Friday Flashfic: The Contest

While working on the WiP, I had my protagonist, Kel, say something of a throwaway line: “I can make anything into a competition”. But then I got to thinking about how it might actually be true…so here’s a little backstory episode from Kel’s youth (I imagine her to be around 12 or 13 here).

Kelisin slowed the movements of her needle and glanced up under her lashes. The library had fallen into silence, but it was not the companionable silence of siblings passing the cold winter hours indoors together. It was instead the sullen silence of four children forced into activities they loathed.

Mother and Father were both away, visiting one of the coastal towns, which had been devastated by a bad storm. Considering that it was past  Longnight and well into the coldest weeks of winter, most of the courtiers had gone home to be snowed in with their families.

That left Kel and her siblings in the care of –joy of joys — the lady Ainsley. Who had some unfortunate ideas regarding the appropriate occupation of one’s time. So Kel was embroidering, Athan and Leslin were reading, and Petar was doing sums set by his tutor. The lady Ainsley herself was writing letters. And as she was a firm believer in “quiet reflection”, none of them were allowed to speak. The only sound was the scratching of pens.

As Kel stared, Petar looked up from his parchment, meeting her gaze. Slowly, his eyes drifted toward each other, until they crossed entirely. Kel snorted, trying to hold back a laugh.

“Children,” said Ainsley warningly.

They were saved from reprimand by a knock on the door and the entry of a page, who murmured something to the lady. She stood.

“I am called away — I must leave you alone.”

Excellent, thought Kel.

The lady smiled beatifically.  “But you must continue with your efforts, and when I return I will inquire after your progress.” She swept out after the pageboy.

Kel slumped back against her chair and released an explosive sigh.

“Ugh,” said Petar. “I know. I am sick to death of sums.”

“Oh is that all?” said Leslin, sensing the potential competition. “History of King Ennund’s reign, and don’t tell me that’s interesting because it’s all about building infrastructure and no battles at all!”

Athan set his book aside and came over. “Are we having a misery competition or not, Les? That’s nothing. She’s got me reviewing the trade pact agreements between Tamor and Valloras and I swear legal language will put you right to sleep.” He grinned. “We should read it aloud to Bria when she gets squally.”

They all paused to consider this. Bria was old enough now to try to run after them, but they all thought her too much of a baby to really bother with.

“But at least she’s got you doing something clever,” Kel said, “even if it’s boring. Mine’s boring and useless. I mean…” she gestured helplessly. “Embroidery?

Leslin leaned over to snatch up the hoop she’d dropped. “What’s she set for you? Ooh, one of those disgustingly trite sayings, isn’t it? The hand that tur–is that supposed to be an ‘m’?”

Kel folded her arms. “An ‘r’ and an ‘n’.”

Leslin bit his lip.

“I bet I could make neater letters,” Petar said. He was very carefully not looking in their direction, and his voice was bland, but Kel could see his lips twitching.

But she played along. “Cannot!”

Petar whirled. “Can to, and I’ll wager a silver piece.”

“Done,” said Kel swiftly.

“Hang on,” said Leslin. “Me too!”

Athan rolled his eyes. “All right, let’s do alphabets. One hour. Points for speed and for making the letters neat. Front and back.”

“Yes!” Petar cheered.

Kel dug in her basket and set them all up with hoops and cloth and thread. “Ready?” she asked, her needle threaded and poised above her scrap of muslin. “On you mark…go!”

They worked fiercely, every so often exclaiming over an error or crowing about a particularly well-done stitch. And there were insults, too, thrown indiscriminately between siblings. The hour passed quickly, swept up as they were in the competitive spirit.

“Stop!” said Athan. They each put forth their efforts. Petar’s was neat, but he’d only managed up to the letter “N”; Leslin’s was messier but he’d gotten as far as “T”. Kel’s looked good — she’d finished the alphabet and even managed a flower or two as decorations — until Athan turned it over to reveal a knot of threads on the back side.

“All right,” said Petar, lip curled. “Let’s see yours, then.”

Where the letters were made of straight lines, they were perfectly neat, front and back, though Kel fancied his curves were a bit ragged. Petar and Leslin seized on the fact that he’d only gotten to ‘Q’. Athan vigorously defended his stitches, saying that his was the strongest overall, and that Kel’s flowers should be disregarded entirely as they’d only agreed on letters. To this Petar and Leslin agreed, and suddenly the three boys were all against her.

Kel jumped up. “Why, you absolutely horrid little –”

“Princess Kelisin!”

The four children whirled. Lady Ainsley was standing in the doorway, horrified.

“Oh no,” Leslin muttered.

But Athan was quick to recover. “Lady Ainsley,” he said smoothly, going to the door and taking her by the arm. “Perfect timing! We find ourselves in desperate need of your assistance.”

The lady seemed perplexed by this, as well she might considering the trouble they’d all put her through the past few days, out of boredom and the wicked humor of the young. “You do?”

“Ah — yes,” said Athan. They paused as Lady Ainsley came in sight of the four embroidery hoops. “We need your expert opinion as a judge. Whose letters are the best?”

Kel, Leslin and Petar burst into laughter.

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