I wish that you were here with me to pass the dull weekend
I knew it wouldn't come to love, my heroine pretend
A lady stepping from a song we love until this day
You'd settle for an epitaph like "walk away milady."
The sun upon the roof in winter will draw you out like a flower
Meet you at the statue in an hour
Piazza, New York Catcher - Belle & Sebastian
Keladry of Mindelan never set out to have a fairytale ending. The lives of many knights end in the battlefield, in mud streaked with red and stained metal lying useless beside them. And the lives of others end in drafty rooms on ancient fiefs, their obligation to the realm met but not surpassed.
Those who live lives of excellency are the ones written about in the history books. But then again, so are those that live lives of shame.
There will be books written about her.
But they will not be written for the reasons she fears.
The Scanran War ends slowly, in a trickle rather than an explosion. Maggur is assassinated by the young, angry head of a rival clan and Scanra returns somewhat to how it used to be, warring clans and peasant loyalty to a lord instead of a king. There are still raiding groups here and there, concentrated attacks over the border, and it is just so easy to be caught by surprise that many soldiers remain on the border.
Kel however is finally, finally reassigned. New Hope has become a thriving town, no longer a refugee camp but a true home with a more than capable headwoman in Fanche. As much as she adores her people, she is beginning to despise the minutiae of her particular job. She hasn't quite sat out the war, not exactly, and she is so arguably integral to its end, but she wants to be back in the mud. She wants dust in her teeth and riding through forests in damp clothes. Moments for her squirehood she had thought she would never miss return to her memory, fading and curling around the edges but palpable enough that she can relish in them.
She is reassigned under Wyldon's command, as are Neal and Merric. It is almost as good as her first choice to ride with Lord Raoul and the Own. She misses them, but if the knights, the Own, and the army do their job, she'll soon be back to Corus for her next round of assignments and, quite possibly, a full purse from the Crown.
Not that she would look forward to the ceremony and circumstance surrounding it, because by now the rumors of what happened with the killing machines have fully spread. No powerful mage had ever been produced, despite the intense search conducted by the Scanrans. Once they had determined it couldn't have been Numair Salmalin, and that had certainly been easy enough as Numair had a certain distinctive flair accompanying him wherever he went, the enemy had looked even further. And perhaps one of the smugglers had slipped something and the gossips carried it further to the Crown. One thing led to another, Kel had reflected. By that point she wasn't worried for her safety, as Maggur's grasp on the clans was slipping. They would sooner slaughter him and regain their status quo then send out men to search and attack her and the men who would eagerly fight beside her.
The Crown cared. Jonathan had known, she is sure of it- Kel had long suspected there was a circle of communication about her between Lord Raoul, Lord Wyldon, and the King and this fueled that belief when she received a letter from the king thanking her for what she had done. Of course Lord Wyldon would have needed to notify the king (though George Cooper might have gotten there first, as Neal wryly pointed out one night) but there were things in the letter Kel had not thought would have been in an impersonal report.
And Raoul knew how she felt about Jonathan, of course, but they were friends and Raoul was proud of her, she knew that, and somehow Kel just had a feeling this would end in embarrassment for her and perhaps there would also be misappropriated fatherly feelings.
In short, the amount of time between her being called to Corus and her cleaning up after Scanran raiders in her mind should have been long. It needed to be very, very long. Possibly there needed to be problems with roads and heavy weather conditions as well on the way to the capital city.
What was it Neal had said? "I do not understand your relationship with the king at all." And then Kel had very sensibly pointed out that there really was no relationship and she was perfectly fine with it being that way. Neal had gotten to the point in the evening where he was waving his cider mug around in the air while Merric rolled his eyes and made sure to be on the lookout for flying tankards, and then Neal had added that there was in fact a relationship. A relationship based on dislike, avoidance, and grudging respect rimmed by disappointment was still a relationship, and it was more than many people had with King Jonathan and Kel should be so lucky.
Merric had asked Neal what he was basing all of this folderol on, and if Kel remembered correctly Neal had then assumed the classic university debater's position. Things had rather quickly gone downhill from there and a few mugs had taken flight. She had escaped to her room to take solace in reports.
In the end, it was barely a week after arriving at Steadfast before she had been ordered to present herself at Corus.
Owen had been rather disappointed. There hadn't been nearly enough opportunities for him to fight bandits with Kel yet.
She rides to Corus with Neal. Neal, who at least gets to see his wife after being questioned by the king. Neal, who can be an absolutely insufferable riding companion.
Neal who is also her very best friend, though, and it helps for her to remember that.
"You're nervous," he says idly, when they're on a particularly boring stretch of road. "Why?"
Kel gapes for a moment. "How did you tell?" she wonders.
Neal shrugs, and because it is him, it is very eloquent. "I've known you for how many years? You're not that hard to read, once you get past your Yamani mannerisms. It's very much the same with Yuki."
"I didn't know that-"
"I was that perceptive?" Neal finishes her sentence easily, not offended at all. "I'm told it's one of my better-hidden traits, my dear. No worries. Now. Why are you nervous?"
Kel fidgets in her saddle and feels Peachblossom shift uneasily underneath her, sensing her discomfort and snorting at Neal, who doesn't even blink at the horse. "I never know what to expect with King Jonathan," she admits. "He manages to puzzle me, which is a good thing I suppose, seeing as he'll need to be tricky with other people more powerful than I am. But I would much rather walk into this without a blindfold and with my hands tied behind my back. And don't," she adds, "say anything about where you could go with that."
"I'll resist," Neal responds dryly. "He's a good king. Better than his father says my father, and he would remember. He was close to King Roald and Queen Lianne, in the end before Duke Roger made his play for destruction."
"Doesn't mean I want to be locked in a room with him," Kel mutters. "I bet you he learned trickery from his insane cousin."
"...you really shouldn't let Raoul tell you stories about his page days anymore," Neal retorted. "They're coloring your perceptions of practically every noble at court. Before you know it you'll be hiding behind curtains as well."
"He doesn't really do that anymore, just hides in rooms hidden by wall hangings." Kel sighs.
"Because that's better," Neal states. "Go on, why don't you."
"Look I'm just- I'm nervous. I don't want to go. I wish we could have spent more time in the North, that's all."
"He'll probably commend you and give you a purse," Neal points out. "What's so wrong about that-" a wicked grin, and he adds: "Protector of the Small?"
"Mithros Neal, we had just started to get everyone to stop calling me that at all turns! Lord Wyldon even said it once or twice, and you know how he is with nicknames. Do you have to?" And with that, the issue is pushed over the rug, but Kel still turns it over in her head, questions and imagines what will happen.
And every time the scenario changes, and she becomes more and more apprehensive.
Okay, Kel tells herself. Now you can stop.
They ride into Corus on a Wednesday. It is not raining, even though it perhaps should be. It would fit Kel's mood. But no, it's sunny for Neal, who is in a state of euphoric glee over being able to see Yuki again. No matter that he'll have to report and bow and scrape and perhaps help his father out in the healer's wing; he will also be able to spend time walking through the gardens reciting loose strings of memorized poetry to Yuki and buy her flowers in the market for no other reason than just becase.
Kel is happy for him, of course, but she does wonder at what she'll be doing once she's done explaining herself to the monarch, if she isn't able to ride out with the Own.
She tells herself that she will not let Jonathan charm her, that she never has and her mind, smooth as a lake, still and solid as glass, will hold firm against him.
It is still too short a time before they are called to meet with the king.
"Lady Keladry," Jonathan begins, "and Sir Nealan."
Kel does not appreciate his opening words, reminding her of the divide, bringing up sore memories of probation and a tempered hatred that she focused diamond-sharp at training master and king, until Wyldon earned the respect she continuously gave him. But Jonathan, Jonathan had done no such thing and she was and is still free to hate him for his political decisions of ten years past.
She is loyal to the realm and his son, but her fealty to him is a tenuous thread. Duty binds her, but emotion frees her, and that will always be what it is with Jonathan.
"Your Majesty," she murmurs, and curtsies. It was perhaps inappropriate to wear a dress to the occasion, and Kel isn't sure what her original intentions were. Neal had raised a sardonic eyebrow when he had seen her but had said nothing; knowing perhaps that Kel is not so much one to carry old grudges than one to bring them up when it will suit her aims.
"Sire," Neal's bow is deep and doesn't mock, but Kel knows him just as well as he has proven to know her. His spine is stiffer than normal, and he has lost the loose movements his body lends itself to.
"I trust Lady Yukimi is well," the king inquires, his tone light. "And you have had sufficient time to reacquaint yourselves? Wartime is not always the best for marriages,"
"We manage, your majesty," Neal grinds out, his lips tight against his teeth. He is still strikingly the picture of subservient decorum, but she has barely ever sees in Neal this cold anger, brought on by insinuating comments. Then again Kel would not have expected it of Jonathan either, but it is reasonable that Neal has overthought himself into a corner. Or he is upset on her behalf, and that would be much worse for his sense of self-preservation.
"And yourself, Lady Keladry? I trust you are well?"
"I am, thank you sire." Kel's hands fist themselves in the light fabric of her skirt and she breathes in through her nose and then out through her mouth.
Jonathan can sense the tension, but his blue eyes flick from one knight to the other and his face reveals nothing.
"I would like," he says, after an appreciable pause, "to understand your exact motives for hunting out Blayce the Gallan. Of everything, that is the one that is not entirely clear. Lord Wyldon made it clear that he felt it was your duty to your people, but I sense that there were, perhaps, more layers to your motivations. Please," he finishes, "sit."
"Sire, may I ask-" Neal starts to speak. Jonathan steeples his fingers.
"I would like to understand, Sir Nealan."
Neal does not finish his sentence, only glances over at Kel. It is her chessboard now, and it has been decided by all that it is her move.
"I was given a duty to protect my people," Kel says, her voice steady and sharply clear. "And I was told by my lord Wyldon that a significant factor in my appointment as the head of the refugee camp. I had no desire to shirk this duty, not when my people, not only adults but children had been kidnapped by barbarians in order for their souls to power killing machines."
"But there is more," Jonathan says at her pause. "Am I correct?"
Kel nods. "Yes, sire." She continues. "I was told to go."
Jonathan leans forward, far enough that the edge of the table presses into his belly. He gives no indication of any discomfort and Kel would know, because she is watching his face as carefully as he is watching hers.
"Who gave you this order?" he asks quietly.
"It was not so much a duty as a path that I was led down," Kel's eyes flick down to the unmarred wood of the tabletop, but it is a brief moment and Jonathan almost misses it, would have missed it if he were not so intensely focused on her face.
Neal is next to her, rapt.
"I was shown by the Chamber of the Ordeal," she says. "I may not- cannot speak of it originally, of what happened during my Ordeal, but the second time-"
"What do you mean, the second time? Surely you only went into the Chamber of the Ordeal once?" Jonathan asks.
"I wanted to understand," Kel responds, and the lilt in her voice could be construed as mocking, if she had that type of nature. "I was shown my path. I was told that it would cross with that of Blayce the Gallan, and that it would be I to restore the balance he had interrupted with his necromancy and his acts of murder. When I was given the opportunity, and when I was needed by my people," she lifts a shoulder a minuscule amount and then drops it, "I had no choice but to go."
"It was treason," Jonathan murmurs.
"I know that, your majesty," and Kel's eyes are lowered once again, "but that is where the duty to my people became my guiding motivation."
"Yes," the king acknowledges, and then turns to Neal. "I would like to speak to Lady Keladry alone, Queenscove."
"Of course," Neal says, bows, and turns to leave, clearly contemplative.
It was a rather rude dismissal, Kel thinks, but she doesn't say anything, only keeps her back straight and her chin up, her face smooth and unwavering. Neal leaves the door loose in its frame behind them, and Jonathan stands up and walks over, carefully closing it. Kel barely blinks.
"The Camber of the Ordeal told you," he states, without preamble. "You were instructed to go by a- a ghost. By a nightmare."
"Essentially, yes," Kel answers, "though I think it would rather be called an elemental or a spirit. It told me it exists out of time and in it all at once, and that it does not even understand our notion of time. It is more than a simple nightmare to plague children, I would think."
"I could argue that point," Jonathan's lips twist up wryly, "but you have been in there too, and furthermore repeatedly tested yourself against it from what Lord Raoul tells me. That would definitely put you in the position to understand that the thing has no humanity."
"It isn't human," Kel points out. "Therefore I would never expect it to have humanity."
"We're going in circles," Jonathan smiles slightly again, a quick flash of white teeth. "Very well. So you went, and you defeated Blayce the Gallan and his man Stenmum. But if you had not been given this task by the strange otherworldly creature living in my palace, would you still have gone after the refugees?"
She doesn't hesitate. "Of course I would have, sire."
"Even though you most likely would have been executed on your return?"
It takes her a moment to gather her response. "Then all of my refugees would have have been safe," Kel finally says. "I would have died knowing I had fulfilled my duty- if not to protect them, then to rescue them and return them to a place of safety under my lord Wyldon's command."
"I see," Jonathan says, moving in restless ovals about the room. "That is more than commendable, lady knight." She finds herself proudly, twistedly thrilled that he has finally addressed her by her proper title.
"I admire you," the king states. The words are unexpected and she bites her lip. Blood rushes to the spot and it swells, becomes a flushed dark pink. Jonathan glances down at her mouth, but his eyes quickly flicker back up to a place of respectability.
"Thank you," Kel murmurs.
He walks over to stand besides her, and gestures for her to get up out of the chair. She follows the motions of his fingers with her eyes, and is not surprised to see that she barely has to look up to lock sight. Giants are always smaller when she is close and can see with clarity.
"I still," Jonathan breathes, "do not entirely understand why you did it."
"I thought that you of all people would be able to understand that ingrained sense of duty and honor to something bigger than yourself, your majesty," Kel's tone is equally as hushed, and Jonathan's answering grin is rogue-crooked.
"This is exactly why I like you," he says, then he moves forward faster than she might have thought possible for someone of his middling age and covers her lips with his own. God help her she does not want to kiss him back but Kel cannot find the strength inside her to push away; a combination of shock and that strong distilled hatred boiling over low in her stomach shoves her closer, pressing her up against him so that they are stuck tight like two sheets of paper. This close to him, she can see the dark, curving circles under his eyes.
It is a messy kiss: hot and steel-sharp, teeth and tongues clashing together, his hands digging into her sides and pulling her into him, her grip heart-clenchingly tight on his upper arms. He nips at her lower lip and she gasps into his mouth. The beginnings of words run through her head, second halves discarded as they grow more intense and she wants to go deeper, to melt into him so that they become one person oh so tight is their touch.
Kel pulls back finally, mind and eyes hazy with previously umarked desire. Jonathan looks as befuddled as she feels and he slowly blinks. She watches his eyelashes, long and dark, drag across his skin, notes the dark freckle at the end of his eyebrow. She breathes in and out, in and out, and does not waste her breath on words.
"Keladry," he whispers, and her tongue brushes against her teeth.
"Jonathan," she says, and he kisses her again.
It is the feel of her that he relishes, strong and supple, no willow-thin bones and a figure as breakable as an hourglass. She says things to him with her body and he does not know what she is saying. He can try to decipher but he does not speak her language, not yet, though he is willing, no, he is aching to learn.
Jonathan stops for no more than than a nanosecond and mutters "please Mithros please."
She does not know what he is asking for, but she nods, strokes a hand down the side of his face, and Kel agrees to unknown things, to discoveries and mistakes and body-maps, agrees to more.
His hands move up from her waist, move up the rung of each individual rib with uncharacteristic slowness. It tickles.
"I'm not scared of you," she hums, and he chuckles again, cupping a breast through the too-thick fabric of her tunic.
"It's enticing," he replies. "You've no idea."
"I don't-" she begins, and he cuts her off with another knife-point kiss: calling all ye gods of heaven and hell, find her and take her away because he would say it; he would cry out that she is his.
"Come back tonight," Jonathan says, catching his breath. "I think that we have much more to discuss."
Kel doesn't know why, can't quite figure out what propels her forwards, but she does return to see him.
Over the next few days, there is one question that he never asks: would you die for me? And this would be the answer that she never gave: I would die for your realm.
It is enough. She is not Alanna and she will never be, she is not Thayet nor is she any of the other ladies he have been with and Jonathan is glad.
He whispers her name in her ear over and over when he touches her, rolls the syllables around in his mouth when he holds her.
"You know," she says on the second night, "I think by now it might be appropriate for you to call me Kel."
"I prefer Keladry," Jonathan responds, and she sees a lift in his eyes. She smiles in return, tracing loose, abstact shapes over his stomach.
"Whatever you'd like then," and he grabs her and holds her tightly to him, kisses her more softly and succulently than he had ever done so previously previously. She pushes back hard against him, returning them to that almost frantic, frenetic place where they were before.
After a week in Corus and purses and commendations for both of them, given in quiet ceremony with Roald and Shinko in attendence, Kel and Neal are both called back to the north and Wyldon's command. She carries a letter from Jonathan with her in her breast pocket, words of edged promises for when she returns that she isn't yet sure if she will keep.
"You were right," she says to Neal on their ride back. "There is a relationship."
He raises a sardonic eyebrow. "You don't need to elaborate."
"Don't worry, I won't."
There is a silence, and then, "do you like the king any more than you did seven days ago?"
"Not particularly," Kel admits.
"Do you respect him more than you did last week?"
She sighs. "I think so. But that was never honestly the issue."
Neal presses onwards. "What was the issue then?"
It takes Kel a moment to respond, and even then she only gives him half of an answer. "He might not be the best of men, and I can definitely say that for sure, but I must admit that he is a good king."
"And that's good enough for you," Neal states.
She smiles with the slightest motions, a little bit to herself and a little to something Neal cannot see. "Yes," Kel says. "You know what? It is."
"Well then," Neal gathers his thoughts.
Kel meets his eyes and urges Peachblossom forward.
She'll give it time and then, who knows?