The first time Owen saw her, she was dancing happily, if a bit clumsily, with Neal at the Midwinter Ball. When she returned, breathless and lovely, to her seat by the wall, Owen approached and asked her name, trying to be polite and not stare too much.
"Suzette of … Far Rock," she said, her voice low and husky.
"Far Rock? I've never heard of that fief."
"Oh, it's pretty small. Totally unnoticeable. Don't worry about it," Suzette said, smiling coyly. "You are?"
Owen gulped. "Owen of Jesslaw, if it please my lady."
Suzette laughed, lovely and deep.
Kel had never seen Prince Roald break out into uncontrollable giggles before, but when he saw who Owen was escorting to the feast that night, the Prince's famous decorum cracked. Peals of laughter rang out across the hall; heads turned to take in the rare sight of the Crown Prince doubled over, trying to breathe and failing miserably. The lady on Owen's arm turned an unflattering beet red, looking ready to kick Roald. Owen patted her arm, glaring at the Prince, who just laughed harder.
King Jonathan turned to see what had so affected his serene son. His eyes widened in recognition - and shock? Kel wondered - when he saw Owen's partner.
Kel had never seen the King spin around that fast, either. She'd swear she heard him snort in laughter himself before he clamped one hand across his mouth and forced his expression still. He turned back to face the hall, face reasonably still, but Kel could see his mouth twitching as he fought not to lose control like his son had.
Kel looked back at Owen and his lady friend, mystified. What was so funny about this woman?
Then she walked over to introduce herself, and as Owen cheerfully introduced his "tremendously jolly girl", Kel bowed and extended a hand. Politely, Suzette took it, and Kel felt sword calluses beneath her hand. She had really strong wrists, too.
Kel blinked at Suzette, startled and uncertain, and Suzette tentatively, shyly, met her eyes and smiled. And something clicked into place in the back of Kel's brain.
She'd seen that exact smile before, on Suzette's famous mother.
Wyldon was not overly fond of balls, but he'd promised Margarry he'd escort her to Corus to see her beloved Owen, and so he, Vivenne, and his youngest daughter had come to the palace. Wyldon, too cynical from too many years trying to keep pages from screwing everything up, wasn't expecting much.
He certainly wasn't expecting his former squire to turn up to greet them with a flirtatious blond on his arm.
A flirt who had suspiciously broad shoulders, and a suspiciously masculine jaw. Wyldon clenched his own jaw to keep it from dropping, and turned to Owen just as he finished enthusiastically greeting a somewhat suspicious Margarry.
"Oh! My lord, this is-" Owen started, motioning to the blond in the lovely green dress.
"Alan of Pirate's Swoop," Wyldon forced out, his voice as arid as the Southern Desert. "A pleasure to see you again."
Margarry's eyes widened comically; Owen's jaw hung open. Vivenne covered her mouth with one hand, eyes twinkling.
Wyldon eyed the younger two. "You didn't know?" he asked Owen.
Owen shook his head wildly, eyeballing a downcast Alan, who was running nervous fingers along a crease in his skirt.
Owen touched Alan's arm gently, startling the younger man into meeting his eyes. "That's jolly," Owen said, and Wyldon wondered if his former squire was even aware of how throaty his voice sounded. Alan blushed, but didn't look away.
Margarry, Wyldon was disturbed to notice, was eyeing Alan thoughtfully herself.
Margarry was a bit of all right, Kel thought, once more discreetly looking at the pretty brunette. She had her mother's beauty, that was clear, but there was an admirable directness about her, a solidness to her, that was pure Wyldon.
Yuki, standing next to Kel, shot her friend a long, considering glance. After a quick look to make sure they were relatively isolated, she said, "I was not aware you were fond of ladies?" It was rude to ask, but Kel had never minded rudeness before.
Kel blinked, as if startled. She turned to Yuki, then looked at Margarry, then looked back at Yuki. "I am, aren't I?" she murmured, like she'd just discovered something wondrous.
Across the room, Margarry looked at Kel and smiled.
"I don't see why you don't want to tell her," Owen said, strolling along next to Alan.
Alan flushed. "What, tell the famous Keladry of Mindelan that the girl you introduced to her last night is really a man?"
"Sure. Why not? Kel's great." Owen tucked his hands behind his head, eyeing his nervous friend. "Seriously, Alan, she's a jolly sort. She'd not bat an eyelash."
Alan fidgeted with his dress again. "You really want her to know, don't you." It wasn't a question.
Owen shrugged, dropping his hands. He regarded the other knight with serious gray eyes. "Kel's my best friend, and I don't like keeping secrets from her. Honestly-"
A soft footfall behind them caught their attention. They turned to face - who else? Alan thought - the very person they'd just been discussing. Kel looked from one face to the other, taking in the way Owen startled and the way Alan fidgeted, before asking, "Is something wrong?"
Owen opened his mouth, then closed it, looking sidelong at Alan.
Alan, meanwhile, was staring at Kel, his face bone-white. As the lady knight's look changed to honest concern, he squeaked out, "MynameisreallyAlanofPirate'sSwoop," and closed his eyes.
"Ah," Kel said, giving her typical Kel smile that was mostly in the eyes. "I had guessed, actually." On impulse - wicked or kind, even she didn't know - she took his hand as she would a lady's, and kissed it.
Owen laughed, happily.
Margarry attended that night's ball unaccompanied, with Keladry, much to her father's annoyance. She could see him shooting annoyed looks at Owen, who was once more accompanying a cross-dressing Alan. She'd have to speak to her father later, she supposed, before he got any wrong impressions and did something drastic to his ex-squire.
Besides, Kel was a fine partner, and a sweet person, to boot. When Kel shyly invited her to a more private party at her old knight-master's rooms, Margarry was quick to accept.
Owen and Alan were there, too, somewhat to Margarry's surprise. Then again, she thought, they both had met Lord Raoul before, and were friends with some of his other guests.
Margarry was content to stand by the wall, a glass of cider in her hand, watching the others. Kel came to stand beside her.
"If there's anything you want to ask," Margarry murmured, her brown eyes dancing though she didn't look at Kel, "feel free."
Kel flushed slightly, but, Margarry was pleased to see, took her at her word. "I thought you and Owen were engaged?"
"We are," Margarry said, watching her fiance as he told Alan some story that apparently involved fifty-foot-tall ogres and an epileptic monkey, judging by the hand gestures. Alan was listening avidly, looking at Owen with the kind of utter fascination that Margarry knew couldn't possibly have anything to do with whatever wild tale Owen was spinning.
Kel was watching, too. "Then…?"
Margarry smiled, sipping some cider meditatively. "They're not hurting anybody," she said at last, meeting Kel's dreamy eyes. "Not as long as I don't mind."
They were leaving the party when Margarry cleared her throat and pointed upwards. Following her glance, the two men flushed.
Like reluctant lovers in so many Midwinter plays, they'd just walked under a sprig of mistletoe. Owen glanced at Margarry, who nodded, eyes twinkling.
Owen grinned. It was nice to be engaged to such a tremendous girl. He turned to look at Alan -
- Who stood, face pale, looking at Owen with an almost frightened expression. The other man's hands were trembling, Owen noted, and he looked like he couldn't decide whether to bolt or maybe jump Owen.
Kel, who'd emerged just behind Margarry, bent to listen as Margarry whispered in her ear, then straightened and outright grinned, leaning on the doorpost and conveniently blocking the remaining partygoers from seeing out into the hallway.
Well, Alan clearly wasn't going to be making the first move, Owen thought, exasperated. Really, for someone brave enough to wander the halls in a dress, he was awfully shy.
With that thought, Owen grabbed the front of Alan's dress and yanked the other man forward, his lips meeting the other's in the most awkward kiss Owen had ever had.
Then Alan sighed softly, and parted his lips, and as the kiss deepened, Owen became vaguely aware of Margarry's rich laugh from somewhere behind them, soft, amused, and honestly happy.
Aly grinned, practically dancing as they approached the palace. Nawat grinned in return, happy to see her happy, and more relieved than he'd ever admit that the kids were staying with their grandparents at the Swoop.
He was glad to get the chance to see Aly's home, Nawat reflected, watching as his wife ran ahead to cheerfully greet another of her old friends. She was happy and well-settled in the Isles, but it was only normal that she would miss the country of her youth.
It was a beautiful place, Nawat thought. Full of sparkles. There was even one mage with a sparkly Gift. That was impressive.
A pretty blond woman in a neat blue dress crossed the path ahead of them, and Nawat saw Aly start.
"Alan?" she shrieked, coming to a dead halt.
The woman - no, the man, Nawat realized - spun to face Aly, his face, so like Aly's own, going ghostly pale. The man, who could only be the twin he'd heard so much of, then gathered up his skirts and ran.
Aly started to give chase, but she'd taken barely two steps before a lanky redhead grabbed her from behind. Aly struggled, going for her knives, but the man deftly pinned her arms.
Nawat, recognizing the man's green-hazel eyes, stood back and watched as the man clad in what he was starting to recognize as university robes bent to speak in Aly's ear.
"Don't go after him," Aly's older brother said. "Just … leave him be, Aly."
"Thom?" Aly squirmed around to face her brother. "What's going on? Was that Alan? It was, wasn't it?"
Thom put his sister down, his face set. "I don't know what's up with Alan," he said, but Nawat could tell he was lying.
Nawat also suspected he knew why.
Owen was startled into nearly dropping his glass when the door to his room banged open, and a distraught Alan walked in, looking pale enough to faint.
"OhMithrosmysister'sherewhatamIgoingtodowhatamIgoingtodo?" he said, digging his fingers into his arms.
A soft startled noise drew Alan's attention to Owen's guest, and he paled even more. Owen hadn't thought that was even possible; it certainly couldn't be good for his health.
Alan, at the end of his rope, burst into tears and sank into a nearby chair.
Lord Wyldon's dark eyes met Owen's, and Owen had never seen his former knight-master look genuinely out of his depth before. The older man set down his mug, nodded to Owen, and clasped Alan's shoulder briefly, then excused himself.
Margarry bustled in a few minutes later. "Father said something's wrong," she said, taking in the scene before her. "What happened?" she asked, sinking to her knees next to Alan and producing a handkerchief.
"He said something about his sister," Owen said, when Alan made no move to respond. He watched as Margarry pried Alan's hands away from his face and started dabbing at his cheeks with the cloth.
"Alianne is here?" Kel said from the doorway.
Alan, looking thoroughly miserable, nodded and wrapped his arms around himself.
When Owen looked back towards Kel, she was gone.
Aly wiped her eyes, glaring at her older brother. "You're lying," she accused.
Thom sighed, tucking his hands up his sleeves. "Aly…"
"What is wrong with Alan, Thom?" she pressed, lips tight and eyes flashing.
Nawat, recognizing the warning signs, decided this was a fine time to look at the flowers down the path, just within earshot.
Thom wasn't ignorant of Aly's blooming temper, either, but he, too, was a child of the Lioness. His temper, frayed already, snapped. "You left, Aly, that's what happened." A mean little part of him was happy to see her flinch. "You pulled some idiotic, childish stunt and got captured by slavers, and for months that was all any of us knew about you. And now you come back, and expect nothing to have changed?"
Thom realized, abruptly, that he was yelling.
Aly opened her mouth, a hot retort on the tip of her tongue, but a soft cough from off to the side cut her off. They all turned to see a tall, sturdy young woman watching them placidly.
"Alianne of Pirate's Swoop?" the woman, who Aly belatedly recognized as Keladry of Mindelan, asked.
"Alianne Crow, actually," Aly said, bowing. Sarongs weren't really made to be curtseyed in.
"Ah," Kel bowed in return. "My apologies for the mistake, and congratulations on your marriage." She bowed to Nawat, who had come up behind Aly. Her hazel eyes fixed on Aly's own. "Would you please walk with me? It's about your brother," she added at Aly's hesitation.
Nawat spoke up. "Perhaps I should go instead, Aly," he said. At her fierce glare, he clarified, "I do not think you are in a good mood to see him right now."
Aly wasn't sure how Nawat was so certain Kel was planning on taking her to see her twin, but apparently they were sharing a brain, because Kel was nodding thoughtfully, her sharp eyes not missing the tension radiating from either of the siblings.
Aly was looking mulish. Nawat squeezed her arm gently. "Aly, he was frightened enough to run away from you. Let me go talk to him, and I promise I will bring your nestmate to see you."
She softened, as he knew she would, at his odd turn of phrase. But this was his Aly, and she wasn't ready to give up yet. "Well, what am I supposed to do while you go?" she asked tartly, hands on her hips.
"You could always talk to me," Thom said, voice forcibly mild, not looking at her.
Aly suddenly felt bad, and clamped down on her instinctive anger. She nodded, tears gathering in her eyes again, and walked over to her brother.
Nawat turned to the lady knight, who nodded to him. "Shall we go?" Nawat nodded in turn.
"She's going to hate me!" Kel heard, clear down the hallway. Nawat looked at her, and she nodded, striding to Owen's door and easing it open.
Alan sat with his back to the door, finally speaking coherently. Margarry still sat on the floor beside him, resting one comforting hand on his knee. Owen perched on his bed, his usually cheerful expression absent. He glanced up at Kel, then nodded as she put a finger to her lips.
"Why would she? She's your sister," Margarry pointed out, voice gentle.
"Look at me!" Alan snarled, tugging at the fabric of his dress.
He was definitely Aly's brother, Nawat thought. The snarl was identical. He moved up to stand beside Kel at the door, and gently tapped her arm.
"This is not normal attire, I take it?" he whispered in her ear.
"No," Kel said, voice equally soft. "Not for men."
"Hm," Nawat said. He seemed to come to a decision, and moved into the room to kneel down beside Margarry.
"Hello!" he said, as chirpy as Owen usually was.
Margarry shot Kel a look, and settled back at Kel's nod. Alan's head shot up, startled.
Yes, he was Aly's brother, Nawat thought. The blotchiness must run in the family.
Aloud he said, "I do not believe I have met you yet. You are my Aly's nestmate, yes?"
"Your Aly?" Alan asked, red-rimmed eyes wide.
Nawat grinned. "She married me!" he exclaimed gleefully.
Owen looked as if he'd regained his good humor. He was on the verge of laughing, in fact. Margarry smiled across at him, amused herself.
"You must be Nawat," Alan said. Abruptly, his eyes narrowed, and Nawat almost laughed as he was subjected to a very Aly-like close scrutiny.
"She is a very wonderful woman, your Aly is," Nawat said cheerfully, rising as Alan finished his scrutiny and seemed to find him acceptable.
Nawat extended a hand to the other man. "Your Aly is very worried about you," he said seriously. "I do not know that you won't upset her, but I do know she is more upset that you ran off."
Alan blushed slightly, color finally returning to his face, and stared up at Nawat for a long moment. Nawat stared evenly back, his hand never wavering.
Finally, Alan blushed again and looked away, taking Nawat's hand. Nawat pulled the other man to his feet.
The others rose, too. Nawat was impressed; this was a close group of friends. The third man in the room - "Owen of Jesslaw," Kel said, noticing Nawat's look - grinned at Nawat, relief clear in his gray eyes. The other woman, who curtsied to Nawat when Kel introduced her as Margarry of Cavall, moved to walk behind Alan, asking Nawat many questions about the Isles and his family. Kel was a solid, quiet presence at the back of the group, listening as the two, with some contribution from Owen, kept Alan from panicking again.
If Alan's hand clamped down too hard on Nawat's arm, the once-crow never mentioned it.
"Ah," Thom said, looking over Aly's head. "Here they are."
Aly spun to see Alan clinging to Nawat's arm. Keladry and two others ranged around them, subtly keeping Alan from bolting and eyeing Aly with varying degrees of protective suspicion.
Aly swallowed a lump in her throat. She should be looking at them that way. But she pushed her hurt aside and looked at her twin. She could wallow later.
She opened her mouth. "Is that my dress?" she said, sounding like any of the old nobles Dove kept scandalizing.
Aly shut her mouth with a snap, watching as her brother went an unflattering red and began to toy with a sleeve. That wasn't what she'd meant to say at all.
Thom sighed, somewhere behind her. Alan's three friends exchanged glances.
"Yes," Alan said quietly, and he slipped out of Nawat's grasp and away before any of them could stop him.
Aly flinched when she saw him reach up to wipe his eyes.
"We should all just get married," Owen said later, as they all sat around in Kel's room this time.
That definitely shattered the somber mood, Kel thought, sitting up on her bed. "What?"
Alan looked completely poleaxed, and was staring from Owen, to Margarry, to Kel, then back to Owen.
Margarry looked thoughtful. "We can't all marry each other," she reminded her fiance. "Polygamy is outlawed in Tortall."
"Well, then, you can marry me, so your father doesn't kill us," Owen said eagerly, "and Alan can marry Kel, and since Alan and Kel aren't the heirs of their fiefs and I am, you can all come live at Jesslaw!"
Alan was blushing redder than his current dress. Kel looked him over, then shrugged. "Why not?" she said, leaning back. "If you don't mind," she added at Alan's astonished look.
"Are you serious?" Alan asked, looking from one face to the other.
"Yup," Owen said, crossing one leg over the other. Margarry nodded.
Alan dropped his eyes to his hands, picking at his nails. They were painted a lovely shade of purple, and Kel reached to take his hands in hers, as much to preserve the lovely color as to stop his fidgeting.
Alan, startled, met her eyes, and she leaned forward to press a gentle kiss to his nose. "We're serious," she said, resting her forehead against his.
Alan, slowly, nodded.
Owen let out a whoop. "Alright! This is going to be so-"
"Jolly," the other three finished dryly, grinning at the put-out look on his face.
The bell above the door chimed, and Lalasa looked up, spitting the pins out of her mouth as she recognized the person who entered. "Lady Kel!"
Kel smiled. "Lalasa. How are you?"
"Very well, my lady," Lalasa said, bobbing a curtsey. Belatedly, she noticed Kel's companion. "Welcome to my shop, Lady…?"
"Margarry," the lovely brown-haired woman said, nodding politely in return. "You must be the famous seamstress Kel has told me so much about."
Lalasa blushed. Kel, coming to her rescue like always, said, "I know this is short notice, but…" She trailed off, and Margarry extended a small scrap of paper to Lalasa.
Lalasa took it; it was a list of measurements. A very thorough list. "My lady?"
Kel was fidgeting with the hem of her tunic. "We were hoping to commission a dress for a friend of ours."
"She's too shy to come herself," Margarry added, and Lalasa frowned slightly at her stutter.
"What style of dress?" Lalasa asked, all business, looking over the measurements. "And do you have any colors in mind, my ladies?"
Kel and Margarry exchanged glances; Kel shrugged. "I would defer to your experience on the style," Margarry said finally. "You have the measurements; I'm sure you'd have a better idea than either of us what would look good. As for color…" She glanced at Kel.
"Brown," Kel said firmly. "A deep brown, with maybe some gold." Lalasa looked at Kel; Kel smiled. "She's blond," she offered by way of explanation.
Lalasa nodded, and bustled to the back of the shop to withdraw a bolt of dark chocolate silk. "Will this do?"
Kel nodded; Margarry finally smiled.
"I can have this ready in a week," Lalasa said, ignoring Kel's automatic protest. "I know that will be a bit late for the Midwinter feasts, but it should be ready by the new year."
Kel bit back another protest at Margarry's soft touch, then sighed. "Thank you, Lalasa."
They left then, and Lalasa watched them go, wondering.
Aly and Nawat, Alan was relieved to note, had returned to the Swoop for New Year's. He sat perched on a fence near the Riders' paddocks, wearing Aly's plainest dress. She'd hated to wear it, but Alan had always liked its simplicity.
He kicked his feet idly, then nearly fell off when a voice behind him said, "I didn't believe it when Raoul told me, but look at you."
"Lady Buri," Alan stammered. Her hand on his arm was the only thing keeping him from jumping to his feet.
She looked him over from head to toe, taking in the dress and the painted nails and the simple necklace Margarry had given him for a late Midwinter's gift. Alan flushed.
Buri gently resettled his necklace so the pendant hung properly between his collarbones. "Your mother is going to pitch a fit, you know," she said dryly.
That was precisely why he had avoided the Swoop, and precisely why he was thanking the gods they'd chosen a small, intimate Midwinter at home this year.
Buri hopped up to sit on the fence beside Alan. "Now tell me what this is about, Alan of Pirate's Swoop, or I will tell your mother and let her ask you about it."
Alan swallowed. "I don't know. I just…" One hand fisted the fabric by his knee. He shook his head.
Buri searched his face, then nodded. "Alright, then. I won't press further." She felt around in her pocket, finding the hairpin that Thayet had given her for her wedding. She pinned it over Alan's ear, arranging the ribbons so they hung properly.
"It's a K'miri love knot," she explained quietly at Alan's look. "For luck."
Alan blushed deeply, and Buri grinned.
"There," she said, settling back. "You're complete now."
He touched the complex weave of ribbon, and smiled.
The four of them managed to duck out of New Year's festivals early, escorted by a happy Alan to his rooms.
None of them had been in there before, Margarry realized. It was simple and utilitarian, much like Kel's, with only small traces of its occupant's personality scattered here and there. Like the little pots of nail paint on the dresser, or the small series of portraits hung on the wall across from the door.
The painting of Aly looked like it had been ripped and later mended, Margarry noted. Expertly mended, so the gash in the canvas was barely visible, but mended nonetheless.
She had no idea what had Alan so happy the past two days, but she suspected it had something to do with the intricate new hairpin he'd taken to wearing. He touched it and smiled sometimes when he thought no one was looking.
Kel had ducked out of the room with a muttered apology, promising to return shortly. Owen had just returned with some food when she came back, a flat box tucked under one arm.
"We didn't have time to get you a proper Midwinter's gift," Kel said, extending the box towards Alan. "So we got this for you for New Year's instead."
Alan gently took the box, then flushed. "I didn't even think to get you anything," he confessed.
Owen clasped his shoulder. "Don't worry about it."
Margarry nodded, biting back a smile as Alan gingerly opened the box.
Alan gasped. Gently, as if not quite believing what he was touching, he pulled a long dress in a simple, classic cut out of the box.
"Lalasa?" Owen asked Kel, grinning as he watched Alan run disbelieving fingers over the brown silk.
Kel nodded. Margarry gave up and grinned.
"We figured you ought to have a proper dress of your own," Kel said at Alan's confused look.
"So you can stop wearing your sister's leavings," Margarry added, voice dry as her father's.
Alan looked from one to the other, then gently set the dress aside and jumped to his feet, wrapping his arms around Kel's neck and pulling her down for a kiss.
"Thankyouthankyouthankyou," he said breathlessly, and laughed as Kel spun him.
Owen took Margarry's hand, and they squeezed each other's tightly, beaming at their lover's happiness.
Margarry's parents had already gone south to Jesslaw to prepare for the wedding. Well, the one they knew about, anyway, and it had taken Margarry pulling a Wyldon on her own father to get them to leave her behind.
Now, Alan thought, he just had to break the news to his parents that he was marrying Kel, and he probably ought to talk to hers too. He flounced happily down a back corridor, bumping into someone. He turned to apologize, and his throat went dry.
"Da," he croaked.
George of Pirate's Swoop stood in the hallway, jaw hanging somewhere around his chest, papers slipping out of his grip. He was utterly silent.
Alan tried to speak again, but nothing came out but a rasp. That was just as well; he had no idea what to say.
"Alan?" his father gasped, absently straightening the papers he carried.
George was silent for a long, long moment before breaking out into laughter. "I have to admit," he said, wiping his eyes, "you wear a dress better than your ma does."
Baron Piers of Mindelan didn't bat an eye when a lovely lady turned up at the door of the rooms he and his wife had been assigned, even when it turned out the lady was a man.
He did bat an eye when the young knight in the understated brown-and-gold dress asked to marry his daughter, though.
"You want to marry Keladry?" he asked, crossing his arms.
Ilane hit him with her fan. "I think that's lovely. Has Kel agreed?" she asked a red-faced Alan.
Alan nodded, unsure what to say to this intimidating woman.
Ilane smiled gently, placing one cool hand on Alan's cheek. "Then we have no objection," she said, and at the warning in her tone Piers nodded rapidly.
"No complaint at all," he said, and when he saw Alan's relieved grin, he felt a little better about it.
"So your parents have agreed, and my da knows," Alan said, giddy with relief. Kel steered him into an armchair.
Margarry, toying distractedly with the hem of Owen's tunic, grinned. "Where are you holding the wedding?"
Alan froze. "It has to be the Swoop, doesn't it."
Kel said, "We could hold it at Mindelan."
Alan went paler. "There are a lot of people at Mindelan."
"Can we do this soon?" Kel said. "I don't think I want to wait as long as you two have."
Owen looked at Margarry and grinned; she grinned back. "That was a condition Father placed on our engagement," Margarry said. "If your parents didn't place any, there's no reason it can't be in a few months."
"Months," Kel said, making a frustrated noise. Owen gently tugged her down onto the bed beside them.
"Or sooner," Alan said, still pale but thoughtful, now. "My parents aren't that set on formality. We could probably just nab a priest or priestess like they did - well, for their first wedding," he amended. At Margarry's questioning noise, he elaborated, "The King, apparently, thought that was a little too informal for his Champion, so they had a second wedding in Corus. Ma wasn't best pleased, Da said."
"Well, then," Owen said, beckoning Alan over to the bed. "We just have to break the news to your mother."
Alan's face rapidly lost all color it had regained.
The ride to Jesslaw went … well, Owen supposed, except for the part with the bandits. About eight of them had swarmed the four, and Owen cursed himself for his inattention as he scrambled for his sword.
He knew, better than anyone, what inattention in the hill country bought you.
"Lookit the lady warriors!" one bandit whistled, knocking Alan's sword out of his hand and leering at him.
Alan kicked him, and was backhanded for his trouble. The bandit grabbed his arm. "This one's real feisty, boys!"
Kel, grim-faced, took on two bandits at once, her glaive a blur. Margarry was throwing rocks with terrifying precision, her back to a thick tree. Two other bandits closed on Alan.
Alan, oddly, simpered at them. "Want to see my sword?" he asked, and there was no way anyone could mistake that dangerous deep voice for female.
The one bandit, startled, took a step back. "You're a guy!" he exclaimed.
But he'd dropped Alan's arm, and Alan swiftly slid his hand up under his skirt, pulled out a short sword, and gutted him, all before Owen could blink.
"What did you think I meant?" Alan asked, laughing as the other bandits ran at him with a shout.
A few moments later, all eight bandits were dead.
Margarry, looking none the worse for the wear, walked over to Alan. "I thought you told us you weren't good with a sword."
"I'm not," Alan said, sliding his cleaned short sword back into its hidden sheath. He straightened his skirts, looking about him for his other sword. "Not a normal longsword, anyway." He met her eyes flirtatiously. "Other swords I can handle perfectly well."
Margarry grinned as Owen went red. Impishly, she leaned forwards, and loudly whispered, "So, can I see your sword?"
Kel gave up and just laughed.
The wedding, Wyldon thought thankfully, had gone perfectly well and been perfectly ordinary, despite some of the people in attendance.
He'd been, he could admit to himself, more shocked than he cared to think about when Alan of Pirate's Swoop had shown up dressed in a proper tunic and hose. Keladry had been on his arm, wearing a modest dress in Mindelan colors, and Wyldon had felt slightly like the world had been tipped on its head for a day.
Good, he thought. If the world needed to be tipped upside down to make his Margarry's wedding perfect, then the world should consider itself so tipped.
Margarry had been deliriously happy, and when Wyldon had presented her to the priestess of the Goddess who'd officiated the union, he'd had to admit to himself she'd made the right choice. Owen had been just as happy, sharply dressed in his fief's colors, his face split by a grin broader than any Wyldon had ever seen on his ex-squire's face.
Owen was a good man, Wyldon thought. A hellion, but a good one, and if he was perfectly honest, Margarry was a bit of a rascal herself. They were almost sickeningly perfect for each other.
So were Keladry and that Pirate's Swoop fellow, Wyldon realized, watching them as they sat with their heads together at the end of the table, grinning foolishly at each other. He'd been a little worried over Keladry, though he didn't like to admit it; she was a good woman, and deserved a good husband, and he'd been a bit afraid that in gaining her shield she would drive off all suitors.
Then again, Alan's own mother was a female knight. He was probably used to forceful women.
Ah well, Wyldon thought, watching them, that was for Baron Piers and Lady Ilane to worry about.
He turned back to his daughter and son-in-law, trying not to notice how their eyes kept straying to the far end of the table.
The first thing Baron George said when the four arrived at Pirate's Swoop a few weeks later was, "Your mother's out. Feel free to dress comfortably."
Alan blushed and ducked his head, but when he came down for dinner later, he was wearing his new favorite dress. Kel watched as the Baron's eyes softened at the colors; the Baron, noticing the look, shot her a soft crooked smile.
George had just managed to get his son to stop fidgeting and relax when Alanna walked in.
Alan's head snapped up at his mother's choked gasp, and he shot his father a betrayed look. George's broad hand pressed down on Alan's shoulder, keeping him in his seat.
"Alanna," the Baron said evenly. "I thought you were comin' home tomorrow."
"I got done early," she said, sounding oddly uncertain, and Alan flinched at the edge of anger underlying her tone. "What is going on?"
Keladry, bless her heart, rose and bowed to George's wife. "Lioness," she said. "We came, actually, to ask for your blessing."
"Blessing?" And now Alanna sounded really confused, shooting glances at Kel and Alan, and occasionally at the newlyweds, for good measure.
"Your son has proposed to me, and I have accepted," Kel said simply.
"What does this have to do with the dress?" Alanna asked finally, leaning against the doorframe.
Owen cut in eagerly. "Well, you see, your Ladyship, Kel's a knight."
Kel rolled her eyes. Margarry buried her face in her hands. George, for his part, stifled a snort.
"And?" Alanna was tapping one finger slowly against the wall.
"Well, it would hardly be fair to make her wear the dress!" Owen continued, bouncing eagerly. "So Alan decided he'd wear it, and then Lalasa made this tremendous dress for him in the proper colors, and it'd be such a waste to not use it now, wouldn't it?"
George had to give him credit; the lad had guts.
Alanna looked from Owen, to Alan, and then finally to George. He nodded at her, and she sighed, straightening. "You're not getting married tonight, are you?"
"No," Kel said. "But dresses take practice."
Alan nodded, tugging at his cuffs.
But, Alanna noticed, her youngest child wasn't meeting her eyes.
"No, Alan," Alanna snapped, finally losing her patience. "You have to at least wait for your sister to respond. If she can't make it, then you can hold the wedding without her."
Alan's lips pressed together into a tight, bloodless line. Alanna had almost gotten used to seeing him in a dress, as much as it still boggled her.
Today, he was wearing a blue one that looked suspiciously like one of Aly's.
Alanna's eyes abruptly narrowed. "The courier will be back today," she said. "It's been two weeks; he should, actually, have been back yesterday. You. Can. Wait."
The door opened, and Aly twirled in, a small child clinging to her back and giggling. Nawat followed, leading their other two children by the hand.
Alanna grinned. "See, Alan? It wasn't that long a wait."
"You're still wearing dresses," Thom said when he arrived, taking Alan aside.
He could talk to Thom. Thom understood.
"They're more me now," Alan said, craning his neck so he could look his older brother in the eye.
Thom looked down at him with an intensity he usually saved for arcane literature, then nodded. "I figured. Nice touch," he added, brushing his hand over Buri's love knot.
Alan blushed, then startled when his brother grabbed his face between his hands.
"Luck, Alan," Thom said, pressing a kiss to his baby brother's forehead.
Owen, watching from the hallway, grinned.
The wedding at the Swoop went off without a hitch, but it went off rather … oddly.
Merric, positioning himself in a corner, couldn't stop shaking his head.
"Kel looked lovely in that white tunic, don't you think?" Faleron said, taking a swig from what Merric was sure was his third glass of brandy.
"She did," Merric agreed, taking a sip from his own glass.
"And, well," Faleron trailed off uncomfortably.
"Sir Alan wore that dress well, I thought," Lady Yukimi said, looking pointedly at her husband, who was a little pale.
"Oh, he did. Very well. If I didn't know better, I'd have mistaken him for a girl," Neal squeaked.
"We know," Merric, Seaver, Faleron, and Esmond chorused. Yuki giggled, hiding her face behind her fan.
The older Pirate's Swoop brother - Merric couldn't remember his name - was talking with his sister, neatly redirecting her attention every time she looked towards Alan.
Alan, Merric noticed, was very happily clutching his new wife's arm, beaming at everyone who came near him.
Owen and his wife, Merric also noticed, were standing very close to Kel and Alan, both dressed as bridesmaids. Owen did not wear a dress well; he looked, well, like a man in a dress. A man who needed another go with a razor, at that.
Merric took another long sip of his drink. He didn't really want to think about it, he decided.
"I'm going back for another glass," Faleron said.
"Me too," chorused Esmond, Seaver, Neal, and Merric.
A week later, the four of them were back at Jesslaw, standing in an uncomfortable cluster in Owen's room.
"Oh, this is ridiculous," Margarry said, flopping onto the bed. "Someone help me out of this dress."
Kel happily obliged, and Owen watched as his one love peeled the clothes off his wife's torso, revealing her beautiful chest. Kel's hands slid gently over Margarry's exposed flesh, and Margarry sighed, turning her face up for a kiss and tugging at Kel's tunic.
Kel wriggled out of her tunic as Margarry started toying with her breeches; tentative hands on her shirt caused Kel to look back over her shoulder.
Alan shied back at her look, and Kel repressed a sigh. "It's okay," Kel said. "Come here." Alan sat where she indicated in a rustle of skirts, determinedly resuming his task.
Owen laughed. Alan's tongue was sticking out of his mouth as he concentrated on the buttons, and it was so cute. With a whoop, Owen launched himself onto the bed, landing right in the middle of his lovers. Alan glared, his concentration broken, and Kel and Margarry exchanged glances before dissolving into full-throated guffaws.
Alan started as hands began toying with his laces. "Let's get you out of that dress," Owen said huskily in his ear, laughing as Alan shivered. "You don't need to wear that now." Somewhere along the way, Owen had lost his breeches.
That night, as Owen would say later, was jolly.
Nobody ever mentioned, later, that the younger son of Pirate's Swoop wore dresses more often than not, just as no one brought up how he spent as much time dancing with the lady of Jesslaw, and her husband, as he did his own wife. Nobody mentioned the fact that the lady knight's daughter had gray eyes, nor that the younger Jesslaw son, born two years later, had too much red in his hair.
After all, three of them were very good with weapons, and the fourth was terrifying when armed with rocks, or vases, or cups, or whatever was at hand. And Alan of Pirate's Swoop had a terrifyingly quiet and overprotective older brother, too, who was quite a hand with magic.
No, no, it was best to just not say anything, and over time the fact that they all lived together at Jesslaw and were never seen by choice outside each others' presence simply became normal.
The only time it was even an issue, anyway, was during Roald's coronation, when he caught sight of his childhood friend in a delicate peach ball gown and nearly destroyed the solemnity of the occasion.