DISCLAIMER: Tortall and its inhabitants belong to Tamora Pierce, and used with her (indirect) permission.
Chapter Four: Negotiations
"You've got to be kidding!" Merric shouted, his face res with anger. "Kel--it's a set-up! Joren is just trying to throw us off and got Cleon to go with it!"
Kel had considered that herself—but if Cleon was faking, he was the best player she had ever seen. Kel shook her head. "Cleon isn't working against us--at least not yet."
"Besides," Roald interjected diplomatically, "the question isn't whether or not Joren's ideas are right, but whether or not we should have a secret alliance with Cleon's team if Joren is playing us all for fools."
"How trustworthy is this Joren fellow, anyway?" Conal asked, sitting on Kel's desktop. "All I know is that he's Paxton's squire, and Pax is a great fellow--and the Nonds are a good family."
"You can't judge a squire by his knight-master," Geoffrey of Meron said quietly. Kel recalled that his knight-master had been a traitor to all of Tortall, and had tried to kill the Lioness in a bloody coup on King Jonathan's coronation day. Sir Geoffrey continued, meeting Conal's eye evenly. "Yes, Paxton is a good man, but he didn't know Joren any better than we did when he took him as his squire."
Sacherell of Wellam looked at Kel thoughtfully. "What do you think, Squire Keladry? You seem to know him well."
Kel rubbed her hands nervously on her tunic. "Well, he's changed a lot since he became a squire. And if his new attitude isn't genuine, it means he's become sneakier than ever." She paused for a moment, replaying the conversation with Cleon and Joren in her mind. "He could've guessed that his speech would induce Cleon and I to enter a defensive alliance--that we would agree not to attack his group unless he attacks Cleon. He knows me well enough to know that I don't like to pick on people and start fights for the mere joy of fighting."
"But he can't attack Cleon," Faleron pointed out. "The scenario requires Cleon to attack and attempt to take the palace. The only room for variation is our group."
Kel chewed her lip thoughtfully. "Right. So in doing this, Joren has managed to neutralize us according to the alliance terms he knew we would choose." How could she play this scenario to her full advantage. She had to find a way to get involved in the battle. "What about espionage?"
The others exchanged looks, not sure what to think of the whole thing.
"By this afternoon we'll know who our spies are in each camp, I would think. Give me until then and I'll come up with something."
"And the alliance?" Faleron asked with a sigh.
"We'll go for it," Kel answered. The boys began to protest, but she silenced them with a wave of her hand. "We're bandits, right? Renegades? We don't have to necessarily keep out word." With a tiny smirk, Kel left the classroom and headed back to her room.
As she expected, the first spy showed up before lunchtime. It was her own brother, Inness. Kel thought it a little ironic that he had been chosen, since he was Cleon's knight-master.
Kel found his note under her door when she returned to her room to drop off her books. "Keladry," it read in his sharp, slanted, and instantly recognizable handwriting, "one of the plans involves third-party elimination. Cleon says he won't use it unless absolutely necessary, but he does see you as a threat. No one in his group wants to break your alliance--your clan is needed to break through Joren's defense. However, rest assured that they will turn against you at the end--with close-range weapons. Be sure to burn this when you're finished."
Kel passed through the kitchens on her way to the dining hall, tossing the note into the stove fires. This is too complex, she thought with no small amount of frustration. Ambassadors are for diplomacy; knights are for enforcing it. Why are they making us do this?
She straightened her tunic and walked into the dining hall, wondering if any other spied would show. She really wanted someone from Joren's group to give her a detailed account.
And what about her own men? Who were the untrusting ones among them?
Lunch was similar to supper the night before, with Kel's friends dispersed among the three larger groups. But this time, some of the knights had shown up as well.
"If we fight together, we eat together," Sir Raoul said with a merry laugh, sitting next to Joren and looking bigger than ever.
"I think they're just having fun with us," Faleron whispered with a scowl.
"Well, we can't deny that," Sir Sacherell grinned as he and Sir Geoffrey sat down at their table. "This beats border patrol any day."
Geoffrey nodded in agreement. "It's certainly an interesting way to choose a squire. We get to see who has faults we think we can mend, who has strengths we can enhance." He shrugged. "We never did anything so creative in my time."
Kel said nothing as her group chattered through their meal; she was more concerned about her situation with Cleon. Suppose he did turn his troops against hers at the end. He had the best fencers, most certainly--but would Inness fight? What were the rules for the spies? She had stronger staff fighters, but that was it. She had the best squires for tilting, but that would do no good in a close-range battle.
Out of the corner of her eye, Kel noticed a strange motion. Turning her head, she saw Sirl Raoul gesturing with one hand. He was using the strange hand signals that the members of the King's Own used. And he was directing them at Sacherell. Kel watched their silent communication for a moment before speaking up. "You are going to tell me what this is about, aren't you, Sir Sacherell?" she asked dryly.
He grinned. "I think we've found the help we need. Raoul's going to talk to us after the meal, before we go to the practice courts."
Twenty minutes later the three of them--Kel, Raoul, and Sacherell--were in one of the smaller libraries.
Kel surprised them both upon her entrance. "I need you to start a war," she said boldly, looking Lord Raoul squarely in the eye.
He blinked, surprised, then smiled at her. "Mithros, youngster, do you know what you're doing?"
She nodded. I've made a defensive alliance with Cleon's group. If he attacks, as he will, my group is cut out of the fighting because of my agreement with Joren. However, if I can get Joren's group to make the fist move, I can join Cleon's forces and overrun the palace. That's where you come in."
He arched one eyebrow. "You want me to go against Joren in the very beginning and reveal my role as a spy?"
Kel smiled. "My lord, you know as well as I that wars often begin with misunderstandings. A sentry can always make mistakes."
Sacherell grinned as he realized what Kel was saying. “Raoul--if you can get a sentry position, all we have to do is get Cleon's troops close enough for you to consider it a threat. One arrow and we can consider it within the confines of our alliance. Joren’s plans to keep us out of the battle will backfire."
Raoul nodded, grinning mischievously.
Kel shook her head. "That's not exactly it. I want you to attack us." A plan had formed in her mind, and she wanted to see how it would work out. If it failed--well, she would learn something in the long run. "Would you be willing to shoot at any man who came within a certain area of the castle wall?"
"Yes, sir," he sighed, giving a quick salute.
"Good. Await further orders, then." Kel gestured to Sacherell. "Come along, Wellam. We have to meet the Baron on the courts." As they left the room, she tried to ignore the amuse expressions on the knights' faces. It wouldn't be fun and games if their futures were on the line, she thought with an internal scowl. But they'll see. This plan will succeed. We'll have our fight, and we'll have the palace at the end of the day.
Continued in Chapter 5