with Jump growling at her heels and nearly a hundred sparrows whirling in the air. "Stand back," she ordered them.
The guards recognized her instantly, stepping back and looking worriedly up at the sparrow cloud. Everybody knew the damage the birds could do, particularly with so many. "But Lady, she just-" the one said, pointing to the second guard, who massaged his shin ruefully.
"She just kicked him in the shin, he'll live," Kel replied, looking down.
When she saw Neal's eyes glare up at her from a child's face, she thought her heart would stop. The girl lay on her back in the dusty street, blood running from her nose. Without taking her eyes off of Kel, the girl reached up to her nose and power, dark green edged with gold, flared from her hand, stopping the bleeding. Her long-sleeved tunic and breeches were homespun but of good quality.
But without question, it was a blonde, long-haired version of a young Neal lying in the street, still watching her warily. From the widow's peak to the sharp mouth to the long fingers, it was Neal. Kel took a shaky breath.
"What's your name?" she asked the female Neal.
The girl, sensing that the guards wouldn't cause her trouble with Kel around, stood up and brushed herself off haughtily. "Neala," she said, wincing as blood dribbled out of the side of her mouth. She wiped it away, and then reached for her mouth with a green-gold glowing hand again.
Kel's head swam. "Your name is Neala," she repeated.
Neala nodded, locking her hands behind her back. "My father was Nealan of Queenscove," she said flatly, her eyes boring into Kel's, as if daring her to disagree. "If he's still alive."
"Lady, you can't be listening to this," one of the guards protested. "Everyone knows Sir Nealan only has sons. And they're half Yamani. There isn't a Yaman bone in this one's body."
It was true. Neal and Yuki had gotten married less than a month after they had returned from Scanra, and in the past decade they had produced four boys, the oldest of which was going to the castle for knight training next year. And it was true that the girl in front of her was in no way from the Islands: her skin and hair were all northern Tortallan, pale as silver coins. The glaring green eyes were a piercing contrast.
Northern Tortallan… or Scanran. And that was what worried Kel.
Kel opened her mouth before a long-forgotten voice entered her mind – Irnai, who she hadn't seen since they had returned with her mother from Scanra. If he's like this now, she had told Kel when they were preparing to leave New Hope, more than ten years ago by this point, what will he do when his daughter tries for her knighthood?
"Goddess, Mithros," Kel said softly, staring down at Neala, who stared back just as stonily. Illegitimate, half-Scanran, conceived from an unwanted union – what was Neal going to do, indeed.
Neala stuck out her hand. "I'm Neala, formerly of Rathhausak and of Queenscove," she said. "I believe you have the advantage?"
Kel couldn't help but smile slightly – handshaking was a very Scanran greeting. She returned the favor. "I'm Keladry of Mindelan."
Neala's world-weary look dropped in an instant. "You're the Protector of the Small!" she cried, eyes shining with admiration and tightening her grip on Kel's hand, looking more like a proper eleven-year-old. "You rescued my father!"
Kel frowned, looking around at the guards, who had all stopped what they were doing to watch the exchange. If she wasn't careful, the gossip was going to spread like wildfire. "I'll be taking her in," she told them, quickly ushering Neala inside.
Neala smirked at the guards as Kel half-dragged her into the castle grounds. Kel lead her behind an outbuilding for some semblance of privacy: the sparrows flitted into sentry positions.
"Where's your mother?" Kel asked, hands on her hips.
Neala frowned, crossing her arms and turning up her small nose. The resemblance to Neal at his most defensive was eerie. "Does it matter?" she asked. "It's not through her that I have right to get my shield."
Kel sighed. "It might matter. Illegitimate children can try for their shield, but their fathers have to recognize them."
Neala stuck out her lower lip. "Mama always told me I was meant to be a weapon. I want to be one. There's nothing in Scanra for either Mama or me… and I have the power."
Kel crossed her arms, trying to figure out what to do. "What power?" she asked.
Neala rubbed her nose and held out her hand, which flared with strong Gift, green edged with gold. Kel took a breath. Most Gifts were only one color, because usually one parent either didn't possess the Gift or one parent's Gift was stronger than the other. If the Gift was dual-colored, it meant that the child's parents were an equal match with power. Kel knew that Neal had an unusually strong healer's Gift – if her mother had been as strong with power as Neal was, then the child would be a formidable sorcerer indeed.
"Why a knighthood?" Kel asked. "You've got the power to be a mage, and then it doesn't matter if you're noble or not."
Neala scuffed the ground with a well-worn boot, her long Scanran-blonde hair hanging down from her face. "My father was a knight," she said. "Mama always wanted me to be one, too."
Kel's head ached. Of course, there was no hard proof that this girl was who she said she was, but how else would she know so much about what hadn't been spoken about for over a decade? Everybody involved in the incident had been purposefully vague on the details. Kel didn't know how much the King and Queen knew about what had happened: it was possible that Roald had told his parents about what Maggur wanted, but if he had the throne had kept silent on the issue. Her age also matched up, and not to mention she was the spitting image of Neal.
While she was deciding, Neala had been sizing her up. "You can call me Neal," she offered. "My mama did."
Kel put a hand to her face and smiled. "Okay, Neal," she told the girl, "I can take you to the castle… we're going to have to do some… checks to make sure that your story works out. Not that I don't believe you-" Neala had opened her mouth to protest, "-but the court has to believe you, too. And I suppose you can meet your father. He's a healer here."
Neala cocked her head, a crease of worry drawing between her brows. Kel wanted to laugh. She was unintentionally so much like Neal it hurt. "Do you think he'll be angry?"
"Surprised, most likely," Kel replied dryly, remembering how Irnai had told her Neal didn't like surprises, but the road to his life was littered with them. "Come on."
Kel put a hand on the girl's back and they walked to the castle together.