The original inhabitants of Grimhold had all been redheads. That was the story, anyway; it might even be a true one. Copper-headed people turned up in the mountains with startling frequency.
There was only one family anymore - the oldest one, the noblest one, as if either mattered - that were true redheads. Not a one of them, for generations back, was otherwise.
(There were, of course, the usual rumors. Exposure was a fact of life in the hard north.)
No, the redheadedness was expected of Trebonds. It was the return of the royal purple eyes - in not one, but both, the twins - that the Holdans all took as an omen.
King Jasson had ruled for not even twenty years. He had died, rather suddenly, while on the march towards the border of the Hill Country.
No one knew why. Whispers of treachery abounded; nothing, of course, could be proven. And he had been nearly fifty. Things happened, sometimes.
His eldest, Jonathan, was forced to inherit the throne at only twelve. The nobles circled like sharks; somehow, Jonathan had held on.
And now he had died, at almost the same age his father had, leaving behind an heir plenty old enough to rule.
Roger assumed the throne of Tortall in Corus at the age of twenty. He had ruled well enough, for the past fourteen years.
Scanrans rarely raided into Grimhold. They preferred the easy pickings of Galla to the east, and besides, the Holdans were known for their fearsome magic.
Still, some tried, and Trebond was their usual entry point.
There was a reason, back when the old Empire had existed, that Trebond had been the first non-Marenite fief ever established, the first non-Beratian family ever listed in the Book of Gold. Trebond of the Road, Trebond of the Passes, Trebond of the Overmountain Men, was the lynchpin of the north.
It was not a large step, ultimately, from that to kingmaker. The Trebonds had more real power than any of the lords in Berat, or, later, in soft Maren as a whole, and it had not been hard at all to stand back and watch their grand Empire dissolve, or to pick up the pieces and hold the old border against Scanra for nothing more than their own, now.
It had been no harder to watch the old king topple, undone by his own treason, stoned to death along with his family in the streets of Dunlath.
Once again, Trebond stepped in to pick up the pieces.
Prince Jonathan of Conté was not diplomat material, and he knew it.
Unfortunately, there weren't too many people that ranked high enough to go to Grimhold without insulting them.
My father would be better at this, Jon thought, moodily kicking a stone at the palace wall. But his mother was ill again, and not even a direct order from the King would get Roald to leave her side. Not that Roger would have given such an order.
…What it boiled down to was, Jon plain didn't want to go to Grimhold. The Holdans were mountain barbarians, as bad as the Scanrans that harried Tortall's coast during raiding season or the hillfolk to the south; the land was uncivilized and harsh. And Jon would be stuck there for the better part of a year at least, thanks to his uncle insisting on going right before winter.
Jon sighed, not caring a whit that he was acting like a spoiled brat much younger than he was, and tromped inside to pack.
There were servants for such, of course, but he intended to make sure he packed warm.
Alanna was out practicing her swordwork when Coram found her. He stood back and watched for a moment, a small fizzle of pride bubbling in his chest. He'd taught her, her and her brother both, and then sent off for other teachers when she'd outstripped him, and now look at her. Trebond's own princess, no matter how quick the family was to disavow any claim to royalty.
Like always, Coram thought, it fell to common folk to see plainly what the nobility tried to hide.
Alanna lowered her sword. "What, Coram?"
"Yer brother wanted me to remind ye that the diplomats from Tortall arrive tomorrow."
Alanna frowned. "I heard the roads were getting bad."
"Oh. He saw it?"
"I didn't exactly ask, lass," Coram replied. "Knowing him…"
Alanna couldn't quite repress the shiver.
The Great Road North was in surprisingly good repair; in an uncharitable mood, Jon wondered if that was more a testament to the craftsmanship of the old Empire's road-builders than the Holdans' industriousness.
He sighed, again, and bit back a curse as he heard the telltale sound of the cart running off the road again. Turning in his saddle, Jon sent a baleful glare at the driver; even with the snow cover, it wasn't that hard to tell where the road ended.
Gary, pulling up next to him, chuckled. "Leave your patience in Corus, did you?"
"Very funny, Gary." Jon graced his cousin with the same glare.
Unfortunately, Gary was immune. "Don't worry. We're almost to Trebond; I'm sure there will be plenty of pretty Holdan girls there for you to romance."
"I certainly hope not," Duke Gareth said dryly, from right behind Jon - who certainly did not jump at the sudden interjection, and Gary could really stop laughing any time now.
A man stepped out into the road.
Jon's hand went instinctively to his sword; so did Gary's. The Duke moved up even with his son and nephew and, with a warning hand on Jon's arm, bade them wait.
The stranger - who was not all that old, Jon saw now - was eyeing the stuck cart with faint distaste. "You Tortallans don't travel light, do you?"
Jon bristled. Gary, perverse creature that he was, relaxed.
A twitch of the young man's fingers set the cart back on the road - and rolling on its own, with its horse sedately plodding ahead like nothing odd was happening, completely out of step with the cart. Unnerved, the driver made the Sign against his chest, and the stranger snorted.
"You're coming, yes?" he said, and with a sudden start, Jon realized his eyes were purple. "I was expecting you hours ago."
Goddess, Alanna hated diplomacy. It always involved tedious long talks and stilted formal social events, and Alanna hated it all. Especially now that Father was dead, and she actually needed to sit through all of it.
It didn't help that the Tortallan prince was an ass.
She had had a moment of panic, earlier, when she hadn't been able to find Thom anywhere; if he'd snuck out on one of his secret jaunts again, leaving her to deal with the arriving visitors alone, she would have dunked him in the duck pond. In winter. Through the ice.
Fortunately, he had turned up an hour later, Tortallans in tow, talking amiably enough with the older man who looked to be in charge.
The delegation was politely small, smaller than Alanna had feared: only the man, introduced as Duke Gareth of Naxen, the King's prime minister; two knights, one of whom was very clearly the Duke's son; and a few servants.
The other knight, of course, was Prince Jonathan, sent along as a sign of respect for the Holdans, his presence serving as a sign that King Roger wanted these talks to succeed.
It would seriously help, Alanna thought, if this prince stopped looking like he was stepping in something unpleasant.
Maybe she'd go dunk him in the pond.
It would be frighteningly easy, Gareth realized, to manipulate Thom into a bad position. The young lord of Trebond was almost too earnest, almost too happy to be talking to someone new. All Gareth had really had to do was offer a sympathetic ear, and the young man had opened up with a tentative eagerness.
On the rest of the walk to Trebond proper, Thom had shyly asked about Gareth's Gift, and Gareth, wary of a trap, had confined himself to speaking of the basic training all Gifted Naxens received. Thom had done nothing but listen and ask shy questions in a creaky voice, despite the fact that he clearly had a much more potent Gift himself, and simple childish fire charms could not be that fascinating.
But now, three weeks into the diplomatic visit, it was becoming patently obvious that Thom of Trebond was starving for human contact.
It made Gareth very wary. There were plenty of people at Trebond; Thom's sister, for one, did not seem the kind to neglect her twin, no matter how clearly exasperated by him she was.
And speaking of the girl…
"A word of advice, Your Grace," Alanna said, standing awkwardly in the door to the modest library.
"Yes?" Gareth prompted, when she hesitated. He started to rise, but she waved him back to his seat.
Alanna bit her lip, then straightened. "My brother plays games, Your Grace. You should be used to them; I hear your king is the same."
Gareth's eyebrows shot up; flushing all the way to her ears, the current lady of the fief fled.
Jon was going for a turn around the surprisingly lovely gardens of the keep, designed to be attractive even bare in winter, when he heard the unmistakable sound of steel on steel.
"Thom, come on, you're better than that," snapped an exasperated Lady Alanna.
Jon, curious, followed the sound. A rough square of dirt was scraped clean of snow; in the middle of it, the lord and lady of Trebond (Jon couldn't stop the shiver of distaste at the phrasing, even in his thoughts, even though he knew custom here demanded there always be a lady of a house and it was in no way incestuous) faced each other with live swords in their hands.
Jon, amused, leaned against a nearby tree and watched.
Alanna was dressed unflatteringly in rough-woven practice clothes; so was her brother. Curiously and somewhat amusingly, they both held their swords like they actually knew how to use them. Jon had never met two more unlikely swordsmen in his life.
A brief flurry proved that, much to Jon's surprise, Lady Alanna really was better than her brother.
"Thom!" she snapped, hand on her hip. "Have you even been bothering to practice, or have you been doing nothing but magic the whole time you've been -"
Frantically, Thom motioned for her to shut up, and Jon realized that his presence had, in fact, been noticed.
"- Sneaking around Tortall," Alanna finished, before her brother's command registered.
Slowly, Alanna turned to face Jonathan, something deadly and hard in her purple eyes.
Thom didn't like this. He didn't like it one bit.
Alanna's slip of the tongue had cost him a lot; they could hardly kill a prince of Tortall, and the prince would undoubtedly share what he had overheard.
It was hard enough keeping Duke Gareth on his guard and off-kilter; the old man was canny and plenty ruthless, though fortunately for Thom, the man was honorable enough to want to seek an honest peace.
Unfortunately, the man was also far too perceptive. There was worry flickering in the duke's eyes now when he glanced at Thom - worry of a kind he usually only got from Alanna.
Damn the man.
Roger had backed him into a corner after all.