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Keladry of Mindelan rode the last stretch of road to the palace feeling distinctly nervous, the tight knot of anxiety and worry that she had kept at bay for so long finally unwinding to fill her whole chest. The final few metres seemed to go far too quickly, and it wasn't long before she had to dismount from her large gelding, Peachblossom, and proceed to drag the reluctant horse into the stables to groom him and feed him. She refused to admit herself that this was as much as to delay her entry into the palace as to make her horse comfortable.
It was when she had no excuse left to stay outside- Peachblossom groomed to a shine, his hooves completely without dirt and his feeding tray full- that Kel finally, with a suppressed sigh, made her way up to the doors and into the palace.
Weaving through the various, familiar corridors, Kel felt a pang in her heart that she'd been away for so long. She had missed the place at least a little, but of course it was nothing in comparison to how she was missing New Hope right now. She wouldn't have come back, she knew that she wouldn't have, not when there was nothing left here, but the King's age old policies of not allowing a single commander to stay in position for more than three years had forced her back. The problem was, now that she was back here, she was fairly sure that there wasn't anything- or rather, anyone- left for her here.
Her parents, Ilane and Piers of Mindelan, had spent the last two and a half years in the Yamani Islands, negotiating more diplomatic alliances for Tortall and arranging a visit from the Emperor. They weren't expected back for another three years. Kel missed them, bitterly and painfully, and it hurt her more than she could express to find that in the last years her siblings had not written her once. She supposed that they were busy, Oranie with finding a suitable young man to settle down with, and the rest with managing their own families. She felt conspiciously, osteniously, alone even within her own family and fief.
Neal was still one of her closest friends, of course, along with his wife Yukimi noh Daiomoru of Queenscove, but the two had also been in the Yamani Islands for the last three years, visiting Yuki's family and friends. Kel had received precious few letters from them, but in the last Neal had told her that Yuki was with child. She was excited for them, naturally, but it was with a certain amount of loneliness that she contemplated her own future.
Domitan of Masbolle had been easily her closest friend in the first year of commanding New Hope. Mithros, he'd been so much more. Kel couldn't think about Dom without remembering his warm arm around her shoulders, his gentle kisses, his bold, flashing smiles and dancing blue eyes. But it seemed that Sakuyo had been playing a rather large, cruel trick on her with Dom as his vessel- when the Third Company had begun travelling again, Dom had written to her only once or twice, and then never again. It hurt, knowing that she must have been that easy to forget, and imagining Dom with another lady love. Kel presumed that she must have been only a small fling of entertainment whilst Dom had been away from the palace.
Not even her old maid Lalasa had written to her. Kel was more inclined to think that in this case Lalasa probably thought that Kel was too busy to read her letters, or wasn't sure where to address them to. She knew that her old maid could write, so it wasn't that. The only person that she'd really had constant communication with over the past three years was Lord Raoul, her former knight master, and for that she was grateful. He, housed at Fort Steadfast with his wife Buri, had resigned from Commander of the Own and now had two young but rather large children that Kel was godmother to. However, Lord Raoul wasn't exactly a mine of information about palace life and about her friends, so Kel was forced to admit that she had no idea what had been going on over the past few years.
Kel finally reached the new room that she had been assigned to and pulled her key out from her pocket. She unlocked the door, forcing herself out of her melancholy thoughts, and stooped to pick up two letters shoved halfway under. She noted with some dry amusement and faint disappointment that both of them were in Neal's scrawling hand.
Walking into the room, dragging her pack behind her, Kel kicked the door shut and slid her finger under the first letter's seal. It opened with a slight crunch and she glanced down at the paper, scanning the words with little interest.
Kel- come visit Yuki and I as soon as you get in. We got back a week ago and we cannot wait to see you! We are now housed in rooms in the west wing of the palace, the fourteenth door on your left. See you soon!
The next letter was labelled on the envelope as 'OBEY THIS ONE NOT THE LAST ONE' and so Kel assumed that this was the most recent missive from Neal.
Kel- on second thoughts DO NOT COME to visit us! Not that we don't wish to see you, but you need to go to Lalasa for a final fitting of your dress for the Midwinter ball tonight. I know that you just groaned, Keladry of Mindelan, but Lalasa herself assures me that you will love your dress. You will find her housed in the palace in the corridor parallel to your own, tenth door to your right. You'll be surprised!
Kel shook her head, a laugh bubbling out of her lips despite herself. From what she could tell of the letters, Neal was still... well, Neal. And he still knew her as well as he had when they were pages. It was somewhat comforting to know that at least three people, apart from the King who had ordered her back, were awaiting her arrival with some kind of emotion. She wondered avidly what on earth Neal had meant by 'you'll be surprised'. Whatever could be surprising about Lalasa? Well, there was only one way to find out, and that was to go and look for herself.
Kel knocked gently on the tenth door to her right, hoping sincerely that this was in fact Lalasa's door and not someone else's. She was confused, however- this wing of the palace was usually reserved for knights- Neal and Yuki were an exception as they were housed near Neal's father. But what would Lalasa be doing, living here?
The door was opened promptly, revealing a plump, dark haired woman at least a head shorter than Kel herself. The woman's deep brown eyes lit up at the sight of Kel and her mouth broadened into a large smile.
Kel bent to hug her old maid tightly. "Lalasa, I wish you'd call me Kel."
"I know," Lalasa sniffed into Kel's shoulder. "But it's just so good to see you!"
"And you," Kel confessed, realising just how much she'd missed the girl. It was then that she noticed the slight swell of Lalasa's stomach, and she released her to step back and glance down.
Lalasa followed the direction of her gaze and her round cheeks flushed prettily. "I-"
"You're pregnant?" Kel gazed at her friend with some surprise. She hadn't really thought, perhaps stupidly, that Lalasa would have married and settled down, not when she'd always been so afraid of Kel's male friends. "That's fantastic!"
Lalasa's eyes welled with sudden tears and she ushered Kel inside the small suite of rooms. "I wondered... I wanted... will you be godmother, m'lady?"
Kel grinned, tallying up yet another godchild in her mind. "Of course, I'd love to." She wasn't sure exactly how to ask who the father of the child was, and so it was a relief when a tall, obviously male, figure stepped out of the adjacent room.
"Hi Kel," the figure said. The voice was all too familiar and was accompanied with a slightly sheepish smile.
"Seaver of Tasride?" she exclaimed incredulously. He stepped forward into the light, opening his arms to hug Kel loosely, his coal black eyes surveying her closely. It was with some relief that Kel noted a thin gold band resting on the third finger of his left hand. "Congratulations," Kel told them both, beaming.
"Thankyou, m'lady," Lalasa wiped her eyes with the edges of her pale-blue dress's sleeve and indicated a chair for Kel to sit in. "Would you like a cup of tea? Then we can get started on the final stitches of your dress..."
Seaver grinned and sneaked an arm around Lalasa's waist to kiss her on the head. "I'd best be off. I'll see you both at the ball tonight."
Lalasa smiled up at her husband and Kel was struck with amazement at the complete and utter love in the couple's eyes. She'd never even envisioned- Seaver and Lalasa, who would have thought?
Seaver left, shutting the door lightly behind him, and Kel arched teasing eyebrows at her friend. "Well, well. Who's been keeping secrets?"
Lalasa blushed a bright, rosy red as she handed Kel a steaming cup of green tea. "It was a surprise to me as well, m'lady. First he asked me if I could take up a set of his breeches and I said I only did ladies' clothes, as it were. But he kept coming back and talking and bringing flowers and he was so nice..."
She trailed off and adjusted one of the cushions on her chair, looking away from Kel.
"I'm very happy for you," Kel said sincerely.
Both finished their tea and Kel rinsed the cups while Lalasa bustled around, fetching pins and a pile of deep green material that was apparently going to be Kel's dress for the evening. Kel, resigned, stripped off her thick shirt and breeches and pulled on the dress. Lalasa, clucking her tongue, began making minute adjustments to the dress at the hem and the back.
"You've gone in at the waist a bit," she informed Kel reprovingly. "And up, just the tiniest." Kel hid a small, unfurling grin, the familiarity of the situation amusing her.
"Are you sure you want to finish this for tonight?" she asked Lalasa doubtfully. It seemed like an awful lot of work to do in just the afternoon.
"It shall only take me an hour, if that," Lalasa said firmly, and she wouldn't have it any other way.
A loud banging at the door alerted them both to another presence. Lalasa opened it to reveal bright green eyes set in a pale face, below a mess of brown hair.
"KEL!" Nealan of Queenscove practically bellowed, dashing over to hug Kel only to stop mere inches away, seeing the pins on her dress. "Oh."
"Hello, Neal," Kel greeted him calmly enough, but she had to hold back the large grin that threatened to dominate her whole face and let tears of joy overflow.
"I knew I'd find you here!" Neal proclaimed enthusiastically.
Kel rolled her eyes at him. "You sent me here."
Neal deflated slightly. "Oh, right. Yes."
The conversation centred around Lalasa and Seaver and Neal and Yuki's unborn children, and Neal also demanded that Kel be godmother to his child.
"You might regret that," Kel told him, idly remembering the girl seer Irnai's prediction about Neal's daughter trying for her knighthood.
Neal narrowed his eyes at her but Kel shook her head stubbornly and refused to tell him what she meant.
The topic then switched to the ball that night. "Everyone should be there," Neal informed her cheerfully. "Merric and his wife, what's her name-"
"Olivia," Lalasa interjected through a mouthful of pins, adjusting the neckline of the dress minutely.
"-Owen and Margarry-"
Kel hid an amused smile. She still couldn't believe that Owen had ended up married to Lord Wyldon's youngest daughter.
"-Faleron and Lydia, Seaver and Lalasa, oh, and Dom might be there." Neal finished rather abruptly, a concerned look in his green eyes.
"How is Dom?" Kel made herself ask the question, dreading what she would hear.
"Not so well," admitted Neal thoughtfully. "Not since Oranie's death-"
Kel jerked, causing Lalasa to accidentally stab her with a pin in the neck. Her friend murmured a soft apology. "What?"
Oranie. Oranie. Kel had only ever known one Oranie in all her time in the palace. Oranie of Mindelan, her pretty elder sister, surely not the same Oranie? What had Oranie got to do with Dom, anyway? Besides, Oranie wasn't old enough to die. Someone would have written, someone would have said, she would have heard somehow, surely he hadn't moved on to her sister of all women? Not even Dom- surely-...
Neal was gazing at her, his face puzzled, Kel forced herself to breathe evenly and pasted on her Yamani mask as well as she could. "You know, Oranie, your sister? Dom's wife?"
"Neal," Kel attempted to make her voice calm but it came out thick and distressed. "I don't know what you're talking about."
He laid a comforting hand on her shoulder, Kel found herself working hard not to shrug it off and she had to hold herself back from walking over to punch the wall. "Kel... I thought Do- someone would have written, would have said? Surely you knew that they were married?"
"The last I heard," said Kel tightly. "Dom-" she spat the name out, hating how it tasted on her lips. "- was fighting centaurs east of Corus. That was two years ago."
Neal shut his eyes momentarily, hiding the sympathy and concern in them. "I didn't realise. I'm so sorry, Kel."
Kel bit back hot, heavy tears. "What happened?" she managed to whisper.
Neal rubbed circles into her shoulder with his fingers; Lalasa touched her arm sympathetically.
"They were married about a year and a half ago," explained Neal softly. "Yuki and I were in the Islands but Dom wrote us and told us they had just had a small ceremony. Your parents knew, they had given their blessing, and I never mentioned in my letters because I thought Dom or your sister would have told you... I imagined that you would have been at the wedding yourself."
Kel's eyes stung with unshed tears, she forced herself to nod stiffly, acknowledging Neal's words.
"Oranie died of a violent case of the pox," he continued gently. "Last summer. I'm so, so, sorry Kel, I thought-"
"I know," Kel muttered hoarsely. "You thought someone would have written me."
She gazed down at the floor, unable to bear the weight of both Neal and Lalasa's sympathetic looks. After a moment of silence, Lalasa resumed taking tiny little tucks in the dress that Kel was wearing and Neal took his hand away from her shoulder, moving it down to squeeze her hand gently.
Kel was murmuring in Yamani, words too soft for any other person to hear, not that they would be able to understand them if they did. It was a solace, to be speaking her feelings and thoughts out loud- one that she didn't often use, but this was more than even she could handle.
Lalasa stepped back after several more minutes and smiled at Kel. "Done, m'lady. Now all is left to sew it up before tonight."
Kel cleared her throat; the sound seemed loud in the otherwise quiet room. "I'm not sure I really... That is to say, I don't particularly feel like going to a ball anymore."
The look on Lalasa's face was both disappointed and understanding, the look on Neal's was both gentle and firm.
"Kel," he said softly. "I'm not going to let you sit in your room all by yourself, moping, tonight."
Kel lifted her eyes, now firmly under control and tearless, to look at his face. "I don't feel like it, Neal."
His expression shifted to pleading. "Please come. You'll enjoy yourself, I promise. Yuki really wants to spend some time with you and I know that Shinkokami and Roald want to see you again as well. Owen will be devestated if you don't come, he's been waiting for ages to show off Margarry to you. Think of it this way, even the Stump will be there. We could throw cake at him together!"
Kel found herself crumbling at his arguments, combined with the pleading look on her friends' faces.
"We can get ready together," Lalasa suggested. "I'll do your hair and face for you, m'lady."
"I'll pick you both up at the evening bell," Neal promised, knowing already that he had won.
Kel sighed. "Alright," she allowed. "I'll come."
When the evening bell tolled, Lalasa was just dabbing the final coating of rice powder to Kel's face. "There you are, m'lady," she couldn't hold back a large smile, surveying Kel. "You look lovely!"
Kel managed to smile up at her friend. That afternoon had been hard, it was all she could do even now to shove thoughts of Dom and Oranie out of her mind. She could hardly believe it. Dom who had told her that he loved her oh so many times, who she had given her kisses and her affections and her heart to, and her light, smiling elder sister, so full of life... married, without even a word to Kel. And now Oranie was dead from the pox.
Kel held back the intense deluge of grief and hurt with some difficulty, and instead strode over to the mirror that Lalasa had set up on the other side of the room. She gazed at her reflection, tall and almost elegant in the deep green gown trimmed with gold braid and pearls, made with so much care and love by Lalasa. Her hair, which she had forgotten to cut in the recent years, was longer and had been curled to perfection, pinned so that it tumbled over one shoulder. Her face was painted lightly in rice powder, hiding blemishes and sunburn and scars, her lips stained a deep, rich pink, and her eyes outlined in kohl.
Contemplatively, she reached out a finger to touch first her reflection in the mirror, poking tentatively her own cheek, wondering if this clean, neat stranger was indeed herself- Keladry of Mindelan. She drew back her hand to touch her own cheek, in real life, watching as in the mirror her reflection poked its cheek also. What made her herself? she wondered. Was it her appearance? Her nature? Her experiences? Her friends, family?
Gazing into the mirror, she felt suddenly, extremely lost. Everyone else seemed to have made a place for themselves in the world, Lalasa with Seaver and as a dressmaker, Neal as a healer and knight, with Yuki. Even her other knight friends... Owen with Margarry, Merric and Faleron and their wives... Dom and Oranie.
It was like, she thought suddenly, that she hardly existed anymore. She existed in the lives of Neal and Lalasa and Seaver and Yuki but outside of that she didn't really exist anywhere else, much. She had existed at New Hope as their commander, leader and protector, but now the King had cut her from that place, her home, and had set her adrift in a bare sea far away from where she belonged. No one had written her with any news because they hadn't remembered her, no one had thought to come and visit because she no longer existed in their world. She was like a wraith, a ghost- some could see her but most could not, she was invisible to them.
I am nothing if no one thinks I am anything, she murmured softly in Yamani.
"M'lady?" Lalasa had come to stand behind her, her expression enquiring. "By the sounds of that racket at the door, I'd say Sir Nealan has arrived. Shall we go?"
Kel nodded and turned around to impulsively hug her friend. As Lalasa's arms wrapped around her in return, she felt slightly more grounded and some of the tension that had filled her was released, just a little. Here was one person to whom she existed.
"Thankyou so much," she told her friend, with a small smile. "For helping me to get ready." Really it was a thankyou for so much more, a thankyou for remembering her and for being one of the people that kept her real.
Lalasa smiled at Kel, a bit wobbly, and lead the way to the door.
Neal dipped in a flamboyant Player's bow as he brought Kel her cup of water. "Just as you ordered, my lovely Lady Knight."
Kel took the glass from him, raising it neatly in thanks, and took a rather large sip from it. Neal was too much like Dom, and it hurt, like the pain of an unhealed injury, to be around him. His playful terms of endearment were just a little too close to Dom's many flirtations, and that only led to more memories. Ones that she didn't particularly want to have in her head. But none of that was Neal's fault, how was he to know?
"I didn't order anything, thankyou very much," she retorted. "I asked. Politely."
Owen, biting back a laugh, slung a friendly arm around her shoulders and grinned cheerily at her, his cheeks widening. "I've missed you, Kel."
"I've missed you too," Kel replied honestly. She glanced over to look at Owen's wife, Margarry, only to see that she was smiling, in avid conversation with Lalasa, presumably about sewing or some such. Yuki appeared to be attempting to teach Faleron and Seaver some Yamani, while Faleron's wife looked on in amused bafflement.
"Shu-ku-sen," Yuki said slowly. She held up her own to show the two men.
"Shu-ku-sen," Seaver and Faleron repeated enthusiastically. The corners of Yuki's eyes crinkled with laughter and she flicked open the fan to hide her growing smirk.
The palace orchestra started up a lovely jig and Owen grabbed Kel's hands enthusiastically. "We should dance!"
Kel, oddly enough, didn't mind dancing. It rather reminded her of one of her glaive pattern dances, only instead of a glaive she had to hold onto a man. Master Oakbridge had ensured that all his pages could dance, and so Kel was more than equipped to accept his invitation. But she shot an anxious look at Margarry. "Shouldn't you dance with Margarry, Owen?"
Owen rolled his eyes tolerantly at his wife and Lalasa, still immersed in conversation. "They'll be there discussing styles and stitches for the rest of the night!"
Shaking her head at her friend's boisterousness, Kel followed him onto the dance floor and they began the required steps, Owen leading Kel clumsily.
"This is jolly!" He puffed halfway through, Kel couldn't help but grin back at the joy on his face.
The song ended with a loud, strong note, and the band began playing a slower dance. Owen appeared not to be tiring of dancing, and so Kel allowed him to lead her in the first few steps, this time focusing on her feet, at the complicated steps backward and forward and in between.
Owen froze suddenly, mid-step, and Kel nearly tripped over one of his feet, his arms around her waist the only thing stopping her from going crashing to the floor.
"May I cut in?" The voice that spoke was smooth, confident and far too familiar. Kel looked up with a firm sense of dread, following Owen's gaze over his shoulder to a pair of blue eyes, set in a tanned face framed by dark hair.
Dom. Looking at him was a feeling not unlike being stabbed in the chest. Owen stepped back uncertainly, releasing Kel, and nodded. "I'll see you later, Kel," he said, a faint frown on his face as he took in her numb expression.
Kel reluctantly let Dom place his hands on her waist, stiffening involuntarily as she forced herself to place her own hands on his shoulders.
Why, she muttered softly in Yamani, avoiding his intense, staring blue eyes as best as she could. Why do you wish to dance with me, after these last three years?
It was with horror that she heard that deep, smooth voice respond, in the same language.
It's been a long time, Domitan of Masbolle replied, his Yamani surprisingly clear and well-pronounced.
Kel hid her surprise, instead gazing at a spot over his shoulder and away from his face, her expression aloof.
It seems that my dear sister taught you Yamani, she mused aloud. To what extent, I wonder?
Dom spun her around slowly as the dance required and they swayed from side to side along with all the other dancers.
I understand most things, he responded quietly. I believe I am almost completely fluent.
Kel still refused to look at him and it seemed that neither of them had anything left to say. She focused on their feet again, holding back all the words that wanted to come pouring out of her mouth, feeling his gaze on her face. Suddenly, she could bear it no longer. Her eyes dragged up unwillingly to rest on his face, and it was with a shock that she found herself meeting his eyes, her chin lifting up in fury.
You have sent me no word, she said, her tone oddly even. No word in two years. When you left we were more than friends, we were lovers, dare I say it. And you sent me a whole of two letters. And then nothing.
He flinched like she had struck him, but she couldn't find it in herself to feel sorry for him.
I have come back to Tortall, Kel continued, to find that you have married my sister. I wonder what lies you told her so that she sent no word of her upcoming marriage? No invitation to her wedding?
His eyes darkened, yet she went on relentlessly.
You sent me no word of her death, not even a missive about her funeral so that I could come and farewell my own sister. What right did you have to take that away from me? Even with all that happened between us, I never expected this of you. I thought you were a good man.
I told her that I had already sent your invitation to our wedding, said Dom softly. I told her that you had written back to say that you couldn't attend.
Kel broke the gaze between them, hurt coursing through her at the fresh admission of what he had done. Why? What reason do you have for wanting to keep me away from my own sister?
Dom stared out over her head.
It wasn't, she prodded, because we were once close?
His silence told her everything.
What did you think I would tell her? Kel demanded. She was my own sister! I would not have said anything. I would have kept silent so that she was happy. What could I have possibly told her to change her mind?
Not her mind, Dom muttered, his tone flat. My mind.
Hot rage filled Kel from head to toes. She had to dig her fingers into his shoulders to stop from moving them down to her shukusen, flicking it out and pointing the sharp edge at his neck.
How could I have changed your mind? She asked, firmly controlling her voice so that it was soft and unemotional. You left me at New Hope and you forgot me. I was nothing more to you than a kind of fling.
He gazed down at her with a kind of stunned misery. That was not what happened.
Then what did happen, Dom? She looked away from his all-too appealing blue eyes and waited.
I wrote you a letter a day, his quiet voice was oddly cutting. I wrote you a letter every day but I never sent it to you. I heard people talking; they said you were only interested in me for my family's status and money. I even heard some of my men talking about how I was such a fool to be that head over heels for you, that I was blinded as to why you really wanted me. He'd always come second to her shield, they said. Even my mother and father had heard the rumours, back in Corus, and they told me never to see you again.
He swallowed, hard. I didn't want to listen to them. And I didn't. I kept writing letters but I just couldn't get up the courage to send them. Neal wasn't around to talk to, I had no one left. We kept getting assignments in small villages close to Corus, I couldn't even get any time off to go and see you for myself. You didn't write me, either, and so I tried to forget you. Then I met your sister...
Kel wanted to hide her face, to hide her eyes, which she was sure was filling up with a combination of shock, grief and anger. They stung, no, they burnt, from repressing her tears. She clenched her jaw, almost unconsciously, as Dom went on.
She had your eyes, did you know that? She was sweet, too, and very pretty. All my men were getting married and leaving, I was soon to be the last one of us left. I was alone. So I... This time he couldn't look at Kel. I married her... You didn't write me either, Kel.
Kel's hands clenched into fists on his shoulders. I didn't write to you because you didn't write to me. Everyone always said that you were the court flirt, I figured you must have moved on from me. I didn't want to be a burden if you'd found another women and I didn't want to be the one who couldn't get over you. So I made myself let go, and you never came back.
Dom's eyes were full of sorrow. I-
Don't, Kel said icily. Somehow, somewhere, Dom had passed an invisible boundary that marked Kel's ability to forgive and forget. There was no going back. You married my sister, did you even love her? Did you try to make her happy? You said nothing to me when you could have had the decency to invite me to your wedding. She's dead and you still didn't have the honour or courage to write me a letter to tell me.
I tried to love her, Dom choked. I tried to make her happy.
Kel composed herself with an effort, and lifted a level, hazel gaze to meet his eyes. Truly, Domitan of Masbolle, I wish I had never met you.
Dom reeled back as if he had been struck. I wish things had been different between us.
You can wish away your whole life, Kel said, her voice cracking slightly at the end of her sentence. But it will never do you any good.
And with that, she turned away from Dom, breaking his hold on her waist and her life. Once again, she was cut away, drifting in the bare, open, vast sea- and she felt herself shiver with the cold and lonely feeling that came with it.