Author's Note: This is my first try at fanfiction, so I would really appreciate any and all feedback on how I do and whether I should continue. Thanks!
Disclaimer: I am not Tamora Pierce and I own nothing. I only appreciate the chance to play around in her world for a little while.
By the time his father came to get him, Nealan of Queenscove had given up on trying to read. For the thousandth time he considered his life choices. He could still run now, he supposed. He would look like a fool for doing it, after all the trouble and fuss he had gone through to make it through the big exams, but he could. He could walk out of here, back to the university, or back to Queenscove. He could take off with the Players and spend the rest of his life serenading beautiful ladies in their husbands' halls (an option that actually didn't sound too bad).
He didn't have to commit to being a squire at the beck and call of a hollering knight-master, he thought at some point, throwing down his book and standing up.
Neal's father Baird, Chief Healer of the Realm and Duke of the ancient house of Queenscove, found the young man pacing a furrow into the floor of his quarters.
"You're dithering worse than Jessa," Baird said crisply. "Relax."
Neal gave his father a withering look.
"I am not," he said. "I am highly offended that you can even make such a comparison."
"Of course you are." Baird's face was carefully blank. "You're also going to be late meeting your very distinguished guests, if you don't hurry."
"I was only waiting for you," Neal protested, trotting after his father as Baird set off down the hall. "How is it fair that I'm to blame for your lateness? You wouldn't even tell me what room too go to!" He waved his hands to emphasize his point.
"It's not far," his father said lightly. From his tone, Neal could tell that that was all he was going to get.
They turned several corners. Neal realized that his father was leading him not to the knights' wing as he had expected, but to the royal wing.
"What—" he began. Baird shushed him and stopped in front of a heavy door to their right. He knocked.
The door swung inward to reveal none other than King Jonathan himself.
"Your majesty," Baird said immediately. Swallowing his surprise, Neal echoed his father and bowed. The king opened the door wider for them to come in, bidding them to sit at the chairs gathered around what looked like a sitting room table, for all the papers spread on it. Only when he'd sat did Neal realize that King Jonathan already had another guest, this one as iconic as he was. Only one knight had blazing red hair paired with violet eyes. Neal shot to his feet.
"I thought you don't come to the palace!" he blurted out.
Lady Alanna chuckled.
"I made an exception," she said.
"Lady Alanna of Olau and Pirate's Swoop, I believe you know my son, Squire Nealan of Queenscove," Duke Baird said, rather superfluously.
"Of course," Lady Alanna said immediately. "Nealan, it's a pleasure to see you again."
"It's Neal," he said, before he could stop himself. Lady Alanna's lips twitched.
"Neal. I will remember that."
Sometimes his brain worked too quickly for its own good, he thought—as it did now. Everything was clear to him in a second.
"No," he said. "No, I can't. I couldn't."
Duke Baird buried his face in his hands; the king's lips twitched. Lady Alanna, with admirable dignity, raised her eyebrows.
"How can you refuse when you haven't even heard what I have to say?"
"It's obvious what you're about to say!" he spluttered. He gestured to Jonathan. "His majesty's already got a squire. And Father wouldn't drag me before the king if he just wanted me to squire for him. You're the only other knight here. My lady," he added, rather belatedly.
Alanna grinned ruefully.
"So much for my speech, eh?" she said. "Well, squire? Would you like to have me for your knight-master?"
Oh, but it was so tempting. He could still remember watching her spar in the courts with the other warriors. She was glory with a blade; the pride of the kingdom, even though half of Tortall refused to admit it. She was smart, and she was a healer, and she wouldn't just pummel him black and blue like most other knights would. If there was anyone who could teach him to be a knight worthy of a Queenscove shield, worthy to follow Graeme, it was her.
But serving Alanna herself—that wasn't Neal's dream. It was his best friend's.
"I can't," he managed. He faced Lady Alanna. "Kel—she should be your squire. It's always been her dream to serve with you. I can't just—"
"Neal, you already know why that can't happen," the king said, not unkindly. "If Squire Keladry earns her shield under Lady Alanna's tutelage, people will question it."
Neal muttered a suggestion about where people could stick their questions.
"Neal!" Duke Baird hissed, shocked. Lady Alanna's hand flew to her cover her mouth. Next to her the king did the same; his shoulders shook.
"I think," Jonathan said, once he had taken a moment to master himself, "you really must take him now, Alanna. He is clearly the perfect squire for you."
"I'm not," Neal said flatly. "Kel is. She's anybody's perfect squire, you can ask any of our year-mates, they'll say the same thing." He looked at Alanna pleadingly, willing her to understand. "Please. She's my best friend. I couldn't do that to her."
The lady knight sighed.
"I understand, Neal, I do," she said.
"So…you'll take her," Neal said slowly.
"I can't," Alanna replied. "If I did, it wouldn't matter how skilled she is or becomes; the conservatives will insist that she was spelled."
He gaped. "Since when did you care what conservatives say?"
"I don't care what they say about me," she replied, crossing her arms. She shot a glance at the king. "But that doesn't mean I'll jeopardize Keladry's career just to prove the point. Don't worry about Kel. She's getting a very good offer, too, I assure you."
"Lady Alanna can teach you to heal, son," Baird said. "You know you always wished you had more training. She can help you there."
"I know you left the university because you thought you had to choose between knighthood and magic," the lady knight said. "But you don't. I'm proof of that, and I can teach you."
Oh, but it was too clever. Kel would have admired their tactics. But then again, Kel would probably have just said he should have had better sense than to tell everyone his weak points. They had him at healing, gods all bless.
He heaved a sigh. His father rolled his eyes, turning the movement into a ducal gesture. Alanna and the king looked at Neal expectantly.
"I'll do it," Neal said heavily.
Whoever was taking on Kel had better be the best knight in the country.