A/N: As, promised, here is the second part of chapter four, reining in at 7,078 words. There are five separate scenes. It's similar to Part A in that there were some conversations I really wanted to get out of the way. I'm less unhappy about Part B than I was for Part A, but I still feel both could be better, and I may yet revise them both. My biggest problem is I feel the characters became incredibly OOC despite my best efforts.

The last three scenes of this part were planned vaguely, but not scripted before I wrote them, so they almost serve as filler scenes. Now, I just want to give you all fair warning: You're probably going to dislike the first scene almost as much as I disliked the entirety of Part A. I chose a somewhat cliche plot twist that I'll give an explanation for below; I want to say ahead of time that it's for different reasons that you think, and though I seem to contradict content of earlier chapters, there's a key phrase one of the characters actually says aloud that explains away the discrepancy; see if you can catch it.

There really is more to be explained about this installment, but I don't want to keep you all any longer; so, PLEASE, read the A/N below for more on the content of Part B.

As always, I hope you enjoy.


Chapter 4: Scrutiny Part B: Transformation

Tuesday morning found Dom ambling into the soldiers' mess hall. After grabbing his food, the sergeant scanned the room searching for his squad before he remembered he'd assigned them two hours' work in the stables for shoddy care of their horses the previous day.

Just as Dom started to move to an empty table in a corner, he spotted Alanna and her husband seated at a table near the back. He would have continued toward his corner spot, but the Baron of Pirate's Swoop caught his eye and beckoned the younger man over. Domitan cautiously approached, making sure to place himself directly across from George rather than Alanna who rested next to her husband.

"You're a sergeant in Third Company." It wasn't a question, the way Baron George phrased it, but rather a declarative statement, though Dom failed to understand his tone, and the words weren't necessarily hostile.

"Um, yes, I am," the blue-eyed noble managed.

"How long have you been with the Own?" strange the Whisper Man should ask; Dom was certain Neal had mentioned him to the spy, just as Neal had let slip George's not-so-secret identity.

"Almost nine years, I started with the Own the same year Kel and my mad cousin began their page training."

Something glinted in Alanna's violet eyes. "Yes, Nealan had mentioned something of the sort. So you've known Keladry that long?" her tone was a bit too innocent for Dom to not be wary.

"No, Sir Alanna. I only met Kel after she became my Lord's squire. I was the first to greet her when she came rushing down on her first late night call, we set out to aid the Haresfield village in the Royal Forest."

George's bushy brows rose before he asked, "You remember the exact village you helped together?" curiosity colored the older man's voice.

"It was on that particular excursion that Kel found herself burdened with a certain pesky immortal," Dom hastened to reassure, though he didn't know why. Dom couldn't understand what the pair were thinking. Somehow, this talk was already stranger than the one Alanna had had with him the day before, and it seemed it would only grow weirder.

The knight kept her mauve eyes fixed on her mug of breakfast tea as she inquired, "How did you feel about her? When you first met, I mean."

"Well, Neal had been writing me about her since they met, so by the time I actually had the opportunity to officially introduce myself to her, I felt like I already knew her. As descriptive and eloquent as my cousin thinks he can be, his words did her no justice. I'm not sure anyone possesses the ability to describe her to the full.

"I've known her for almost five years and I'm still learning new things about her. But, when I first saw her, I knew exactly who she was; Neal's letters served that purpose, at least, and he'd told me enough for me to grasp her kindness and dedication—she just wanted to help people. How does anyone argue with that?

"So I was nice to her and tried to help her when I could, without giving people the impression she had an unfair advantage. Eventually, after seeing how normally I treated her and how much I respected her, the others fell into line and Third Company accepted her as a whole. Between us and her knight friends, we've managed to squash some of the more aggressive naysayers." Though Dom had ridden with Alanna before – he wondered if she'd merely forgotten how long he'd been with the Own or was just testing him somehow – he felt like he was seeing a whole new side to the violet-eyed knight; it worried him.

Alanna glanced quickly at George before asking, "You have a peculiar and roundabout way of answering very simple and concise questions, Sergeant. Never mind that, though; tell me, what do you think of her now?"

"We're friends. My squad and I followed her into Scanra," came Dom's slightly indignant reply.

"We are not asking you about your squad, Sergeant," Alanna responded icily. "And you were ordered into Scanra, albeit on voluntary basis, but you received orders nonetheless."

Domitan's cerulean orbs glinted angrily and his voice came out quiet and enraged, "Do you honestly believe any of us needed orders to support her? And let me remind you: my Lord Raoul specifically chose my squad for the mission; that wasn't an errant decision, he knew we'd all follow her into battle without second thoughts," his eyes never wavered from hers. He added as an afterthought, "Why are you singling me out?"

It was George who answered him, "Lad, you say all of Third Company are friends with her, but only you went on a picnic with the Lady Knight, and you had no other companions. Why is that?"

"We're united against my cousin," Dom raised his voice at the end, making it a question. "I mean, I suppose knowing Meathead has brought us a bit closer than she is with the others, but that's the only reason," he finished with a more certain air about him, though he definitely didn't feel that way.

The nobles of Pirate's Swoop eyed each other for a moment. Dom hadn't given them much to go on. He was close to her, but hadn't necessarily shown the affinity they suspected lie beneath the surface.

George turned to him again, "Why do you support her? Don't ply us with tales of your cousin's letters or your being open to change; tell us the real reason."

He didn't answer right away, Dom knew that would cause more problems than it solved. Mithros, when did my life become so complicated, he thought to himself. I used to be a soldier, defending the realm and living my life. Now I'm overanalyzing everything I do and say and I have to hold my own against spies.

Dom looked up, meeting both George and Alanna's eyes resolutely. "I know you don't want to hear about letters or political positions, but I can't tell you the full story without those parts." It never occurred to him to remain silent – he didn't want to think what the pair would do to him if he refused to answer them.

He took a deep breath before continuing, "My upbringing allowed me to give everyone the benefit of the doubt, and the views Neal and I saw in the palace taught me a certain level of acceptance. Reading my cousin's letters of Kel gave me a unique insight into who the Lady Knight really is.

"Discovering how noble, brave, and selfless she is through the medium of Neal's words provided me the desire to get to know her. I wanted to judge for myself about her character. I-I know what it's like to be a stray; being a younger son, the Own was just as much my saving as New Hope is for all Kel's refugees – I knew she always treated others fairly, I just wanted to insure she received the same deal.

"That's what it was at first, at least. She was my cousin's friend and a kind person who just wanted to help people. But then I met her personally and she saw the world so clearly and even with the smallest of actions, she surmounted age old traditions and overcame prejudices. Kel made such an effort to include everybody and respect all, even those against her couldn't besmirch her.

"Kel's four years with the Own taught me the most valuable lesson I have ever learned. She showed me to care not just about myself, my family, the Own, or even the realm as an abstract concept; she showed me to think of people on an individual level, to be concerned about even an abused horse, a mistreated servant, a little orphan girl from enemy territory.

"Kel unknowingly taught me to see all the creatures of Tortall—humans, animals, and immortals alike—as people in their own rights. When you know someone like that, when you get the opportunity to experience a person so unselfish and utterly compassionate, what can you do but support them, follow them into battle, and try to become as incredible as they are?" throughout the whole speech, the sergeant had maintained an awed and incredulous tone, but as he articulated his last words, he grew embarrassed.

As soon as Dom finished speaking, he looked down to his almost empty plate, and tried not to ponder what the Lioness and the Whisper Man were thinking. He picked up his fork and began aimlessly pushing food around the plate; focusing on that trivial, mindless pursuit kept him from either bolting from the room or trying to hastily explain… explain what? Dom wasn't sure what impression his words gave, he didn't know why he felt so off-balance after speaking.

Somebody cleared their throat. Dom jerked his head up to meet Alanna's amused yet pensive eyes. "You're a good man, Dom. Despite your reputation," she added not unkindly. "Kel's lucky to have friends such as yourself. Earlier you asked why we'd singled you out. It's because, by all accounts, you're Kel's best friend in the Own. We, all right I, wanted to know more about Kel. Neal told me some things about her while he squired for me—I needed a different perspective. Also, I wanted to see the types of people she befriends.

"Kel and I don't really have much in common, but it's important for the realms only two Lady Knights to exhibit solidarity. If young girls can see that two such vastly different women underwent the same grueling training and were able to become friends, perhaps the young ladies will be more interested in trying for their shields."

Dom supposed the Lioness was telling him the truth, but he had a sinking suspicion that it wasn't the whole truth. "What aren't you telling me? Because I honestly doubt that's why you two have been interrogating me. And yesterday you were asking me about her clothing—who cares that much about wardrobes?"

George chuckled softly, "Lad, you obviously care. No, don't interrupt me," he added as Dom made to interject. "I know what Buri, Daine, and everyone else was wearing last night—I've been trained to notice details. But ask Jon or Raoul… they know what Thayet and Buri were wearing, respectively; but neither has the slightest clue what you or I donned for the evening."

The younger man frowned in confusion, "I have no idea what you are trying to say. What does this have to do with what we've been discussing?"

Alanna groaned in frustration and was about to reach across the table and shake Dom by the shoulders when her husband gently placed a rough hand over her own. She glared up at him, but he only smiled sanguinely at her. The former thief stared at Dom for a moment before beginning, "There are many people in this realm who care about the Lady Knight. Those people, even the ones who barely know her, are protective of the Protector."

Dom smirked at the pun then retorted, "I'm one of those people. I don't stand for anyone sullying her name, and I try to make sure she doesn't stay so busy caring for others that she forgets to care for herself."

"Oh, lad, ye don't even understand yourself. You truly don't see what we're getting at?" George fixed the sergeant with an exasperated grin.

Dom merely looked back and forth between the two, dumbfounded. Alanna caught his gaze, "Kel has only courted that other knight, correct?"

"Um, yes. Linden, I think was his name, from King's Reach."

One red eyebrow jumped halfway up Alanna's forehead. "It's Cleon of Kennan, Domitan; but that's not the point. Let's clarify: he's the only man she's courted?"

A simple nod, anything else and he would have gotten himself into trouble.

The knight much too innocent as she queried, "And just how many women have you been with, Sergeant?"

"Quite a few, I don't know the exact number. I honestly don't even remember most of them. I've been, um, active since I was fifteen; I haven't really been keeping track…" he allowed his voice to trail off at the end. Dom looked down, as ashamed as he'd been the previous morning in his rooms while pondering his fourteen-year love life.

Suddenly, Dom loosed a gusty sigh and raised his head to stare mutely at the ceiling. He didn't really want to share this next bit of information with the Lioness and her husband of all people, but a man can only lie for so long.

"What is it, Dom? You look pretty serious," George spoke in the cautious tones one uses when approaching wildlife.

"I feel serious. This is serious. I have something I need to say, something I've never, ever told anyone before, and I don't know if I'm brave enough to get it out. I just – I'm not sure how to put it; or even where to start."

"Start at the beginning."

"Al—alright. Since I was about seven, I've known that one of the easiest ways to gain respect, for lack of a better word, from other men… well, the best way to do that was to brag about my – conquests. I'd watched my brothers do just that for my entire life, but it didn't really sink in until then, when I was seven. And at that age, it was boasting of anything I could do better than someone else; but then I got older and realized people expected me to, well, be a young man and do what young men do. So, by the time I got into the Own, I'd been lying for years – since I was fifteen. I guess I've been lying about it for so long that I'd actually started to believe it all myself."

"I do not… understand, Dom. What do you mean?" Alanna scowled at him—she did not like not understanding.

"I mean that I am not the ladies' man everyone thinks me to be. I mean that I have not actually ever touched a woman; well, at least not the way I'm said to have."

The Lioness spat out the sip of tea she'd just taken and spluttered, "You, you're a… a…."

"I am a virgin," Dom said quietly, almost to himself. For fourteen years, Dom had been bribing women to spread positive rumors about him, had been kissing them and talking them up only to politely albeit abnormally decline once he got them alone, had been speaking of the things he wanted to do to this woman or that woman – words spun into a web of lies, inspired by all the things he had heard other men brag about.

As ashamed as Dom had been with himself for having a blasé attitude towards women, a part of him was more ashamed of not having such an attitude. Society expected certain behavior of him, and he just wasn't capable of meeting those standards, or lack thereof.

And why hadn't he bedded any of the hundreds of beautiful women who'd expressed increasing interest? Like Neal and Kel, Dom had grown up hearing grand tales of Alanna, Daine, and the Queen and others. All these brave, bold women were affecting change in their country, trying to even the playing field; he didn't want to work against that.

But that wasn't all of it. Dom loved his mother and his sisters, and he couldn't bear the thought of some man treating any of them the way he knew most men did the women they bedded. He shuddered at the thought of anyone so carelessly gaining intimate knowledge of the women in his family in the manner even his friends amongst the Own were with tavern wenches they met in various towns.

From an early age, Dom knew he wanted more. A part of him recognized that his cousin Neal was very similar. Neal had written pages and pages of poetry to dozens of court beauties over the years, but he'd never delivered those poems or acted on his fatuous desires; it wasn't until Neal had met and fallen for Yuki that the knight had even spoken to a woman of his feelings.

The cousins shared much throughout their years, it seemed their romantic ideas were no exception. Just like his younger cousin had, Dom was waiting for the right woman before giving of himself in such a way. Of course, there was no way in all the realms Dom was prepared to divulge these thoughts to the Baron and the Baroness.

Dom finally met the others' eyes and was shocked to see no sign of surprise in the older man's. "Why do you look like you already knew this?"

George chuckled much as he had earlier, "I've heard you with the other men, comparing stories of the lasses. I have been around enough to know when a man is lying; I figured you were either virgin, or wanted men. Oh, don't look at me like that!" he added when Dom cried out indignantly. "That thought lasted for but a moment. During the Progress, I saw the way you looked at Keladry in Persopolis. A man doesn't look at a woman like that without wanting her, nay, needing her; though, I could see you were trying to hide it."

Sergeant Domitan of Masbolle of the King's Own was at a complete loss for words. He'd been attracted to Kel from the start, but he'd personally felt fourteen – and the whole trying for her shield situation – too young for him, though Dom wasn't unaware that some noble ladies infrequently married that young. He knew commoner women wed even younger occasionally.

Even without the eight year age difference to stop him, Dom had one hundred-odd men of the King's Own, Lord Raoul, Kel's knight friends, and countless others who would surely disapprove, to keep him from foolishly pursuing a relationship with Kel. He'd never even dared to breathe a word of this to any of the aforementioned before today; Dom found it so odd that George and Alanna would be the first to be told the truth.

Taking one final deep breath, Dom met both their eyes, "I guess there's no sense trying to deny it at this point: I'm in love with her. I was always attracted to her, and I thought of courting her off and on over the years, but it didn't really hit me until we were on our way back from Scanra." He paused for a moment, reminiscing over the revelation.

"As soon as my Lord told us of Kel's mad jaunt to save her people, I was gripped with fear – I never doubted her, but I worried for her. All through the trip, I tormented myself with numerous scenarios of what could have gone wrong with our mission; every single terrible outcome ended with her death, in my mind.

"And yet, I still didn't understand. It wasn't until we'd beaten Blayce and Stenmun's men – impossibly so, I might add – that true fear tore through me. While the others dealt with the aftermath of the skirmish, I went searching for Kel. I found her, lying against the wall on the ground floor, looking past death.

"It took me several moments to gather the courage to see if she was alive. Once I felt her pulse under my fingers and heard her breath, overwhelming relief coursed through me and calm found me. I was surprised it all affected me so profoundly. Amazingly, the moment I finally realized the depth and nature of my feelings didn't come until we were well on our way south down the Smiskir road back toward the Vassa. I was riding a few horse lengths behind Kel and puzzling out the strength of my concern when I at last grasped the truth of the matter," he fell mysteriously silent.

Alanna grimaced at him, "Care to finish?"

"Well, previously I couldn't fathom why her safety meant so much more to me than anyone else's, why I flirted with her more than any other woman, or why I'd been feeling the separation from New Hope—from Kel—so strongly. Right before I realized, Kel turned around to give some order; it wasn't directed at me, but I couldn't tell you the words anyways – I didn't hear them, I was too busy seeing her for the first time – the way her hair brushed her shoulders, the way her eyes sparkled with incredulous relief – and comprehending that I loved her."

George and Alanna regarded each other for several long moments before turning to Dom sporting matching grins. Needless to say, those mischievous smirks did nothing to reassure the Sergeant. It was Alanna who spoke, "We were hoping you'd say that. Kel deserves someone who understands her and accepts her. Perhaps that is you, I'm certainly not going to warn you off her.

"We've ridden together so many times during her knight training—"

"You mean while you were seething at Jon?" her husband interrupted with a knowing snicker.

The Lioness merely glared in response and yanked her hand from underneath his. "We rode together enough for me to know you're a good man, and also that you would never dare hurt her," she resumed, turning to Dom. "That's why I've been testing you. I wanted to make certain you were right for her."

"Why go to such trouble, though? I mean, I know you care about the woman following in your footsteps, paving the way for other noble girls to become pages, but this is more personal…" Dom didn't know what he wanted to say, so he allowed his voice to trail off into silence.

Alanna took her time composing her thoughts before answering, "I watched her. All through her page training and years as Raoul's squire, I kept as close an eye as possible. Though we only became friends after she got her shield, I got to know her in an indirect manner, similar to you.

"In all that time, I saw how alone she was. Not just because she was The Girl, but also because of her Yamani background. Gender aside, Kel has been set apart from her peers from the beginning; I know what that sort of separation can do to a person—from what I know of her, Kel would never openly admit how alone she's feeling, but I can see it in her eyes and in her demeanor.

"That woman needs love. She gives so much of herself to others, it's only right she start receiving something in return. Kel… deserves to be happy. And I think you can do that for her," the Lioness lowered her eyes and voice before continuing in just above a whisper, "The Goddess was not permitted to interfere with Keladry's life, but she desires all her servants to attain the future their deeds merit."

Something in the way Alanna worded that made Dom think she was quoting. People all over the world knew the scarlet-haired knight had been touched by the hand of the Goddess, but most assumed that connection had faded after so many years; now Dom began to wonder if, just sometimes, maybe the Goddess still guided Alanna down her path.

Frightening as this conversation had been, Dom was glad to have finally gotten the matter off his chest. The sensation he was experiencing was similar to the epiphany one has when one loses something important—he hadn't known how much it all was bothering him until he'd fixated on it, discussed it, and been honest with himself. It was a pleasant feeling, lifting him up and filling him with hope.

And then Dom had a realization once more: acknowledging his deepest thoughts had transformed him; he could only pray it was for the better.

His rumination was disturbed by none other than his meat headed cousin, and said cousin's lovely Yamani betrothed.

Kel arose just half a bell after her usual time, still before dawn; Tobe and her animals were fast asleep. She left her bed as gently as she could went to privy to splash water on her face and quickly clean her teeth. Next, she pulled on a pair of breeches and tucked in her nightgown. Kel grabbed her glaive down from her weapons rack and began a simple pattern dance, now wasn't about training but rather loosening up and preparing for the day.

By the time Kel had finished, the sun had started to come up over the horizon. She moved to the privy to freshen herself up for the day; when she came out, she found Tobe sitting on her bed struggling to cover his yawn with one arm as he petted Jump with the other; Sparrows rested all over the pair.

Kel could only laugh at the comical scene. Tobe grinned in response before flopping back onto the bed. Kel smiled at her charge and spoke for the first time that morning, "Why don't you take the day off, Tobe? Spend some time with Dom's squad or go annoy Neal. You've more than earned a rest."

"All right, Mother. Thank you," he added sincerely at the end.

Kel smiled wryly and shook her head, waving him back into his own adjoining room so she could dress privately. Though Kel was feeling better about wearing dresses, she didn't want to overwhelm her friends. Besides, she planned on donning several of them during the month or so they'd be snowed in and cut off from the south.

With those thoughts in mind, Kel picked out a comfortable pair of undyed breeches, a plain shirt with a light green tunic, and dark brown work boots. She braided her slightly damp hair and fed Jump and the sparrows before leaving her room to meet with Raoul and Buri for a seclude breakfast.

It didn't take long for her to reach their rooms; she knocked lightly and only had to wait a few brief moments before Buri opened the door to permit into the chamber. "I'd forgotten you have a gods-cursed habit of rising before the sun," the older woman grumbled as they made their way to a table already laden with food.

Kel quirked an eyebrow and asked, "Didn't you rise early with the Riders?"

That earned her the growled response, "Never you mind, girl. And I'll have you recall that I'm resigned from my post with the Queen's Riders, thank you very much." The prickly K'mir lowered herself into a chair and resumed sipping from her steaming mug of tea.

Kel took a seat across from her and then noticed her former knight master missing. "Where's Raoul?"

"You actually used my name, Kel! This is progress." The burly man's reply startled her, causing him to chuckle as he sat next to his soon-to-be bride.

"That was a one-time occurrence, Sir, not directed at you and spoken when I thought you weren't present. Don't expect it again." Kel grew suspicious, knowing Third Company's pranking habits were partially learned from the Knight Commander. "What were you up to?"

His reply was all to innocent, "Oh, I was just finishing a last report before I can officially take leave and settle into the hysteria of planning this wedding."

Buri frowned up at him, "You speak as if you had a hand in it. The girls and I did most of the work before you menfolk even showed up last night," she finished with a punctuated jab to his arm.

Raoul winced and heaved a world-weary sigh, "I've devoted so much time to the affair in the past month, I really should receive the most credit. Please stop wounding me dear, I can go to the courts on claims of abuse."

The K'mir smiled at her love and turned to the food, letting his playful banter slide over her. The three took the precious alone time to impart all the goings on they had missed out on since last they'd seen each other. It was a quaint occasion.

After ten or so minutes, there came another knock. Kel glanced about the room, bewildered, and more than a little upset that the previous evening's shenanigans might be repeated; Raoul for his part glowered at his plate and muttered incoherently about just what people could do with their knocking.

Buri rose yet again to answer the door. "Calm down, you two. I invited Jon and Thayet, or didn't you wonder why there was so much to eat on the bale?" She was only gone a few breaths before returning with the King and Queen in tow. Simple greetings were exchanged and the conversation resumed a peaceful flow.

While the bride- and groom-to-be teased Thayet over some tissue dress, the King turned to Kel and looked at her inquisitively. "We haven't had much time to speak with one another, Lady Knight."

"No, Your Majesty," came Kel's noncommittal reply.

"I get the feeling you really don't like me."

Kel set her fork down and gathered herself before turning to face the king, who was sitting in between her and his wife. "When I first became a page, I had my doubts about you, but I can't very well hold a grudge against someone who is changing a law because of me…" she lowered her eyes then continued, "Nor against someone who helped me face my fears."

A flicker of understanding flashed in the King's eyes, "You're referring to the time I spelled your body so you could descend Balor's Needle. It is to my knowledge that my Lord Wyldon did more for you on that front."

"True," Kel smiled wryly. "I suppose the real matter is: I'm not a child anymore. I understand we can't always get what we want, and I've learned from my station with the refugees and my time as my Lord Raoul's squire; no matter what you do, you'll always be upsetting someone, which makes it only harder to see the right decision and then make it. I respect the fact that both of Your Majesties are making an honest effort to rule the kingdom as fairly as possible."

It wasn't the first time Kel had spoken directly to the King, which put her somewhat at ease; although it was decidedly the first time the pair had had a real one-on-one encounter, albeit with other people present. Nothing she said was impolite, and King Jonathan was clearly trying to de normal with her.

Perhaps he wasn't the King right now, nor was Thayet the Queen—they were just a husband and a wife, taking the time to enjoy breakfast with a couple of their friends on their last morning of singleness. Even if that made Kel a fifth wheel, she decided she didn't want to have to be so on guard – she was on leave, after all – so she relaxed a bit and attempted to see yet another facet of her former knight master's complex friend.

Jonathan seemed taken aback at her words, but then he smoothed his expression and offered an ironic grin, "If only the conservatives came around so easily and without constant prodding and compromise."

Kel laughed in response, "I don't know, Sire. My Lord Wyldon saw the right of things on his own, eventually." The others had already dropped of their own conversation when they heard Jonathan mention politics; now they – and Jonathan – stared at Keladry slack-jawed, in utter shock.

Thayet shook her head and pointed a finger at her husband, "Jon, we discussed this, no political matters today or tomorrow." Her gaze drifted back to Kel, "You really see no fault with that man, do you?"

"He's a good knight," Kel said defensively, "And he taught us a lot in a short amount of time." She scowled when the four rolled their eyes at her.

Thayet spoke again, "I don't dispute Wyldon's success rate, but if that's the kind of knight you idolize, then what made you want to be a knight, Kel?"

"I wanted to help people who can't help themselves," the answer came automatically. "When my mother saved the sacred Yamani swords, I knew I wanted that one day: to face down those who would take advantage of the weak, and make them think twice before striking against the defenseless."

"But there's more to it than that, isn't there?" Astonishingly, it was Jonathan who asked it of her.

Kel gulped loudly and looked out the window. She'd told her mother what she was about to tell them, but she hadn't told her it was part of the reason she became a knight. The only thing giving her the courage to tell these four was that Buri and Raoul had known her for years, as had Thayet; and by accepting her shield, Kel had pledged fealty to the two monarchs, she supposed they had the right to know what drove the servants of the Crown.

Steeling herself with a final breath, Kel finally spoke, "Please don't interrupt me, I won't be able to finish if you do." Only after they had each nodded in turn did Kel pick up where she had left off, "When I was a child, I overheard someone say I was built along the lines of a cow; they were right, but that didn't stop my mother from unleashing her wrath.

"I knew from a young age I would never fetch a good husband, I could do my family no honor at convent. And I wanted to do something with my weapons training from the Isles; so I decided to become a knight. I knew I wouldn't be particularly famous, but I figured I could do enough good to earn some money for my family.

"Being presented at court would have been pointless and becoming a knight was the solution to everything I wanted. Here, in this warzone where I have to be strong for others, my size and stature are attributes not disadvantages. Having my shield opens up the world for me, there are so many more possibilities for the direction my life can take; I'm not bound by the rules of a court that will never accept me." Kel fell silent and, rather than face the others, resumed her meal.

And it was a good thing she did, had she seen the pity and consternation in their eyes, Kel would have lost every shred of her Yamani calm. None of them knew how to broach the matter, how to respond to her words at all; no one except Buri, that is.

The K'miri woman snorted in derision, "Since when do you let others define you, Kel? You're more than words, more than anyone else's opinion of you. Don't allow somebody else's close-minded thinking affect how you view yourself."

Not for the first time, Kel was thankful for the stubborn woman's words, and her refusal to let Kel wallow. She raised her head from her breakfast and smiled gratefully. "I said that's one of the big reasons I became decided to become a knight, but I let go of those thoughts some time ago. If there's one thing I've learned in the past eight years, it's that you can't lose hope; no matter how bleak life seems or how cruel some villains can be, hope will see you through.

"I never gave up on the idea of marriage and a family of my own, I just knew I couldn't go chasing after it; I'm focused on my work right now, but if love comes my way, I'll embrace it, not because someone out there thinks I should settle for the first man to show remote interest, but because time is precious and scarce, and I don't to waste any more of my life regretting or 'what ifing'."

Raoul beamed at his former student; he was glad he didn't need to knock some sense into her, but he did think he should have a talk with her about self-image; despite her words he had the nagging suspicion that Kel did not see herself very clearly. He knew her well enough to know she desperately wanted a topic change, though, so he obliged and asked Jonathan what part he and Thayet planned to play in the wedding, leaving thoughts of another lesson for his young friend to a later time.

Neal woke slowly, savoring the light warmth of the late summer sun on his skin and the feel of his betrothed's cheek resting on his chest. He couldn't wait to officially start his life with her, but he knew he couldn't – not yet, at least. Not when his best friend was hurting so bad. And he knew that she was, for Yuki had told him what they'd discussed the previous night.

He knew Kel was unhappy and that she barely realized it herself. He felt Yuki stir and ventured to ask her her thoughts on the matter, "Yuki, love. Do you think we can help her?" Neal didn't need to explain further, Yukimi knew who he was referring to.

"Yes, we can. It will take some doing, though. We need to gently guide her toward someone who will expose her heart, someone who will love every piece of her." She hadn't told her betrothed that his best friend was in love with his cousin or that she suspected the feelings were not unreciprocated, nor did she plan on it. Much as she hated keeping secrets from her future husband, Yuki knew Kel and Dom needed time to sort their relationship out on their own, without the well-meaning influence and interference of their many friends.

"Who do you think that might be? Do you think Kel will end up with a Yamani? I know she still feels more at home sipping green tea and hiding her face behind a dratted fan than she does here in the land of her birth."

Yuki pulled away from him and lifted herself on her elbows to stare accusingly at him, "Are you insulting my culture, dear?" Her slanted almond eyes glinted dangerously.

"No! Of course not. I just meant… she's not in the Yamani Islands anymore, Yuki. I'm sure she'll make visits when she has the time, but she'll always live in Tortall. This is her home now, but her heart still belongs at least partially to your ancient and refined culture. I just thought that, perhaps, Kel would like to have stoic warrior babies born with a glaive in each hand."

Yukimi reached over to the nightstand to grab her shukusen and rap her husband-to-be on the top of his head. "I'm certain Kel desires a barbaric Eastern man whose mother she will not have to slave to for the rest of her life."

Neal thought better of his next remark and changed his words at the last possible moment, "That is a fair point, my Yamani blossom." Deciding he didn't want to risk angering her further, and that they really had spent far too much time thinking of another woman first thing in the morning, Neal leaned over and kissed her long and hard, effectively ending all lines of verbal communication.

Kel left Raoul and Buri's rooms a few hours prior to midday, just in time to be intercepted by a courier on her way back to her own room. The thin man spared no words on her past the name of the senders and the date of the letter's departure from her home fief before racing off to find the recipient of his last parcel.

She frowned at the think envelope, wondering just what could be its contents, as she meandered into the building, up the stairs, and over to her room. She placed it on her desk, she had no time for it now; she had received a note from Alanna during breakfast requesting a friendly duel.

Kel grabbed Griffin, a present from Alanna when Kel had earned her shield, and headed over to the practice courts. She knew she would lose the challenge, but she still gave it her all. In the end, Kel's predictions were right and the older knight won; they had only a brief moment to clasp hands and exchange a few words before they were approached by Kel's basilisk teacher on the ways of immortals.

Tkaa pulled Alanna aside to impart some news that drained her face. The violet-eyed knight stalked away without another word. Kel shrugged it off and returned to her rooms to bathe before lunch.

The rest of her day passed uneventfully, she reviewed applications for some potential candidates for the Own that Raoul had given her earlier, spent time with Tobe and her animals, and dined with Dom's squad. It wasn't until her blond servant retired for the night that Kel permitted herself to open the letter. And even then, it took her hours to successfully read through it all.

As the night grew dark, Jonathan and Thayet made their way over to their friends' rooms and pulled them from their private dinner. Buri and Raoul groaned to each other as they realized what was happening; Jon led Raoul to the Own's barracks where he would spend his last night of bachelordom with his men, and Thayet bade Buri to the rooms she shared with her husband, directing her long-time friend to the bed in the adjoining room.

As Thayet turned to cross the doorway back into her own room, Buri called her name softly. The Queen spun only her head around and raised a fine brow.

The K'mir beckoned to her with a serious expression, causing Thayet to repress her sigh and any thought of joining her husband in bed. "What's the matter, Buri?"

Buri looked up into her eyes with a slightly scared expression, "Am I making a mistake here? Should I be marrying him?"

"No. Yes," Thayet smiled warmly at her; pre-wedding jitters were perfectly natural although somewhat unlike her friend. "You two are perfect for each other, and there's literally no valid reason for you to put this off any longer. You love one another, and… and I want to see my best friend as happily wedded as I am."

Buri smiled back her, her fears laid to rest, and the women parted for the evening. The K'miri woman fell asleep to pleasant dreams of the transformation to her life that the next day would bring.

A/N: Before you come after me with pitchforks for making Domitan a virgin, let me explain. Please?

Though Pierce pens Dom as a flirt (and I personally think most of the Own have to be ladies' men, given the nature of their career), we're never given any canon material of a single relationship (or even fling) of Dom's. We are, however, told of the similarities Kel finds between his personality and his cousin's. I think that both Dom and Neal are the type to flirt with (or write unsent poetry to) many women, but when it comes to an actual relationship, those two are for real; it has to be special for them.

I really don't see this man as the type to sleep around. I'm not judging anyone and I'm not letting my personal lifestyle choices influence this piece of work, I just don't believe Kel is capable of falling for a man who doesn't take relationships seriously. Daine and Alanna were with men who had a fair share of experience, and that's alright for the both of them; but Kel thoroughly believes in chivalry and all that it means to be a true knight (or soldier) of the realm - on a very deep emotional/psychological level, Keladry needs to be with a man who shares her stark values (it can only be a bonus that Dom is so humorous and can mellow her out somewhat).

Next order of business: I know I said all the scenes before the wedding would be here, but this bit just got too long. So, I'm doing something weird: the beginning of the next chapter will be a rewind from the close of Chapter 4 Part B to the end of Dom's interrogation scene. Conversations and happenings previously unmentioned will occur throughout the day. At least a third of the next chapter will probably be pre-Wedding Day scenes. But, rejoice! for, no matter how long it gets, the next chapter WILL be the end of Tuesday and include ALL of the wedding (which happens on Wednesday). I planned out the days of the week for these chapters simply because Pierce said Kel gets a full week off, so I needed to make sure I didn't under- or over-plan the schedule.

On another note, you're all probably wondering why Raoul and Buri didn't have Bachelor's and Bachelorette's parties, respectively. From what we've seen of Buri's character throughout the three series, I think she never really belonged in Tortall; what I mean to say is: Buri found her place with the Riders and carved out a nice life for herself, but she had no one to fill her heart. Despite her chilled - not cold - feet, I think she's ecstatic to be tying the knot. As for Raoul, he's been a bachelor for over thirty years (I'm not certain of his exact age) and he's spent over a decade of those years riding around with a bunch of men who are all single men avoiding matchmaking mothers with young daughters; well, Buri is not a young daughter and has no matchmaking mother and Raoul knows she's right for him...he is in no way sad to leave his bachelorhood behind him. He's more than ready to start settling down after years of watching his friends (even Alanna) marry and have children; it's finally his turn, and he still gets to keep his career.

On Kel and Alanna's duel: I cannot for the life of me remember where exactly in the timeline of things this scene from Trickster's Choice takes place, but I think I remember it occurring at Steadfast. I didn't want this story to focus on the points where it connects with TP's other books, but I didn't want to leave out canon material (and since each chapter is longer than the previous, I try to set a word limit for myself so as not to make things more difficult for myself in the future) so I threw it in here (without really doing into detail), since I had all the necessary characters waiting around for me.


And now, what you have all been waiting for: the title's explanation!

Chapter 4's title, Scrutiny, comes from the uncomfortably personal attention certain characters receive in both parts of the chapter. Part B gets its subtitle from the running leitmotif of change. So many of the characters' lives are experiencing alterations. And really, change is the theme of life itself. And yes, I did just throw in Buri's last thoughts before sleeping to sort of tie it all in together; I am not ashamed of plot devices.

There's more significance to the title, but I'm going to wait until several chapters later to finish the explanation, and here's why: I eventually want to get to the point where you all guess the meanings in reviews, and then I later replace the chapter with an edited version that includes the explanation; also, perhaps some of you may have already guessed this, but, the themes from these first few chapters will be recurring throughout the fic. Whenever I upload a chapter that continues an earlier motif, I'll include the original explanation, and then I'll expound upon it.

I just want to reiterate the fact that I'm not just doing this fic simply to deliver the Kel/Dom we all so desperately desire (although that is a huge part of it), but also so that I can develop my writing skills. I really want to get published one day. The first step to that is finishing at least one manuscript; only problem is, I'm not confident enough in my ability to fully develop plot, characters, and setting to create a polished, streamlined document of my musings. SO, on that note. please read AND review. I thoroughly enjoy feedback, and if there's a problem with the story, I more than likely won't know until one of you points it out to me.

So, I realize my edited update yesterday was a bit harsh and I apologize for the misrepresentation of the update (I didn't mean to make you think that chapter 5 had been added); I have seen an increase in views and visitors over the past month, so I want to express my gratitude for all you readers.

However, this fic is more than just a story for me - it is a study in writing. I'm not fishing for compliments by asking for reviews, I want to know how I can improve.

And, honsetly, I know certain parts have to be bugging you readers (after all, in particular, I wrote the dialogue for Part A and for the second scene of Part B and I still hate it...). I'm more than open to constructive criticism and any stylistic suggestions you all might have - if anyone thinks a scene or dialogue should be changed, please let me know.