"There has to be another way."
Thom watched his twin pace back and forth, his frustration mounting. There was no other way, and they both knew it; tomorrow, Alanna would go to the convent and he'd get stuck going to the palace.
Alanna was still rambling on about the unfairness of it all; Thom was starting to tune her out when she gasped, interrupting herself.
"Thom, that's it!" she exclaimed.
He eyed his sister warily. Nothing good ever came from her insane ideas. "What's it?"
He was right. It was another insane idea.
"And when you're older," Alanna said, tripping over her words now in her eagerness, "they'll send you to the priests. And I'll go to the palace and learn to be a knight!"
The idea was … somewhat tempting, Thom had to admit. Becoming a great sorcerer was his greatest dream. Thom, however, was not an idiot. He knew when things were impossible.
"It won't work," he told Alanna flatly. "You couldn't go swimming, you know. You'll turn into a girl eventually, too, with, you know, a chest and all."
Alanna was glaring at him. "I can handle all that."
Thom glared back. "And Coram and Maude are traveling with us, and they can tell us apart-"
"I'll tell Coram I'll work magic on him, and we can maybe talk to Maude," Alanna interrupted.
"-And I have no doubt people will send the occasional progress report home, and Father's bound to read one of them." Alanna opened her mouth again, but Thom cut her off. "And there are a hundred other potential flaws in this. No, Alanna. Tomorrow you're going to the convent, and I'm going to the palace, and we just have to accept that."
He turned and stalked off without another word, leaving his fuming sister behind him.
"So I talked to Maude," Alanna said the next morning, clutching the letter their father had given her. She tried to swipe Thom's, but he held it out of her reach. "Thom! She agrees with me! She saw something in the fire that said I was to be a great knight."
"No, Alanna!" Thom said, backing up to the wall and sticking his letter behind him so she couldn't get it. "I am not going to forge letters for you, and I am not switching!"
Alanna hit him, hard. "You don't even want to be a knight!" she cried. "I do! Damn you, Thom, even Maude's visions won't convince you?"
"Maude doesn't have the Gift for seeing," Thom reminded his twin. "I do."
Alanna was rapidly turning a dangerous shade of red. "Oh, and let me guess: you've seen something different."
"Yes," he said simply. He refused to elaborate.
Alanna punched him again, then yanked him close. "Fine, then," she snarled in his face. "I'll go to the damn convent, and hate every minute of it. I hope you don't embarrass yourself too much at the palace." She stalked off.
Thom looked out the window. Coram was getting the horses; it was time to go.
The ride to the Great Road was made in uncomfortable silence. Maude, Thom saw, was more than a little startled when Alanna rode with her; Thom almost reconsidered Alanna's insane plan, but it was far too late. And still far too risky, too, he reminded himself.
They parted at the crossroads without a word. Thom sighed, glaring at the ornery pony he was riding. Coram shot him a glare, and Thom bit back his instinctive complaint; even sullen silence was better than listening to another blistering lecture on his attitude.
Alanna probably would make a better knight, Thom thought grumpily. She actually liked this kind of thing. But that wasn't how things had worked out, and Thom would keep reminding himself of that until it sank in.
Hours passed this way, with Thom sulking and trying not to let the pony throw him, and Coram sulking right alongside him. If Coram thought anything of Thom's uncharacteristic lack of complaints, he didn't say anything.
At noon, they stopped for lunch.
"We'll make the wayhouse by dark," Coram said, handing Thom some bread and cheese. "Until then, we make do with this."
Thom sighed, and Coram glared.
"I don't want to hear any of yer complaints," the man-at-arms snapped. "I'm no happier about this than ye are."
Thom ignored him and sullenly gnawed on his bread.
The rest of the ride to Corus was all the same: sullen silence and snappish conversations, a cranky pony, dread, and dead dreams.
Corus was too bright, too loud, and filled with far too many people. Thom hated it instantly.
The palace wasn't much better.
After a lecture from Duke Gareth that seemed designed to instill fear and despair and a whirlwind trip to the palace tailors for some hideously gaudy uniforms, Thom found himself sitting on the bed in his new room, staring blankly at the far wall.
He was in the palace. He was about to go to dinner, and tomorrow he'd be starting page training in earnest.
He didn't want this. Distantly, Thom realized he was shaking. Contrarily, his eyes were too dry. He didn't want this at all.
Alanna would get to learn magic, Thom thought bitterly. He would have to teach himself if he were to learn any at all.
He really, really didn't want this. He didn't want to be a knight. He didn't want to spend eight years getting bashed around in training by peers who were bigger, stronger, and faster than he was, and who had the enthusiasm to match. He'd be the laughingstock of the page wing by tomorrow evening at the latest.
He had no choice.
As that sank in, Thom's hands stopped shaking. A cold, brittle calm settled over him and froze out the last of his trepidation.
He would not be anything less than perfect.
Things went both better and worse than Thom expected. Some bully tried to push him around, but Ralon wasn't half as good as Alanna at getting a rise out of him, so Thom had no real problem stubbornly ignoring the other page's existence. Ralon was an idiot anyway.
The academic classes were mind-numbingly boring. The masters, having been satisfied that Thom could read, write, and do sums, set him to supposedly harder work.
Thom snorted at that thought. The work wasn't harder, just longer to work out, and the classics the reading master forced on him were utterly stupid. How, he wondered, did those wretched things even become classics in the first place?
Deportment was a stupid torture that Thom didn't want to think about too much.
The only vaguely interesting classes were philosophy and history, and philosophy was a lot of pretentiousness dressed up in fancy words. He was at least allowed to argue, though, which was a nice change. Sir Myles' history class was decent, though, even if Thom did keep finishing the assigned texts well before the rest of his classmates.
The fighting lessons were another story.
Thom hated all of them. Learning to fall was counterintuitive and stupid, getting whacked at with sticks was counterintuitive and doubly stupid, and whacking back wasn't terribly satisfying. His first instinct was still to duck, and that got him more extra practice assigned to him in the first week than any of his smart remarks in all of the other classes combined. Riding was just as much of a farce as he'd known it would be.
Archery was even worse. Thom not only couldn't hit the target, he'd damn near shot the archery master … who had been standing two targets over, far to the left. Silently, Thom fumed. It wasn't his fault he couldn't see what he was aiming at.
Clearly, something would have to change.
The first chance he got, Thom went down to the library, ignoring the stupid mathematics homework he had yet to finish.
He could conjure solid apparitions by the time he was seven. Surely, a small spell to sharpen his vision wouldn't be too hard to manage.
The archery master was more than a bit surprised when Thom suddenly started hitting the target. Thom grinned; being able to see clearly was wonderful.
He could see the leaves on trees. Without having to be practically on top of them. He could see the stars now, too; he'd spent the better part of an hour hanging out his window just staring up at them after he'd corrected his vision.
He was also starting to see flickers, and it was annoying him to no end. Thom had always had the occasional vision, but they'd only come spontaneously when he'd zoned out in front of a fire, or stared too long into the depths of some liquid. Now they wouldn't stop.
It was getting distracting.
But Thom was nothing if not stubborn, and he wouldn't let his own out-of-control visions stop him.
Biting his lip hard enough to bleed, ignoring the perennial bruises and the visions dancing at the edge of his awareness (the prince, doing something incredibly stupid, going somewhere that thrummed with malevolence), Thom got back to work.
The Sweating Sickness struck Corus with incredible rapidity.
Thom was no healer, but he had read everything he could get his hands on, and the strange onset of the illness was enough to raise his suspicions. No epidemic he'd read about followed the pattern this one did.
The fact that he could feel the magic in it, clinging to him like a sheen of oil, only confirmed his suspicions.
(A man, who looked like an older, slightly-off copy of the prince, standing patiently over a small cauldron, throwing catmint and yarrow into a negative oil, boiling out an illness in a hot dry land destined to hit a cooler wet one…) Thom shook the vision away, and averted his eyes from the mirror.
That was the final straw. Before he'd even heard rumor of the prince's illness, Thom was already curled up in his room, painstakingly undoing the magic that had struck the city.
Thom was not as surprised as he should've been, a few months later, when Duke Roger came to Corus and turned out to be the man he'd seen brewing up the Sweating Sickness. It made far too much sense for surprise, really.
Thom was mildly alarmed when he learned that this man would be teaching them magic. The last thing he wanted was this man, who was clearly quite ruthless, taking an interest in him.
The visions weren't helping any. (Duke Roger manipulating a small wax doll, the spitting image of a promising young sorcerer/The promising young sorcerer, listless and apathetic, career in ruins…) If the duke even so much as suspected Thom was the one who'd unraveled the Sickness…
Well, Thom wasn't about to let that happen.
It turned out Thom's concern was entirely unwarranted. The magic class was as insipid as every other scholarly class here; the duke taught them without really teaching them anything substantial.
That's one way to derail any potential competition, Thom thought, playing at incompetency.
"I was given to understand that you are quite the genius," the duke said one afternoon, all false concern.
"We can't all be good at everything, Your Grace," Thom murmured, pretending to fail at the simple detection spell they were practicing that day.
"True," Roger said with a sigh. "You are doing quite well, all things considered."
He moved off, and Thom fought back the urge to glare at his back.
He'd learned all this already, after all. The library really did have an extraordinary collection of books.
Thom was not looking forward to fencing. Not in the least. Making the practice swords had been torture, not the least because Coram came down on him harder than any of the other pages.
But then he held the sword in his hand, and it fit. It fit like his Gift fit, like a piece of him he'd not even suspected was absent.
Much to everyone's shock, Thom beat Geoffrey of Meron in their practice duel, easily. He'd only fumbled once, in fact, when a vision (Duke Roger leaning over him, him lying flat on his bed, a discomforting potential electrifying the air between them) hit him when a sunbeam slanted across his face.
Thom looked at his sword consideringly. He could get used to this, he supposed.
(Duke Roger fidgeting with a sapphire pendant, lecturing the squires on the Black City and practically daring the prince to go…) Thom shook off the vision; the real-life echo of those words, a minute or so behind, left him disoriented for a long moment. He squeezed further behind the shelves, trying to avoid catching anyone's attention.
Well, honestly. If Roger wanted to hold a secret meeting, the library was really not the place for that.
Thom bit his lip, thinking hard. The prince was going to fall for Roger's dare, Thom had no doubt about that, and that would prove suicidal if Thom didn't do anything.
He could work a distance magic if he had a focus, or if the prince would wear an imbued item. Thom shook his head. The prince barely knew him; there was no way that would work. Thom narrowed his eyes. Unless…
Quickly, he worked a magic on his ink. He fiddled with the wax seal, then awkwardly gathered up his books. All he had to do was get even a little of it on the prince's skin, and the stains themselves would serve as an anchor.
Roger's secret meeting was breaking up. As the squires came around the corner, Thom rubbed his eyes and unsteadily made his way to the door. He bumped into the prince, and the ink, balanced precariously on top of the stack, fell perfectly.
The magic-imbued ink sprayed from the tampered bottle, all over Prince Jonathan.
Thom had to fight back a snicker; the prince was soaked. And the magic, much to Thom's relief, was sinking into the prince's skin where the ink had hit. So Thom babbled out apologies, more relieved than he'd admit that the prince was gracious about it, and skittered out of the library.
Hopefully, no one else would notice what he'd done.
(Eldritch black stone with inhuman carvings tower over him. He moves into the City, completely ignoring all the warnings he's received. The vile yellow-green light burns his eyes; he finally starts to feel nervous, but it's too late. The Ysandir tower over him. They laugh at him and mock him. They move to carve him up; his magic only barely holds the weaker ones at bay. The ink spots on his face and arms, remnants of an unfortunate accident that still, inexplicably, won't fade, burn bright purple.)
Thom opened his eyes as fire rained down on the Black City.
Duke Roger had chosen to invoke his right, as a member of the royal family, to have a squire, and had, to Thom's consternation, chosen him.
Thom couldn't exactly refuse. He considered it anyway.
No. He could handle anything Duke Roger threw at him.
"It is rare," Duke Roger said, circling his new squire, "to find such unmitigated genius in one trying for his shield. Usually, people like you find a way to study somewhere more suited to their talents."
Thom was silent.
Roger trailed one hand lazily across Thom's back. Thom fought not to twitch. "And you are a genius," Roger breathed, straight into his ear. Thom shivered. "You were doing fourth-year page work in your first year here, in mathematics and reading and several other academic classes. You could probably teach most of the squires' classes in your sleep by your second year."
Roger stopped directly in front of Thom, close, too close. Thom fought to keep from looking away from those blue, blue eyes. Thom's eyes burned; his vision went watery.
Roger leaned close. "And, your abysmal performance in my class to the contrary, you have an instinctive genius for magic, too." Thom was still silent. "I found it particularly creative how you worked a long-distance protection focus directly into my cousin's skin. He still can't get the ink off, you know."
There was one long moment of stillness as Roger backed off, then another. Thom's heart hammered in his chest.
Sudden movement - a strong hand gripped his chin, forcing his face up. The duke's lips met his, fierce and hot, and Thom knew that Roger wanted him to recoil, to protest, to try and stop him.
Thom wasn't going to let Roger win. When Roger broke away, Thom let a wicked smile curl his lips and yanked him back.
(A sudden winter cold settling in Lord Alan's chest, a cough refusing to go away, and his father all-too-happily slipping away to the Black God's care…)
Thom didn't even bother to read the letter that arrived from Trebond. He handed it to Coram and ordered him back to oversee the fief.
Thom had too much work to do. He couldn't even keep up with the plots Roger spun over his head and behind his back.
Thom shook his head, swiping frustratedly at the tears that gathered in his eyes and threw off more visions. He didn't even have time to grieve now.
Things were heating up with Tusaine. Dain of Melor, a Tusaine knight, got soundly trounced by Alex of Tirragen in a "friendly" match, and the whole Tusaine embassy had taken offense. The whole thing was ridiculous nonsense, but now a war was brewing.
Thom could see it. (Armies, massing along the far bank of the Drell, digging in and fortifying their position…) He had to tell someone.
He had no one to tell.
He still had to tell someone.
With that thought in mind, Thom set out in search of Prince Jonathan.
The prince wasn't hard to find; he was heading down the hallway to the practice courts. Thom, the urgency of his visions making him bold, grabbed the prince's arm and pulled him to a halt.
"Thom?" the prince asked, sounding somewhat annoyed.
"The Tusaine armies are marching on the Drell, or they will be soon. I can see the future," Thom snapped at the skeptical look on the prince's face.
"Since when?" the prince said, skepticism lacing his voice.
"Since always," Thom snapped back. "That doesn't matter. The Tusaine-"
The prince held up a hand, cutting Thom off. "Are massing their armies, yes, I heard you. How accurate are your visions?"
"Perfectly accurate," Thom spat. "Shall I go into the details of your idiotic trip to the Black City? What was it Ylon said to you when he had his sword at your throat?"
The prince paled. He stepped back. "Alright, I believe you. Do you know when these visions take place?"
"They're entrenched by early summer, or late spring."
"So we have nearly six months," the prince mused. His blue eyes focused on Thom. "Thank you. I'll see that my father gets this information."
Thom bowed, and began to back away.
The prince grabbed his arm. "You will tell me if you see anything else?"
It wasn't a question. Thom nodded, and the prince released him.
"Good," the prince said, turning away.
The knock on the door startled Thom out of his work. He set the papers aside and rose to open it.
Alanna stood on the other side, smirking at him.
"So, brother dear, did you miss me while you were here playing knight?" Alanna asked, and the odd coyness in her voice unsettled him more than her pretty silk dress did.
"Of course I did," Thom rasped. "When did you get here?"
"Just last night," Alanna said, laughing prettily. "The prince is quite a handsome man, isn't he?"
Alanna covered her mouth daintily, and something dark moved in her eyes. "I shall have to do my best to impress him," she said, and Thom didn't like the smirk he could see curling across her face. Not at all.
Duke Gareth was thrown from his horse at the review. Thom knew immediately who was responsible.
"I hope you're ready," Roger said, a dark grin on his lips. "I am to be commanding the forces at the Drell River Valley. You will, of course, be along as my squire."
"Of course," Thom murmured, mind racing.
"And do not think," Roger said, one hand stroking down Thom's throat, "that you will be able to pull off another long-distance rescue of my cousin again."
He laughed, long and low, and Thom kissed him just to get him to shut up.
The war was one long nightmare. Something - maybe all the tension in the air, maybe the stress Thom was under, maybe simply the fog off the river - sent his visions haywire, and Thom found himself struggling to keep his head in the present, to see anything through the welter of images assaulting him.
What was worse was that they plagued his dreams, and in his dreams, he could feel.
(A sword thrust catching him in the belly, and he desperately catches his own internal organs as they spill from him/Another sword splitting his skull open, and the sensation of his brain falling out disturbed him more than the pain/An arrow catching him in the eye, and he swears he can feel it boring back into his skull/Another arrow/Another sword/A spear, for variety/Drowning in the river, plate armor is no good for swimming in/Sword/Arrow/Arrows/Sword…)
Thom opened his eyes as Roger left, and in the slanting sunlight another vision hit (the prince, surrounded by enemy men, the Tusaine not killing him but capturing him, dragging him before the enemy duke), and Thom's stomach twisted as he realized what Roger had done.
Roger had been the one to make the visions so incapacitating. And Roger had arranged the prince's capture.
Thom fought back the nausea and phantom pain of the visions and focused on the prince, on the magicked ink now permanently faded into his skin, and let his Gift flare out of him.
The visions of the dying Tusaine swarmed down on him as he obliterated the enemy camp, and Thom screamed.
Time went a little strange for Thom after that. Eventually, though, they were all back in Corus, and that was when Thom realized just how serious Alanna had been.
Thom was rather startled when the king requested a word. Unsteadily, ignoring Roger's smirk, Thom followed the servant who'd delivered the message down to the king's private study. He was startled to find not only King Roald, but Queen Lianne and his sister there.
Thom bowed. "How may I be of service, Your Majesties?"
"We are given to understand that your sister and our son are … close," the king said in his cautious manner.
Thom shot a glance at Alanna, who gave him a cheeky smile.
"I would like to see my son happily married before I die," the queen said. The king shot her a sharp glance and she smiled wanly. "I have a weak constitution, and I have long accepted that."
Thom felt a little dizzy.
"As the current lord of Trebond, it is only proper that we seek your permission to arrange a marriage between your sister and Jonathan," the king continued.
Mouth dry, Thom looked at Alanna again. She had fixed her smile to her face, but her dark eyes warned Thom, You took my dream away from me once. I dare you to do it again.
Thom swallowed. "I … have no objections to such a match, Your Majesty," he said at last.
Queen Lianne beamed. "Excellent! Then we can proceed with the wedding arrangements."
Thom bowed, and the king dismissed him.
Alanna's darkly triumphant grin remained burned into Thom's mind.
The wedding preparations proceeded much faster than Thom had anticipated.
"I will be married at Midwinter!" Alanna spun, a gleeful smile on her face. "Aren't you happy for me, Thom?"
Alanna glared, and Thom realized he'd been silent for too long. "Yes." He forced a smile to his lips as Alanna's glare deepened. "I am very happy for you."
"Liar," she said, grinning up at him, eyes dancing with cruel mirth. She toyed with a delicate charm bracelet on her wrist.
Thom had seen that bracelet before, in Roger's room.
"Alanna…" Thom started.
His sister spun to face him. "Caught on, have you?" she said. She pressed up against him. "I know a way to keep you quiet."
Her dress was really cut far too low for propriety, Thom noted absently. A flicker of purple magic - not his own - caught his eye, and he barely had time to register the vindictive glee on Alanna's face before the lust crashed down on him and her dress hit the floor.
"Tell anybody," she hissed in his ear as she shoved him down and climbed on top of him, "and I'll drag you before the Goddess' court for rape."
Roger was waiting when Thom got back to his room. He took one look at his disheveled squire and said, "I see you were getting along quite well with your sister."
Roger laughed, and dragged Thom forward and up, forcing the shorter man to stand on tip-toe. "What is it about you Trebonds?" the duke wondered. "Sluts, the lot of you. You must get it from your father." He threw Thom down on the bed.
Thom couldn't deal with this. Not tonight. "No," he gasped, as Roger roughly stripped him of his tunic.
Roger paused. "I wondered what it would take to make you resist me," he said, mockingly musing. "You didn't even resist when I bedded you back in the Drell Valley."
Thom had barely been aware of that; he did not appreciate the reminder. But before he could do more than glare, Roger was on him.
"Your sister was right," Roger said later. "Whatever you've done to your eyes may prevent me from compelling you through magical means, but a bit of leverage is really all that's needed. Clever girl, your sister." He grinned wickedly down at his exhausted squire. "And good in bed, too."
Thom glared weakly.
Roger laughed, and bent to whisper intimately in his ear. "So. I will tell you my plans. The queen will die, slowly, as her image is wiped away by water. I don't even need to do anything about my uncle; he will follow his beloved to death on his own. And as for Jonathan," Roger paused, and Thom shivered at the hot look in those cold blue eyes, "Jonathan will meet an untimely demise sometime later, when my backup plan is in place."
Roger leaned back and laughed again. "And there is nothing you can do about any of it."
That was only too true, Thom thought bitterly. There was nothing he could do.
The weeks to Midwinter passed in a blur. Thom got used to seeing his sister in Roger's room; he went out of her way to avoid her. Alanna laughed whenever he dodged her gaze or slipped out of a room she entered, and her laugh was full of dark amusement.
Roger did not let Thom avoid him. Roger, in fact, seemed to enjoy playing with his captive squire, now that he knew his cage was complete. There was always something Roger needed done now, Thom thought darkly, even if it was just taking care of his baser needs.
This is what I have been reduced to, Thom thought as he sharpened his sword. A well-trained whore.
Light flashed off the blade. (A beautiful dark-haired woman stands before a great beast, but she makes no move to unsheathe her sword. Instead she kneels in the snow and the howling wind, bowing deeply and entreating the ancient power that stands coolly before her…) Thom shook off the vision.
He had no time for flights of fancy now.
"My wedding is tomorrow," Alanna said throatily, pressing up against Roger.
Thom shut his eyes as Roger kissed her eagerly and moved to slip back out into the hallway.
"Thom, stay," Roger commanded, and Thom knew he could not refuse. "You know," the duke said, playing with Alanna's hair, "I never got to see your little encounter."
"We'll just have to remedy that," Alanna said, smirking evilly at Thom. She moved to stand before him. "Why don't you help me out of this dress?"
Thom backed up until he hit the wall; Alanna followed, pressing up against him and reaching up to clasp her hands behind his neck. Thom swallowed and closed his eyes; he pressed his own hands flat against the cold stone. He couldn't do this.
"You will do this, or I will drag you before the Goddess' court now," Alanna whispered in his ear. She kissed it teasingly.
"No lust spell this time?" Roger asked, sounding far too amused.
"It's more fun this way," Alanna responded impishly.
"Ah," Roger said. "I quite agree." He moved closer to the twins and wrapped one hand around his reluctant squire's arm. "Let me help you move things along."
Roger dragged Thom unceremoniously over to the bed and threw him down, then sat down beside him before he could move. Thom struggled as Alanna joined them on the bed, giggling like a vapid little girl.
Roger's hands had already removed his shirt. Alanna traced her fingers teasingly over Thom's exposed flesh, then made short work of his breeches.
"I suppose we'll just have to be persuasive," she said in a mocking sing-song as she slid down between Thom's legs.
"Or forceful," Roger said, the dark pleasure in his voice making Thom shiver.
Alanna giggled again. "That's for later," she corrected, voice full of cruel promise. "After all, you promised me I'd get to watch you have your wicked way with him."
"That I did," Roger said, drawing Alanna up for a brief kiss.
Thom closed his eyes, and tried not to feel anything. It was a very long night.
The wedding, Thom thought blearily, was fairytale perfect. Alanna looked radiant and not, Thom thought meanly, as if she'd just spent a whole night getting fucked senseless.
Roger had considerately healed her few bruises. He'd never offered such consideration to Thom.
The prince looked happy with his new bride, and the king and queen looked beyond happy and somewhat relieved.
Duke Roger himself was extremely happy, and that worried Thom more than anything.
Months passed, and the only change in routine was that Roger spent more time in his workshop.
Well, there was another change. Alanna and the prince had apparently had quite the successful wedding night; Alanna, now pregnant, was gleeful and viciously spiteful by turns.
Roger, disturbingly, was thrilled.
Thom did not really want to think about why. Whatever he suspected, it wasn't the child's fault.
Besides, Queen Lianne was ill again, and Thom had greater concerns.
"There is nothing I can do," Thom said quietly one night, "to get you to stop this, is there?"
Roger propped his head up on his arm. "No," he said. "It amuses me that you would even ask."
"You have a healthy nephew," Roger said, beaming triumphantly.
"I know," Thom replied. He was somewhat ashamed, actually, that his first thought upon seeing the small dark-haired boy was relief; the child wasn't his, as he'd feared in his nightmares.
That didn't take care of his darker nightmares, though.
"You mentioned a backup plan," Thom said finally, rolling over to face Roger.
"I did," Roger said, grinning. "But I think I'll let you fret."
The next few months passed like the last few, except that Alanna was a bright and persistently vicious presence in Roger's rooms.
Queen Lianne got sicker and sicker.
Thom started looking for creative ways to hide; the library, his old refuge as a page, was the first place Roger would look for him.
Unfortunately, most of the places he found to hide had something in them that triggered the visions. Recently, they were all the same one anyway.
(A gem, burning bright indigo, a gem that would knit broken lands together…)
Thom shivered, suddenly freezing in the warm autumn sun.
Thom had never thought he'd be relieved to finally be facing the Ordeal. But the long months since the Tusaine war had been nothing but one long hideous torture, and he doubted that the Chamber could do worse to him.
Besides, it meant a night free of Roger, for once, since Roger was not a knight and therefore couldn't instruct him beforehand.
During the long vigil, Thom found himself thinking of absolutely nothing, but simply reveling in the solitude. He was pretty sure that wasn't the point. He also didn't care.
Then morning came, and he was escorted silently into the Chamber.
The door shut, and there was one long dark moment of nothingness, and then the tumult of war was all around him, and Thom fumbled for his sword. His vision was blurry, like it had been when he was younger, like it still would be without the spell, and Thom panicked and lashed out with his Gift.
His vision sharpened back to normal, and Thom saw the faces of the dead all around him: his fellow squires, the prince and his friends, Duke Gareth, the king himself.
Thom said nothing.
The vision changed. Now Alanna stood before him, not the vicious harpy he knew today, but a proud other Alanna, one who had a knight's bearing, who bore a magic sword and a shield with a rearing lion on it.
"You took this from me," not-Alanna hissed. "This is what I should have been. This is what I would have been without your cowardice. The shield you're striving to earn should rightfully be mine. Remember if you survive this, if you even make it to your knighting, that you stole it from me."
Thom's knees hit the cold floor of the Chamber, and he wept, silently.
Not-Alanna struck him, knocking him flat on his back, and then she was the Alanna he knew, her dress unlaced, exposing her breasts. Roger, behind her, wrapped one arm across her chest; he slid his other hand up under her skirts.
"The queen will die soon, and you know how. There's still time for you to give up this pathetic excuse for resistance and join us," the apparition of Roger said. He turned to kiss Alanna, who moaned wantonly in his arms.
"Come now," Roger said when Thom flinched away. "You enjoyed that night more than even you can deny, even to yourself. Little whore," he spat, coming closer in slow, ominous footsteps. "You enjoy your own violation so much you put up only a token resistance and willingly become an accessory to treason."
Thom shivered, and opened his mouth to scream as the phantom Roger reached for him.
The door clanged open, and light poured in.
Thom no longer really cared.
Roger was fucking Alanna when Thom slipped into his room. Alanna looked up, saw him, and screamed, once, but Roger had no chance to react before Thom lopped off his head.
"What are you doing?" Alanna screamed, scrambling out from under the corpse of her lover.
"What I should've done a long time ago," Thom replied dully, running her through.
It took her a long several minutes to die.
Thom didn't notice. He was too busy breaking down the door to Roger's workroom, and destroying the wax figures inside.
Prince Jonathan found him there, a few hours later, sitting in the corner silently contemplating the cool corpses of his sister and his former master.
He had, Thom reflected, never seen such cold, hard fury on Prince Jonathan's face.
"What happened here?" the prince said, low and furious.
After a long moment, Thom looked up. "I just saved your life, and Their Majesties."
"Another vision?" the prince ground out, sounding as if he hoped the answer was no.
"Yes," Thom lied, meeting those famous blue eyes steadily. "Several of them."
The prince was silent for a long, long time. Then he sighed, explosively. "Go, take a horse, leave the country, and never come back. If I hear one word of you in Tortall after this, I will drag you up before the courts myself."
Thom stared at him blankly.
"Now," the prince bellowed, gesturing sharply at the door, and Thom fled.
Thom had nowhere to go, and nothing to do. A year passed before he knew it, a year filled with nothing but muddy Gallan landscape or, for a change, snowy Gallan landscape, and (the gem, the gem, the damnable gem, glowing brighter and more enticingly every time he saw it) visions.
Finally, shortly after the new year, Thom snapped. "Fine. I will go find the damned jewel, okay? Now can I please get a new vision or two now and then?"
His horse snorted, eyeing him balefully. Thom stopped yelling at the bleak marshy south Gallan landscape and eyed his cranky companion in turn.
"We're going south," he informed her. "And no complaints."
The mare looked at him warily, then flicked her tail and pointedly ignored him.
"Fine, then. Let's go," he said, mounting up.
If nothing else, Maren would be a nice change of pace.
Berat was … strange. Thom had avoided cities for the better part of the last year, and had rarely ventured out into Corus before that. Being in a city now was frustrating, and it was feeding Thom's finely-honed paranoia. How much had Prince Jonathan told about what he'd found? He had implied, or so Thom thought, that he would keep silent on the identity of the killer, but Thom was not terribly inclined to trust Contés.
Thom counted his coin. He should be able to afford a night or two at the inn here.
Sleeping inside again would be strange.
The Wandering Bard was a decent place, and the proprietor was a friendly man who took one look at the state Thom was in and quoted him a price far cheaper than a room at such a place should have been. Thom, who had learned over the second-longest year of his life to not let his pride stand in the way of a deal, simply forked over the coin.
He nearly cried when he found a hot bath waiting for him. He also nearly fell asleep in the bath.
Later, when he went down to the common room for a meal, a large redhead caught his eye. Seeing Thom's look, the redhead grinned and waved him over.
Thom blushed, and looked away. He went over anyway.
It wasn't like he had much left to lose.
The redhead smiled broadly as Thom sat down, then flinched ever-so-slightly when Thom looked at him, green eyes going a pale crystal.
"Do you know your eyes glow?" the redhead said, in lieu of a greeting.
The redhead chuckled. "It's not all that noticeable in bright light, I'd imagine. My name is Liam Ironarm," he said, offering a hand. "The Shang Dragon."
Thom raised an eyebrow, and returned the grip. "Thom of Trebond," he said. "Why did you wave me over?"
Liam grinned, a slow smile that had Thom blushing all the way to his ears. "We redheads have to stick together, you know," he said teasingly. "Let me buy you dinner."
"Why?" Thom said, and he must've sounded more plaintive than he thought, because Liam lost the smile and gently reached out to cup Thom's cheek.
"Because you look like you could use a decent meal," Liam said, green eyes serious. "I am flirting with you, wizard knight," he added, smiling slightly at Thom's blush. "But this is just a meal. No strings attached."
Thom found himself nodding.
Liam sat back. "Good." He motioned to a serving girl. "And then you can tell me what brings Tortall's reclusive sorcerer knight out to Berat."
"Going straight through Sarain is a bad idea," Liam said a few days later.
"I know," Thom replied. He shook his head. "I don't really have a choice, though. If my visions were more specific…"
Liam smoothed a hand over his mustache. "This is why I dislike the Gift," he muttered.
"It's not exactly something I can change," Thom snapped. "And no one asked you to tag along anyway."
Liam chuckled. "Actually, you did, last night in bed. But considering how fast you dropped off to sleep, I'm not terribly surprised you don't remember," he added at Thom's glare.
Thom rubbed his eyes. "All I see is the Great Road East. And the damned jewel."
"Why are you after this jewel, anyway? I didn't take you for the type to go treasure-seeking."
Thom sighed. "I have spent over a year being plagued by visions of it. And it's not just any jewel, Ironarm, it's the Dominion Jewel."
Liam lowered his mug and stared at him over the rim. "You're sure of this?"
"You don't think small, do you. That'd win you just about anything you want, even a return to Tortall."
Liam chuckled. "There aren't really many other explanations for a Tortallan knight turning up in such condition," he noted wryly, "and you did say you'd spent a year aimlessly wandering around Galla. Not very knightly, that."
Thom startled when Liam brushed his sleeve. "I won't pry," Liam said, voice soft. "Whatever happened, happened, and I've seen nothing to make me doubt your honor."
"I have no honor," Thom said, not meeting Liam's eyes. "I never did."
Sarain was incredibly depressing, which Thom supposed he should've expected of a country torn by civil war. The Marenite border guards had been shocked out of their boots when Liam and he had requested entry, but they'd had no real reason to refuse, and so here they were.
The mountains were beautiful. Or they would be, without the burnt-out homesteads and the bones of the dead, Thom thought.
A few days' ride in, Thom and Liam were setting up camp when a vision in the fire (children, infants, a beautiful and hauntingly familiar young woman) made Thom spin.
"What?" Liam asked, rising warily to his feet.
"We have company," Thom replied, hand going to his sword hilt. "Put down the crossbow before I decide to be in a bad mood," Thom called.
A short, stocky girl stepped forward, crossbow bolt not wavering. "You can't magic me faster than I can shoot," she snapped, but her tone was ever-so-slightly uncertain.
Thom sighed. "Yes, I can, but that's not the point. I can magic the crossbow faster."
"Buri, stand down," came a low, clear voice. A young woman - the woman, who'd plagued a number of Thom's visions - emerged from the gloom, holding a crossbow of her own. "These men aren't our enemies."
"You don't know that," Buri snapped, but she obediently lowered the crossbow.
Other people had followed the woman, cautiously, out of the gloom: three girls, two boys, an infant.
"Thayet jian Wilima," Liam said, bowing deeply to the young woman.
Thom tried not to gape. Buri, watching him, smirked.
"Have we met?" Thayet asked, eyeing Liam curiously.
"No, Your Highness," Liam said, ever the gallant, "but I would have to be blind to not recognize a scion of Wilima house."
Thayet fingered the bridge of her nose. "Sadly, I do take after my father." She looked curiously at Thom, who, belatedly, bowed as well, face red.
Liam, damn him, was smirking. "Allow me to introduce myself. My name is Liam Ironarm, the Shang Dragon." Thayet's eyes widened slightly. "My companion," Liam said, still smirking, "is Lord Thom of Trebond, a knight of the realm of Tortall."
Buri eyed Thom skeptically. "You don't look like a lord. You're too skinny."
Thom glared at her. "When I want your opinion, I'll ask for it," he said tartly.
Liam chuckled; Thayet grinned.
"Where are you going?" Liam asked, looking at the children.
"The Mother of Waters in Rachia," Thayet replied. "The children are from the Mother of Mountains; they had to flee when the convent was destroyed. The baby I found."
Thom's lips compressed; Buri interrupted. "Thayet, you can't be serious! You're going to ask them for help?"
"You need the help," Thom snapped. "It's four days' ride to Rachia, and you don't have horses."
Buri muttered something in K'miri; Thayet snapped back in the same. "Fine," Buri hissed, stomping over to the overburdened donkey one of the children held.
"Let's set up camp," Liam said.
Thayet and Buri shared a bedroll, Thom noted, smiling faintly. Buri, noticing the look, had blushed and snapped at Thom, spitting out some excuse about limited supplies, only to still, eyes wide, when Liam teasingly kissed Thom's temple.
Thom, by that point, was blushing about as hard as Buri was.
The trip to Rachia was long, slow, and fraught with tension. They stopped once to loot from a band of raiders; Thom made short work of them with his magic.
That night had been cold without Liam next to him.
But they'd gotten horses enough to bear them all awkwardly to Rachia. Now, it seemed, there was another problem.
"Thayet!" Buri screamed as the arrow sliced through the air. Liam leapt for the princess.
It exploded into splinters inches from Thayet, and Thom turned, eyes fixed on the vision only he could see; he didn't notice as Buri glanced at him, shivered, then turned to chase down the would-be assassin.
Liam and Thayet were already leading the children to the convent. Thayet led Thom's horse; Liam didn't glance Thom's way.
(The assassin, fleeing across the rooftops until Buri chased him into jumping/The assassin, earlier, receiving orders from a man wearing the colors of Anduo house…)
"-Thom?" A gentle hand gripped his shoulder.
Thom blinked, and the world refocused. Thayet shifted back, moving her horse away. "What did you see?" she asked softly.
"Zhir Anduo or someone in his house paid that assassin."
Thayet's lips twisted. They were silent the rest of the way to the convent.
The convent presented another problem. Contrary to all the laws of hospitality that governed such places, they were not taken to visitors' quarters or even admitted, but were made to stand outside.
Buri, arriving at last, took one look at the group and scowled.
After a long, long wait, some Daughters came to lead them to the guest-house. The children were taken away to rest, and Liam, Thayet, Buri, and Thom were escorted to a room in which the First Daughter of the house waited.
"I am so sorry," she said to Thayet. "There are … complications. The Warlord is dead. May the Black God ease his passing."
The First Daughter looked nervous. "We will be glad to take in the children," she continued. "But we are not able to offer you the protection you need, Princess. Zhir Anduo is adamant about his need to speak with you. I am afraid that we cannot have a place here for you and your guard."
Buri bristled. Liam dropped a hand on her shoulder, eyes icy and body very, very still.
Thom just watched.
"I'm sorry," the First Daughter said, meeting Thayet's eyes for the first time.
Thayet simply turned and walked away.
"We need to move fast," Liam said, mounting his horse.
Thom nodded. He checked his sword, then swung into his own saddle. Buri and Thayet were right behind them.
"I can keep people from noticing us, or tracking us," Thom said. "Liam, if you want to ride separately, fine. You know where I'm heading."
Liam's eyes had gone a weird pale green again, but he shook his head. "I'll ride with you." He looked at the princess. "You may need help."
"Where can we go?" Thayet asked desperately. "I'm nothing but a pawn now."
"I'm heading along the Great Road East," Thom said. "Following … something. A vision." He glanced at Thayet and Buri, somewhat taken aback by the pleading in the sour K'mir's eyes. "You're welcome to come with me. The road leads out of Sarain eventually."
Thayet, after a moment, nodded.
"Sounds like a plan," Buri said. "Can we go now?"
They arrived at Fortress Wei three days later, and quickly made the crossing across the M'kon out of Sarain. There was no road on this side of the border, but that didn't matter much; the four followed the river north.
The ride went much better than any portion of their ride in Sarain. There was food to hunt, too, though Thom hadn't expected much; this close to the border, he was somewhat surprised the area hadn't been raided clean.
"The Roof's lawless and ungoverned, but there are enough mountain men, hill folk, and Doi tribesmen out here to make raiding a sketchy prospect," Liam said. "Besides, the M'kon is not always so easy to cross. It does you no good to find dinner if you drown in the river."
Despite being late spring, the weather got steadily colder as they approached the Great Road East and the mountains of the Roof. To Thom, who had fond memories of Trebond winters, the frigid air was welcome.
The others weren't so happy. "You're insane," Buri said flatly, shoving a fur-lined cloak at Thayet. "All that magic has turned your brain."
Thom laughed. "Well, there is insanity in my family." He grinned as Buri grimaced. "You don't find this refreshing?"
"It's freezing," Buri snapped. "Even with the snow melting. Tell me, are all Tortallans mad, or is it just you?"
"It's just a little brisk," Thom said, still grinning. "I thought you K'mir were a mountain people."
"We are," Buri retorted. "It's just that our mountains are sane."
Thayet's quiet chuckles devolved into full-throated guffaws.
They entered Lumuhu Valley before the month was out. A blizzard chased them to the inn; they entered only moments before hard sleet began to fall.
"This storm'll close Lumuhu for at least a week," the innkeeper said when Liam inquired.
"What about the other pass?" Thom asked absently, staring up at something beyond the ceiling.
The innkeeper laughed.
That answered that question, Thom thought. Too bad that was where the Jewel was.
"Don't even think about it," Liam said, coming up behind him and rubbing his back gently.
Thom turned glazed eyes to Liam. "It's not meant for me anyway," he said, voice distant.
They were at dinner that night in the common room when a Doi tribesman came over and spoke softly to Liam, shading his eyes in a sign of respect. He turned away when Liam nodded and beckoned to a woman with an onyx resting on her brow.
Liam turned to the group. "Mi-chi, their seer, has offered to read our hands," he said. "It is an insult to refuse."
Thayet rose, and sat beside the Doi seer when the woman beckoned to her. "It is said that the hand you use to stir a pot or draw a bow will reveal the part of you that others can see. The less-used hand, that is your inner self."
"I'm right-handed," Thayet said, nodding.
Mi-chi took her left hand and ran her fingers gently over Thayet's palm. Finally, she spoke. "A prize to save your people waits here, if you but have the nerve to take it. The road is hard, but you will find it rewarding in the end."
Thayet rose and curtsied to her, then went to stand by the hearth, face troubled. Buri watched her for a moment, then took a seat next to Mi-chi.
"Whatever you have to say, whisper it, okay?"
Mi-chi nodded, and afterward Buri refused to say what she was told. She seemed pleased, though, Thom thought.
"You know your fate already," Mi-chi said to Liam with a smile. She looked at Thom. "And you are as much a seer as I am, and it is not given to a seer to know his own fate." She shielded her eyes briefly, and turned back to her companions.
Thayet was still looking troubled. Thom came to stand beside her.
After a long moment, Thayet spoke. "What did she mean, do you think?"
Thom watched a vision dance in the hearth fire (Thayet, clad in furs, kneeling before a beast-man up in what had to be Chitral Pass, listening to him as he made a request of her, nodding solemnly and raising her hands to the fastenings of her clothing) and replied slowly, "I think you were meant to find the Jewel."
Thayet looked at him, startled.
"You're not serious," Buri said, ominously low and right behind Thom.
"I am," Thom said heavily. "I've had visions of you confronting its guardian since before I was even a knight. The Jewel was meant for you, Thayet, and it can restore Sarain."
Thayet grew even more troubled. "I have to think on this," she said, turning away.
Thom nodded, and went up to his room.
"I'll do it," Thayet said at breakfast.
Buri glared at her over a mug of cider. "You'd better not mean what I think you mean," she snapped.
"I'm going to go get the Jewel," Thayet said, eyes steady on Buri's own. Buri frowned and looked away. "Buri," Thayet said, taking her hand, "it's for all of us. Let me do this."
"Fine. It's not like I can stop you anyway," Buri muttered, pulling away. She crossed her arms and glared at the fire.
Thom was fiddling with a bottle of ink he'd bought off the innkeeper. "Let me do something, before you go," Thom said. "This'll stain your skin, possibly permanently, but it'll let me funnel magic - and heat - to you from here in the inn."
"You're not going alone!" Buri cried.
Thayet shushed her, and began drawing an intricate K'miri pattern up her left arm with the ink. "I have to, I think." Thom nodded in agreement. "That's how these things are usually done," Thayet reminded her old friend gently.
"And I can't go, because I need to be someplace warm to have enough heat to send to her," Thom said.
Buri was looking mulish, and Thayet sighed. "Buriram Tourakom of the K'miri Hau Ma, I order you as Thayet jian Wilima, daughter of Kalasin, to stay in this inn." She looked over at Liam. "Make sure she stays? Please?"
Liam nodded, solemn. "Let me help you find some snow gear."
Thom hunkered down in front of the fire, wrapped in a thick fur, overly warm now but knowing that would change as soon as he started feeding heat to Thayet. She waved at them, looking like an overstuffed rag doll in all her layers, and left the inn.
Thom sank deliberately into the vision.
(The icy wind howls down on her the instant she sets foot outside, though it was perfectly calm when she left. Already she is freezing, even in her layers, and she looks back at the inn, wanting nothing more than to go back inside.
She straightens up and marches resolutely forward, leaning against the wind. This is for Sarain. Heat seems to flare up her arm, following the lines of the ink she scrawled there, and it rises to fit itself to the seams of her clothing, holding the bitterness at bay.
She knows in her heart Thom's guess was right, that Chitral is where the Jewel waits, because a quest for the Jewel cannot be easy. She climbs, and climbs, and climbs, marking time by the regular blooming of the heat funneled to her from the inn's fire. Finally, a terrible voice directs her attention to a small cave, and she presses her lips together and marches towards it, thinking that she'd really like this guardian to simply talk to her, let her explain…)
The fire guttered, and Thom's vision grayed out. Buri shook him, saying something, but Thom shook her off and dragged the vision back, head aching as he scried intentionally for the first time in years.
(The cave was larger inside than it had looked. A beast-man towered over her, asking her why, why she had come, why he should give her his Jewel, and she shivered, chilled now as the heat reaching her grew less and less, and answered that it was for her people, for Sarain, for a country that was killing itself, for her, because no one would take her seriously without it and might not even with it, and she'd be happy to return it once she was done, if she had anything to trade she'd be happy to trade for it, and old Chitral looked at her for a long moment and made a terrible request, and she knelt at his feet in the snow and agreed, and, knowing full well the danger, began to strip…)
The fire went out in a sudden gust of cold; the temperature in the inn plummeted.
I will give you back your princess in a week, said a terrible voice, straight into Thom's skull. No peeking.
Buri was shaking him, Thom realized as his head cleared.
"What happened? What's going on?" the K'mir said frantically. "You stopped the magic. What's wrong?"
"Chitral and Thayet worked out a deal," Thom rasped, shivering. "She'll be back in a week."
"A week?" Buri nearly screamed, outraged.
Thom raised one weak hand, frowning as it trembled. "Let her explain. My visions don't get everything."
Buri let him go, frowning, then sat next to him and tucked an arm around him. "You're freezing," she said bluntly. "You need warming up."
Thom was too tired to protest, especially not when the phantom shivers of Thayet's pleasure ghosted up the remains of their link.
True to Chitral's word, Thayet returned a week later, deeply exhausted and cradling a fist-sized indigo gem in her hands.
If she was surprised to walk in on Buri ardently kissing Thom, she didn't let on. Instead she just smiled teasingly at her embarrassed lover, tiredly extending the Jewel.
"I got it," Thayet said, before passing out cold.
Thom caught her before she hit the floor, and helped Buri remove her snow gear and tuck her into bed.
"She's fine," the inn's healer said, when he came to examine her. "Exhausted, but fine. She just needs rest."
Liam nodded and thanked the man, then turned to the only other conscious people in the room. "Let's leave the princess to her rest," he said flirtatiously. "We rented another room, you know."
Thom and Buri looked at each other, and shrugged.
Four days later, Thayet woke. Buri, Thom, and Liam were all sitting in chairs around her bed. Thayet giggled.
"The Jewel's under your pillow," Liam said, sharp green eyes taking in Thayet's condition. "You were asleep for quite a while."
Buri socked her in the arm. "Don't do that again!"
Thayet smiled. "Believe me, I don't plan on it."
"What did Chitral want?" Thom asked softly, interrupting their banter.
Buri subsided instantly, black eyes fixed on Thayet.
Thayet fidgeted with her blanket for a moment, then sighed and raised her eyes. "For my heir to be his child," she said simply.
Buri froze, then leaped to her feet. "I'll kill that-"
Thayet snapped, "No." Buri turned to stare at her. Thayet met her eyes calmly. "I was perfectly willing, and you will not jeopardize this quest."
Unhappily, reluctantly, Buri nodded, and sat back down.
"There is one more thing Chitral wants," Thayet said. "He wants the child to be born here."
Liam looked at Thom and shrugged. "I don't usually stay in one place that long, but I can make an exception."
Thom looked at Liam, then looked at Thayet, and nodded.
Thayet sighed in relief and sank back. "Thank you."
"Thom," Thayet said, a few days later. "May I speak to you alone?"
Buri and Liam exchanged glances. Thom nodded and followed Thayet to her room.
Thayet was twisting a handkerchief between her hands. "I have an odd request," she started.
"You want me to marry you," Thom said.
Thayet blinked. "How did you- You saw it?"
"I saw the request," Thom said. "And it makes sense."
Thayet crossed one arm over her stomach. "I'm sorry. I don't want you to feel like I'm using you…"
An odd boldness prompted Thom to take her hand. "You're not. I've been used before, and this is nothing like that. Besides," he said, a smile breaking out across his face, "what man in his right mind would refuse to marry you?"
Thayet whooped, and flung her arms around Thom's neck. "Thank you," she breathed into his neck, before raising her head and kissing him soundly.
Thom went entirely red, and Thayet laughed.
So I'm married to the princess of Sarain now, Thom thought dazedly after the simple but legal Doi-officiated ceremony.
Buri kept looking his way and snickering. Liam was watching both Thom and Thayet with a lazy, knowing grin on his face, eyes bright with mirth.
"You've had a crush on Thayet since we got the drop on you on the Road, at least," Buri said, dissolving into another bout of laughter at Thom's expression. "What, you didn't notice?"
Thom could feel his ears burning. He buried his face in his hands.
Thayet - his wife, he thought, still completely unused to the idea - laughed herself and tugged his hands down. "That's all right. I like you too," she said, patting his hand in a gesture eerily reminiscent of Maude at her most motherly.
Thom grinned at her, then gave up and laughed at her wicked smirk.
Life, Thom thought, was finally looking up.
"So, how do we go about this?" Thom asked as the four friends settled around a table in Thayet's room.
Thayet gazed into the Jewel, looking troubled. She was silent.
"Actually…" Buri hesitated. Liam motioned for her to continue. "The clans don't have any problem with female chiefs," she said. "What if you've been thinking about this backwards, Thayet?" She snorted at her friend. "Don't give me that look. You've been thinking about Sarain and the war as if it's a lowlander problem, with the K'mir thrown in. But Sarain is our land too, and you are Kalasin's daughter. You could start by uniting us."
Thayet blinked at Buri's impassioned speech, then blushed. She glanced at the Jewel again, then back at her old friend. "Let's do that, then."
Over the next few weeks, K'miri clan chiefs or their heirs traveled up to Lumuhu Pass. The inn had been cleared to make room for them at Thayet's request; the innkeeper had refused any compensation for his troubles, as had most of the guests who left.
Thom stayed upstairs when Thayet and Buri went down to meet with the leaders; this was not his battle. Liam stayed with him, watching as Thom sharpened his sword.
"Are you angry with me, for marrying Thayet?" Thom asked abruptly.
Liam looked startled, then laughed. "Thom, I told you when we met: no strings. Besides, Buri was right; you've had a crush on the princess for ages."
Thom went red.
"And honestly, we can't afford that child - or Thayet's authority - being challenged over its bastardy," Liam added. "And the choices were you, me, or a stranger. A stranger wouldn't do, and I can't be bound down like that, not as the Shang Dragon. I'm a commoner anyway. It had to be you."
He moved over to kneel before Thom, smiling wickedly. "But I know Thayet wouldn't mind us entertaining ourselves up here for a while."
Thom thought it over, then set his sword aside and nodded.
Buri dragged Thom into the common room the next day during the meeting. "They want to meet Thayet's husband before they agree to anything."
Thayet took his hand solemnly when Thom joined her by the hearth. She turned to face the assembled clan chiefs and said, "I ask for your allegiance because I am Kalasin's daughter, a daughter of the Hau Ma, the oldest clan, and a daughter of Sarain. I went up into the mountains of the Roof and faced old Chitral for his Jewel, and I triumphed; this is proof of my worth and my fitness for rule." She displayed the Jewel; it glimmered in the firelight, catching the light. "I have married by my free, uncontested choice Lord Thom of Trebond, a knight and sorcerer and seer formerly of Tortall who has sworn unconditional allegiance to me alone."
Thom nodded once when several heads turned towards him.
An old grizzled clan leader rose. "I acknowledge all this, and request that you and your husband prove yourselves in combat before those here assembled."
Thayet nodded. "As is required by K'miri custom, I will."
"As will I," Thom agreed when the old chief looked at him.
"Three cuts," the man said, and the assembled K'miri rose and cleared a wide space.
Thayet's fight with the fiery heir of the Han Rei clan was over almost before it started. The princess, all flowing grace and sharp steel, disarmed him before he could land a single strike. Swiftly, she nicked his arms, twice on his sword arm and once on his shield arm, and he bowed to her.
The assembled K'miri were silent, watching.
Thom's fight did not go nearly so smoothly. The woman he fought - the leader of the Churi, and a woman who was not terribly pleased with Thayet's short, weedy husband - was fast. Thom only scored his first cut on her when she got too close cutting him.
He managed to get a second cut, across her knee this time, when he ducked a blow aimed at his head; mentally, he thanked Alanna for the years of swinging sticks at his head that had instilled an instinct he'd never quite shaken.
…Alanna. Thom froze, eyes going wide as the thought and the fog rolling outside the open window triggered a vision and ripped an old wound right open.
(The convent is a dark, bitter, oppressive place, and Alanna cracks even as she enters, cracks when the Daughters slowly place more and more restrictions on her in vain attempts to quell her rebelliousness, and finally breaks apart when, at the end of their rope, they bend her over a table and take a switch to her…)
Two sharp bursts of stinging pain jolted Thom out of the vision, and as he raised his hand to his bleeding cheek, he realized that he was crying. The Churi chief stood in front of him, sword down and dark eyes grave, and it belatedly dawned on Thom that she had won.
The assembled K'miri remained silent. Thayet watched from the side, eyes grave and worried.
"Kalasin's daughter says you are a seer," the old clan leader said. The Churi chief backed up, sheathing her sword and giving the other leader space to step forward.
"I am," Thom rasped.
The man nodded. "That was a worthy fight, then," he said, turning to the other chiefs. The Churi chief nodded her agreement, glancing back at Thom.
Slowly, the other chiefs also nodded.
The old man turned back to Thayet. "You have our allegiance, as long as you keep our trust," he said.
Thayet smiled. "I would never think to break it."
The remaining months passed in a blur of K'miri coming and going to consult with Thayet, and the work of setting up a government-in-exile to rival the one in Kuqa. Displaced Saren nobles began flocking to Thayet, and the story of her quest for the Dominion Jewel was soon spread far and wide.
Thom smirked. Things were going very well indeed. Sarain was finally stabilizing, as most of the lowlanders were sick of war. There were only a few major holdouts, largely centered on the capital, and Thayet's chiefs were confident they could be taken care of with little trouble.
Thayet had already embarked on rebuilding projects in the northern half of the country. Roads were the first order of business, aside from food. The K'miri clans had rallied to her quite enthusiastically indeed, and were promoting her projects with equal fervor.
Thayet was coming down for breakfast one morning when she gasped, put a hand to her swollen stomach, and backed into her room. "Get the midwife," she said through the door, and Thom trotted off to find her.
Buri escorted the midwife, an elderly Doi who had heard of Thayet's pregnancy and offered to stay at the inn, upstairs. Thom stayed down in the common room, staring blankly into the fire.
It took him a moment to realize he'd slid into visions.
(Thayet, riding triumphant into Kuqa, splendid in a long, simple dress and K'miri armor, the people all flocking to her banner/A tall, abnormally pale woman with indigo eyes and Thayet's features, standing at Chitral Pass and planting the Saren flag at its peak/Another woman, who looks fully K'mir save for her haunting indigo eyes, standing on a ship on its way from Udayapur to Kuqa after a state visit to her eastern territories/A man, now, still with the indigo eyes of his foremothers, sitting on the Warlord's throne in Kuqa, listening intently to the farmer kneeling before him…)
Buri unceremoniously yanked his chin up. "It's a girl," she informed Thom tartly. "She's to be named Kalasin."
"I know," Thom said, and grinned.
"You wouldn't come back even if you could," Sir Francis of Nond said, leaning on the balcony railing.
Thom observed the older man, who he'd known slightly back in Tortall. "No," he said simply.
Francis laughed. "I'm not at all surprised," the ambassador said. "I know I wouldn't trade Sarain for Tortall, not if I had a choice."
"Things are that bad?"
"Things are that bad," the man said quietly. "Jonathan is barely holding the throne. The Bazhir have turned even more aggressive; Scanra, Carthak, the Copper Isles, Tusaine … Mithros, even Galla and Tyra are chewing at our borders. And then there's Jasson."
Thom barely held back his flinch. "What about Prince Jasson?" he asked unsteadily.
Francis sighed, dropping his head into his hands. He ran both hands over his hair, then looked up. "I know he's your nephew, Your Highness, but … there's something just plain off about him. He started manifesting an intensely powerful blood-red Gift when he was three; he's never been all that stable since."
Purple and orange … So Thom's worst nightmare was true. "The King has not taken another wife?"
Francis shook his head. "Even if he did, Jasson would still be the heir."
Thom's mouth twisted. He was about to say something else when a sharp squeal from behind him caught his attention.
"Alan! Marinie! Stop that right now!" he bellowed.
Francis turned as well, and laughed. Five-year-old Alan was poking four-year-old Marinie with a thankfully dull stick that he'd gotten from Mithros knows where, and Marinie was giving as good as she got, throwing her dolls at her brother with terrifying accuracy.
In unison, the prince and princess pouted.
Francis smothered a cough. "They look just like you."
Thom eyed his black-haired, hazel-eyed children and raised an eyebrow.
Francis dissolved into laughter, spinning back around and leaning helplessly on the railing.
Thom looked at his confused children, and smiled himself.