Kel hadn’t expected, upon leaving the latrine, to see Lady Alanna sprawled on a log beside the wooden wall of Steadfast.
“Lady Kel,” Alanna called, waving her over with the hand that wasn’t holding a cup.
Out of respect for Raoul’s sobriety and the fact that they were still technically on a warfront, few of the wedding guests were indulging heavily in liquor. Even still, Kel had had a cup or two of wine, despite not being much of a drinker; it turned out Alanna had been doing the same.
“Barely had a chance to talk to you since you rode in,” Alanna explained, stretching her legs out in front of her. “How is New Hope coming along?”
“We were able to bring the harvest in, and it looks like it should be enough for the winter. We’re still fortifying the buildings, and trying to put aside enough supplies, but we’ve made a good start.”
Alanna nodded thoughtfully. “That’s good, good.”
“Are you returning to Corus for the winter? Or will they keep you up here?”
“I go where my King commands me.”
Kel shared a grin with her. She knew it was just as likely that Alanna would be “commanded” to be in Pirate’s Swoop or Corus for the winter as it is that she would be commanded to stay at the Scanran border. She also knew Alanna could argue her way into whichever assignment she wanted or thought was necessary.
“I do miss spending the winter with my laddybuck. It keeps these old bones warm.”
Kel hummed her agreement, not that she’d ever really had anyone to keep her bones warm. Cleon counted in some ways, but not this one.
Alanna slanted her gaze over at Kel. Oh, Kel thought. I see what’s going on here. A second later, Alanna asked, “You have anyone keeping your bones warm?”
A blush stole over her face without her permission. “Lady Alanna...”
“Oh come on, there must be somebody.” Alanna conspiratorially nudged Kel’s upper arm, obviously having decided her shoulder was too high. “You’re 20 now, right? By your age I’d had... three.”
Her eyes widened. “Really?”
Alanna laughed, her head thrown back. “Is it that hard to believe?!”
“N-no, of course not! I just meant – really? Three? Even though everyone thought you were a boy for so long?”
“I’ve only ever met one person that was interested in me,” Kel told her, staring at the dirt in front of them. “And it’s not like I need someone, but.”
“Everyone wants to be wanted, there’s no shame in that.”
“They sure want to make us feel that way though.”
Alanna passed her cup to Kel; it was filled with spiced cider, sharp and sweet on her tongue as Kel took a sip.
“You still have a couple more days of vacation,” Alanna said suddenly. “You have some time to relax away from your command. Times like this are few and far between, especially nearing the end of a war. Take advantage of it.”
Again, a blush spilled onto her cheeks without her permission. Maybe Kel had had more wine than she thought.
Alanna, of course, didn’t miss it. “Someone that you want to relax with?” She asked, grinning wickedly.
“No,” Kel replied, taking another sip of cider. I am stone, she told herself. I am stone. Don’t let her get to you.
“Come on, I bet there aren’t many women you can gossip with like this. Thayet and Buri have been so busy I don’t get any in either anymore.”
“You’re right,” Kel admitted. “The Own pretend they don’t like to gossip, but they do, and I’ve missed that from when I was Lord Raoul’s squire. And I’m too busy now to even think about it, even if there was anything to gossip about.”
“Let me try and guess who it is you have your eye on.”
Kel choked on the cider. “I don’t think—"
“It’s not Neal or that other one from your settlement, and the only other one of your page friends here is Wyldon’s squire. Someone you met when you were a squire or later then.”
“When you went after your charges,” Alanna continued, “It was Neal’s cousin that came after you, right? Raoul gave them the orders, I know, but from what I heard he probably would have gone without it.”
Kel shot a look at Alanna, making her laugh. “Don’t pout at me like that!”
“I’m not pouting.”
“It’s okay to have feelings, regardless of what you were told growing up.”
“The Yamani have feelings, they just don’t show them.”
“For what it’s worth, I don’t think he’d object if you showed your feelings. Or even if you showed him a little more.”
Kel covered her face with her hands. “Why did I want to meet you when I was a child?”
Alanna cackled. “I think that’s how most people feel after they meet me.”
But Alanna was right – it was nice to talk to someone like this. She had friends, of course, and even though she’d heard them talking about their romantic endeavors, it still felt awkward to try to share her own.
“He’s just so handsome,” Kel whispered through her fingers. “And when I was with the Own, he never treated me like The Girl, not even at the beginning.”
“Did you see them training yesterday?” Alanna asked. Kel, in fact, had. She had finished her pre-dawn glaive practice, and when she went to get water the Own had started their own morning training. They were in a patch of sunshine, the day still holding onto summer warmth, and it hadn’t taken long before most of them had shed their shirts. They were all fit, but Kel’s eyes were of course drawn to Dom, tan and solid, muscles flexing as he swung his practice sword around in an arc.
“Does the Baron know you’re watching other men like that?”
“He has my heart, not my eyes,” Alanna replied flippantly, but Kel could see her rub her thumb over her wedding band. “Anyway, your man got a little show of his own, too.” At Kel’s questioning look, she continued: “He came out to the field early – very early.”
“He was watching me?”
“Your breeches and shirts might need to get let out a bit, if you understand my meaning.”
“It couldn’t have been that bad, right?” She did know she’d need to requisition new clothing soon, with the additional muscle she’d built up, but she didn’t think they were that bad yet. She’d have to try to get at least a couple sets before heading back to New Hope.
“Oh, he definitely didn’t think it was bad. And if you were nervous about him liking you muscular, I don’t think you need to worry.”
“It’s still embarrassing that he was just watching me.”
“Some men like to know that their lady could take him down,” Alanna informed her. “I always have to block out time for George after my training.”
Kel thought she really didn’t need this much information about Alanna and her husband, but it was also oddly comforting, in a way. Her and Alanna were very different, but they had similar challenges. The fact that Alanna had a husband who was so loving and passionate about her gave Kel hope that she would get that someday, when she was ready for it. And maybe that would be earlier than she expected.
“There was always part of me that believed I’d never marry, just be an old maid forever, and I was perfectly fine with that,” Alanna said, as if she could read Kel’s mind. “I didn’t need a man, was my thinking. George helped me realize that just because I didn’t need a man didn’t mean I couldn’t want one.”
“I’ve never really considered marriage,” Kel replied. She knew it was an odd thing to say at a wedding – everyone thought about marriage at a wedding – but her shield had consumed her thoughts and desires for most of her life, and then she was thrown into the war and the Chamber’s quest.
“You have a charm against pregnancy, right?”
Kel nodded mutely. Alanna took back her mostly empty cup of cider and drained it, then pushed herself to her feet. “I should be getting back before Buri decides to start the knife throwing without me,” she said, stretching her arms over her head. “I’ll see you around – we ought to do some sort of spar before you head back to New Hope.”
“That would be great,” Kel replied with a smile. “I think I’ll sit out here a bit longer. I’ll try not to miss the knives.”
Alanna clapped her on the shoulder and ambled back to the mess hall, where everyone was still celebrating Lord Raoul and Buri’s wedding. Kel looked up at the stars, just a smattering of them visible over the lanterns scattered around the wall and buildings of Steadfast. She could hear the muted voices from the mess singing some bawdy drinking song she’d learned from the Own, and smiled.
“Thought that might be you out here.” She looked down from the sky quickly, finding Dom closer than she’d expected.
“Needed some fresh air?” She asked, spotting the flush on his cheeks.
“You know how everyone is when they get something to celebrate.”
“Come sit,” she offered, patting the log next to her. He dropped himself onto it and she couldn’t tell if he was actually sitting close to her or if she was just hyperaware of him right now.
“It was a beautiful wedding,” Kel said, after a moment of silence, her and Dom both watching as a couple birds landed on a fence ahead of them.
“I lost a silver noble because I bet Lord Raoul wouldn’t cry,” Dom replied.
“That was a stupid bet.” Lord Raoul had tears in the corners of his eyes before Buri even started to walk towards him, and he’d barely gotten it together by the time he had to speak at the end
“I thought he might be smiling too much to cry.”
“Turns out he can do both at the same time.”
Dom grinned at her. “Don’t worry, I’ll make it back betting on Lady Alanna when she spars with you.”
“You don’t think I could beat her?”
“With swords? Definitely not.”
She shoved him in the shoulder, nearly pushing him off the log. “If we were doing tilting, I’d have her out of her saddle on the first pass.”
“Of that I have no doubt, Lady Knight,” Dom replied solemnly before his lips twisted in a wicked smirk.
“Lord Raoul made a lot of money betting on me during the Progress,” she informed him.
“So did most of us in the Own.” His eyes skipped down from her face to her shoulders. “Even when they saw you, no one wanted to believe you were one of the best. You proved them wrong right away.”
Kel flushed. “I wouldn’t have been able to do it if Lord Raoul hadn’t spent so much time working on it with me.”
“He might’ve polished you up, but you were good enough at the beginning. Better than a good amount of the full knights I’ve seen, and still only a squire!”
“You don’t need to flatter me, Dom.”
“Doesn’t mean I don’t want to.”
Kel glanced at him from the corner of her eye; he was turned towards her, gaze trained on her. A sudden thought occurred to her, after Dom’s mention of sparring...
“Did you hear Lady Alanna and I talking?”
Dom was the picture of innocence. “You and Lady Alanna were talking?”
She’d seen the same look on Neal’s face too many times to take it at face value.
“Dom,” she warned.
“Just the very end,” he promised, and this time she believed him. “I didn’t want to get in the way of you two talking, so I didn’t interrupt.”
It was sweet, in a way. Being Neal’s cousin, he must’ve heard of Kel’s hero worship of her throughout her childhood and teen years, and how Alanna was forbidden to contact her.
“It’ll be a nice treat for everyone to watch you and Lady Alanna sparring, as much as a treat it’ll be for you to do it, I’m sure.”
“It’ll be fun,” Kel admitted. “Everyone keeps telling me to relax and enjoy a little vacation, but I don’t think I know how to do that. Training and sparring is as close as I’m going to get.”
“If you need some help relaxing, I’m always around to help.”
This time she knew she didn’t imagine that he was closer than before, his thigh pressing against hers through her hose and his breeches.
“Dom,” she said quietly.
“Kel,” he replied, equally quiet. His calloused fingers gripped her chin, turning her gently to look at him. He drew her closer slowly, giving her time to pull away from him, until his lips settled on hers.
She felt warm, and didn’t think it was because of the lingering summer heat. She kissed him back, pushing closer, her hand finding his on the log. He tilted his head and kissed her a little harder. He slid his hand from her chin to the side of her neck, gently cupping the back of her head.
Kel had felt womanly enough when Cleon kissed her, but something about Dom was different in an unquantifiable way. Maybe it was his confidence, his surety. Maybe it was how he held her in place, not like she would break if he gripped harder, but like he wants to treat her gently out of care and respect.
“Dom,” she whispered again, when he pulled back.
“There isn’t a good time to make a move on a lady when there’s a war on and you’ve known her since she was 14,” Dom said ruefully. “I hope you don’t think I’m being too forward.”
“Not at all.” She curled her hand around his, pulling it off of the log and onto her knee. His hands were warm, the skin on his palms rough. “I can’t think of a better way this could have gone.”
He grinned. “I’m glad.”
They kissed again, his hand slipping down her side to rest on her waist. Even through her tunic and shirt, his touch burned.
“We should get back before they miss us,” Kel murmured against his lips.
“Or we go do something else and give them our apologies tomorrow?”
Part of Kel thrilled at the thought of jumping into Dom’s bed; another, larger part of her knew she had drank more tonight than she had since she first tried wine, and that she owed it to Lord Raoul as his first squire, and Dom owed it to him as one of his most trusted men, to go back to the celebration.
He must’ve been able to see it on her face, because Dom just chuckled and kissed her quickly again. “I understand. I’ll be trying to steal some of your time tomorrow, Lady Knight.”
“You don’t need to steal it if I’ll give it to you freely,” she replied, standing up and pulling Dom to his feet as well. They walked slowly back towards the mess, hand in hand, the voices inside getting louder. “It sounds like they’re almost ready for your favorite song, Dom.”
“As long as you’ll lead it with me, Lady Kel.”
Kel felt a smile tugging at her lips, even as she unconsciously pulled her Yamani mask back on. “I’m not sure that would be appropriate for a lady of my station,” she told him, as if she hadn’t joined in on the worst songs sung around the campfires during her squire years.
He laughed and ruffled her hair, then carefully pulled away just before they came into the stream of light spilling out of the open mess hall doors. “I’m sure there’s a great many things we’ll get up to that aren’t appropriate for a lady of your station.”
She held her blush back this time, even when he winked at her before striding into the hall, calling out, “Hey lads, have you all heard of the Old Maid in the Garret?”
The song started up inside, everyone banging their cups on the tables and stamping their feet as Dom led the song, his battlefield voice carrying over the noise. “Now I’ve often heard it from me father and me mother, that the going to a wedding is the making of another—”
“Well, if this be so, I will go without a biddin’,” Kel shouted as she turned the corner into the mess, meeting Dom’s eyes over the crowd. “O kind providence, won’t you send me to a wedding!”