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a pearl in every cowslip's ear

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Thayet woke late to the sound of bells echoing around her chamber. She sat up with a gasp, heart pounding – palace bells, that deep jangling tone was palace bells – but gradually her panic eased a little, and she realised that the bells were lower and harsher in tone from the ones she was remembering. Not, after all, the melodic timekeepers of the Glass Palace that had marked out and divided the hours of her childhood into ceremony or lessons or prayers, a constant reminder of the rules and the laws that controlled her life, and her mother’s.

She was in Tortall, not Sarain. And she was safe: a guest in the elegant town house of Sir Myles of Olau. No threat of assassination, or forced marriage, or a heresy trial for the king’s daughter who had taken up too much of her mother’s heathen K’miri ways.

She would never hear the bells of her father’s palace again.

Slowly, Thayet forced herself to rise and dress. It was well past dawn, later than she usually woke; but there’d been too much conversation last night, too much drinking with Sir Myles and Alanna and Buri and the others. It had been a wonderful night, but now her stomach was queasy and her head ached with more than just tiredness.

She pushed the bad feelings down and kept moving, splashing cold water in her face and padding softfooted out of her rooms in her light summer boots.

An older maid met her there, bobbing a curtsy, and at Thayet’s question the maid smiled a little and explained that the bells had been an alarm call for a fire – a good distance away, my lady, and no need at all for you to fret for it, be easy now – her thickly accented Common still very difficult for Thayet to understand, but she was getting better at interpreting the ways Westerners drawled vowels and dropped consonants after several months of practice.

Thayet smiled at the maid and walked on, telling herself with every step, Tortall, Tortall, Tortall, until at last her foolish mind began to believe it.

 

 

Morning practice with Buri and Alanna was a little embarrassing, but the cool morning air helped her stomach stay steady, still mild and fresh so early in summer. Her head still ached a little, but Thayet was able to make it through their usual routine of exercises and sparring without too much humiliation.

Strong alcohol had been very strictly forbidden in the convent; before that, it had always been freely available at palace feasts and dinners, but for safety’s sake Thayet had avoided any adolescent experiments, not trusting that her mother’s enemies wouldn’t be able to use any moment of inattention or carelessness against them all. Until she came to Tortall she’d been quite unused to wine’s effects; but here, when she was with friends like Sir Myles and Alanna, she felt safe enough to experiment.

Buri teased her for her one graceless stumble, but not too badly. Alanna, who never drank for reasons probably similar to the ones Thayet herself had had for avoiding it, only grinned at her, and said nothing at all.

Thayet was glad of that. Even on an ordinary morning, it was hard not to feel clumsy and graceless beside Alanna's smooth, muscular confidence. Alanna was working on her routine of Shang punches and kicks now, moving fluidly through the forms with such speed and precision that it was impossible to believe she'd only begun practicing a few months ago. It was difficult not to stare at her, the way her light shirt revealed the swell of her biceps or her fierce grin at every successful pass - but that was something Thayet had practiced very well, these past months.

On this morning Thayet had worried, walking to the garden lawn they used for practice, that the Lioness might judge her, in tone or glance if not in words; it was such a relief to find herself wrong. Alanna’s good opinion mattered to her, Thayet was discovering; not just as the hero who had first dazzled her in Sarain, but as a respected comrade, and a friend.

Recently she’d been worrying, sometimes, that things might have changed between her and Alanna. The lady knight had changed from how she'd been'when they were all on the road together. Thayet thought she was quieter now, and less quick with a laugh or a joke – but surely that was nothing more than their mutual consciousness of their changed positions, Alanna the King’s Champion, the hero of Tortall, and Thayet only a guest with no family, no home. For all their equality on the road, Alanna had a position here to maintain, and as a female knight - Thayet was acutely conscious of the delicate, narrow path Alanna was walking, to maintain her status and her chosen occupation, both.

And if withdrawing was what Alanna was doing, she was doing it more subtly, more kindly, than any sophisticated Saren court woman had ever managed. Thayet did not feel herself lessened in Alanna’s eyes in any way, thought that Alanna did still wish to stay her friend, even if they weren't as close as they had once been.

Thayet was so grateful.

After practice Thayet bathed quickly and dressed again, this time more carefully, in a light summery gown patterned with green and white flowers. The cut was quite different from Saren lowland styles, although clearly akin to them; with some regret Thayet had found they did not suit her tall, slim frame quite so well as the dresses she had left behind in her homeland. She reminded herself, again, to speak to Kuri Tailor about adjusting the fit of her evening gowns before the next formal dinner she attended.

Since it was still morning, she did not bother to do anything too fancy with her hair, but Buri still helped with her braids, standing behind her to make sure not a single hair was out of place or unpinned.

Only when Buri had nodded her approval did Thayet rise and walk to the stables for the short ride to the Palace.

She breakfasted with Jonathan of Conte in a small, light, airy room overlooking a stretch of the gardens. Conversation between them was easy; Thayet liked Jonathan, very much. He was intelligent, and thoughtful, and he did not fear change merely because it was different. Thayet could see very clearly what kind of ruler he would be: not tradition-bound, not insisting on the doing of a thing merely because his father had always done it before him, always open to new thoughts and new ideas.

And he could make her laugh. That, perhaps, was the greatest point in his favour: the thing that had made her agree to keep meeting him even after his intentions had become clear to her; the thing that had made it seem possible and even desirable to consider marriage with not only a man, but a king.

That was the trap she’d fled in Sarain: but this did not feel like a trap. Tortall had its problems too, but there were so many here who were truly working to resolve them – not least the king-to-be himself.

At times she still doubted, but Thayet thought she could be happy as the wife of Jonathan of Conte – as a Queen.

The bells rang in this palace too, marking out the hours from morning to night in a blaring cacophony. But Thayet could brace herself for them; every time she came here they bothered her less.

One day she’d let go of Sarain for good.

After breakfast Jonathan had to leave her to meet with the Provost, but weeks ago he’d given her free run of the libraries, both the great Palace library and his own small and precious collection, and she took advantage of that every time she came. There was so much to learn – Tortallan history, and customs, and most importantly the law – if she was truly going to accept Jonathan’s offer.

She’d been trained to become a king’s wife, in the Glass Palace and in the convent, but not a ruler. In Sarain the Queen’s role was mainly ceremonial, and religious; certainly work, and difficult work at that, but nothing like what she planned to do when – if – Jonathan really did propose.

There was so much she could do. Education – schools – not just for a handful of children, but for tens of thousands across the nation. Pushing the laws to change to allow women more freedom, true equality for the Bazhir, more rights for commoners…

It was as if Thayet’s whole life had been spent in a narrow dark corridor, hemmed in by blank stone walls, and only now could she see the light ahead of her, the walls falling away. All was brightness and possibility; all the foolish childish dreams she’d once had, back in those early days when peace between her mother’s people and her father’s had still seemed possible, all those dreams she’d set aside years ago – suddenly they were more than just dreams.

 

 

Thayet was deep in a study of customary law amongst Hillman raiders when she heard footsteps close behind her. Thayet tensed, conscious suddenly of the dagger hidden in its sheath at her thigh and how quickly she would be able to twist her body to reach it…

“I thought you were meeting Jon for breakfast, not one of his codexes,” Alanna said, low and teasing.

Thayet relaxed – then tensed again, sitting bolt upright.

“Our ride! I was supposed to meet you at the palace stables after the eleventh hour bell… I am so sorry, Alanna!”

The other woman laughed.

“It’s alright, Thayet. I haven’t been in here for years, it’s probably good for me.”

Thayet grinned ruefully. “That was my plan all along, of course.” She closed the book in front of her and stretched, only then realising how stiff and cramped she was.

She caught Alanna’s sidelong look and straightened, trying not to blush. It had been easy to forget her ladylike habits while they were on the road together, but to forget herself here, in the very palace where she hoped to be Queen one day…!

“You still wanted to ride, then?” Was that a hopeful tone Thayet could hear in Alanna’s voice?

“Of course,” Thayet said, heartily. Surely not.

 

 

They took a narrow path that wound deep into the Royal Forest, Alanna on Moonlight, Thayet on a fiery black mare from Jonathan’s stables Alanna had told her was of Bazhir stock. The mare was very beautiful, and wonderfully responsive once she’d realised Thayet knew what she was doing and would not be putting up with any mischief, although the ostler had expressed doubts when Alanna had suggested her for Thayet.

He should have known better than to doubt the horsemanship of a K'miri woman. Thayet took more pleasure than was probably seemly in proving him wrong.

They trotted very decorously at first, but when the path took a sharp turn and then widened, straightening out for at least a mile, Thayet and Alanna looked at each other, the same thought very clearly occurring to both of them without even needing to speak - then urged the horses into a gallop.

It felt so good to let go, feeling the muscled power of the mare beneath her, hooves pounding in deep achingly familiar rhythm…

As a child, the only times Thayet had ever been allowed to ride astride like this were with her mother and Buri’s family, on trips to the estates her father had given her mother as part of her bride-price. Thayet had learned to fight there, and to ride K’miri-style; to do a groom’s work, too, caring for her own mount, carrying her own weight when it came to chores. Her mother had married a king, but she hadn’t been noble; when she’d gotten the chance she taught her daughter to live as a K’miri woman, capable and responsible.

It had been years since the last time they’d gone to Camau. Not since the war had started. Thayet still remembered, though.

She hesitated, hands hovering above a particular spot on her mount’s neck. She wasn’t nearly as capable as Buri, but she’d learned K’miri trick riding too… she could almost feel herself running through the familiar movements that would prepare her to stand in the saddle...

But no. Better not to try that for the first time in years at a full gallop across unfamiliar ground.

Before she could be tempted further she pulled up, slowly easing her mare back down to a walk. A little way ahead, off the path, she could see a small pond surrounded by sunny meadow, a good place to let the horses drink, she thought, and for her and Alanna to share their midday meal.

 

 

It was something like being back on the road again, the comforting crunch as the horses grazed, the simple pure flavour of brown bread and cheese and dried apples.

Thayet leaned back against her saddlebags, comfortable, her headache easing at last.

Beside her Alanna basked like a cat in a bright patch of sunlight, eyes closed and face tilted up to the sun. The light caught on her hair and pulled shimmering gold ribbons out of it, cast a warm glow on the soft creamy skin of her cheeks. In the quiet privacy of the meadow, Alanna had stripped down to a light shirt and sleeveless vest, and the sun lit up her bare arms too, highlighting the curve and bulge of her muscles, the tiny bronze freckles dotting her skin.

“Thayet,” Alanna murmured, and Thayet jerked out of her daydream, caught drifting, half-asleep. “You will stay in Corus, won’t you?”

Thayet nodded, firmly. “Yes. I like it here, very much. You told me that I would, but I didn’t really believe how much I'd like it until I got here.”

Alanna smiled, a quick bright flicker across her face.

“I’m glad of that. Then, you will – that is, you – “ She trailed off, unusually hesitant from the blunt, bold King’s Champion.

“Alanna?”

She sighed, heavily. “Will you marry Jon?” she asked at last.

Thayet’s heart skipped a beat.

“I think so,” she said, carefully, hesitantly. She didn’t want to talk about this with Alanna, she’d heard enough gossip to know why this particular conversation with this woman would be awkward, but it was more than that. “He hasn’t asked me yet. But I think – if he did – I might say yes.”

“I think you should,” Alanna said, with great deliberation. “That is – I think you’d do well together, the two of you. You’d make a wonderful Queen. And he isn’t always the easiest man to love, but it’s worth it, when you do.”

The last part Alanna said with her head turned away and her cheeks flaming, but it was sincere, nonetheless. Startled, Thayet leaned forward and touched her arm.

“If you’re regretting anything, I’d step aside for you in a heartbeat – “

“No!” Alanna burst out. “No, it’s not that at all! I’m quite finished with Jonathan of Conte, I assure you.”

Thayet couldn’t help her relieved sigh; she didn’t think Jonathan and Alanna would do well together, and nor was Alanna suited as a Queen, but it wasn’t her place to make that judgement. Not when Alanna had been his lover first.

“No,” Alanna said again, shaking her head decisively. “We’re not suited in the slightest, and if you love him – well, then that’s that.”

Thayet froze. It would be so simple just to nod and accept that statement, and let the conversation slide away into safer ground…

“But I don’t,” she said softly, surprising even herself. “Nor does he love me, I think. It won’t be a love-match, Alanna. We like each other, and I hope we'll be friends, but liking’s all it will ever be.”

Alanna frowned, turning to look at her.

“Thayet… if you’re worried about your future, you should know you have friends who will always take care of you. You don't need to agree to any marriage if you don't want it. Even if it's the King!”

Alanna herself would always take care of her, she meant; Thayet felt a warm glow in her chest.

“Thank you, truly, it means so much to hear you offer that. But, Alanna, it’s not that. I never thought I would have a love-match, it never seemed possible – I never really wanted it.” She paused. “My parents were a love match, in the beginning. At least on my father’s part, and my mother had thoughts that way as well – it wasn’t just the dream of peace between lowlanders and K’mir that brought the two of them together. But then it soured, as love matches so often do. Maybe it would have ended that way between them even if I’d been the boy they wanted, the boy that would have saved their dream...

“I don’t want that kind of danger, Alanna, putting everything - my love, my work, my whole life - on one single person. I want a marriage that’s a partnership, with someone I trust and respect. I could do so much here as Queen – I think that’s why the Jewel brought us together, why it brought me here - I'll have the work I've always dreamed of, and a partner I trust. But expecting to love that person as well is too much of a complication, too much of a risk.”

Alanna frowned, those deep eyes of hers troubled.

“So you’ll live without love at all? That’s a sad thing, Thayet, no one deserves that. You or Jon.”

“No,” Thayet said, even softer. Danger, there was so much danger here… but she did trust Alanna. “I won’t have to live like that, and nor will Jon. We’ve spoken of this, Alanna, in a roundabout way, and I think we’re both agreed on the kind of lives we’ll lead.”

Alanna’s frown was deepening. “If Jon is in love with another woman, and she loves him, he should marry her. He’s the King, he could do it, if the two of them wanted it enough.”

Another hesitation. “The person Jon’s in love with isn’t someone he could ever marry, Alanna. Not even as the King, not even in Tortall.”

“The person Jon is in love with is – oh!” Comprehension flooded her face. “There were rumours about him being like that, back when I was a squire – well, there were rumours about both of us, and for good reason – but of course those ended once Roger unmasked me. I know he's had other women before, but with some of the things he said to me, I should have guessed it wasn't just women for him. And so now he's found another lover - I should be happy for him, and I am, but poor Jon! It's such a hard way to live, having to keep the one you love a secret.”

Thayet smiled, a brief twitch of her mouth.

"Yes, I know," she said softly.

Alanna looked up at her, startled."

“You - you know too, Thayet?”

Alanna's voice was uncertain, and there was something in the way she phrased the question, something in the emphasis she put on the words... Thayet felt her heart beat faster.

There was a new look in Alanna’s eyes, a strange smile Thayet had never seen from her before. Something like the determination she displayed before a fight – but softer, wilder…

“Yes,” Thayet breathed. All of a sudden it was difficult to look at Alanna directly. “Yes, I’ve always been this way. I’ve always known I’d never love a man, even if I wed one.”

“Is it – Buri?”

Thayet shook her head sharply. “Buri’s my sister, Alanna! We’re both Hawk Totem, under K’miri law we truly are as close as bloodkin. No, I don’t have anyone like that now, but I could, one day. Marrying Jon wouldn’t stop me, if I found someone who could be discreet, someone who felt the same way I did...”

When had Alanna gotten so close to her?

“I suppose it would help if that person was already friends with Jon, wouldn’t it? Someone who had a good reason to spend time with both of you.”

“Alanna,” Thayet whispered. The other woman’s face was only inches away.

“I thought I was going to lose you,” Alanna said quietly. “I haven’t had many women friends before, and I liked you so much, and then it felt like Jon was stealing you away from me… I've been trying to hide it, but I was so afraid I was going to lose you!”

Thayet laughed. “There’s no need to be afraid of that, my dear. No reason for that at all.”

Their kiss was slow and delicate, and so sweet.