Celena Schezar had one hell of a cramp in her left leg. And it was going to have to stay there, because when one was in the middle of being knighted, one did not get up and hop around in hopes of restoring circulation to one's appendages. However, if Dryden didn't hurry his ass up and get on with his speech, she just might have to, and wasn't that a great mental image.
Allen would simply /die/.
She bit her lip to stifle a giggle, certain it must be the strain, or lack of sleep. She hoped, once Dryden finished droning on about honor and nobility and the seventeen laws of chivalry, that she would not keel over the second he pronounced her knighted. Not that it could be unprecedented, she was sure. In the four centuries of the Knights of the Heavens she was certain that somewhere, at some point, some poor soul had dozed right off in the middle of his ceremony. After all, every one of them, Celena included, had had to spend the night beforehand in vigil at the Knight's Chapel in the palace. She'd chosen Allen as her required second, apparently to be witness if some marvelous revelation dawned on the knight-to-be. What he was really there for, Celena had cause to know, was to whack the poor bastard in the kneecaps if he showed signs of nodding off.
Celena bit off the giggle again. Then again, maybe the whacking part was just Allen. She really couldn't blame him, her brother must be hung somewhere between pride and abject mortification. He had gone completely purple when he'd found out what his sister had done. Refined young ladies simply did not hop into melefs and beat the stuffing out of air pirates trying to hijack the Queen's Barge. Celena had argued that Allen was the one who wanted her to spend more time with Millerna, and did that include eeking and squealing while obligingly letting herself and the Queen of Asturia get ravished? No, of course not, Allen had snapped, but had failed, on demand, to come up with a refined, dignified, feminine way of defending oneself, save having a big strong warrior on hand at all times. He had changed his tune, albeit a bit strangledly, when Millerna announced that she wished to confer the honor of Tenku upon Celena, for her 'Selfless act of bravery and valor in preserving the Queen's safety,' and she was to be knighted at Yuletide, as was traditional.
"You," Allen had muttered, under his breath after their audience with the queen, "Just wanted an excuse to get into a melef."
Celena was not ashamed to admit that she had been grinning. "You'd be right."
"Ridiculous." Allen shook his head. "There are no women Tenku Knights. There never have been."
"Well," Celena replied, "there's going to be one now. Dryden thinks it's a marvelous idea, but then, he likes me." Celena admitted that that was hitting a little below the belt, but that didn't mean it wasn't the truth.
Allen's cheeks were flushed, his perfect hair trailing out of its tail. "You'll be a laughingstock. I won't have my sister being some token knight for Millerna's politics."
"What makes you think I will be?" Celena put her hands on her hips, legs apart, just because it annoyed the life out of her brother when she stood like a man. "If any of your comrades think I'm for show, they can take me on themselves. Besides, I fail to see why I can't be a damn good knight just because I can't piss standing up." And she had flounced, ladylike, right past him up the stairs.
"Because neither knights nor young ladies say 'piss'!" he said after her, but he was wrong, because the language Celena had heard him using to himself as he stomped away was much, much worse.
"Do you accept these burdens freely, to bear them nobly, as those who have come before you?"
Celena blinked. Her mind had wandered clear away from the matter at hand. "Aye, my lord." At least her mouth could move independently of her brain, but that had already been proven.
Dryden stepped down from the dais where he'd been droning long enough to put the audience into a stupor, and drew his sword from its scabbard. The noise, even in a peaceful setting, was like a jolt of lighting along Celena's veins. Suddenly she was wide awake, every nerve tingling.
"And therefore, having proven yourself worthy of such responsibility, and for your act of bravery in preserving the safety of our queen, I bestow upon you the rank of Knight of the Heavens," the blade whispered past her hair, touched her left shoulder, then her right. "For under the heavens you stand, Celena Schezar."
Celena lifted her head, and the King of Asturia winked at her. "And I'll be dammed if you don't deserve it," he whispered, just so she could hear. "Accept then," Dryden continued, back into formal speech and sounding a bit bored, "this weapon, to defend and serve your country."
Dryden stepped back and Celena, glory of glories, could finally stand up, as Millerna came gliding down the dais, sheathed sword in hand. She truly looked a queen, hair swept up into an elaborate gold mesh, high collared gown keeping her chin high. But the look in her eyes was pure delight, as with Celena's undrawn sword she struck her first blow against the strictures she so hated.
"Your sword, Sir Knight." She held out the heavy scabbard and belt in her delicate gloved hands. "To be girded on by she whom you choose." The 'she' and the 'choose' were pure formality, since the queen or eldest princess always did the girding. At Allen's knighting it had been Princess Marlene.
"I can think of no fairer hand than yours, my Queen." And they both almost lost their formal expressions, since they both knew full well that her majesty Queen Millerna had sliced her hand clean open two days before, when her scalpel had slipped during lecture at the Medical academy. Her glove hid the bandages, but she did not fumble the intricate catch of the belt, fastening it around Celena's slim hips. There was a lot more extra belt than usual, Celena was sure. Millerna straightened and there was an awkward span of seconds; it was customary for the girder to kiss the newly-made knight. Millerna gave the facial equivalent of a shrug, and with aplomb that only one raised to be a queen could have, kissed Celena on both cheeks as if she knighted women every single day of the week.
Celena could hear Allen twitching even from where he was standing, off to the side with the other knights. Celena, hoping she didn't look too smug, put one foot behind the other and bowed to her king and queen. "My Lord. My Lady. I am your servant." The two of them nodded gravely, and Celena turned smartly on her heel and strode down the long crimson carpeting of the hall, to the thunderous applause of the attendant nobles. From the corner of her eye she saw Allen, unaware of her gaze, and smiling.
"You are astonishingly popular." Allen said, with the slight disapproval back in his voice but not his eyes, as he passed her a desperately needed glass of vino. "I would say, due to Millerna's highly dramatized rendition of your actions."
Celena shrugged, emptying her glass in one swallow. "they weren't there, maybe there were dragons involved." She sighed at her empty glass. "Politics, brother mine, politics. If it gets Millerna where she wants and keeps me from dragging about in petticoats, then by heaven it's fine with me. Is there any more? I'm parched. This fasting day and night business is highly overrated."
Allen tsked, but plucked the goblet from her hand. "I'll bring you something to eat. Stay by this pillar, or I'll lose you in the crowd."
"Surely I'm distinctive," Celena said, though a stifled yawn. All the other ladies present were sweeping about in gowns for the Yule ball, swirls of satin skirts and coifed curls on the ballroom floor.
Allen laughed, shaking his head. "That you most certainly are, but you're also short. And dead on your feet, I'm sure. Stay put, I'll see what I can find on the food tables." He vanished in the direction of the banquet tables, piled high with holiday sweetmeats and elaborate desserts.
Celena thought wistfully of hot rabbit stew and warm baked bread, probably what the men were having, back at the fort.
She closed her eyes and put her back to the column, grateful to have something hold her up for a while. The musicians finished the minuet, and polite applause sparkled throughout the high vaulted room. It was considered ill fortune for a knight to refuse the first dance offered him, but Celena had not been in a position to do so. Even being this year's Yule knight, she was not called upon to dance as her predecessors always were. The women, who might have had admiring looks behind their plumed fans, would rather titter delightedly about her, and the men weren't sure how to approach her at all, unused to dance partners who wore a blade at the hip. As a result, Celena was probably the first Knight in several centuries to spend her Yule ball in blissful solitude at the corner of the dance floor.
/A pity though/, she thought, as the pipers struck up a tune, /I like this one/. It made her think of something, of another high-ceilinged room and the way music would echo. But the space she remembered was emptier, the sound one reedy flute on quick fingers, and young men's murmured laughter.
Dallet would play this tune, in the melef hanger and the others would tap rhythm with their feet, lounging on steps and rails like any group of boys, laughing as if they were not at war.
Celena did not know how the young ladies were watching her, dainty hands to their mouths, eyes softening as they fell in love with her, valiant knight, beautiful as a boy. They did not know why tears leaked from her shut lashes, but they speculated, and her legend grew.
She was not aware of opening her eyes. But she had, heavy as her lids were, and the ballroom was a blur of moving color, silks and velvets dyed every hue imaginable, detail lost in motion. She did not know what drew her gaze to the center of the floor, to the figure who stood there motionless in the middle of the dance. Once she had, though, she knew why no one else saw him, conspicuous as he was in black leather uniform, garbed for battle, not for festivity. She knew why there was more light in his hair than in any other place in the room, why the dancers parted for him like water, why his heavy boots made no sound on the tessellated marble floor.
He stopped a pace away from her, bowed, and held out his hand. The first man, that night, to ask her to dance.
It's bad luck to refuse.
She placed her hand in his, and the room seemed to fade like a chalk drawing in the rain, Chesta and the waltz were the only things real. He did not speak to her, but his hand was warm on the small of her back, his eyes shining. She realized she had never seen him smiling like that before, not at her, or at the boy she had been. She opened her mouth to ask him about it, but he kissed her hand and twirled her away, and when she spun back there was another partner waiting for her.
In some corner of her mind she remembered the last time she had seen Gatti, but it seemed like a memory of a different life, in no way connected to the young man dancing with her, laughter in his eyes, his fingers twined familiarly with hers. Even without him speaking she recalled his voice, sharp wit under every blandly read missive. She ached to hear him again, anything but that last agonized sound in her memory, but he shook his pale head, and freed a finger to lay on her lips, something he would never have dared, in life. Celena lowered her head to his shoulder, grateful for that much.
When she lifted her face again she was met with a dreamy smile, a mop of moonlight colored curls. Guimel, poor love, had never looked like a warrior. His grin was conspiratorial, as if to say, look at me, dancing with you, suppose we'll get caught? Celena found herself grinning back. His waltz was more complicated, Guimel had been brought up with noblemen, and he twirled her through complicated steps with practiced ease. She was not sure but that he might have been humming with the music, under his breath. He danced around behind her, lifting her arm over her head, and when the movement was finished Celena was left facing a tall boy with quiet eyes, his hand in hers.
Dallet was elegance where Guimel had been skill, aloof where Gatti had been intimate, somber where Chesta had been smiling. He did not spin her but tilted his head to hers, his dark hair falling across her cheek. She shivered, his warm sigh against her ear causing the hairs on the back of her neck to rise. Apology, in his smile, no doubt for startling her, and a low laugh she had never heard. When he stepped back it was to kiss both her hands, and to vanish in the colored shadows of other dancers.
And Celena, left alone, felt a peculiar tingle at the base of her spine, a slow sort of shiver of being watched. She turned, slowly, knowing who would be there, who would be last.
He did not reach out to dance with her, but put his head to the side, somehow puzzled. She opened her mouth to inquire what he found amiss, but he shook his head, smiling faintly, and walked in a small circle around her. His fingers brushed the knotwork of her belt, lingered on the finely crafted hilt of her sword, touched the hair that waved more softly, Celena knew, than that of the commander he remembered. When he was satisfied with his observations he put his hands on her shoulders, green eyes flickering over her face. And Miguel alone, of all the dancers, leaned in and pressed his mouth to hers.
Warm, for a dead man's kiss, insane in the middle of the ballroom floor at Yuletide, and nothing more comforting than knowing that it felt the same, Celena or Dilandu, Zaibach General or Asturian Knight of the Heavens. He was still hers, as they all were still hers, the only ones to dance with her, giving her no blame for their lives. They would, Celena knew, do it again.
Without warning she realized what Allen had meant by a knight's revelation, only hers had come not in the chapel, but under the greenery-festooned ceiling of the ballroom. Political move or no, she had been knighted, and there was a precedent, dizzyingly high, for her to live up to.
"My Dragonslayers." She closed her eyes, humbled by her task. "I understand."
"You're talking in your sleep, pet."
For a moment Celena thought it was Miguel speaking, but the diminutive was Allen's, left over from days before white dragons and fire.
"Mmm?" The floor was rocking like a boat in a gentle sea, but then she noticed the ballroom was gone and she was not standing but being carried, up the spiral steps to the guest chamber she had been assigned. "Whrm'I?"
"You were asleep on your feet," Allen chided, but with affection, lifting her slight weight more securely against his chest. 'I've never known a new knight to be carried to bed, but then, you are the exception to every rule I took for granted."
Celena leaned her cheek against her brother's neck. He smelled like apples and leather, gold hair faintly reminiscent of Chesta's. "That's the sweetest thing you've said in ages."
And Allen laughed.
Sitting under the mistletoe
(Pale-green, fairy mistletoe),
One last candle burning low,
All the sleepy dancers gone,
Just one candle burning on,
Shadows lurking everywhere:
Some one came, and kissed me there.
Tired I was; my head would go
Nodding under the mistletoe
(Pale-green, fairy mistletoe),
No footsteps came, no voice, but only,
Just as I sat there, sleepy, lonely,
Stooped in the still and shadowy air
Lips unseen--and kissed me there.
--Walter Da La Mare
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