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It Could Be Worse - There Could Be Canapes.

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"We had a deal, Jon," Alanna yelled, her eyes flashing dangerously. "We had a deal." Instinctively her hand fell to the hilt of the sword that no longer hung at her side, and at its lack, her temper flared even higher. The closest thing to hand was a book - one of the heavy histories that Gary kept trying to talk her into reading - and she hurled it at Jon's head. It didn't hit him. She hadn't really expected it too, but watching him dodge was a little bit satisfying anyway.

"I know, I know," he said, his hands held up placatingly as he took a cautious step or two closer to her. "We still have a deal, I promise. Just...give it a little more time." The step was too much and a pretty little Yamani vase was hurled next, shattering loudly just beyond Jon's head.

"More time," she repeated, her voice low and dangerous now. "More time. Because Lord Stick-Up-His-Butt of Stone Mountain can't handle seeing your wife -" she twisted the word derisively "-do anything but pop out babies and embroider tablecloths. You promised me. It's been three years, we have two sons, now's the time."

"I know," Jon repeated, this time looking tired - almost as tired as Alanna remembered King Roald looking, and somewhere under the anger, her heart went out to him. He watched her a little warily, checking for other projectiles but determined to be fair. "Just - give it until Midsummer? I can't have the lords riled up right now. They're already upset about the changes in the courts and the supply levy for the army."

Alanna shot him a glare, pacing across the office, her heavy skirts rustling as she kicked them out of the way so she could take a full stride. Which was another thing she couldn't do at Court without the old biddies fainting away. She stopped dead as a tentative rap sounded at the door. Another rap and then it opened slowly, a servant's pale face peeking around the heavy wood.

"Y-Your Majesties?" the girl squeaked, her eyes darting from the furious Queen to the resigned King. "They're ready for you. In the main ballroom."

Jon stood, giving the girl a quick smile and thanks before Alanna could snap. "Won't do to keep the court waiting," he commented, offering Alanna his hand. After all, she probably only had two or three knives on her in that formal dress, and he was fairly certain she wouldn't stab him. "The rumors might start again."

Even through her rage, Alanna managed a near-smile and took his hand at the reminder of their inexcusable lateness to the first Midwinter celebration of their reign. If she hadn't gotten pregnant with Roald shortly thereafter, the gossips would probably still be going on about it. It was all her fault, of course, a woman knight, even worse, one who had pretended to be a boy in their very Court for years before finding the Dominion Jewel and 'stealing' the very eligible King-to-Be from the far more eligible noble maidens of the Court. The pompous windbags hadn't liked her then, and they still didn't like her now. Especially since her deal with Jon hadn't included stopping training and a good half of the young noble girls had taken up the 'fashion' of breeches and learning to fight. Some stuck with it and showed up to train with Alanna every dawn. Those, she liked.

A murmur went through the assembled courtiers as they bowed at the entrance of the King and Queen. The Queen's temper was well-known, and the signs of it - her flashing purple eyes and tight lips - made the required courtesies far shorter than usual. It was a situation that pleased Alanna perfectly, and for a moment, she felt like a squire again, skulking around the corner in the shadows of some drapery, trying to keep away from the social chatter and invitations to dance.

"The servants did throw dice to see who had to fetch you an' Jonny-boy," a voice murmured at her side, and Alanna glared up at one of the only people in Court who could sneak up on her. "Crockery, lass? Really? Were ye spending too much time watching th'fishwives last time you were in Port Caynn?"

"It wasn't crockery!," she shot back, her voice low but indignant.

George quirked an eyebrow at her, his hazel eyes dancing with amusement. "That does make it all better then."

She snorted, unable not to be amused. Of course George knew. Ex-Rogue he might be, but he was still the spymaster, and Alanna sometimes wondered if he made sure he heard every bit of gossip in Tortall just to have ammunition - verbal or otherwise - against people who annoyed him. Or people who annoyed her. It had taken over a year to get George to admit his handiwork in squashing some of the worst rumors that had sprung up around her and Jon's marriage, but Alanna had never stopped being grateful. "It was - oh, whatever. He's still stalling, George. It's always something. The boys or the nobility or some other excuse. He knew who I was when he married me, and I'm not ...this." Her exasperated gesture took in the ornate dress and the Court and the heavily perfumed nobility circulating through the overheated room.

"You knew who he was too," he pointed out gently.

Alanna shrugged, granting his point. Not that it helped. Much. She knew Jon was her King. He was a great King already, and she was proud to be able to work at his side and see the good they'd been able to do for their country. The changes they still could make. But the old wanderlust still raged through her, and administrative trivia and delegation were just as boring as they'd been when she was a page waiting tables at Court. Every road still ended up with Jon reneging over and over again on their deal, and Alanna pacing through the palace like a - like a caged lioness. Even in her annoyance, she could recognise the inanity of that simile, and Alanna almost managed to smile at herself then more solidly up at George. "Don't think you teased me into a good mood or anything," she threatened, reaching to squeeze his hand lightly. "Because I'm not.

He nodded seriously, lips quirking into a smile. "Don't be a cracknob, lass, I've known I couldn't tease you into anything since you were eleven years old. Some might call ye stubborn, but I prefer pigheaded." He let out an 'oof' of' of air and a laugh at her quick punch to his ribs. "What would th'courtiers say did they know you were assaulting me?"

"Probably that you deserved it," she retorted sourly.

George chuckled at the comment then tensed as he glanced over her head. "Don't look now, but Prosten of Tamerlane is headin' over, an' I'm not ready t'talk to him quite yet. Dance wit' me?"

Rolling her eyes, Alanna held out her hand. "You owe me so much. If I dance with you, I have to dance with everyone." Or the gossip - yet more gossip - would start up again about the best friend of the King and Queen being perhaps more than a friend. Alanna's reaction the first time she'd heard those rumors was still a story the palace servants told their rustic brethren in hushed voices.

"I'm riding north in a few days after the Festival," he offered, bowing as he led her towards the dancing. "Not quite to th' Scanran border, but there's some things I'm needing t'check. You could come."

"You want me to ride north? In the middle of winter?" Alanna's reply was horrified. "It's cold there. Why in the Goddess' name would I go north when I didn't have to?"

He laughed heartily, drawing looks from the other dancers. "Ride south then. Visit the Bazhir. It's been, what, eighteen months since you've made a trip to the desert?" She frowned as she looked up at him, but George just smiled back. He knew that look of Alanna's. He'd wager his last gold coin she'd have found a way to be off before the month was out.

****

Six weeks later...

Alanna made a face at loom. She didn't know what had gone wrong, but the threads were snarled around each other hopelessly and every time she tried to tug one, the entire knot tightened until even the deftest fingers couldn't untangle it. It was rather like her life, she pondered, tangled in a knot of duties and yearnings and frustrations that she couldn't manage to unravel. She didn't know if she wanted to unravel it. These past weeks with the Bazhir had been wonderful. She was herself again, the Woman Who Rides Like a Man, shaman to the Bloody Hawk tribe. Sometimes she sat in on lessons for the young shamans or talked with the older ones about magic and the tribes and the changes. Here she could represent Jon without being smothered by it.

She snorted at herself. "If Faithful were here, he'd be rolling around laughing at you," she said out loud, still glaring at the mess on her loom. "And then he'd start in about self pity and stubbornness."

"...Alanna?" Kara, one of the young shamans Alanna had trained on her first visit to the Bazhir had poked her head into the tent. She looked worried. "Are you...?"

"I'm talking to myself," she admitted, beckoning Kara in and pointing at the mess she'd made of her weaving.

"Maybe that's why your work is so poor," she teased, smiling and confident, so different from the diffident girl Alanna had first met. She was a good shaman, well-respected and far more patient than Alanna would have been with those of the Bazhir men who still had difficulties accepting a woman as shaman.

"Probably," Alanna agreed, wrinkling her nose. "I've forgotten everything I knew about weaving. Not that I ever was even as good as a little girl here, but now I'm more hopeless than when I started."

"You can learn again," Kara replied, reaching to start to try to pick apart the tangle. "It's like - when I was learning to control the winds, you told me that it doesn't matter how many times you fall down as long as you got up one more time. I never forgot that."

"I forgot that," she said quietly, the words striking home. She continued before she lost her nerve, trusting in the Kara's wisdom to understand what she meant. "It - it seemed easier to get up then."

Still focused on the loom, the younger shaman smiled just a little to herself. Finally they'd gotten to why Alanna had arrived so suddenly, accompanied by only a few instead of the many men the Queen of Tortall should have. "You are the Woman Who Rides Like a Man. The path you follow is a new one, but you make it your own." She paused a few moments, tugging on this thread than that, but eventually she looked up at Alanna, her face serious. "You could stay with the Bazhir. You are always welcome."

Alanna shook her head before she even realised she'd responded. "There's no honor in running away," she murmured. She was sworn to Tortall twice - three times over. Once in her Oath as a knight, once when she was crowned Queen, and a third time when she'd promised Jon. More than that, her sons - her and Jon's sons - would inherit the country they made, both good and bad. The old urge to roam the world as a knight errant surged up again. It was tempting. The deal she'd made with Jon even allowed for it. She shook her head again, giving Kara a smile. "Show me again how to weave without the knots."