He knew he was feverish. He could feel the world slipping away from him, and he sighed happily. He was finally dying. Shortly, maybe, he could go see Marinie.
He thought he could feel a woman's hands pulling him down, a woman's voice pulling the dark hot weight of illness tighter around him.
The voice wasn't Marinie's. It was too deep, and something in it reminded him of rooks cawing. He thought, randomly, insanely, of Alanna, and then of Thom.
Marinie wouldn't want to see him. Not unless he could bring word of them.
He fought that dark grip, reaching for the Gift he hadn't used in a decade and a half except for those moments when he, in his weakness, couldn't help himself, and burned the illness out of his body.
His fever broke.
And Lord Alan of Trebond woke.
A soft, yet insistent, tapping drew his attention away from the fire. With a grimace, Lord Alan muttered, "What?"
He was, unfortunately, still loud enough to be heard, and the door creaked open. Meriham stuck her head in and muttered an apology.
"My lord, there's two letters just arrived for you," the maid said, bobbing a curtsey. "One from Corus, and one from the City of the Gods."
A faint flicker of interest lit Lord Alan's dull green eyes, and he extended a hand. Meriham handed him the letters, bobbed another curtsey, and slipped out, shutting the door firmly behind her.
Lord Alan's attention was already on the letters. It had been six years since he'd last received a letter from the palace, and he idly wondered if Gareth had managed to get Thom's name right yet. And this would be the first he'd yet heard of Alanna.
Alan sat down at his desk and poured himself a glass of wine. He opened the top letter first; it was from the palace, and informed him in Duke Gareth's sharp slanted script that Alan was excelling in his studies, and had been taken on as a squire to the Prince himself, and was a matchless swordsman.
Well, Alan thought, setting aside that letter and reaching for the other one, Gareth still couldn't get the name right. He took a sip of his wine.
The second letter informed him in harried tones that Thom was doing well at the Mithran cloisters, and was well on his way to mastery at only sixteen if only he'd stop playing dumb, and Alan smirked. It figured that Thom would be just as much of a handful as he'd always been.
Then Lord Alan blinked, and looked at the letters again, and came perilously close to spraying wine across some invaluable volumes on siege warfare.
Gareth hadn't screwed up the names after all. Alanna and Thom had switched.
It was an idle midsummer day, and Alanna had nothing to do. She was wandering the courtyards, thinking about everything and nothing, and her mind turned to the Ordeal. It was only a year and a half away. Now, that didn't seem so long, and yet it seemed too long.
Stop fretting, Faithful ordered, trotting along beside her. It will come, whether you want it to or not. Now find something else to think about.
Alanna grinned. "Shall we go look at the flowers then, Your Majesty?"
Faithful hissed, and pounced at her ankles. Laughing, Alanna darted off, and was about to turn the corner when Faithful shouted, Stop!
Faithful had never spoken to her that way before; Alanna froze, instantly. Faithful ran forward and sat on Alanna's feet, ears flat to his skull and tail bristling.
Cautiously, look, Faithful ordered. Alanna complied, peeking around the corner at the main courtyard.
A short man stood there, shoulders stiff, obviously angry. He wore the plain garb of a border lord, and Alanna was just wondering what about this new arrival had upset Faithful so much when the man turned away from his argument with Timon.
It was her father.
Alanna swallowed a gasp, spun on her heel, and ran for her rooms as if her life depended on it.
The door to his office slammed open, and the absolute last person in the world Duke Gareth wanted to see again strode in, practically vibrating with rage. Timon followed him in, shooting a resigned but apologetic look at Gareth and bowing; Gareth motioned him out, and the manservant left, shutting the door behind him and leaving Gareth alone with a very angry Alan of Trebond.
"Lord Alan," Gareth said, not bothering to rise. "What brings you down-"
Alan slammed both hands flat on Gareth's desk and leaned forward, his face uncomfortably close to Gareth's. Well within biting distance, Gareth thought, remembering one too many unfortunate encounters with an irascible page; he shifted away, the stump of his finger throbbing, as Alan snarled, "Where. Is. My. Daughter?"
Gareth blinked. "You have a daughter?" At Alan's dark glare, Gareth felt his own temper flare up. "Why would you even expect me to know where she is?"
Alan laughed. It wasn't a very happy sound, and was rather strangled. "She's pretending to be a boy. You've sent me two progress reports on her, now. You didn't know?" He laughed again, sounding near hysteria.
Gareth did rise, now, and he came around the desk, took Alan by both shoulders, and steered him into a chair. Alan dug his hands into Gareth's arms, pinning him in place. Green eyes bored up into Gareth's brown.
"Where is my daughter?" Alan hissed again.
Gareth wrenched himself out of Alan's grasp; apparently, sixteen years hiding in his keep hadn't weakened his grip any. "Why don't you start from the beginning?" Gareth said, using the exact tone of utter reasonableness that he knew pissed Alan off to no end.
It still worked, too, Gareth thought happily as Alan went brick red. "I have two children. A boy and a girl," he said, in a mocking sing-song. "Alanna and Thom. I thought, when I got your first letter, that you'd had one of your sadly typical moments of stupidity, and simply messed up Thom's name." He grinned as Gareth bit back a sigh. "Then I got your most recent letter, and by coincidence also received a letter from the City of the Gods."
"Let me guess," Gareth said, rubbing the bridge of his nose. "The letter from the City mentioned Thom."
"Yes," Alan agreed, looking like he had just as much of a headache as Gareth was developing. "They switched places."
Jon was idling in the halls when Alanna ran by, Faithful a black blur at her heels, and nearly knocked him over. He began to follow, then thought better of it.
When Alanna was that upset, it was generally better to leave her alone for a bit.
That thought in mind, Jon headed for the library, only to be yanked unceremoniously backwards right before he reached the entrance.
His cousin stood there, glowering down at him.
"What do you want, Gary?" Jon snapped, straightening his tunic.
"I heard the most interesting thing, just now," Gary said, mouth set. "The lord that just arrived was yelling at Father, pretty loudly, so you can't really accuse me of eavesdropping," he added at Jon's glare.
"What?" Jon prompted, resigned, when Gary hesitated.
Gary squared his shoulders and looked down at Jon, brown eyes solemn. Jon almost flinched; whatever this was, it was bad.
"Our newest arrival is one Lord Alan of Trebond," Gary said, voice tightly controlled, and Jon felt the world drop out from underneath him. "What's this about Alan being a girl?"
Jon went white, then ran for his rooms.
"-Is not my fault! It's not like we strip all newcomers on the spot!"
At the uncharacteristic shout, Raoul and Alex exchanged glances. Duke Gareth never yelled.
"It damn well is," an unfamiliar voice snarled. "Tell me, Gareth, how is it my daughter has managed to so successfully deceive all of you?"
The voices were getting closer, rapid footsteps accompanying them. Alex looked around quickly, but there was no place to hide.
"While we're on the subject, how did your son and daughter manage to switch places without your knowledge?" Duke Gareth snarled as the men turned the corner. "I've been sending you regular progress reports for years, and you only now catch on? Six years later?"
The short man went even redder and opened his mouth to retort, then caught sight of the younger knights and closed his mouth with a snap. Duke Gareth turned and halted, eyeing Raoul and Alex.
The two younger knights exchanged nervous glances.
Duke Gareth fought back a grin. "Stop acting so skittish," he said. "Now tell me, have either of you seen Alan?" The other man's mouth jerked at the name.
Alex shrugged. Raoul said, "I think he's in his room." He gestured vaguely down the hall.
It wasn't until after the short redhead had stormed off down the hallway, dragging Duke Gareth behind him, that Alex and Raoul put two and two together.
"Wait," Alex said, dark eyes oddly nervous. "Alan is a girl?"
Raoul, pale, nodded. "It makes a weird amount of sense, doesn't it?"
They exchanged glances, then turned to follow the older men.
Alanna was pacing back and forth in her room when she heard the voices. Her father was yelling at Duke Gareth, sounding far more animated than she had ever heard him, and the normally calm duke was snapping back. More importantly, the voices were rapidly approaching.
Ignoring Faithful's disgruntled hiss, she flung open the door to Jon's room, and ran headlong into Jon. Gary stood behind him, face set.
"Alanna," Jon said, eyes oddly knowing; he reached to grab her arm. "You can't run from him."
She jerked away, knowing now with utter certainty that her cover was blown, and strode back into her room. "Watch me," she said, flinging open her shutters.
Don't you dare, Faithful hissed, scampering towards her. Jon, also catching on, lunged towards her, but Alanna had already swung herself out of the window.
She had forgotten that her new room was three stories up, in a section of the palace that was less heavily ornamented than others.
"Don't be stupid, Alanna," Jon said, leaning out the window. Angry knocking emanated from the direction of her door; at Jon's nod, Gary moved to open it.
Ignoring Faithful's yowl and Jon's hand, thinking only of the fact that her cover was blown, her father knew, and suddenly feeling about ten and like she'd just shoved Thom in the duck pond again, Alanna let go.
Alanna woke in her bed to Faithful curled on her chest and licking her face. When he noticed she was awake, he fluffed and tucked his paws under his chin, looking away. That was the stupidest stunt I think you've ever pulled.
"I agree with that, lass," Coram said.
She turned towards her friend, feeling woozy. "Coram?"
He brushed back her hair. "Aye, lass?"
"What happened?" she croaked.
"You jumped out a third-story window, that's what happened," snapped a too-familiar voice. Alanna groaned. She'd been hoping that was all a dream.
Turning, blinking back grayness as her vision swam, Alanna looked at her father.
He was sitting on the other side of her bed, glaring at her with sharp green eyes that, aside from their color, reminded her of nothing so much as Thom in a temper. He was resting his chin in one hand; the other was resting lightly on her wrist.
He looked much more alive than Alanna could ever recall him looking.
A flicker of color caught her eye, and she saw a faint glimmer of purple fire dance around her father's fingers. She raised an eyebrow, too tired to make a fuss.
Her father followed her gaze and blushed, jerking his hand back. "You fell over twenty feet, and landed hard," he snapped. "You broke a leg, bruised yourself all over, and cracked your damn fool skull open. Did you think I'd just let you suffer?"
Alanna blinked. Coram chuckled, smoothing her hair back again.
"Yer father is one of the best healers in Tortall," Coram said, grinning at Alanna's surprise. "He was once a candidate for chief healer, but someone with better bedside manner won out." The last bit was directed teasingly at her father, who went red.
"I always thought it was a shame," Coram continued softly, looking at Lord Alan, "that ye stopped usin' yer Gift." He reached across Alanna and gently pried her father's hand loose from where he gripped her blanket, folding it gently in both his own.
Alanna stared at them, eyes wide. Her father glanced at her and went even redder, yanking his hand back as if burned. Coram grinned wider and winked at Alanna, then stood.
"I'll go and let yer friends know yer okay," he said to Alanna, bowing to Lord Alan, who was studiously not looking at him. Coram chuckled again, then left.
Alanna stared after him, then looked at her father, her eyes still a touch too wide.
Her father's face was now entirely red, and clashed horribly with his hair. Gently, she touched his sleeve. "You and Coram?" she asked, throat still too dry to talk well.
Her father helped her sit up slightly and held a glass of water to her lips. He avoided her gaze.
She drank, obediently. "Father?"
He cleared his throat and met her eyes, obviously realizing she wasn't about to let this go. "It was a long time ago," he snapped, but his eyes gave the lie to that.
Alanna smiled and patted his arm awkwardly. He blinked, and tapped a knuckle to her nose, like he had when she was very small. He looked at her for a long moment, then graced her with an odd half-smile.
Jon opened the door connecting their rooms and stuck his head through, blue eyes worried, and the smile fell off Lord Alan's face, replaced by a rapidly-becoming-familiar glower.
Jon, Alanna was amused to note, jerked back slightly at her father's look. "How is she?" he asked, fidgeting with the doorknob. "Coram said she was awake."
"She is," her father said, voice cool. "But she'll be bedridden for a few more days." At Alanna's noise of protest, he turned to glare at her. "Do I need to repeat the list of your injuries?" At Alanna's sullen silence, Lord Alan's eyebrows snapped together.
"Let me put it this way," he said, practically biting out the words. "You will stay in this bed and you will rest, or I will put you to sleep until you're done healing. Keep fighting me on this, and you'll be here at least a week."
Alanna glared back, and Jon, off to the side, choked off a laugh.
"That's the snapdragon I know," Coram said, teasing affection lacing his voice. He grinned as Alan went red again, and looked at Alanna. "Ye can see what I meant about his bedside manner, can't ye, lass?"
Alanna couldn't help it; she grinned. Jon chuckled.
"Can we see her?" Raoul asked, peeking over Coram's shoulder.
Alanna nodded; her father's mouth was tight, but he, too, gave Coram a short nod. Coram stood aside, and Raoul, Gary, and even Alex filed into the room, staring at Alanna.
Well. This wasn't awkward at all, Alanna thought wryly. "Hi," she said, and winced as that came out entirely too chirpy.
Her father rolled his eyes. Alex snorted; Gary chuckled, and the ice was broken. Sort of.
"How are you?" Raoul said.
"I'm fine," Alanna said automatically, wincing as her father glared at her.
"No, you're not. You'll be fine. You have to rest."
Alanna sighed. "I am."
They lapsed into another awkward silence. Finally, with a sigh, Alex broke it.
"Why didn't you tell us?" he asked, and suddenly Alanna felt bad about being so suspicious of him recently; that was genuine hurt in his voice.
"I would like to know the same thing," her father said, and Alanna could hear the barely-leashed anger in his voice. "In fact," he said, green eyes snapping, "I'd like to know what possessed you two to try this whole idiotic stunt in the first place."
Alanna tried to force moisture back into her dry mouth. "How did you find out?" she asked.
Her father, oddly, grew calmer. He leaned back, steepling his fingers in front of him, angry green eyes steady on her face. "I get regular progress reports, or at least I am supposed to. Something has been messing with the mail," he growled.
Faithful muttered something entirely uncomplimentary about the Goddess that Alanna was sure she wasn't supposed to hear.
"That's not my fault," Alanna protested, realizing what her father suspected. "I've never messed with any letters sent to you. I don't think it would occur to Thom, either," she said, belatedly remembering him.
"Probably not," her father agreed, and now Jon, too, had recognized this as the calm before the storm and was shooing the others out. "In fact, I'd wager all of Trebond that this whole fiasco was your idea."
Raoul was the last one out, dragged out bodily by Gary and Alex. Coram shut the door behind them and leaned against it, watching silently. Jon, too, remained, hovering in his doorway.
Alanna said nothing.
Lord Alan was tapping the arm of his chair, very, very slowly. "I'm waiting for your explanation," he said with exaggerated patience.
"I want to be a knight," Alanna said. "Thom hates fighting; he wants to be a sorcerer. We knew you'd disapprove; it was simpler to just switch."
Her father's eyes had grown darker with each word. "And you assumed I'd never figure it out, I take it." It wasn't a question. "You two both just assumed that you wanted it, so it would happen, and this farce would never come to light."
Alanna's temper snapped. "It's not like you ever noticed us anyway!" she snarled, lurching upright. "We tried telling you we didn't want to do what you'd said; I tried telling you I didn't want to go to convent and be some silly lady, but you never listened to us, did you?"
Her father didn't so much as blink. "And the whole time you've been here, learning duty inside and out, you never figured out the irony, did you?" His voice was musing, almost mocking.
Alanna glared. "What are you talking about?"
Alanna had gotten her temper from somewhere, and her father lost his now. "You already had a duty," he hissed, hands digging into the arms of the chair, leaning forward. "You've spent all this time learning what duty is, and how it isn't something you can simply pick and choose, and it never dented your selfishness, did it?" He shoved himself out of the chair and began to stalk back and forth, ignoring Coram and shooting one icy glance at Jon.
"I would have made a horrible lady," Alanna snapped. "Thom would've made a worse knight."
"And I can't wield a sword without damn near chopping off my arm," her father snapped in turn, wheeling on her. "There's more to both than either of you, in your eleven-year-old shortsightedness, realized."
"I didn't want to be useless!" Alanna screamed, jerking forward so fast her head spun.
A sharp slap left a burning sting across her cheek. Furious green eyes bored into her own, and she wondered meanly why she'd ever wanted her father's attention at all.
He stared down at her, face disturbingly blank and eyes like the sharpest ice, for a long moment, then said quietly, voice trembling in fury, "Your mother was never useless."
Lord Alan turned on his heel and left.
Alanna raised one hand to weakly press against her cheek. She sank back against her pillow and bit her lip, trying vainly not to cry.
"Alanna? Do you want me to stay?" Jon asked softly. She shook her head, and he said, "All right. I'll be in my room," and left, pulling the door to.
Coram sighed. "I'll go talk some sense into him, lass." He brushed a thumb under her eyes, and smiled down at her. "He does love ye, little as ye may believe that."
"He sure doesn't act like it," Alanna muttered, and Coram sighed again and left.
Alone at last except for Faithful, Alanna cried.
Coram didn't have to go far to find Alan. The other man stood at the end of the corridor, head down and hands shaking. Coram, drawing closer, sucked in a breath.
He wasn't angry. He was weeping.
"Oh, Alan," Coram said, knowing his old friend wouldn't begrudge him the familiarity. He reached for his lord, but Alan jerked back, looking up at him with betrayed green eyes.
"How could you help her do this?" Alan hissed, swiping impatiently at his cheeks. "How could you let them switch, and then not tell me?"
Coram sighed. "Maude had already taken Thom off down towards the City when I figured it out," he said. "Alanna said she'd seen somethin' in the fire, and honestly, Alan, she always was better at this sort of thing than Thom."
"I know," Alan said, voice raw. "That was never the point."
"Maybe," came a cold voice from behind them, and damn but the Prince sounded just like his father, "you should go explain that to your daughter." Jonathan turned and went back into his room before either man could respond.
Alan looked at Coram, biting his lip, and Coram had to laugh. "She's just like ye, ye know," he said, and this time when he reached for Alan, Alan didn't move away.
The door to her room opened again, and Alanna snarled, "Go away." Faithful hissed at the intruder, which meant, Alanna thought with a random flash of humor, it was either Duke Roger, some strange dog, or her father. She rolled further away, pulling the blankets up over her shoulders and ignoring the throbbing pain in her leg.
"Alanna," her father said, voice subdued.
She yanked the blankets higher, up to her ear. "Go away," she said icily.
He sighed and came closer.
"I said go away!" Alanna screamed, flinging herself into a sitting position with every intention of shoving him away. Instead, her vision grayed out and she swayed as Faithful yowled plaintively.
She batted at the hands that gripped her shoulders and pushed her back down. Cool violet light played over her head as her father's hands rose to her temples.
"I thought I told you to rest," he murmured.
Alanna snorted, and jerked away, closing her eyes as her vision steadied.
One cool hand cupped her bruised cheek; she felt the icy cold sensation that meant the bruise was being healed. He sighed, and she felt him move to tuck the blankets up around her, up to her ears, just like he had when she'd been small and sure the monsters would get her.
After a long moment, her father sat back. "I'm sorry, Alanna," he said, and the heavy guilt underlying those words was what prompted her to open her eyes.
Alan huffed a laugh at the picture his grown daughter made, tucked into bed with only her eyes and the top of her head showing, then lost his slight smile as he realized that, whether she was aware of it or not, she was trying to ward him off.
She was equating him, somewhere in her mind, with her childhood bogeyman.
He reached out to brush her hair back, only to jerk back as she flinched. The little black cat that seemed to own his daughter jumped up onto her shoulder and hissed at him, ears back and fur starting to fluff.
Alan sank back, tucking his arms miserably around himself. He looked away.
Her father, Alanna realized abruptly, had been crying; there was no other explanation for the red-rimmed eyes, or the unfortunate blotchiness she'd clearly inherited from him. He was worrying his lower lip now, an expression so Thom she almost laughed, and some small part of her mind wondered how the two of them could share so many mannerisms with a man they barely saw.
"Do you really think," he said finally, when the silence had stretched for far too long, "that I didn't know what you two wanted?"
Alanna couldn't help it; she started in surprise. Alan took one look at his daughter's wide violet eyes and smiled wryly.
"You were both rather vocal about it," he said; then, faintly teasing, "You made it impossible to study." He lost the teasing tone, and turned to meet her eyes. "But you both, honestly, needed to learn discipline, and you both, I felt, needed to learn things you never would have had I let you do what you wanted. I couldn't have let you try for your knighthood anyway," Alan said, dark eyes serious. "You would never have been accepted."
"I know," Alanna said, rolling onto her back and ignoring Faithful's put-out yelp.
"If I'd known you two would go this far, though…" Alan sighed, resting his arms on his thighs and leaning forward. "I don't know," he whispered. "I just don't know. I could've let Thom go off to the cloisters easily enough, if I'd realized what he was prepared to do to go there, but you…"
He didn't have to finish. They both knew. Alanna's only option would've been to go and be a warrior priestess at the Goddess' temple, and Alanna didn't want that. Not at all.
Alanna brushed his sleeve. "It's all right, Father," she said, surprised to find that it really was. "Just don't take me away now."
He looked at her, green eyes miserable. "I may not have a choice, dumpling."
Alanna didn't want to think about that.
She frowned, belatedly, at the pet name. "I'm not a dumpling," she complained, completing the old childish ritual.
Alan chuckled, and tapped her nose again, laughing harder when she wrinkled up her nose at the sensation.
Something hot and tight and hurt unsnarled inside both of them.
A letter arrived for Alanna the next day; Gary brought both it and breakfast to her.
"George sent this," he said, handing it over. "He said it's from your brother."
Alanna thanked him, and Gary helped her sit up. She was less dizzy today, and her leg hurt less, but she was still woozy.
Gary stared at her for a moment, then turned to leave.
"Gary," Alanna called, then bit her lip.
He turned back, one eyebrow raised.
"I'm sorry, for not telling any of you," she said, fidgeting with the parchment in her hands.
Gary's eyes softened. "It's okay," he said. "We all know why you had to. Eat your breakfast and read your letter; your father'll be up here when he's done yelling at mine." He left.
Alanna opened the letter. It was, for Thom, surprisingly short, and the contents made her spit her porridge across the bed. Faithful, looking utterly disgusted, flicked an ear and began to lick himself clean.
"What?" her father said, thumping her back as she choked. She passed him the letter.
By the time you get this, I'm sure Father will already be there, so you might as well share this with him.
I have passed the necessary tests for Mastery, including the Ordeal, which was mind-numbingly stupid. I have furthermore, in light of recent events, discovered a sudden and entirely unexpected calling to serve the great Mithros, and have therefore persuaded the Order to admit me as a monk.
Sorry I can't tell you in person, but unfortunately, I'm no longer permitted to leave, given the vows I have taken. No one is more surprised than me, believe me; I have never been one for religion, so my sudden passionate faith has proven rather overwhelming. Solitude and silence are serving me well.
Tell Father I said hello and watch out for our smiling friend, sister dear. You could stand to be a bit more paranoid.
There was a long silence as her father read the letter, read it again, and then neatly refolded it, handing it back to Alanna.
"Apparently," he said, "I didn't know Thom as well as I thought."
"I wasn't expecting this either," Alanna rasped, coughing again. She reached for her juice and sipped meditatively as her father, looking rather like he'd just been thumped over the head by Raoul during staff practice, pulled out her chair and sat. He steepled his fingers and stared blankly off into space.
"Father?" Alanna said tentatively, after another long pause.
Lord Alan jerked, then turned to face her. "What did Thom mean, when he said you needed to be more paranoid?"
Alanna flushed. "He thinks Duke Roger's plotting something," she said, chuckling nervously.
Her father's eyes were not amused. "Why?"
Alanna met his eyes for a long moment, then, sighing, told him their suspicions.
"The Ysandir incident alone would be enough to raise my suspicions," Lord Alan said. He was staring curiously at her ember. "And given what you've seen with that," he nodded at the ember, "well, I'd consider that past suspicion and well into proof."
"It's not proof enough to hold up in court, though," Alanna said, fingering her ember.
"Actually, it might be, especially if its power can be demonstrated before a magistrate."
Alanna's mouth jerked. "It still doesn't feel like enough to confront him with," she said. "And lately, I've been thinking about this a lot. I'm less and less sure of any of this," she confessed. Her father just looked at her steadily, eyes urging her on. "I always wanted to do great deeds," she said, flushing a little at how childish that sounded. "What if I'm imagining all this so I can have some great enemy?"
"You have never been that flighty," Alan said dryly, leaning back. His daughter was worrying her lip and stirring her porridge aimlessly. "Eat that," he added as an afterthought, nodding at her tray. "You need the energy," he said when she looked at him, startled.
After she was finished, Alan leaned forward, pressing a glowing hand to Alanna's forehead. Alanna let his Gift wash through her, sighing as it eased the soreness in her leg and drove off the threatening headache.
"You're healing well," her father said, sitting back. "Another day, two if you're rowdy, and you'll be up and-" He leaned forward abruptly, staring at her neck.
"What?" Alanna snapped, uncomfortable.
Alan reached out, tugging gently at a fine gold chain until a small charm rested over her nightshirt. His eyes darkened. "A pregnancy charm?"
Alanna snatched it away, tucking it back under her shirt. "What's it to you?" she snapped, completely forgetting who she was addressing.
Her father was tapping the arm of the chair again. "Is there any particular reason you need one?" he asked, voice low and unsteady.
Alanna, unconsciously, glanced at the door connecting her room to Jon's.
Her father, unfortunately, noticed the glance.
Jon had spent the whole night fretting over Alanna, and consequently had fallen asleep over his breakfast. Raoul, laughing, had helped him sit up after his face had landed in his toast; the other knight had then proceeded to drag Jon bodily up to his room and deposit him in his bed.
"Gary will handle that," Raoul said, when Jon muttered something about remembering to feed Alanna. "Get some sleep before you pass out cold in the hallway. I'll make your excuses to anyone looking for you."
Jon murmured something and was out like a light.
He awoke abruptly what felt like only minutes later, when the door between his room and Alanna's slammed open.
The short, angry redhead standing in the doorway was definitely not Alanna. Alanna didn't have a beard. Nor, Jon thought, squinting, did she have green eyes.
"Lord Alan?" Jon said blearily. He struggled to sit up and planted his feet on the floor. "How may I help you this morning?"
Lord Alan made a sound like an angry teakettle and stomped over to Jon, poking him in the chest with one long bony finger. "You can tell me what, exactly, you were thinking when you decided to seduce my daughter."
"Father!" Alanna snapped. Jon could hear her yanking at her blankets.
Lord Alan spun. "You stay in bed," he snarled at his daughter, then finished his rotation right where he started. "Answer the question," he snarled again, poking Jon.
"That was a question?" Jon asked, trying to gather his exhaustion-scattered wits. Lord Alan glared. "Um. Sir, with all due respect, have you looked at your daughter recently? She's dead sexy."
"Jon!" Alanna snapped, and Jon just knew her face was beet-red right now, much like her father's was. He grinned.
Lord Alan grinned too, a nasty, humorless twist of his lips that bared far too many teeth for Jon's comfort. "So, then," the irascible border lord said, leaning casually against Jon's desk. "When's the wedding?"
There was a loud thump as Alanna fell out of bed. Not-so-muffled cursing reached their ears; Lord Alan shot an exasperated look over his shoulder, then turned, but not before sticking a warning finger in Jon's face. "This isn't over," he said, marching back into his daughter's room.
Jon could hear assorted curses and swears as Lord Alan hauled his daughter back into her bed. There was a flash of purple magic; a moment later, an irate Alanna bellowed at her father.
"LET ME OUT OF HERE!"
Lord Alan was standing in the doorway again, an amused smirk on his face. "No," he called over his shoulder. "Now be quiet and let me intimidate your boytoy."
Alanna, contrary as always, started in on his questionable lineage.
"You're insulting your own ancestors too, you know. And you know full well your grandparents were happily married," Lord Alan said to his daughter with far too much glee on his face.
Alanna was right, Jon surmised. Insanity really did run in her family.
That didn't reassure him in the least when Lord Alan turned back to him, that evil smile still on his face. "Well?"
Jon's mouth went dry. "Ah."
Lord Alan was tapping distractedly at the doorframe. "You mean to tell me," he said, deceptively mild, "that you bedded my daughter with no intention of marrying her?"
"I'd … be happy to marry her, actually," Jon squeaked out.
"I DON'T WANT TO MARRY ANYBODY!" Alanna roared. "WHY DO YOU THINK I GOT THE DAMNED CHARM IN THE FIRST PLACE?"
Alex, who had just poked his head inside Jon's door, let out an unmanly squeak and vanished. Lord Alan, fortunately, didn't notice.
"Shush, dumpling," Alan said, to Alanna's disgruntled squawk.
"'Dumpling'?" Jon asked blearily.
"DON'T YOU DARE CALL ME THAT, JONATHAN!"
"She looked like a round little dumpling when she was born," Lord Alan said absently. "Now, where were we? Oh, yes." He grinned at Jon. "We were discussing marriage."
"IF YOU TWO WANT TO GET MARRIED, FINE," Alanna hollered. "JUST LEAVE ME OUT OF IT."
"You would have to discuss it with my father, my lord," Jon managed.
Lord Alan, looking positively evil, simply grinned wider. "Oh, I know." He stepped back into his daughter's room. "I'm going to go talk to him right now, in fact." With a cheery little wave, he shut the door on Jon's protests.
"Bastard," Jon hissed, flopping back onto his bed, before leaping off it in alarm.
He had to get to his parents first.
"JON!" Alanna bellowed once her father had stormed out.
Jon poked his head in, hair mussed, with dark bags under his eyes. "Not now, Alanna, I've got to go stop him," he muttered, eyes hectic.
Alanna thrashed. "Let me out first, blockhead, so we can go together!"
Jon frowned. "Are you sure you're up for it? What did he do to you, anyway?"
"He made the blankets pin me down," Alanna snarled. "And I am fine."
"Okay," Jon said. It took a little bit of tugging and a number of blue flashes, but the blankets finally relaxed.
Alanna leapt from her bed, got tangled in the sheets, and fell flat on her face. Jon helped her to her feet and helped her dress; whatever she said, she was still unsteady.
"Come on," he said urgently. "We have to go. Father's in council all morning."
They darted down the hallway, moving as fast as Alanna could manage. A hand on Jon's elbow pulled them up short.
Gary, Raoul, and Alex stood there; Gary released his cousin when they turned.
"Where are you going in such a rush?" Raoul said. "Should h- she even be out of bed?"
"I'm fine," Alanna snapped, right as Jon said, "Lord Alan's going to talk to my father."
Alex, oddly, went pale. Gary eyed him, then turned to Jon. "About what?"
"Marriage," Alex squeaked, and Alanna glared at him.
"I thought Gary was the one who eavesdropped," she said tartly.
"You were a bit loud," Alex said defensively.
"Okay," Raoul said, throwing Alanna unceremoniously over his shoulder. "You should still stay off that leg," he said when she punched him. "Stop that, or I'll drop you."
"Let's go," Jon snapped, heading for the council room.
"He's not there today," Gary said, yanking his cousin to a stop yet again.
"That's what we were coming to tell you," Gary continued. "His Majesty is holding court today. Something about honoring their newest visitor."
Alanna abruptly stopped trying to punch Raoul in the kidneys, and began to laugh. "Does everyone here at court hate Father?" she asked between guffaws.
"Probably," Jon muttered. "I know I do."
Alanna laughed harder.
"Come on," hissed Alex, already halfway down the hallway.
It had taken them longer than it ought to make their way to the hall where King Roald was holding court. Fortunately, Lord Alan had apparently gotten lost along the way.
Queen Lianne looked much better than Alanna had ever seen her, but that was all the observation Alanna had time for before Raoul set her on her feet, and awkward silence spread across the hall.
"Well, if it isn't Squire Alan," Duke Roger said, surprisingly vicious. "Ah, I beg your pardon; that's not your name, is it?"
A hand on Alanna's shoulder steadied her; Sir Myles had come up behind her, eyes warm and unsurprised.
The King was glowering at her. Alanna said nothing.
"So, when will you be leaving?" Roger continued, all sweet poison. Roald said nothing, apparently content to let his nephew speak for him.
Alanna was silent. She stared defiantly at the men.
"You are not seriously thinking of continuing this farce?" the Duke hissed.
"Why shouldn't she?" Much to Alanna's surprise, Alex stepped forward, face dark. "She's the best swordsman of all of us." The others were nodding agreement.
"Squire Alanna is one of the best," and that, to Alanna's eternal shock, was Duke Gareth, voice gentle as he addressed his brother-in-law directly. "You have said so yourself, Your Majesty."
King Roald still looked furious. Queen Lianne's face was still and solemn, but there was something thoughtful in her eyes.
The King finally spoke. "I have never seen such dishonorable conduct," he said, eyes hard on Alanna's face.
Someone snorted. "Oh please," Lord Alan said, shouldering through the assorted nobles. "You're a fine one to talk. Your Majesty," he added belatedly.
Duke Gareth sighed, and buried his face in his hands. "Don't provoke him, Roald, please don't provoke him," Alanna thought she heard him murmur.
"Alan of Trebond," the King snarled, deliberately omitting his title. "Rude and brash as always, I see. Time hasn't matured you one whit." Duke Gareth groaned.
Lord Alan's face was rapidly going redder than his hair. "I could say the same for you, not to mention your dissolute son," he snapped, waving vaguely at Jonathan.
Jonathan tried to hide behind Gary.
"What are you talking about?" Roald said testily.
Roger looked like a spectator at a fencing match, his eyes alight with glee.
"Your son," Alan snarled, "has seduced my daughter."
"Rather the other way around, I would think," Roald said, the air around him practically vibrating with rage.
"Excuse me? Your son deflowers my daughter, and you dare try to besmirch her honor?"
If it weren't for the fact that doing so would be a sign of weakness that could be used to throw her out, Alanna would have been hiding behind Raoul. As it was, she was now as red as her father.
"Your daughter doesn't have any honor!" Roald roared, coming to his feet. Duke Gareth and the Queen tried to tug him back down, vainly.
"Your son took advantage of her secret and seduced her!" Alan bellowed, gesturing violently in Jon's direction.
Gary absently clapped a hand over his cousin's mouth when he tried to protest.
"I demand he do the right thing by her," Alan added, green eyes never leaving Roald's face.
Raoul, taking a page from Gary's book, covered Alanna's mouth before she could do more than squeak in outrage.
"Marry her? Absolutely not!" Roald snarled. "She's hardly the pure daughter of an upright family, now, is she?"
"Thanks to your son," Alan snarled back. "But what else should I have expected? He's your child."
The silence in the hall was deafening. Duke Gareth had buried his face in his hands again.
Queen Lianne, Alanna realized, was muffling laughter. Alanna knew there was a reason she'd always liked Her Majesty.
"Want me to start telling stories?" Alan added wickedly.
Queen Lianne took one look at her husband's outraged face and lost it. Her laughter temporarily derailed Roald, but not for long.
He struck back on a different matter entirely. "Take your shameless daughter," the King ground out, "and get yourself back to Trebond, and never come to court again."
Lord Alan, Jon noticed with some nervousness, had gone all calm and quiet again. He was studying his fingernails intently. "Not unless you agree to the marriage," Alan said cheerfully.
"No. You will take that … that pretender, and you will leave court. Now."
"You mean you're not letting her try for her shield?"
"Absolutely not," Roald snarled.
"Why not?" Alan hissed.
Alanna blinked. Her father hadn't just said that, had he?
"I'm given to believe that my daughter is one of the best squires at court," Alan said, angry eyes locked on Roald's. "You yourself thought so, until yesterday. The only thing that's changed is that you know she's female."
"That's a pretty big something!" Roald objected.
"Not really," Alan said quietly. "Marinie was better than me, with a longsword."
The King, much to everyone's surprise, subsided at that. Gareth and Lianne exchanged glances; in the perfect harmony of siblings who've played one too many prank together, they tugged Roald back into his seat. This time, he didn't shake them off.
Alanna was staring at her father, completely dumbfounded.
In the ringing quiet, Alan spoke. "Your Majesty, you have two choices. You will either let my daughter finish out her time here and try for her shield, or you will arrange for your son to fulfill his lawful obligations to my daughter. It is up to you."
Someone in that family apparently did have some subtlety, Gary thought, impressed. Lord Alan had the legal right to drag Jon, and by extension the King, before a magistrate now, to settle the question of Alanna's marriage.
King Roald was rubbing his temples. A sympathetic Gareth said softly, "She is one of the best, Your Majesty. Remember, she has saved Jonathan's life repeatedly."
"Before you decide, Uncle," Roger interjected, oily-slick, "perhaps I may suggest a duel? This girl against someone who can truly test her mettle."
"That sounds like a fine plan," the King said. "I assume you are volunteering for the task?"
Roger looked surprised, briefly, before smiling broadly. "I would be honored to, Your Majesty," he said.
Alanna shivered, and shot a glance at her father. He was staring at Roger, face pale, but when he glanced over at Alanna, she saw a glimmer of amusement in his dark green eyes.
Myles' hands were on her shoulders. "You can refuse," he said.
"Not really," Alanna muttered back. She stepped forward, away from her knot of friends. She bowed to the King and Queen. "Your Majesty, I think that plan is very reasonable," she said.
"Good," King Roald retorted, eyes hard. "Let us adjourn to the fencing gallery."
"You're barely healed," Lord Alan said to his daughter. "You shouldn't be putting weight on that leg for another day at least. Your friend here had to carry you down!" he snapped. "Alanna, are you even listening to me?"
"Yes," she said absently, concentrating on putting one foot in front of the other. Her father was right; she was still woozy, and her leg ached something fierce.
"I don't have much choice, do I?" she snapped back, grabbing Alex's arm as she teetered unsteadily. She let him go, but he slid his arm under hers, supporting her weight until they made it in to the gallery.
Coram pressed Lightning into her hands. "Ye forgot this, in yer rush to leave," he said, his voice amused but his dark eyes serious. "Be careful."
"I will be," Alanna replied. A priest tapped her on the arm; turning, Alanna choked.
"George, that is not a good look for you," she hissed, barely stifling her laugh. At her father's confused and suspicious glance, she nearly cracked anyway.
"Never mind that," George said. "I came to wish you luck. Don't lose."
"I won't," Alanna said, feeling the heady recklessness of anticipation fill her. She walked forward to face Duke Roger in the center of the ring. They crossed swords and bowed, Roger's eyes filled with nasty amusement as he did so, and at the King's signal, Roger bore down on her with all his fury.
He was good, Alanna thought, very good. Roger was fast and strong and much larger than her, and was furious.
With her bad leg, she was barely holding her own. Gritting her teeth, she parried blow after blow, but he was pressing his attack and she could find no opening.
A pure defense was nothing but a long loss.
She had to make him give her an opening. When she caught his next strike, she hissed, "I thought you'd be done with a little girl by now."
"Whatever kind of unnatural female you are," Roger hissed back, "you are reasonably competent with a sword. I'm not stupid." He swung his sword around again, forcing her to turn. "I know what you're trying to do."
Her weak leg twinged, and with a start, she realized what Roger was trying to do. "Nice try," Alanna muttered, shifting her weight back onto her good leg. "You won't get rid of me through cheap tricks."
Roger smirked. "That cheap trick will wear you down eventually," he said, forcing her to turn on her bad leg again.
Alanna shot a glance at the stands. Her father sat there, on the front row, watching her steadily.
No, Alanna realized. Watching Roger. He was fiddling with something white in his lap.
They pivoted around again, and Roger glanced back at the watching audience, at the King, the Queen … and Lord Alan. Alan, cheekily, waved one of the small wax dolls in Roger's direction, before dropping a veil of magic over the items, perfectly concealing them from sight.
Roger screamed in fury, lashing out at Alanna with sword and magic, sending her flying as her leg gave way. Orange fire flared up, streaking towards the benches, towards Jon and King Roald and Queen Lianne and her father, and towards Alanna herself.
Duke Gareth was on his feet, sword unsheathed.
There was a resounding crack!, and the orange light flickered. Another crack!, and Roger fell heavily, bleeding from a broken skull.
Two bloody rocks rested a few feet away.
Duke Baird knelt by Roger, one hand resting lightly on his throat. "He's dead," the Duke pronounced, looking at the King.
"Of course he is," Duke Gareth sighed. "Alan never misses."
"Unfortunately," the King muttered, face dark. "This time, however, it was actually warranted." He didn't sound terribly happy about that, Alanna thought giddily.
Her father's dark eyes were on her, and he looked proud, Alanna realized with a start. Proud of her, and a little smug himself. Catching her eye, he took another rock from his pocket and tossed it, once, catching it deftly and slipping it away. His other hand, she noticed, hung in a loose curl at his side, as if he was unobtrusively carrying an invisible bag.
Then her friends swarmed around her, pulling her to her feet and hiding Lord Alan from view. "I don't think I can walk," she said, and Alex looped an arm around her again, holding her upright to face the King.
King Roald looked like he'd bitten a lemon. "Seeing as it is only a year and a half until your Ordeal, and having been persuaded by the good words spoken on your behalf and by your conduct here this morning, you may stay, Alanna of Trebond."
Alanna bowed awkwardly. "Thank you, Your Majesty."
"There will be some new rules put in place," the King added, looking significantly at Jon.
Jon blushed. George, somewhere in the back, snickered.
"Go and see a healer," the King said, dismissing her. Alanna bowed again and left, leaning on Alex, uncomfortably aware of Roald's eyes on her back.
Once they were out of the gallery, Alex stopped, and Raoul picked her up again. "Not one word," he said when Alanna growled.
Jon wrested Lightning from her grip, ignoring her protests. "We don't want you skewering Raoul now, do we?"
"I sure want to," Alanna snapped.
Lord Alan was waiting for them when they reached Alanna's room. Raoul set her gently on the bed, bowing to Alan as he did so.
A purple fire was smoldering in the hearth.
"What is that?" Jon asked, leaning forward.
"Don't go near that, Your Highness," Alan said sharply, running one purple-limned hand down his daughter's leg. "It's a contained effigy fire."
"I found them earlier, in your cousin's workshop. I got lost, you see," and absolutely no one in the room bought that, not with the wicked twinkle in Lord Alan's eyes. "I haven't been at court in over fifteen years, and the palace has certainly changed a lot."
George, who had followed them up, coughed a laugh and turned away. Alan shot him a sharp glance.
"When I realized I had stumbled in to someone's private apartment, I of course intended to leave, but I could feel the buzz of some dark magic from beyond the door. There is no good reason to cast such dark magics," Alan said portentously, pausing for a moment as he felt Alanna's muscles tense under his hand. He absently set about easing the strained knee.
Myles, who had also followed the group, leaned against the door jamb, eyes full of mirthful respect as he listened to the border lord's yarn.
"Go on," Jon said after a moment.
"Oh. So I realized something was very wrong and wasn't stupid enough to try the door, so I tossed a rock through his window and climbed inside, and what did I find?" he said, ignoring the snickers emanating from the corner. "Effigies of the King, the Queen, you," he said, nodding at Jon, "and my daughter."
Her father's eyes were not playful now, Alanna noticed. Roger had had an effigy of her. She shivered. Coram rested a hand on her hair; she smiled at him gratefully.
"There were some other people too," Alan continued, sitting back and letting his Gift fade from around his hand. "I mean it this time, stay off that leg," he said, and Alanna nodded. "The effigy of Lianne was under a fountain, being worn away."
"Her illness," Duke Baird said from the doorway, horror in his voice. Lord Alan's head jerked around at the unexpected voice. "I was just coming to check on your daughter," Baird said gently.
Alan looked at him for a long moment, then nodded, going back to his story. "So I swiped all the effigies and was fully intending to destroy them immediately, but I had something else to take care of first." There was something slightly too innocent in his tone.
Gary was grinning now, as was Alex. Even Raoul looked amused. Jon blushed.
"And then you killed Roger," Alanna murmured, dozing off.
"Then Duke Roger tried to kill everyone, and I shattered his skull," her father agreed, tapping her nose gently. "Go to sleep, dumpling."
"'M not a dumpling," Alanna protested.
Purple light danced across her eyes briefly. She slipped into sleep at her father's chuckle.
Okay, Faithful said into her ear that evening, he's not that bad.
Alanna laughed. "He's not, is he?" she mused. "I always hated him, you know."
I know. Faithful sighed. You had reason to. He neglected you.
"But I wonder, though. It wasn't really deliberate, was it?"
Faithful shrugged, tucking his tail around him.
"I mean, he lost Mother, and gained Thom and me." Alanna sat bolt upright as a sudden thought hit her. "And he was a healer too, one of the best, and… Oh, Goddess. No wonder he felt the Gift had failed him. He must've been heartbroken."
"He was," Coram said, poking his head in. "Sorry to bother ye, but it was my turn to check and see if ye were awake yet."
Alanna smiled at her old friend. "I'm awake," she said, waving him in.
"Good," he said, taking a seat. "Yer goin' to stay in bed until yer father or Duke Baird lets you up, right, lass?"
Alanna sighed. "Yes, Coram. I promise," she said at his suspicious look.
"Good," he said again, settling back.
Alanna fidgeted with her ember. "Coram?" she asked hesitantly. He raised his eyebrows. "Why didn't you ever tell me about you and Father?"
Coram chuckled. "It's not exactly somethin' that's easy to slip into a conversation, lass. And besides, it was over before yer birth."
Alanna looked at him sidelong. "I doubt that very much, judging by the way he looks at you," she said.
Coram swatted her. "We've always been good friends. We grew up together, ye know; yer grandpa didn't care who his son hung 'round as long as he was on time for supper." He sighed. "We were best friends, once, and maybe we still are, in a strange sort of way. Yer father, he fell hard for yer mother, and courted her fervently until she agreed to marry him. Ye'd never see a happier couple," he said, smiling down at Alanna. "They were so in love with each other, it was like some kind of fairy tale. And then Lady Marinie got pregnant, and got very ill, and when ye and Thom were born, she was too weak to live, and died while yer father was tryin' to save her."
Coram broke off, looking out the window for a moment. "Yer father nearly followed her; he'd overextended his Gift just like ye have. It took one of the other healers knocking him out cold to get him to stop forcing his magic into yer mother's corpse."
Alanna pulled the blankets up tighter around her. Coram, staring blankly off into space, continued. "And then he tried to kill himself when he woke up two days later, and again a few nights after that, and the third time I had to take a knife away from him he broke my nose and told me to go make myself useful somewhere else, and broke down sobbin' on the floor of his study. I made him swear to me he'd never try to kill himself again, and that was the end of our friendship, really. 'Cept for the time he begged me to look after ye and that scapegrace brother of yers," he said, focusing on Alanna again.
"He always loved ye, lass, ye and yer brother." He glanced up, grinning at something out in the hall. "He used to stand over yer bed just watchin' ye, like he didn't know what to do with ye." Chuckling, Coram stood, hands on his belt. "Ye inspire that feeling in a lot of people, lass. Alan, get in here and say hi to yer daughter."
Alanna watched, amused, as her father trudged in, head down and red to his ears. Coram, laughing softly, pushed him into the empty seat, brushing one hand gently over his red hair. "Buck up, snapdragon," he said, grinning as Lord Alan went even redder. Coram waved at Alanna, who grinned, and left.
"You know," Alanna said thoughtfully, "Mother is dead. I doubt she'd mind."
Her father, Alanna noted with amusement, was studiously avoiding her gaze.
"Father, I'm fine," she said, scratching the top of Faithful's head. "I've already promised I'd stay in bed, and Faithful won't let me leave this time anyway," she said, smiling as the cat gave up and purred. "And you're apparently stuck here for the next year and a half as my chaperone anyway, so we'll have plenty of time to talk later."
Her father's green eyes, tentatively hopeful, met hers. Alanna wondered idly where she and Thom had gotten their purple from.
"Go after him," she said, smiling.
Alan hesitated, then did.