Kel turned around to see Yuki approaching quickly from behind, slippered feet silent on the stone floor.
Lady Yukimi. She bowed, palms flat on her thighs in the correct formal greeting.
How may I assist you?
Yuki's eyes crinkled up the smallest bit at the corners.
Let us not stand on formality, she said.
I was wondering if you would not like to have afternoon tea with myself and Princess Shinkokami. Tortall doesn't seem to supply tea made with flowers, only leaves. We thought you might miss it.
I—yes. Tortall didn't, in fact, carry many of the Yamani teas that Kel drank in her childhood, sweet concoctions made from steeped petals and pungent herbs. Tortallan tea was flat and bland in comparison.
My thanks. Let me just check with— she stopped, remembering that she was no longer a squire.
I mean, of course.
Yuki's eyes smiled at Kel.
Come at the fifteenth hour, she said.
We miss you.
Kel didn't have any reply to that but to bow again, and in response Yuki actually laughed, hiding the lower half of her face behind her fan as she did so. As Kel left, she couldn't stop her own grin from forming.
Back in her quarters, Kel barely had time to spread seed out on her windowsill for the sparrows before a frantic pounding came from her door. Neal burst in after her called
come in! with his hair mussed and eyes wild.
Kel! he said, running a hand along the back of his head, ruining his appearance even further.
You've got to help me!
Neal? Kel blinked at him before she straightened up.
Sit, and calm down. What's wrong?
Yuki! Neal sat, grabbing double-fistfuls of of his hair as he did so.
She isn't from Tortall! Yamani courtship is a complete mystery! I don't understand their poems or culture at all! Kel— feverish green eyes beseeched her.
Kel, you have to help me.
Oh. She couldn't keep the faint amusement from her tone, or the quick twitch of her lips from manifesting. Her Yamani instructors would be ashamed.
If that's all. I thought you had a real emergency. Meathead, she added affectionately.
A few squawks and glares later, Neal calmed down enough to admit Kel was right.
But what am I going to do? he asked, pleading.
How am I going to court her?
I'll write my mother, Kel sighed. At Neal's continued despairing stare, she added,
and go over some poetry with you, all right? Now don't you have knightly duties to attend to?
Thanks, Kel. His eyes were still very warm when he smiled, Kel noted. A lock of hair fell adorably over his forehead. She could see why Yuki approved.
Then she shook her head at Neal's back as he left. What was she thinking? Weapons needed cleaning and sharpening, and her combat skills weren't going to improve themselves. Time to get to work.
That year's Midwinter was fairly relaxing, no matter the whispers of war in the north. As newly made knights, Kel's year-mates lounged about the palace showing off their new status, sparring, eating and romancing those ladies who were amenable to being romanced. Kel did the same, only adding interaction with dogs, horses, and sparrows, and with less courtship.
Neal spent almost all of his time feverishly reading books on Yamani poetry, then trying to corner Kel and discuss it with her. Yuki painted.
It's very different, she confided, smoothing out her canvas.
The paper doesn't absorb water well at all, and the brushes are square. She inspected one, rectangular and made of coarse horse hair. The traditional Yamani painting style was a kind of water color, on extremely thin and absorbent parchment, with cylindrical brushes of rabbit hair that tapered to a fine point. Only very skilled artists could paint fine details.
I was never one for painting, Kel admitted, leaning against a wall.
I just liked getting hit with sticks.
My aunt became angry when the paints would get all over my clothes. Yuki shot a wicked look at Kel out of the corner of her eye.
I'm sure you didn't have that problem, considering how fast your wardrobe had to be replaced.
Just because I grew—! Kel protested.
They met each other's gazes and laughed before falling silent. Kel watched Yuki's fingers, elegant on the brush, pressing down with firm, smooth strokes. An impression of of misty mountains became clear before Yuki spoke again.
How is your friend Nealean? she inquired, eyes fixed on the painting. The brush was dippred in water, swirled around slowly.
The foolish one who almost got his fingers chopped off?
You know perfectly well how he's doing, Kel retorted.
Or was it not you who handed him your shukusen after his Ordeal?
Yuki admitted she hadn't seen him at all since then, and was wondering if he regretted indicating interest; Kel assured her that Neal was just being an idiot and resolved to yell and drag him to their next glaive practice session if she had to.
Don't worry, she said grimly.
You'll see him again.
Yuki covered her mouth. Her
I'm afraid of what's going to happen to him now was muffled and tight with suppressed mirth.
Two more days of Neal and Yuki both pestering her about the other, Kel woke up earlier than usual for the weekly glaive practice. She took great pleasure in knocking loudly on Neal's door, smiling maliciously at his sleepy glare and ordering him to dress, because he was going to learn about some Yamani culture.
Why can't I learn about culture at a reasonable hour? he complained, stumbling and yawning after her out into the gardens.
I know you are inhuman and get up cursed early every morning, but that doesn't mean that sane people do as well.
Stop whining, Kel ordered.
Yuki will be there, and you want to make a good impression, don't you? Just watch the pattern dances and talk with her afterward. The two of you have been driving me mad with all your questions about each other. If you two want to romance, do it face to face, not through me.
Neal was silent. Then:
She's been asking about me?
Kel rolled her eyes and gave up.
That was amazing. An envious sigh.
And did you see the lady Yuki? She was as graceful as wind through grass, as fluid as a mountain stream; the sun on her skin was like—
I get it, Neal. You should try paying compliments to her, not me or the air.
Hey, Kel, do you think you could teach me to do that game with the fans?
Gods curse it.
In the end, what happened was this: Neal learned to toss and catch shukusen, if not gracefully then at least without slicing his fingers off. Both he and Yuki kept questioning Kel about the other, until she snapped and suggested a night viewing of cherry blossoms and the moon in the palace gardens. Yuki asked if there would be poetry; Neal, when he heard, was terrified.
I can't compose Yamani poems on the fly, he hissed to Kel.
I need help! You have to be there.
Pox, thought Kel again, but Neal looked so sick with fear that she agreed.
I hope you don't mind, she said to Yuki later. The two of them relayed messages through her like a messenger bird. By now she was resigned to it.
Not at all, said Yuki, stroking a hand down her kimono. It was a nervous gesture, not very Yamani-like at all.
Oh, nothing. Yuki shook her head.
No, I lie. Just, is he really so wary of being alone with me?
He's nervous, that's all, Kel reassured.
You should see him, pacing and wondering about how to court you. Don't worry, be yourself and he'll be even more lovestruck than he already is.
That's what I'm afraid of, murmured Yuki, and Kel laughed.
That's what you have me for, isn't it?
So it is.
The moon, a little over half-full, shone down on three figures lying on their backs in the grass with their heads close, feet pointing outward like the spokes of a wheel.
This is beautiful. Kel could barely hear the words, they were spoken so softly. She turned her head to look at Neal on her left, seeing the way moonlight carved out his proud nose, gilded his chin. Yuki on her right slid her hand over and tangled their fingers together.
Kel gripped tightly, tangling her own fingers with Neal's.
Beautiful, she echoed. The grass was cool on her back, her hands warm with the touch of her companions' skin. Perhaps tomorrow, talk of war in the north would come, or she would once against become exasperated by Neal and Yuki's elaborate courtship dance. But now all was quiet, wind whispering through the trees, and Kel stared up into the clear night sky.
And she dreamt of poetry, and laughter, and stars.