Thanks To You
By Sulia Serafine
[The final part of the Unforgettable Amnesiac Quartet. A Protector of the Small fanfic set in Tortall with a different ending; all credit goes to Tamora Pierce. I'm broke, so you can't sue me. WARNING! SPOILER FOR SQUIRE!]
The day after.
"We're knights," Neal sighs, a dazed smile on his face. I hold back a snicker. He may have been talking about their recent knighting ceremonies, but I knew he was holding it as a front to a daydream he'd been having the whole time. How can I tell? Why, he's tapping that skukusen Yuki gave him on the table. I think she's with Princess Shinkokami right now. A shame. It would be fun to see how flustered Neal would become if she were present.
Besides, talking about knights only causes me to think that we're going to be sent to the front to defend against Scanrans when spring comes. We haven't much time. I heard Paxton say that I'm in most likelyhood to be posted where Cleon is right now.
That would be great. I haven't seen him in so long. I can still remember the last time he dragged me into a tavern trying to get me to loosen up. Of course, it was always me that was forced to do the flirting with women, as encouraged by him. He swore all the women off except for his beloved Kel. They're a nice couple, but I wonder about their long-term relationship. I mean, Cleon's still engaged.
I absently toss a pouch up into the air and catch it again. It's filled with Pocket's treats. She's in my room right now, sleeping. It's what a cat does best, right?
Neal suddenly sits up from how he'd been tilting his chair on its back legs. He turns to me with a panicked look in his eyes. "Joren, what time is it?"
I frown. "It's almost the last bell before sunset. Why?"
He gasps and stands up, nearly knocking over the chair and table as he does so. What's he trying to do? Throw his room into a frenzy? I stand up as well, putting one hand on his shoulder. It does nothing to calm him.
"Oh perfect! I was supposed to meet my sister in Corus and escort her the rest of the way here! Oh Mithros protect me, my father's going to kill me!"
Sister? Neal has a sister? "When did you have a sister? I don't remember that."
He shruggs. "You never asked." He relapses into his frantic mode. "Oh, no. Come on! We've got to get into the city now! I can only imagine where she is." He freezes in his tracks to the door. "Where is my father? Does he know I'm not at the southern entrance to Corus? He's going to be so mad..."
This is not the thing to be doing if he's late. That's pretty obvious. I might as well take it upon myself to get him to Corus. "Come on. We'll go get her right now." I grab his arm and drag him out of the room. It would be so much easier if Keladry were here. She can make Neal do anything with her solid, commanding voice. I mean, she's been forcing vegetables into his mouth for the last eight years, hasn't she? Alas, she's visiting with the Lioness and her mother.
As we run, I ask some questions. "Why isn't she just coming straight to the Palace? Why meet at the entrance to Corus?"
Neal falters in his step, but catches up with me. "She wanted to go around the market, buy herself something to cheer her up."
Wait. Dodge two servants carrying laundry. Twist to the right, keep your balance, sprint forward. This is really starting to turn into a game.
Whoa! Round the corner and avoid slamming into a noble with really large ears! Two points!
I turn to Neal again as we slow down. The stables are in sight. We can saddle up very quickly and ride into Corus. With all our luck, his sister might still be where she's supposed to be.
I start to make conversation as we walk and catch our breaths. "Is your sister sad?"
Neal frowns. "What?"
"You said earlier that she wanted to cheer herself up."
"Oh! I did," he chuckles. "It's like this. My sister was engaged to a decent, kind, and well-off man. The problem was that he was always making trips. Their marriage has been postponed quite a few times. But they learned to like each other's company by writing letters when he was away." Here, he sighs. "Not too long ago, we received word that he was killed by a bandit on his way home from a trip. She's heartbroken, really."
Bandits. It's always bandits or Scanrans. I'd like to teach them all a lesson, if I had that long a lifespan.
We reach the stables and find Stefan Groomsman not too far away. We wave to him, he waves back. Neal and I separate to find our horses. The one I have now is a tan, dusty color though she has very dark hair. Paxton said as a gift for the last two years, he was going to find me a great stallion, and I was not to have one before then. I don't think I deserve it, but he seems to think I do. So, I ride a mare.
Now saddled up, we leave the Palace at a trot. It was already late. Neal is definitely calmer than his first initial wave of panic. That's good.
"So what is she planning to do now?"
Neal shrugs. "I don't know. She's now free of a betrothéd. Has to come to the Court where the rest of the single Ladies are."
Oh yes, those Ladies. The ones who gossiped about me. Well, they don't gossip anymore. Not about me, anyway.
Joren makes a good companion once you get to know him. And now that we're all knights, we'll be fighting for the realm. That means traveling. That means, the front. Scanran raiders, I hope the both of us don't get more than our limit's worth of trouble from them.
Joren idly holds his reins with one hand while scratching his chin. "Do you think we'll be sent to the same place come the end of winter?"
I don't know the answer to that question. "Maybe." 'Maybe', the reply a man always gives if he's just trying to think of something else. Like a certain exotic, but purely refined woman who imprisons his whole mind in her captivating ways. Not that she does it on purpose, but... ahem! Where was I? "I'd think they'd send me where a healer is needed. But seriously, we aren't going away for at least another two weeks. Snow has yet to melt in some places. Why not think of something else?"
We travel on in silence, only speaking when we have to go through the bustling streets of Corus. Here and there are people buying or merchants selling their wares. I don't think there is one moment in all the world when Corus is perfectly quiet and calm. It's too vibrant, too alive for anything so simple. I've come to love it.
I don't remember the last time I saw my sister. My father, Duke Baird of Queenscove- whom everyone meets sooner or later- and my mother sent her to the convent early on. This was about the time I went to start as a page. I was 15. She was Kel's age, 10. A short girl looking down at her feet.
My sister, born Gracilinda, was a timid little thing. Very sweet to those who knew her, very shy to anyone whom she did not. When I was little and wandering the fields, she snuck away from her nursemaid and followed me. Even though I was but maybe eight or nine, I'd sit with her under a large tree in our land and tell her stories while her head rested on my knee. My little Gracie.
She warmed up better to me than to my other brothers- who are already knights of Tortall and what not. They were always too older than her, always too adult and unhuggable than me, who am but five years her senior. I was still huggable brother material back then. Hopefully, I am right now.
"Neal, snap out of it, would you? We're nearing the Southern entrance of Corus. That's where your sister was to be waiting, right?" Joren asks. He yawns into his hand, involuntarily arching his back in a catlike stretch. Catlike. Pockets. Like pet like master, I suppose.
We both dismount and start leading our horses around people. I don't know what to look for besides my family crest on something. I mean, I really don't know what to expect. My sister after being in the convent, getting engaged before she even gets to Court... I mean, honestly. I haven't had a chance to see her. On the times I did go back to Queenscove, she wasn't even there!
Gracie, where are you? Who are you? My little sister or... a grown woman, a stranger...
"NEAL! Stop with that stupid look! You're standing there like someone just died, for Mithros' sake," Joren scolds me. Even though he's now a different man from when we knew each other as pages and squires, I'm not surprised that he's the dose of harsh rationality that can snap me out of my more... fickle and emotional moods. Well, Kel can do that, too, but you get the point.
I still remember when Joren had just gotten his amnesia. Shy and awkward, discouraged by all our stubbornness and avoiding techniques. Now that we're all friends, he's more the Joren we knew from way back when. Loud when he wants to be, charming when he can use it for something, not entirely as abrasive as some of us, but on the whole... an average, arrogant- but at times humble- man of the realm. Oh, did I mention he's a sucker for purrs and whiskers.?
I swear, he'd sacrifice his life for that cat. And to think, just two days ago, I was told to be the caretaker of the cat if anything were to happen. Dear Gods. That was sort of funny. But, uh, serious, too. I like to think that it makes me his best friend. Although I'm sure if Cleon had been there, Joren would have asked him and not me.
"Ahem?" Joren waves his hand in front of my face.
"Sorry," I mutter. I see something familiar. A man at arms, with the Queenscove's crest on his clothing. My sister's escort, surely... "There! Come on, let's go!" I tell Joren, though he doesn't need my enthusiastic shouting to goad him after me. I can't help my mood. I get to see my sister!
A young woman crosses my line of vision, in a simple traveling dress of light green. A shawl over her shoulders as she and some old woman- her chaperone?- converse over wares that have interested her as they lay on display. The merchant is talking to them in that slick tone that is trying to win him over some money, but something the young woman says makes him frown.
"Gracie!" I yell at the top of my lungs. Not at all very proper of me, but I was never much for that sort of thing. I'm the one always speaking my mind every chance I get. And if I feel like screaming to my long, lost (okay, not really) sister... then by the Gods, I will!
Her face lights up as she sees me. I run forward, leaving my horse's reins to be caught by Joren. And the next thing I know, my arms are around my little Gracie. Darker brown hair than mine, wavy but pulled back and pinned up. Fair skin, but a few freckles just at the corners of her eyes. Her nose and lips are mine... and so are her ears...
Mithros above, this is my sister. My sister. She feels so warm and real. Of course she's real, but for fleeting moments, I think this is too good a dream.
"Neal!" she exclaims, muffled against my tunic because I'm still holding her. She pushes me away, catching her breath, but still smiling. Yes, she is a woman now, but she is no stranger.
We gaze at each other for nearly forever, memorizing every little line and shadow in each other's faces. Where is that tiny little girl I knew who looked down at her feet? Oh, Gracie…
"Ahem?" Joren clears his throat from behind me. I blink and face him.
"Oh!" I chuckle. "Sorry. Joren, this is my sister Gracilinda. Gracie, this is Sir Joren of Stone Mountain."
She studies him at length. "You were recently knighted like my brother, weren't you?"
"Yes, I was," Joren confirms, turning on his charm like there was a switch. He does this whenever he meets an eligible female who has yet to hear of his terrible reputation. My sister smiles warmly at him. What's that dark twinkle in her eye?
The days pass. Gracilinda is introduced late at Court, with her brother as her escort. Soon after formalities are over and she has politely mingled with everyone, she finds me near the refreshments with Keladry and Seaver.
Over the last few days, did I mention that I've observed she's attracted to me? I don't want to sound vain, but it's so obvious to the world. I don't think Neal likes it, but his sister has a mind of her own and won't be bullied by him. She asks him about me, so Keladry said. Kel and her get along, but they haven't bonded in any way.
Don't get me wrong. I think Gracilinda is a wonderful young lady. She's certainly very beautiful. Dark hair, long eyelashes, pale complexion, slender body… You get the idea. But what stands out to me is that she's really very tragic inside and trying not to show it. Grieving over her late betrothed. I'm afraid that if she were to get involved with me, it would actually be to get over him.
She's most likely the only woman within miles willing to be courted by me. But am I really that desperate for a wife right now? I just became a knight! Yes, my family is wealthy. Yes, my parents are likely to nudge me into the direction of an arranged marriage where I will be very, very unhappy. I think I might become the next Raoul. The next famous bachelor set on staying a bachelor.
If I'm lucky.
I asked Keladry about the whole matter. She is a woman after all. Even if a dedicated tomboy. She hates it when I call her that, but knows I mean well. She, Cleon, and Neal are probably my best friends now. Especially her and Cleon. I don't know why. It just happened that way.
I'm getting off subject. Okay, asking Kel. She told me to have more faith in people. According to her, Gracilinda is adult enough to control her emotions and know the difference between rebound and attraction. I didn't tell her this, but I think that's a bloody lie. She was just trying to be polite. But either way, Kel caused me to actually spend time with Neal's sister, when she had the free time.
Yes. Here we are, in thick coats and gloves, standing just beyond the garden as the snow soaks into my breeches. In reality, Pockets is here with us. My one and only feline nestled her self within my shirt, as always. Her head looks out from under my chin. Gracilinda finds this very comical, but also very…
"Sweet," she giggles from behind her hand. She walks ahead of me toward the exit of the garden. I catch up, trying not to jostle my cat around more than Pockets would dislike.
I finally come stride to stride with her. We start a nice conversation, mostly funny anecdotes from her childhood. Goodness, I never imagined there were so many things to blackmail Neal with… I really ought to try that out, the mischievous side to me thinks. But I don't make any plans. After all, Gracilinda might not like it.
Wait. Since when did I care what she likes?
I think it would be best to drop that thought right where it is.
"I have really enjoyed these talks we've been having," she says now, bowing her head. "And I'm forever grateful for your tours around the Palace. I regret never having been here before."
I bow as well. I hate etiquette with a passion. I think everyone knows that by now. But considering this is Neal's sister, and he's very uptight about everyone being nice to her, I put up with the courtesy. And besides, she's being nice to me. When was the last time a lady of the court was like that toward me?
We talk a bit longer. You know that sort of talk- the meaningless banter that isn't leading to anything- that people naturally flow into even if they're strangers? Yes, it was like that. I usually don't banter. Bantering is… is just not me. Am I sounding extremely foolish and idiotic? I don't mean to be, but lack of better expression is keeping me where I am. Speechless. No, actually, the opposite. Mindless babble! Whoever thought I'd be here babbling with another person besides my cat?
"Sir," she calls to me one day the next week.
"Joren," I correct her. "Please, no more formalities. I honestly can't stand it anymore."
She laughs. No more girlish giggling for that I'm thankful. "And you may call me Gracie. Lady Gracilinda is a bit stifling, too."
"How long has Neal called you Gracie?"
It's strange how casual a conversation we can have one day, and how utterly proper we are the next. I can never tell how I should act with her, but I guess that was where it became interesting. For her more than for me.
"Do you know where Neal is?"
"I was about to look for him myself," I reply, yawning into the back of my hand. I take a moment to observe her. She's still so tragic. As soon as she's done talking and smiling, a shadow settles over her. What would it take to lift it?
Later in the day, Keladry tells me I am becoming enamored with her.
"I am not."
This carries on for a twenty minutes. I think I have lost when Keladry stands up and gestures to one of Gracie's handkerchiefs lying on my table. I had sneezed! She'd offered it to me! What was wrong with that? And why is one of my most trusted and understanding friends being so centered on it?
She must be a mind reader. Why? Oh, I'll tell you.
"Joren, you need someone. I'm serious. Love…" she begins. "It's good for you."
I snort and hug Pockets closer, almost like a security blanket. The cat protests, but doesn't struggle as much as she could. "Oh? Almost as good as it's been for you?"
She frowns, perplexed by what I'd said. Then it hits her. She blushes furiously and shakes a finger at me like a scolding mother. "Cleon and I are just fine. Don't you worry about us."
"Whatever," I mutter, burying my face in Pocket's soft fur. She rubs her head against me, purring. It's wonderful how this little fur ball can soothe me when I'm on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Or all the times I contemplated throwing myself from a tower like those damsels in the storybooks.
For a very long time, we just stay there. I'm curled up on my bed, cuddling my cat. Keladry is sitting on a chair, flipping through some of the strategy books that Paxton let me borrow. She lingers on certain passages for minutes at a time before furrowing her brow in concentration and moving on to another one. I wish I were as dedicated to duty as she was, but now that I'm here, I find myself very ambivalent to the world I've chosen.
Why can't I choose whether I like this or that, or what I think I like or don't…? I know I'm fond of my friends, that I like Gracie's company. I know that I don't want to end up how I supposedly wanted to end up two years ago. Being a lone knight out in the forest, or the field… no. I don't want that anymore. And if I don't want that, how am I sure that… I don't want marriage either?
Pockets meows, her unblinking eyes locking on mine. I scratch her back, and set her free. She immediately stretches and jumps off the bed, in search for something more amusing than my inner battle. I can't blame her. This indecision is utterly ridiculous. It's ludicrous! I can't believe I'm going on and on about this! Am I making sense?
Oh, of course not. That's what ranting is, isn't it?
Weeks pass. The snow melts. I, Sir Nealan of Queenscove, prepare to travel to my assigned post. Luckily, Joren is going with me. We would not meet up with Cleon, nor Kel (she was sticking with the Own) and we would not see as much of the Scanrans as we'd thought. That's okay with me. I'm content. I'd like to live long enough to go back and see Yuki. Not that I doubt my skill in the face of true battle. I just get worried like that.
I worry, a lot like Kel does, about everything. Though I'm more public about it than she is. You see that 24 year-old man over there doting over his precious baby sister? Yes, that's me. I've been watchful of my little Gracie for weeks now. She's changed.
We talk sometimes, but it's always strained. And forced. We don't have much in common as we used to. I'm moody, she's depressed. She won't admit she's depressed, but I've noticed how she stares out windows. And stares at her feet like she used to. When she first got here, she made special care not to relapse into that old habit. But it's coming back. Sadly.
Joren is nice enough to keep her company. Two introverts together. That's interesting, isn't it? I'm glad my sister has found a decent friend. Although I argue with myself over Joren's decency. At least Gracie doesn't mind his cat. When we were little, animals didn't like her. It led to a life with no contact with animals. Or at least, as little as possible.
There is a knock on my door.
"Who is it?" I call, turning the page of a book I'd been reading. It was heavy leather bound volume. It made a deep sound as I dropped it onto my shelf and got up.
"Joren," the visitor answers. I open the door and invite him in. He looks nervous. Dear Gods, what is there to be nervous about? It's just little ol' me.
The blonde glances about distractedly at my room. "You're done packing."
Why wouldn't I be? "Joren, we're leaving tomorrow. What did you think, I was going to wait until the morning?"
"Sorry," he shrugs. I point to a chair. He obediently sits. This is strange. Something's bothering him. What would bother him? Is it about us going to fight the Scanrans? I find it hard to believe, but anything is possible. The new Joren I've come to know and appreciate is full of surprises.
He rubs his palms together, tapping his feet, too. Goodness, when has he ever done that?
"You'd be better off telling me what's wrong instead of sitting there like a lump," I say, amused at how naturally the word 'lump' comes to my tongue. I like the irony. Joren doesn't understand. He shouldn't. Ah, the benfits of his amnesia rears its glorious head.
"Neal," he begins. Wow, I haven't seen him this high strung since before his Ordeal. The second time.
"What is it?"
He takes a deep breath. Were those beads of sweat forming on his brow? Huh. Though winter's ending, the room is still plenty chilly. I'm wearing a thick vest to ward off the cold.
"I…" he stammers. The next part is rushed. "I proposed to your sister and I want your blessing!"
I stare at him, no good, meaningful replies or comments to roll off my tongue. So there I am, with my mouth hanging open like a dead fish on a platter. How is a man supposed to react? They should write books about these things. I read books. I would have read something like that. Not that there's any permanent advice for situations like these.
It's like I've forgotten that I'm here and Joren is sitting not too far away. Right. Respond, Neal. Don't just sit there. Now you're being the lump. Do something!
"Are you okay?" he asks. I think he's afraid that he's given me a heart attack.
Okay, Neal. Open your mouth, move your tongue and lips while exhaling. That's it…
"My… my sister Gracie?" I squeak like a mouse. I must be the very epitome of masculinity with that pathetic tone, huh? Joren's eyes narrow and automatically I know that I'm going to receive a sarcastic reply though he had been the nervous one coming into this room.
"Of course Gracie! Do you have any other sisters that I spend time with?"
Time? Spend time? "It's been little over a month. How do you know that you're ready to marry?" Yes! Marry my little Gracie- who just should have stayed my little sister forever- and become a part of my family? Oh, Goddess and Mithros. I totally forgot that detail. If he does marry her, then Joren becomes my brother in law!
"Brother… brother in law?"
Neal wouldn't snap out of his shock. I finally told him to talk to Gracie when he composed himself. You think he'd take the news a little better. I guess it is kind of weird. He will be my brother-in-law if I marry his sister. But that's not so bad. It's actually terrific. I leave him where he is and shut the door behind me.
My heart is still racing. I can't believe that I'm doing this. I don't love-love Gracie. I can't lie to myself. I just don't want to dodge marriage when I know for a fact that my parents will do something about it sooner or later. I am the heir to Stone Mountain. I must marry. Staying a bachelor is a dream.
Gracie is a wonderful woman. I no longer call her Gracilinda. And she no longer refers to me as Sir. She's just wonderful. I've said it before, even if this whole mess revolves around her inadvertently using me to get over her dead betrothal. Our marriage will essentially be one of convenience. Neither of us shall say it aloud, but we know the truth. Why am I getting so flustered? She'll be an excellent wife, while I will strive to be an even more excellent husband.
What have I gotten myself into?
I like to think that I was this impulsive and foolish before my… amnesia. It would explain why I did such a surprising thing as this proposing stuff. My second Ordeal did reveal that I was an evil young man back then. Foolish things like these must be natural. Merric once told me that after I'd become more comfortable around everyone and started to have a sense of mischief- or at least sarcasm- that it was like little parts of the old me were surfacing. Gods as my witness, I could ask for no worse a nightmare.
In my nightmares, we're fighting- me and the old me. Sometimes I win. Often, my throat is just slit and I wake up in a cold sweat. And an itching across my throat. It's maddening, but I made it this far. I'm not about to give up. Not yet.
I finish packing in time to pay a visit to my newly betrothed. I'd already received her father's consent. Thankfully, Duke Baird is always to be found in the healer's quarters or not too far away. Next time I am back at the Palace, I am to discuss this with my parents and the Duke, and arrange plans.
The wedding could be earlier than that. The law allows me to hold off from fighting to be wed. I could leave the battlefield in most cases, as long as I'm not a commissioned officer (which I won't be. Being a knight is enough for anyone) and as long as I'm not needed severely by those who must be protected. But just maybe I'm hoping that a Scanran will kill me before that happens.
Now that I think about it, my death would solve a lot of things. I would no longer dream nightmares of the evil me. I wouldn't worry about marrying for convenience with my friend's sister. I am also very aware that this would sadden my friends. Pockets would be given to someone whom wouldn't care for her as much as I do. People would forget me. I'd be a name in a record book.
The hall in the Nobles' wing is empty. Not even a rat, let alone a servant. I can hear the echo of my footsteps, louder than a striking drum. I don't know why. It just seems like that. Exaggeration occurs when you're alone and it feels like you're the only person in the universe. I am alone all over again.
Then I'm at her door. I rap gently on the wood with my knuckles, afterwards dropping my hand to my side. There's the sound of the lock coming undone. The door creaks open.
"Hello? Oh! Joren, did you see Neal?"
I nod, still recalling how nervous I'd been. "Yes. Did he talk to you?"
She smiles. Mithros and the Goddess, why does she strain herself to smile so emptily as that? I'd give my right lung to see a genuine smile from her, and love her for the rest of eternity, not caring if she did anything else but give me a real smile.
"Neal said it was fine with him. As long as I'm happy." She pauses. "Oh, he also said he'll kill you if you break my heart, so don't okay?"
The Protective-Older-Brother Syndrome. You know I hate it. I chuckle and kiss Gracie on the cheek. She blushes and looks down at her feet.
"Your brother and I must leave with the Own early tomorrow morning. We won't be able to say goodbye," I inform her. No sense in her being distressed that she could not say goodbye to us when it's too late.
"I understand. Shall I leave my window open for Pockets to come in when you go?"
Oh yes. That. I want to bring my cat with me. I'd sell all my possessions to bring her with me. But Pockets is not like Jump. She's a lovable but lazy house cat. I can't bring her to battle… unless her meow can strike fear into the hearts of men. (Hey, it's possible. She's my cat, after all.)
Pockets likes Gracie well enough. I'm glad. If she didn't, then I'd probably call the marriage off. After all, the little gray fur ball was there for me before anyone else. In the end, if all my friends abandon me and Pockets is still there, then life will be good enough.
That evening, I went on yet another walk with Gracie. This time, it was in the royal garden. It's very beautiful. The gardeners and the Queen take much pride in it. Here at night, it's silent. There is no need for words. Well, actually, there is, but we are both still too uneasy to say anything. I have barely enough light to see her hand and take it in mine. Such a soft, warm hand, so easy to hold.
When we part ways, she shyly kisses me on the lips, and curtsies with blushing cheeks like this was the very first time we'd met. It's charming in a way. She's really trying to act sincere. It's still in her eyes though. Her sadness. People can always tell by the eyes. Poets and authors for centuries always linger upon the windows to the soul being the eyes. And I hate to sound ridiculous, but I agree.
I do not kiss her back. She rushes away, acting slightly giddy, but not like those horrible gossips that make up the rest of the female Court. You know, I will learn to kiss her back one day. Just not now. Not when my life is still so confusing. When I return after a few months, I will kiss her properly. I will.
I spend time with Keladry and Merric since I skipped dinner. Merric's servant had brought up some food to the room for me. I gratefully eat. While I feast, my two friends congratulate me on my engagement. Merric cracks a joke. We laugh. And then, our lady knight becomes serious.
"See? I told you to get to know her, and here you are." She pats my shoulder. "She'll be good for you. Really."
Why is she talking to me like that? It's as if she's trying to convince me. Like I'm going to back out on this. That I won't keep my word. I won't back out! I'm set on Gracie. I mean it.
The next morning, I warn Pockets not to cause any trouble or mischief for Gracie. Animals of the Palace are intelligent. Everyone knows that. My little feline realizes that I am leaving her behind and desperately clings to my tunic. It takes Kel's help to pry her off. I'll cherish the claw marks and let no seamstress near them. As insane as that sounds. But I will miss her.
Raoul is in an extremely good mood. Buri's fault, no doubt. They are still the worst kept secret of the Palace, up to this very minute. We set out at a nice pace. Dom and Neal are taking turns at poking fun at each other. Every now and then, Kel forces them to shut up, while being cheered on by a few others. The cousins are a loud pair. I suppose it's in the blood.
Lerant takes Kel's place at keeping Dom and Neal in line. She takes the opportunity to ride beside me.
She holds Hoshi's reins a little tighter. "Do you love Gracilinda? I'm just… worried."
Oh, really? Not surprising. She's always '…worried'. "That's okay." I manage to steer us off topic. The last thing I want to talk about with Kel is Gracie. Isn't it enough to be riding beside my friend, happy with life (or pretending to be)? It's nice that she's concerned.
It's always just '…nice'. There's no presure from her, none that I can't handle. She was the first to forgive me, of those whom I offended. She got me talking with the rest of the guys. I owe her plenty. I owe her nearly everything.
A few days later, we come to the fork in the road where a squad from the army, Neal, and I separate from the Own. It is dark, though. There is a space for camp not too far down our path, so Raoul decides that is where we'll sleep. Night watch is assigned. Tents are quickly pitched. Natural boundaries are scouted and water is found. Routine.
Neal joins Dom for dinner. The two kindred are roughhousing by the time I get my food and sit with Keladry. She offers me a bread roll she doesn't want. Ends up tossing some food to Jump, then crumbs to her sparrows.
"How much longer is your trip?" I ask.
"I don't know. Actually, I don't want to know. Midwinter ends to cold feet in bed," she sighs while picking at her food. "Spring begins to yawning warriors saddling their horses."
"Aren't you happy now that you have your shield? You can help people, just like you said before," I point out, shrugging like I always do.
She swallows her food before answering. "Yes. I could live ten lifetimes doing only that and be satisfied."
Her selflessness amazes me. She's strong-spirited, extremely skilled, and purer of heart than anyone I know. And she's ten times better than wonderful. She's lovely. All the times she's helped me, or kept me company. Forgiven me for things I have no idea about. Putting up with me. Being… Keladry.
I don't know how it happened afterward. But I kissed her. I think she is too shocked to blink. Likewise, I jerk back and immediately curse under my breath. I'm assuming my face is the same red of tomatoes, or at least hers is.
"Damn, I'm sorry. I… I…"
She puts down her plate. "It's okay. I mean, that was-"
"An accident!" I finish for us both. Gods! What's wrong with me? Why did I do that? I kissed my best friend! Something constricts in my chest painfully. No, not just that. She's also my other best friend's girlfriend!
We sit there, trying not to glance at each other. Men start handing their dishes to washers. We stand as well, walking slowly to the back of the group that's forming. Thankfully, no one witnessed my blunder. I'm sure I wouldn't be standing on my feet, conscious, if someone had.
What is she thinking about? Does she hate me? Probably. Is she disgusted? I should think so. No! What if she plans to tell Cleon so he'll beat me to a bloody pulp? I think I'll take a load off his shoulders and jump off a tower. Even though I mentioned before the worst case scenarios where I actually survive and endure endless physical torment… I've held on to it as my suicide of choice.
Yes. That sounds about right. Now all that's left to do, is to sneak into the Lieutenant's tent and get a map. Then I'll locate the nearest tall structure-
"Joren," Kel grabs my arm just as I start to leave.
I gulp. "Yes?"
"Why did you do that?"
If I honestly knew, do you think I would actually tell her? Okay, okay. I would. Hey! Let's watch how I embarrass myself when it can't get any worse, shall we?
"I was just sitting there, thinking how much I admired… all the good you do." I let out a shaky breath. "And now I find myself thinking of those first days. I was on the verge of breaking down. And then you found Pockets and me at the practice courts and forgave me. And…"
"I see," she says quietly. She turns to walk away.
I hate my life. I hate the little impulsive things I do. An example? Here you go.
She stops and glances over her shoulder.
"Um, answering your question earlier." Don't screw this up, Joren! Be a man! Be a… oh, Mithros, help me! "I… I don't love Gracie. She doesn't love me either." And here, insert my signature shrug. "The marriage is out of convenience for both our parts, really. She sort of denies it totally."
Keladry gapes at me like I am growing a second head. Then she nods solemnly and walks away.
The next day, the Own left, my best friend with it. Joren, the soldiers from the Tortallian army, and I go further down the fork from where we had camped. I must admit, Kel had been remarkably stoic. I know by now when she's doing that irritating Yamani mask. And she was definitely wearing it as she departed. When will that girl learn to express her discomfort like anyone else?
"Blondie," I call. It's what others may call an affectionate nickname. Replace the word affectionate with friendly, and I won't punch anyone. "What happened to Kel?"
"How should I know?"
Joren gives me the cold shoulder and resumes his brooding. He's slumped in the saddle. That's pretty easy to see. Okay. Wow. That helps. I know I can solve this mystery now!
Yeah, right. Something tells me that last night was not the best night to not hang out with those two. Although, it was very entertaining to poke fun of Dom and his obvious passion for a short female Rider with the curly brown hair.
Days turn into weeks. Weeks turn into months. I don't remember the number of times we fought, the ways we fought, or the number of times we were relocated by the Lieutenant. Of course, being a knight, I had my say. When I did, he laid down a lot of responsibility on my shoulders. I make it a point to let him command his troops the way he wants to command them, and just stick to my own thing.
A messenger reaches us from King Jonathan. Cleon also managed to persuade the messenger to carry a letter from him to us. It says that he is at Court, something his mother wants him back for. He doesn't mention why, but I've met his mother before. Very strong willed woman. And good conversationalist, too. If you call talking about the weather and the condition of the fief all day long a good conversation.
Joren starts to loosen up as time goes by. I wish he'd tell me what was bothering him. After all, we're friends. No, better than that! We're going to be brothers. I'll be his best man at the wedding. Or at least, I'll convince him to let me be.
"Cheer up. I know Gracie must miss you as much as you miss her," I say to him one day.
He grimaces, like I'd just stabbed him. "Neal, can we talk about something else? I'm just… tired from cornering those guys yesterday."
Tired. Him? I guess he looks a little paler than usual. Considering the sun couldn't tan him in a thousand years (though red would be his new IT color). His face does communicate misery. I suppose I should leave him alone.
Even the horses are better companions than he is when he's in a mood like this. So, here I go, to spend some time with my 'trusted steed, companion in heroic deeds' (found that phrase in a book of the royal library. Like it, don't you?). I should be doing other things like checking supplies and what not, but it's not really necessary with all these people bustling around like worker bees.
The man in charge is a friend of General Vanget. Lieutenant Cordehn. His squad consists of half and half, veterans and men whose battle experience is still lacking. Honestly, they're good men. If not for being a knight, I'd try to get into the Riders or the Own, but the army isn't bad at all.
The Lieutenant approaches me. There's someone else with him. A messenger of sorts, by his attire. I wonder what news is had.
"Sir Keladry of Mindelan has just arrived. She is in command of a select group of men from the Third Company of the Own. She is to assist us because of the increased number of attacks here at this part of the border. When things settle down, she will continue ahead to make a personal report to the King and his advisors in place of Lord Raoul."
During the spring, Kel had started a solid reputation, winning respect from a lot of stubborn conservatives. I don't listen to all of what Cordehn says. All I can do is grin, because I can see Peachblossom and Hoshi at a distance with a tall lady knight.
I politely let Cordehn finish speaking before jogging in Kel's direction. I don't wish to sound mean, but if she's grown another inch, I'll have to find a drastic way to make her stop. I don't like the idea of looking up to someone who happens to be five years under me.
"Kel!" I shout. This draws attention of a few men, who are now watching mainly because it's the lady knight, the former 'Girl'. She smiles when she sees me. Two sparrows proceed her to fly around my head. A familiar barking confirms Jump's presence.
We hug briefly. It's mostly me squeezing the life out of her, but I haven't seen her in so long!
"How are you? Getting a lot of action around here?" she chuckles.
She already knows this place's status, but asks anyway. I guess she knows I'll find something funny to say. And I do.
"If I see one more of them this week, I'll start reciting my poetry to them in hopes that they're so disgusted that they retreat. And I'll throw my philosophy books at them! I sneaked a few with me here." I pause. "Or maybe I'll stick to rocks."
She shakes her head. "Rocks?"
"Whatever's handy," I reply. I crouch down to pet Jump. The tough little guy is as energetic as ever. After much goading on my part, Kel begins to relate all the dozens of exploits she's been involved in. Villages and these strange metallic… things. Twice, she came close to be able to visit Cleon. This was before the redhead had gone to the Palace because of his mother.
"You get to see him when you're done here," I point out helpfully. It's not like she'll die without him. Keladry's better than that.
"That's if he's still at the Palace by the time I get there, Neal."
A man comes to take the horses away for feeding and grooming while we go for a very short walk around the camp. She warns Peachblossom to behave. I grin and try to touch him, and reflexively pull my hand back just as his teeth come close to biting me. Some things never change.
Now, it's my turn to tell how my spring went.
"Wait, let me see if I can find Joren. He remembers more about our battles than I do. Where in the world did he go?"
She fidgets. "That's all right. I'll say hello to him later. Tell me more about the squad. Lieutenant Cordehn appears to be a very good man. I can see why General Vanget favors him."
I nod and start telling her about Cordehn's guys. But still, I'm curious as to why Kel would be more eager to hear my boring anecdotes than to see the Blondie. This is just like before she left. They're acting like children! Did they have an argument? I wonder what they would argue about.
I'm ashamed that I haven't pieced it together before. This is the sort of thing I can figure out. Well, I should be able to.
Night falls. Guards are assigned. Kel drags me along for a meeting at the Lieutenant's tent. Since I'm a knight, I'm required to go, but who ever said willingly?
Joren's already there when we arrive. He's trying to remain unnoticed in the shadows of the large tent, but I see him right away. His light hair is all too conspicuous, no matter how great a shadow.
"Hey!" I greet him. "Guess who's here."
He uncomfortably shifts from one foot to the other. "Hey."
"Hello," Keladry returns. "How have you been?"
Joren shrugs. "Okay."
This is very depressing. Not just because they're acting like this. It's because I can't possibly figure out why they're acting like this! This is unbelievably frustrating! What reason do they have to be so stiff around each other? I am their friend! Why can't they tell me?
Cordehn and some other important men enter. We sit down for a long discussion on what other hardworking forces of the realm are doing. The King's Own. The Riders. They haven't called in the army much yet. If you ask me, it feels like we're in an official war when they have to use the army. When they have to have the numbers of soldiers.
You know, I could live my life fighting at this border. It's better living my life and fighting a few battles than to devote my life to combat. I don't want to sound selfish, but I want to have a family. I want peace. But I'm also a knight, and I have to protect the realm, no matter what. If this escalates to a full-out war, I'll just be downright pissed.
I'd be lying if I said that I'd totally forgotten about the kiss with Keladry. It's quite the opposite. It haunts me instead of my second Ordeal. I never thought that would happen. Up to this very moment, I never believed that I'd ever want to dream about the former me. But compared to the dreams about kissing Kel and how it makes my world upside down… I'd rather face my evil twin.
Thinking about Gracie becomes a problem, a chore. I feel extremely guilty. Who wouldn't? It's not because of the kiss. It's more along the lines of… me not feeling like I cheated her because I don't love her. I'm ashamed of not being ashamed for something else. Confusing, isn't it?
Keladry is just as I last saw her. Tall in body and spirit. Mostly serious and dutiful. I'm sure Neal will cure her of that in no time. Besides the awkwardness between us, I'm actually looking forward to dinner. There's nothing better to cheer a man up then seeing Neal get vegetables forced into his mouth.
The days pass as if they were hours. Asides the fighting and constant anxieties formed because of the enemy, I find myself still hiding from Kel as much as possible. It does nothing to chase my dreams away. It would be so much easier if Kel were… mean and cruel. But no, she has to be ten times better than wonderful. Gods! There should be a rule against people as magnificent as she is. Don't they realize that the rest of us must face up to how unworthy beings we are in the presence of these legends?
She seeks me out the day before she must leave in Raoul's stead to the Palace.
"We need to talk."
"What is there to talk about?" I ask, pretending not to have a clue.
She growls softly in annoyance. "You know what about! Look, this has been on my mind, too, you know."
I sound like the biggest moron on the face of this earth.
She nods. We sit outside my tent, just in the shadow so no one can spot us. No one to disturb. My throat is parched. Mouth is dry. Palms are sweaty. I can't take any more of this. I think I'll spontaneously combust before she speaks.
"Do you like me more than Gracilinda?"
Okay, this is a good time for divine intervention. Hello? Anybody up there listening? Please?
"Uh, yeah. In a different way. No, a better way," I amend. I really must be the greatest moron on this earth. "I'm sorry, Kel. I know you and Cleon-"
She stops me by raising her hand. "I know. But, I'm not so sure anymore about that."
What? This can't be happening. I wonder if I can pinch myself without her noticing.
She lowers her gaze. "Cleon is my first love. How am I sure that's all there is for me? First love isn't always true love. And if it is, then the Gods would bring me back to him." Her voice is so vulnerable. "If every woman married her first love, would they really be happy in the long run?"
Is she saying what I think she's saying? No, just pinch… Just pinch yourself, Joren.
"But what if Cleon's forced to marry before the Gods bring you back together?"
She gnaws on her lower lip uncharacteristically before answering. "If he really loves me, he'll stall. Even if he has to fake a terminal illness at the altar. People in love do that sort of thing."
"So…" I trail off. My heart's racing. You know, if this is for real, then can I get a sign? Some sign from fate that says… She's touching my hand. What a warm hand, compared to my freezing one. Wow, some sign. I lean forward for a gentle kiss.
Later, we would talk about things we always talk about. You know, bantering. Babbling. The sort of thing I did with Gracie, except it came even more naturally with Kel than it did with her. We laugh at the worst jokes. And then, we kiss from time to time. And I'm hoping she'll stay with me like this forever.
But night's not eternal. Sadly, we go to slumber in our separate tents before it gets too late. I stare out into empty space, a goofy grin on my face. If love is an intense friendship where one would go insane without the other, then with the beautiful and temporal night as my witness, I, Joren of Stone Mountain, am hopelessly in love.
Strange how easily things change. And even stranger how easily things turn into utter chaos.
We decide to tell our respective lovers that we need to see other people. Sadly, Kel would have to do that soon if Cleon is still at Court with his mother. She'll leave Gracie to me, and not speak to her about it. But she is bringing a gift to Pockets for me.
One night. An entire Springtime to think about it, then voice everything in one night. There must have been the hand of the Gods in it, or magic to have caused all this great a change. Yes, magic in starry skies and open air. That's the magic that made Kel and I do what we did. Say what we said.
She leaves the next morning, smiling at me over her shoulder. Kel, please choose me over Cleon. In the long run, please choose me! I need you. I need you…
A week passes. Then another. The Lieutenant, Neal, the rest of the guys… we all end up going into a village for supplies. And then we plan to stay at the inn for the night. We deserve it, Cordehn says, after the whole entire season has gone by. A few of us visit the single tavern in the place. Nice ale.
Maybe I should tell Neal. About Kel and I. He deserves to know. I'm afraid he'll be terribly offended. Turns out, he was starting to enjoy the prospect of us becoming brothers.
We're in a nice cozy environment with mugs of ale and guffawing men all around. Where else should I break the news? The alley between this place and the seamstress' place? After all, this isn't such a big deal. Things like this happen.
"Can we talk?" I tap him on the shoulder.
He rakes his hands through his hair and nods. "Sure, bro, what's up?"
Bro? Bro? This is going to be harder than I thought.
I sip some of my ale. All of a sudden, everything tastes sour. Pushing the mug away, I brace myself for what I'm about to do. "Look, Neal, I…"
He gulps down half the mug, exhaling sharply from the strength of the spirits. He smiles at one of our other comrades from Cordehn's squad who claps him on the shoulder. Maybe I really should have brought him to a secluded place to talk.
"Oh, sorry. Go ahead."
Now or never.
Hoo-boy… I'm in for it now, aren't I?
He stares at me for a whole ten seconds before his fist connects with my jaw. It is madness after that. Utter anarchy and chaos. Your typical bar room brawl. Except, I am completely sober, and I assume he is, too, despite the half a mug he'd drank.
I throw some punches while yelling apologies. Irony at its best.
In return, Neal just sputters something about Gracie and punches me back. Harder, though. He does happen to be older and bigger than I am. We overturn a couple of tables, smash a lot of mugs and plates. No one interferes, though. They more or less cheer us on and place bets until an outraged bartender and barmaid throw us out by the scruff of our necks like we are two stray dogs.
So an hour later from when we entered the tavern, Neal and I are sitting under the moonlight at the edge of the tiny town. The grass is cool. The breeze is gentle…
I appreciate the beauty of nature while spitting the blood from my mouth. Neal likewise complains of his nearly broken nose and tilts his head back to keep the blood from trickling down his face. I am the one with the terrible black eye, though. I'm really hoping Neal won't be sore about this and use that terrific healing magic of his on me, too.
He stops the bleeding from his nose, and likewise fixes it from being broken. Now it's just slightly bruised. Neal sits down, arms across his chest. There's a grumpy expression on his shadowed face. I look at him with my unblackened eye and hope he's going to talk to me.
And he does. Well, he yells anyway.
"I can't believe you! You're just as bad as-"
"If I were like that, would I be here trying to talk it out when you could beat me up again at any time?" I retort flippantly. Not that he could beat me up. I'm not a knight because I'm weak and pathetic. Not physically anyway. My screwed up mind is another matter.
"Damn it, Neal, I didn't intend for it to happen. I was honestly prepared to care for Gracie the rest of my life!"
He gingerly touches his sore arm now, attending to it with little snippets of his magic to ease the pain, no doubt. "I knew something was going on with you and Kel. I never thought it was like that."
You're not the only one.
"I'm so sorry." What else can I say? More minutes pass. I can't stand that glare of his. "I know I don't deserve your forgiveness. But believe me when I say that it won't change things between us. You're still like a brother to me, even if you won't be."
The sentimental comments works. After a minute, he relents. Neal sighs and waves me off. "Oh, fine." He beckons me closer. "Let me have a look at that eye."
He brings down any potential and existing swelling, but tells me that part of my penance is to suffer the humiliation of the 'sunrise' on my face.
Home again, home again. The Palace feels so strange after a season of fighting. The first thing I do is to deal with my duties to the King and to Raoul. After that, I'm allowed a few days to myself. The small amount of men I'm in charge of go to visit their families. After I announce what day we're to leave again, they scatter.
It's summer. That means it's just about the time the pages are done with their exams and are packing up for a summer in the fields of their homes. It's fun to see them run around like I used to. It's strange to realize now how when I was a page, my normal worries consisted of being accepted and being on time.
I spot a group of five boys and two girls. Most of them are young. First years. I recognize the girls. They are the same ones I met after jousting with my Lord Wyldon. I've never been tilt-silly since. Or if I am, it's because of him.
Fianola, that's the older girl. I never found out her younger sister's name. Perhaps later, I'll-
"My dove, you've come," I hear a familiar voice whisper into my ear. Oh, Goddess, not now. Must I deal with this now? I remember a time when I'd yearn to hear that voice whisper to me in the dead of night. But now it only evokes worry and guilt.
"Hi," I say, not as passionate as he had. Cleon turns me around in his arms and peers at me intently. It's hard to keep a pleasant face in front of him when all I want to do is run away and cry where no one will see.
"Dewdrop, is something wrong?"
This is not the time and place for this. Out here in public where anyone can hear, no not that. Besides, there are gossiping Nobles all about. Cleon and I know not to hold hands, let alone embrace without having rumors fly around free as birds.
"Let's go for a walk. I want to see the new sparrows," I goad him, walking ahead and pulling him along. He doesn't budge. I turn around and flash him a reassuring smile. He falls into step beside me.
He whistles, grinning, too. I honestly can't help but be attracted to him again like I used to be. Though now, I'm not sure about my emotions. He was the one to kiss me that Midwinter. I'd never really thought of it before that moment. Everything after just… happened.
And now, Joren. My former rival. I really hope this doesn't throw me into the same category as those other fickle girls. But Joren isn't the same as during the time when Cleon and I got together. He doesn't even look the same. And the way he sees me… I know that Joren and I had not enough time as lovers yet, nothing more than kisses. But as friends, there was always something in him that told me he needed me. He's always depressed when he has no reason to be. I know he wants to change. He needs me in a way that I don't think Cleon could ever need me. It renders me helpless like nothing ever has before.
"So, why did your mother want you at Court?"
He sighs. "Rhiannine is here."
That must be the heiress. It has to be. He looks so lost and hopeless. I wonder if he's acquainted himself well with her since he's arrived. No doubt, he'd be a gentleman even concerning the circumstances.
Cleon stops us near the mess hall. Though we meant to go outside and see the sparrow nest, we're still within the stone walls. He glances around before kissing me. Then he stops when he doesn't feel me kiss back. I can't help it. Things just aren't the same.
It's now or never.
"You're my first love, Cleon. You don't know how much that means to me."
He freezes in place when he hears the word 'love'. One of our forbidden words. Now he knows something is terribly amiss.
"And… I'll always hold a special place for you in my heart," I choke out, squeezing his hands in mine. He gapes at me openly, anticipates the worst.
"I've fallen in love with someone else."
Unshed tears cause his eyes to glisten under the light. His lip trembles. I wish I'd never said it, but it's too late to grant wishes. He jerks his hands away from mine. Then he turns his back.
The way his voice cracks, I know he's trying very hard to be strong. Oh, Cleon, I'm so sorry. I did care for you. I think I even loved you at one point. And I'll always be there for you, just not…
"Who," he whispers. "Who is it?"
I exhale shakily. "Joren."
At that single word, he spins around. His hurt is replaced by anger. "Him? HIM? How could you! How could you…"
"Cleon," I reach for him again.
"Don't talk to me!" He twists away, pressing his back to the wall. I'm pretty sure if the wall weren't there to hold him up, then he'd have crumpled to the ground- too shocked and hurt to move.
Now it's my turn to control my emotions. Tears well up, but I blink them away. "I'm so sorry. But you knew that this wouldn't work, Cleon. I have no dowry. I want to fight because I want to fight, not to bring in Crown purses to repair Kennan. Marriage was never an option for us, you knew!"
He grits his teeth. "I did not know that! I never believed that!"
But he knows he did. I know I'm sounding harsh, and I must be insane. I meant to end this peacefully, but there's all this tension inside. I can't control my actions.
"I loved you," he mutters.
"Then you can wait and see what happens. This might be indefinite."
He practically explodes. "What does love have to do with waiting?!"
There's silence after that. He leans back against the wall again, one hand over his eyes. This is the hardest thing I've ever done, short of my Ordeal. No, wait. This is worse than that.
Nothing more to say. I hug him tightly. Now is the time to walk away, Kel. "Please don't tell anyone about Joren and me. Not until he ties up loose ends."
"What," he bitterly snaps, "Did he have a girl strung along, too?"
I make the mistake of freezing up in front of him. He sees from under his hand and curses under his breath. I know he hates me now. He feels betrayed. I don't blame him. In some small way, it's like I've betrayed myself. I abandoned a less than perfect, but stable love for something I was still guessing on.
Hours later, I find Gracilinda and Pockets in the garden. Joren always took her there. I have no idea why except for the view of Balor's Needle. Everytime I see it, the old fury awakens. But then I calm when I remember his first ordeal, a blessing in disguise.
When I told Lalasa about it, she was happy for him, happier than I was at that time. I wish I could be that forgiving. I did forgive him, but not that quickly. The capacity of kindness in certain people always astounds me.
Back to the present. Gracilinda is humming to herself, stroking Pocket's fur. The cat is lying languidly across her lap. The tail swishes back and forth. They are so peaceful. And happy. Especially Gracilinda. I can't bring myself to speak to her. Joren said he'd deal with it when he came back this summer with Neal. I can leave Pocket's gift with Gracilinda's chaperone. That wouldn't be a problem.
It shouldn't be too long now. I regret the fact that I'll be with Raoul and the Own before he arrives.
Joren. We're still lost, you and I. Oh, how perfect it would be just being with you and never worrying about the people we hurt. All this, after a whole entire season of inner torment. After one small confession and a dangerous gamble on fate and love. Yes, love's like that. It makes you endure the pain to see if you've won the game. It makes you bet on things you'd never bet on before.
What have we done?
"That hurts!" I yell at Neal, who accidentally flicked a pebble at the back of my head. I know he was aiming for the man next to me, who is still talking a mile a minute. He apologizes. All it took for him was a few days to fully forgive me. It helped a lot when I got up in front of all the men and announced that I was a dumb blonde, like Neal bade me to do.
I fail to see the humor in this, but it cheered him up. And if he's pleased, then so am I.
We're passing through Corus, on our way to the Palace. Two knights and a bunch of other men, wanting to get gifts for their wives and children for being away so long. Yup, that's us. The Lieutenant and his corporals ride ahead, wishing to report in and do their duties as soon as possible while the rest of us take our pretty time.
I feel like I should be more concerned about the continuous battles with our northern neighbors. I keep considering them as low as bandits, though. Not taken as seriously as the Enemy. One of my many flaws. The times have been hard, and even troublesome Immortals don't make it any better.
As we near the Palace, Neal and I tense up. He takes me aside at the gate and warns me to be gentle about you-know-what. He plans to stay low and out of sight. Neal also reminds me if it gets really ugly, then he'll be forced to side with his sister rather than me.
"I understand. It's okay, really."
He nods solemnly before riding head, determined to stable his horse and sneak away without being seen by his sister. I'm sure all the Nobles know we've come back today. Oh, how nice. Yeah, about as nice as a nest of Spidrens.
I wonder if Kel is here, but I know deep inside that she's gone. If Cleon's here, my life is in danger. I never thought I was going to be afraid to see my best friend. This is the same guy who dragged me into the city time and time again so I would have fun. Mithros' shield, protect me if he decides our friendship is now void.
I am not there for long before I run into Gracie near my room. She's as beautiful as ever. All the men probably look up when she enters a room. She kisses my cheek as soon as we're close enough. I pull away, holding onto her small, delicate hands. So soft. So warm.
Not as warm as Kel's hands.
"You're exhausted. I'm so sorry, let's get you a drink." She reaches up and cups my cheek as if she does it all the time.
"No, I'm fine."
There goes another lie. I look down at our joined hands. I shouldn't wait and get her hopes up. That would be cruel. But I suppose not any crueler than what I'm about to do.
She frowns. "Yes?"
Don't look into her eyes. Stare down. Yeah. Don't look directly at her. Argh! I can't do this to her!
"I've fallen in love with someone else."
If I could just rid myself o any emotion, it would definitely, without a doubt, be guilt. Why did the Gods create guilt? To teach us shame and humility? While I understand its purpose and good, guilt is still such a pain in the… well, it's a nuisance.
Her head is bowed. I think she's crying. Oh, Gods. "Gracie, I'm so sorry. I…I'm sorry. I never meant to hurt you. It just happened." I reach out to wipe the tears from her cheeks.
Surprisingly, she lets me. Better than blowing up and getting furious like her brother did.
"You'll find a man who's crazy about you. I promise. You're wonderful, Gracie, really you are."
She turns away, shaking my hands from hers. "If I'm so wonderful, then why don't you love me?"
Damn. It. All.
"Because," I work up the courage to say what I've wanted to say for so long. "You weren't fully in love with me either."
She stares at me now, her tears ceased. "That's not true!"
I shake my head in disagreement. I'm going to deeply regret confronting her like this, but it'll be better in the long run! I have to keep telling myself that. "Gracie, you were still grieving for him. And I was dreading my coming of age for marriage. I am the oldest son." I know how stupid it looks at this time, but I shrug. "We would have learned to love each other, but I just fell in love with someone else. I'm sorry."
She clenches her fists by her side.
So she'll be bitter after all. I can't blame her. I still want to be friends, but if I say that right now, she'll hate me even more. I know how it goes. When someone gets so mad, at the time, they could never see friendship as a possibility. You just have to let it go, and hope for the best.
"Where's Pockets?" I ask offhandedly. I know. I'm an insensitive jerk. But trust me when I say that she couldn't possibly get any more furious than she already is. I might as well push her limits.
"You'll be lucky if you ever see your cat again!" she snaps, now dabbing at her moist cheeks with an embroidered handkerchief while trying to keep her dignity.
"Are you threatening my cat?!"
She stomps away. I would have gone after her if I were looking for another black eye. I know- she has class. She is delicate. She doesn't look like she would harm a fly. But Neal meant to hit me. And if she's his sister, I can't help but imagine they share behavioral traits just like Dom and Neal do.
My next few hours are full of misery. Neal keeps to his word. He's disappeared, only showing himself to a few people he must meet with, like his father and the Lioness. The only happy thought in me is Kel and how much I miss her. If she were here, she would cheer me up by saying something profound. Well, not too profound. Probably a Yamani proverb. She's an intelligent and beautiful knight, not a sage.
Dinner doesn't taste half as good as it could. I guess that's more misery that I'm tasting, and not the meat. Someone sits down beside me, jostling his plate around on the polished wood table. He must have come in late, if he has to get his own plate instead of being served.
"Who are you?"
Blunt. To the point. So, really, who is he?
This dark-haired stranger laughs. He's about my age, with dark eyes and tanned skin from being outside all day. An extremely rich voice, though. "You wouldn't remember me, would you? I heard about what happened a couple of years back, but I never ran into you since then, so…"
A knight? He must be. His clothes are about the same worth as mine, though colors differ. His amusement subsides as curiosity overwhelms his mood.
"Excuse me, but-" I begin.
"Oh! My apologies. I am Sir Faleron of King's Reach. And you are Sir Joren of Stone Mountain. Except not."
Wow. He's hit on the target, a complete bull's eye. I am Joren. But I'm also not Joren. I wonder why I was never told about him. Surely, one of the guys, like Merric or Seaver would have mentioned him.
"Were you one of my… enemies, too?" I ask with a worried sigh.
He nods. "But don't worry. That's in the past and you… cut your hair?" He frowns, confused for some reason. "You chopped it all off and I barely recognized you. I had to ask one of the guys over there at the door who you were."
Well maybe tonight won't be so bad. I've got a new acquaintance for company and Kel in my dreams. Faleron and I finish our dinners and play chess in the library. Mostly because I'm afraid that Cleon will come looking for me near the rooms. Faleron even tells me he saw the redhead not too long ago. That's enough to get me started.
"Did you see the two girl pages? No probation for them."
Oh really? I never saw them, but I'd heard. "I'm happy for them. Kel talks about it frequently."
He nods. We talk for nearly an hour. It turns out he's Merric's cousin, and the same year a squire as I was, up until my Ordeal. I mention how I've made friends with all my former enemies. And he told me a bunch of reasons why he'd been away for so long, but I don't think any one of them add up. He trounces me at chess, though I didn't let him win easily. It's late and I'm starting to yawn into my hand.
Someone taps my shoulder while Faleron is putting the chess pieces away. I turn in my chair-
-and get punched.
"Not again!" I groan after falling out of my chair, reeling from what's sure to be my new black eye. Cleon stands over me, obviously ready to kill.
I'm going to die. It's as simple as that. Can I have a nice funeral? Plenty of flowers?
"You were supposed to be my friend! I can't believe you stole her away from me!"
I scoot backwards on my bottom, trying to get up before he can lay another hand on me. I guess a fight's bound to happen between us. I really don't want to, but Cleon's beyond reasoning right now.
"Whoa! Cleon!" Faleron attempts to intervene, putting himself between us. "Calm down. You're better than this! I've never seen you lose your temper."
"Well, you've seen it now," he snarls and pushes him out of the way.
Great. As if this day couldn't get any worse.
I stand up. "We never meant for it to happen, Cleon. It just did. I'm sorry!"
Like my pathetic words can help me. Feh.
He's too furious to talk. With Faleron gallantly putting himself between us, the big redhead leaves the library. I slump to my knees, making it look like I meant to right my chair or pick up the chess pieces that were dropped. Faleron helps, wincing when he sees my new black eye.
"We'll go to the healers in the morning. They must be asleep by now."
I nod. I don't care. If I run into Neal, he could probably help, but I think he's still required to avoid me and side with his sister.
"What was that about?"
I sigh. "Long story."
Despite that, he wants to hear. So I tell him. It's not like he'll be more disappointed in me than I am disappointed in myself. No, it doesn't get any worse than that.
It's an hour later and we must leave the library for the keepers to lock up. Faleron is amazed at the whole predicament I tangled myself in. I guess it is pretty unbelievable.
"Not like we can control love. Just happens," he consoles me. "Though yours really does take the cake."
Wow. That cheers me up. I resist the urge to roll my eyes and make a snide retort. We get to my room, he wishes me well, and makes plans with me for another game of chess game tomorrow.
I didn't fall asleep until after I stared at my ceiling for three hours. And after that, I didn't dream about Kel or my Ordeal. Actually, I didn't dream at all. So when I woke up the next morning, stiff muscles and a sore, bruised spot on my face, I felt rather empty.
Another day in the life of me. See how I celebrate?
Trying to get up, I feel something on to top of my belly. I yawn. I blink my eyes until they focus. And what do my blue eyes spot? A gray cat.
A gray cat?
"Pockets?" I manage in an anxious voice. I sit only halfway up so she doesn't fall of. Her dark plain eyes fix on me. She meows and swishes her tail back and forth. Before I know what I'm doing, I gather her up into my arms and press my face to her fur. Like a security blanket.
You never get too old for one- a security blanket. You just get too old to let anyone see, so your blanket takes its forms in other things. A necklace, a dagger. A cat.
All of a sudden, the stiffness in my muscles doesn't exist. I don't have a black eye. I don't feel wretched or depressed. All I feel is happy. And relieved. I have Pockets and I would rather stay here on top of my bed holding this little creature than to face anyone ever again.
"She let you go, huh, girl?" I whisper. She meows again and purrs while laying her head down against me. So warm and soft.
I'm glad that Gracie let her go. I guess there's to be no grudge. Sure, maybe a short period of frustration and hurt, but in the end, she'll get over it. I know she'll smile again someday. And it won't be strained. And she won't be tragic inside. Not anymore.
Knocking. Someone is knocking on my door. I put Pockets down to get my pants. "Be there in a moment!" Once I'm adequately dressed, I drag my feet to the door and open it. "Hello?"
"Hello," he cheerfully greets. His eyebrows arch in an expression of surprise when he sees my eye. Before I can explain, he comes to a conclusion. "Ah. I was sleepwalking and I punched you again."
At least his humor is all there. "No. Cleon was a little… upset."
"Understatement," we both say simultaneously. He laughs. "Do you want me to do something about that? It looks bad. He must have gotten you good."
I shrug, somewhat embarrassed. "It was a sucker punch."
Yes, embarrassed. Here I am, a great knight of Tortall, and this is the second black eye I've had in a couple of months. Can you say… 'loser'?
Neal walks past me and closes the door so no one else sees my injury. He asks me to sit down while he uses his Gift. It never feels natural. You know, whenever a healer uses their magic on you. I can never get used to it. By the time he's done, my face is tingling but I can tell by a small mirror that the swelling is gone but there's still a little color on me.
Then Neal inspects his work, squinting at me close up. Pockets interrupts his investigation by jumping on his feet. Neal picks her up. "Hello there! Long time, no see. Any good mice lately?"
She swats at him and lunges forward for his belt pouches.
"Hey! Come on, there's no food in there."
Doesn't he know nothing stops her?
In the end, Gracie did not hold a grudge against me. She allowed me to introduce her to Faleron after I was absolutely sure she had ended her grieving for her former betrothed (the dead one, not me). Faleron and Gracie hit it off right away. Turns out she's an excellent chess player. To this very day, Faleron's never won when playing her. They are to be married in several months.
Cleon eventually forgave Keladry and me. It took an awful long time, but he did. He couldn't stand by and wait for her… to see if we would last. Maybe there was something else to it, but Kel won't tell me. He married his heiress as he was expected to, not long after he and Kel broke up. He's really trying to make the marriage work. I've seen him with Rhiannine. There's nothing tragic about them. And two kids whom he adores also adds to the evidence that he's really trying. Better than that… I think he's really done it. He's happy.
Neal proposed to Yuki. We all saw it coming a mile away. We were just disappointed at them for taking so long. I'm to be the best man. Some notion that we're still brothers-in-law, even though we aren't. The couple has had several fights and reunions over the years. I'm not really sure if they're going to tie the knot very soon. I'm sure there's bound to be another argument, but they'll stay together. Love always brings you back.
Daine the wildmage continually keeps an eye out for Pockets when I'm away and I leave my little feline at the Palace. She's finally bullied Numair Salmalin into planning a marriage after he proposed to her years ago and put off the wedding part. They're comical. And serious. And confusing. Especially Numair, with all his ranting and no one knows what he's talking about, even Daine.
Most often times, I ask Neal to look after her when I'm out on the field. We don't fight alongside each other much any more. We're needed in different places. But as soon as I'm back, you'll be expecting me to be galloping up to Queenscove ready to get my pockets sliced open by that darn cat, the security blanket. My blankie.
Er, I mean… cat.
Keladry has gained lots of respect in the years following. Her natural leadership abilities and dedication has one her an honorable name, and not as many stubborn glares from conservatives. She still jousts frequently. Wins four out of five. She still jousts with Lord Wyldon. Though he wins every time. She's determined to beat him one day. The only people who can ever talk her out of jousting him are Cleon and Raoul, and I'm not jealous of that at all. They always say something about flying … but I don't think I'll ever understand.
The Scanrans still attack. More surprises and crises followed. More glorious and unbelievable milestones. We're winning though. The Scanrans are tiring themselves out. The King is confident, but still very cautious about the outcome.
The two girls that Kel knows are going to be squires. A few other girls have started as pages. All of these young females have seen Kel joust and seen that it's possible. That the Lioness was not just some unreachable standard. If I know what's good for me, I'll pick one of the girls as my squire while Kel takes the other. And if I don't? Well, I don't want to know. I just smile and nod and tell Keladry that the two girls will be excellent knights. After all, they have us for knightmasters, don't they?
Oh yes. About Kel and I.
We have had an intense and complex relationship. She admitted that Cleon and she never had such intricate conversations (otherwise known as arguments) like we do, but finds ours more of a challenge. Yes. A challenge. Doesn't it make you feel all tingly inside?
Our attempts to love each other without killing each other is turning out remarkably well. Since four years ago, we've had two major fights. Both times, it's me crawling back to her. Only one black eye (though I've had others by accidents I won't mention). By the time I'm on Neal's doorstep, ready to pour out of my thoughts to him while he heals me, he isn't even surprised anymore. On goes the magic, and he yawns, and teases me by saying he'll try to quit sleepwalking.
Anyway. The subject of marriage. I've told my mother about Kel. She cried for a while, disappointed that there was no real money to be had in the marriage. But she consented. (My mother's name is still scrawled in permanent ink on my arm from when I had my second Ordeal. Dear Gods, it's my tattoo. I knew that would happen when I realized how much it hurt when she was writing it on me with this strange smoking 'quill'.) Kel and I are both wary about taking our vows and exchanging rings. It's not that we don't want to be together.
Simply, it's just that we're chicken. For now, we live our lives, not governed by concerns or cares dealing with dowries or heirs. We just live for each other. And it works.
I stand now, in the Chapel of the Ordeal. I lay a hand-held mirror against the Chamber door, ignoring the chill that seeps into my body and through my bones. The reflection I see is not really my own. The mirror serves as a window in a way. The young man I see has long blonde hair and blood smeared across his lips.
"You stole my life," he says, a raspy voice.
"I'm no thief, but trust me, I'm grateful." My voice is older. Stronger. I'm 24 for goodness sake, not this adolescent in the mirror. He sneers, but I continue in my grave tone. "Sometimes, I wish you'd never been born. That we'd never existed. But if you were never born, if you never came to the Palace to become a knight, I wouldn't be here. And maybe Keladry wouldn't be as strong against persecution as she is now. I don't know. But it's thanks to you. And this is the last time you'll ever be bothering me."
Red tinted tears fall from his eyes. I try to hold the mirror still, but my hands are shaking. He looks so tired, and weary. So angry. Why can't he just let that anger go?
"You shadow," he hisses.
I smile faintly. "No. It's the other way around. You're the shadow, Joren."
I drop the mirror. It hits the flagstones and smashes into a million tiny shards of glass, with little drops of slightly red tears on them. I leave to fetch a broom and clean up the mess before anyone sees, but I can't help but shrug when they ask me what I did in there. It's like the first Ordeal and my whole entire life.
I don't know. But I'm happy.
Author: And here ends the Unforgettable Amnesiac quartet. I'll be grouping all four stories together for easier reading. Later though. Right now, I'm tired.
I know some people are disappointed in lack of character development, but I must warn you that it is very difficult to do that when you're doing it POV style.
I really didn't want to make this k/j. I was hoping to have at least one non-k/j fic in Tortall. But everyone just insisted and who am I to deny my readers? I have an alternate, more tragic ending to this quartet. I won't post it, but if people request it, I just might finish writing it and send it to that person.
I thank you all for continually reading and reviewing my work. I plan to one day altar most of my stories and publish them as original ones, and I'll make sure the dedication goes out to the readers of , as well as some others.