Some of the text, especially in the first scene between Roger and Alanna, is lifted directly from Lioness Rampant.
--Alanna to King Roald, Alanna: The First Adventure
He was down with a nagging fever when he saw a flicker in his mug. Blinking, Thom of Trebond pulled it away from his mouth, and squinted.
That was how Duke Baird found him, twenty minutes later, motionless with a cold cup of medicinal tea held almost to his nose, eyes wide and glassy. Mages, Baird thought, conveniently ignoring that he himself was one.
A hand on Thom's shoulder and a brief shake brought the young lord back to alertness, but one look at the set of Thom's face and Baird knew there was no shot of him resting now.
He sighed, and stood back as Thom strode out of the sickroom. Sometimes you just couldn't stop some people.
He wondered what Thom had seen in the mug.
What Thom had seen was a maddening reflection of his own face, transformed by still greater illness into a waxen caricature and edged in a horrible blood-red. And when his eyes had crossed, the image had doubled, and one became toned orange, and the other an intimately familiar purple.
And that was all it took.
Thom was many things, but stupid was not one of them. There was only one explanation for what he'd seen, and he was kicking himself for not noticing sooner.
Of course Roger's Gift would have come back from the Sleep. Roger would never have put himself into the Sorcerer's Sleep otherwise…
Thom stopped dead in the palace hallway, causing a page to swerve abruptly around him. No. No, no no.
If he was right, if he was right, then…
But… There was that image.
And it made sense. Horrible, horrible sense.
Because the Sorcerer's Sleep only worked if there was someone left alive to raise you. And Roger was nothing if not meticulous.
Roger's hand traced lightly along the back of Thom's neck. "You must be proud of your sister," he said. "I hear she is in Berat now?"
Thom rolled over. "Do you have to bring her up while we're in bed?" he snapped.
Roger grinned, blue eyes dark with lust and darker things, and reached for Thom.
Thom wondered, idly, if Roger had noticed any difference yet.
"I just got word from Coram," Thom heard as he took a shortcut through the warren of offices smack in the center of the palace complex. Roger had taken to dogging the younger mage's steps, and Thom was intent on avoiding him as much as he could.
Word of Coram meant word of his sister, and that was enough to halt his rapid progress back to his rooms. Thom didn't have to strain to hear as the Prince continued, "Raoul found them in Udayapur. They entered Marenite waters last night; they'll arrive in Port Caynn soon." The other person in the office - Sir Gareth, Thom thought - murmured something in turn and moved towards the door.
Thom bit the inside of his cheek as he strode away. It had been months since he'd last had word of Alanna.
He'd've thought someone would have at least told him the news directly.
The doors at the top of the stairs swung open, and Thom ducked out from where he'd been hiding behind some random noble just as the herald finished his announcement. Alanna stood at the top, the beautiful Saren princess on her arm and a fiercely proud K'miri warrior following just behind. Thom gave a cheeky little wave, drawing his sister's eye, and grinned as she went beet red. He thought he heard the Prince chuckle slightly.
He barely paid attention to Princess Thayet's introduction, clapping distractedly along with the others. Alanna stood strong there beside the royals, proud and noble and so very different from the nervy new knight who'd left Corus two years before. This was his sister, as he knew her, and he watched as she knelt to the Prince and swore her oath of fealty, and presented him a prize straight out of legend.
He couldn't have been prouder. When he knelt, he knelt for her.
Alanna accosted him before he could slip away. "I didn't know you would be here," she said, going red again.
Thom grinned. "And miss my sister's big moment? You must be joking."
Her eyes tracked back to George again, doing a bad job of faking Bazhir stoicism. Even from this distance, she could tell he was still silently laughing at her.
She'd get him good, later. After all, she knew where he slept.
"So, how are you?" Alanna asked, turning back to Thom. From the glint of amusement in his eyes, he knew who she'd been looking at.
"I'm well," he said. Thom paused, and something twisted in his face before he smoothed out his expression. "I am, in fact, still well."
By the light of a false dawn, Thom of Trebond sat, grimly determined, in front of a guttering blood-flamed candle, and resumed the painstaking task of unweaving his magic.
Duke Roger did not look at all well, Alanna thought as she walked up with some Bazhir behind her. In fact, if she had to, she'd say the normally unflappable duke was … frazzled.
"So, you survived," he said, barely glancing at her. "What a pity."
Alanna's nerves hummed; she grinned recklessly. "Hello, Roger. You look pale. Not enough time in the sun?"
"You're cocky, aren't you? Killed anyone recently?"
"No," Alanna retorted. "It's so depressing to come back and find one's work reversed."
Roger finally grinned, a cruel twist of lips. "You know who to thank for that."
Yes. Thom, who Alanna was going to give a stern talking to, as soon as she was done here. "I know," she said casually. "Tell me something, will you? You meant to kill her - the Queen? And the king, and Jon?"
Roger tugged his beard, distracted. "If you ask about the days before you killed me," he said slowly, "yes, I did. You doubted it? Or did you persuade yourself a court trial would have absolved you from complicity in my death?" He leered at her as she flinched. "You aren't absolved. If not for you, I would have been king. Those were my plans. Now, of course, it's different. I had nothing to do with their deaths. I have promised," he fair spat the word, "to behave. Not that I can misbehave, since my Gift stayed behind when I came back to the living." Another savage grin. "It keeps my tomb warm for me, against my return."
Roger paused, looking keenly at Alanna. He pointed to her throat. "Don't you want to assure yourself my fangs are drawn? Use your keepsake; I know all about it from Thom."
…There was now another thing on her list of things to yell at Thom for. Still, she touched the ember and saw only him, not even a tinge of orange fire. Disquieted, she released the ember. "You're still a dangerous man, Roger. Your Gift just made it easier for you."
Roger grabbed her wrist, peering intently into her eyes. "You've changed, Squire Alan. You're very much the experienced knight, aren't you? And you don't fear me anymore - not as you did once."
She tugged her wrist out of his grip. "You know something? There are sandstorms that strip man and horse and bury them - I've seen them. I saw bones piled higher than my head for the folly of a bad king and those who wanted his throne. I lived through a blizzard that froze every other living creature solid. Against those things, you're only a man. I can deal with you."
Roger cackled with delight. "I'm sure you can, my dear. But I won't give you the chance - not a second time." He turned and walked away.
Disturbed, Alanna fingered her ember again. She squinted against the bright morning sun; for just a moment, she thought she'd seen a flash of orange, limned with purple, but it was gone.
Raoul was waiting for her at the foot of the stairs, clad in the blue and silver of the Own. Alanna grinned at him.
"I know you told me you were commanding the Own, but hearing it and seeing it are two different things."
Raoul rubbed the back of his head sheepishly, then dropped his smile. He nodded at the stairs. "I saw who you were talking to, up there," he said. "What do you make of him?"
"He's crazy," Alanna stated flatly. "I don't know if it's because he's alive when he should be dead, or if the spell that resurrected him damaged his mind, but it doesn't matter. He's crazy, and he's dangerous."
Raoul nodded. "I agree, Gary agrees - Mithros, even Jon agrees. But after King Roald pardoned him, what could we do?"
Alanna gave a half-shrug, neither agreeing nor disagreeing. "Is anyone keeping an eye on him?"
"Absolutely. He's watched everywhere he goes, and limited in that, too. You didn't see him at the ball last night, did you?"
"No," Alanna agreed. "He wasn't allowed to go?"
"He's pretty much restricted to his rooms," Raoul said, matching her pace as they walked through the palace. "Can we please talk about something else? This is depressing."
"One more question first," Alanna said, unconsciously fingering her ember. "Are you sure Roger's Gift is gone?"
"That's what Thom said," Gary responded, poking his head out from a passageway as they passed.
Alanna scowled. "Didn't we break you of your habit of eavesdropping?"
Raoul laughed; Gary grinned. "No," Gary said, waving them out into the practice court. "How else would I know anything?"
Raoul swatted him. "Anyway, back to your question," he said. "Roger claims it, and Thom and every other mage Jon's asked confirm it. Why?"
Alanna swallowed, throat inexplicably dry. "This," she said, tugging at her ember, "shows me people's Gifts, when I touch it."
Raoul and Gary stopped, and exchanged glances. "You saw something?" Raoul asked, at the same time as Gary said, "Where'd you get it? I've never heard of something like that," he finished at Alanna's look.
"I got it from the hand of the Goddess herself, back when I was a squire," Alanna said tartly, "and don't you go spreading that around. And yes, I saw something when I spoke to Roger just now. Or I think I did," she added, frowning.
"What do you mean?" Gary prompted as the silence stretched.
Alanna's response was uncharacteristically hesitant. "He had no Gift when I first touched it," she said. "But I thought I saw a flicker just before I left - a very faint one," she added as they frowned. "I may be imagining it."
Raoul and Gary exchanged another glance. "Either way, Jon ought to know," Raoul said.
"Agreed," said Gary, grabbing Alanna by the arm and dragging her back up the hallway. She sighed, but bit back her protest, and let them march her to Jon's study.
"Are you sure?"
"No, Jon, I'm not," Alanna snapped. "I told you, it was just a flicker. It might've been a trick of the light."
She, Raoul, and Gary had burst into the room while Jon was in the middle of a meeting with Myles, Duke Gareth, Duke Baird, and the Lord Provost. Now Myles spoke up, asking, "What color was it?"
Everyone turned to look at him. "His Gift was orange, wasn't it?" asked the Provost. "Wouldn't it still be?"
But Myles was watching Alanna's face. "Yes," she said slowly. "It should be orange." She raised troubled eyes to her foster father's. "But I saw purple, too."
Sudden pounding on his door jerked Thom from his trance. "Who's there?" he snapped, cupping the candle flame with one hand.
"Your sister," Alanna snarled. "Unlock the damn door."
…Alanna. Damn. Absently, Thom licked his fingers and pinched out the flame, staring in vexation at the door.
Alanna started hammering on the door again. "Goddess vex you, Thom! Open the damn door!"
She wasn't going to go away anytime soon. Sighing, he stood and flipped the latch.
It wasn't just Alanna. The Prince, Sirs Myles, Raoul, and Gareth, Duke Gareth, Duke Baird, and even the Lord Provost stood behind her.
"Oh, for Goddess' sake," muttered Alanna, shouldering past him. Thom sighed and stood back, bowing the others into his study.
"How may I be of service this fine evening?" he asked, barely trying to keep his annoyance in check.
Duke Baird brought a hand to Thom's forehead before Thom even had a chance to react. Green fire shimmered briefly, then vanished. The duke stepped back, dark eyes grave.
"Well?" Duke Gareth asked quietly, sharp eyes watching Thom.
"You were right," Baird said, nodding at Myles. "Lord Thom's gift is corrupted."
Alanna's mouth jerked. She opened it, preparing to yell, but the Prince's quiet voice cut through the room.
"You've been working magic," he said, not quite accusingly. He was standing with his back to the group, intently scrutinizing the still-smoldering candle.
"I am a mage," Thom snapped, his temper getting the better of him.
"What were you doing?" Prince Jonathan asked, finally turning to look at him with bright, angry eyes, and even Thom knew he couldn't wiggle out of answering.
But that didn't mean he had to play nice. "I was detangling my Gift," Thom bit out. "What did you think I was doing?"
Alanna's face darkened. "Given the utter stupidity of last fall? I think we have a right to be worried!" About what you're up to, hung unsaid.
Thom growled, and spun away, but Alanna was having none of that. She took two quick steps toward him, grabbed his arm, and yanked him around to face her.
Thom jerked his arm out of her grip so fast she almost fell, his eyes blazing with something more than anger. Unconsciously, Alanna stepped back, one hand rising to touch her ember.
"What do you see?" Jon asked her quietly.
Thom was surrounded by a thin shell of orange, that cracked and broke into red-fissured fragments as she watched. Beneath it, she could see the occasional glimpse of Trebond purple, held tightly steady against the red tendrils.
"Goddess, Thom," Alanna breathed, her heart hammering in her throat. Myles rested a hand lightly on her shoulder. "It's not possible for someone to carry more than their own Gift. What did you do?"
"Nothing," he snarled. "I'm trying to fix a mistake."
"Well, it's not working," she snapped, temper flaring again.
"I should be dying!" Thom shouted. There was a horrific cracking sound, and Jon turned in time to see a long crack snake across the stone wall; one shutter dangled loose in the wind. Unnerved, the Provost traced the Sign on his chest. Raoul watched from the doorway, dark eyes intent on Thom's face.
Thom didn't even notice. "I should be dying," he said again, moving forward to glare down into his sister's face. Myles' hand tightened on her shoulder. "The only reason I'm not is that what I'm doing is actually working."
"Your fever," Baird said. Both Gareths looked at him. "That explains why I couldn't heal it."
Thom stared down at his sister until she looked away, lips twisting; he then turned to the healer and bowed slightly. "Yes," he said simply.
Silence held for a moment, then a strong hand landed on Thom's shoulder. He stiffened, but the grip only tightened.
"I think," said the Prince, "you need to start from the beginning."
"Have you ever heard," Thom said once they'd all trudged back to the Prince's council chamber, "of the Sorcerer's Sleep?"
Myles stiffened; Duke Baird dropped his head into his hands. Across the table from Thom, Jonathan's eyes abruptly narrowed. "Yes," he said, all King-to-be, blue eyes boring into Thom's violet.
Thom looked abruptly away. "There you have it, then," he said. "That was Roger's plan."
Gary glanced around the room, relieved to see he was not the only one confused. Raoul was scowling at Thom with such a dark look that Gary knew he, too, hadn't been satisfied with the non-answer Thom had given them.
"Stop ducking the question, Thom," Alanna snapped from her seat next to Jon. "What is this Sorcerer's Sleep, and what does any of this have to do with your Gift?"
It was Duke Baird who answered. "The Sorcerer's Sleep is a very old, very dangerous working that essentially mimics death. It is triggered when the mage who has fully finished it is in an otherwise fatal situation, and makes him seem entirely dead while still permitting the possibility of resurrection." He rubbed his face, then looked up. "You're saying this is what Roger did?"
"That shouldn't have affected your Gift, though," Baird said, frowning.
Thom's mouth jerked. "Roger … planted a trap into the spell. When I resurrected him, it attached his Gift to mine, so that he could, in theory, have access to both, without the problems of bearing two Gifts at once. That's what probably happened, anyway."
Several people started talking at once, but Duke Gareth made a cutting motion with his hand, and they all fell silent. "There is one thing I do not understand," the Duke said, eyes hard on Thom's face. "You knew Roger was not truly dead?" And you resurrected him anyway? hung unspoken on the air.
Thom closed his eyes. "Yes."
Jon stood abruptly, his chair clattering to the floor. He leaned forward over the table, fists pressed to the wood, blue eyes blazing with more anger than Alanna had ever seen. Unconsciously, she shifted away.
"What were you thinking?" Jon snarled.
Thom was shaking. Alanna didn't blame him. "I -" He closed his eyes again, one hand rising to press against his mouth.
"Answer the question."
Thom's knuckles were white where they pressed against his lips. "I was compelled to," he whispered. The room was silent enough for everyone to hear him clearly.
"…What?" This time, there was more shock than rage in Jon's voice. Alanna gripped Lightning's hilt, eyes intent on her brother. Myles' hand was once more resting on her shoulder, solid and reassuring.
"It's the only possible explanation," Thom said, voice thin and tight. "I've been thinking it over the past few weeks. I don't actually remember why I decided to release Roger from the Sleep. I knew what he was." He nodded at his sister. "Alanna can tell you. We exchanged many letters about him."
Jon looked at Alanna; she nodded, face tight. "Go on," he said.
Thom exhaled, short and sharp. "That's about it. Lady Delia took me aside one day, and said that she wondered if I would, in theory, be able to raise the dead." He slumped back. "To the best of my recollection, she never even mentioned Roger's name specifically, but the idea of resurrecting him took hold and wouldn't let go."
Thom looked around the circle, eyes dark. "I could have fought the compulsion, if I'd recognized what it was at the time, but…"
"Maybe," Duke Gareth murmured. "Roger was always powerful at such things." Myles nodded.
The Provost tapped his chin, then slowly leaned forward, clasping his hands in front of him. "If I may?" he looked at Jon, who nodded. "There is one thing, then, that I do not understand. How would Duke Roger have been able to plant the compulsion in you?"
Thom flinched. "I ran into him the day before Alanna's Ordeal," he said, voice unsteady. "He must have planted it then. We talked for a long time," he added, then buried his face in his hands.
"Mithros, I am so stupid," he muttered to himself.
Myles' hand tightened sharply on Alanna's shoulder, hard enough to hurt. She looked back at him, concerned, to find her foster father watching Thom with sad realization dawning in his eyes.
Myles saw her look, and shook his head lightly, smiling softly. "Never mind," he said, withdrawing his hand. "Never mind."
Roger was waiting in Thom's study when he got back, a glass of red wine in his hand and a familiar smile on his face.
Thom scrubbed a hand over his face. The Prince's parting words rang in his head: Most importantly, Roger must suspect nothing.
He didn't know what he was asking, Thom reflected bitterly, forcing a tired smile onto his face.
"Where were you?" Roger asked softly, eyes intent on Thom's face, bright and Conté blue.
"Where do you think?" Thom snapped, the stress of the day finally getting to him. "With your paranoid cousin, assuring him once again that you're Giftless and behaving yourself."
"Hmm," Roger said, setting down his glass and rising. In three quick strides, he'd crossed the room, backing the younger mage into the wall. Roger's eyes followed the new crack in the old, dark stone for a moment, bright and amused, before turning once more to Thom's face.
Thom forced himself not to flinch as Roger's hand brushed his cheek, as those blue, blue eyes bored into Thom's own. "Did you, now," Roger breathed, so close his lips brushed across Thom's as he spoke.
Thom barely had time to register alarm before Roger's lips were on his, before Roger's body was holding him immobile to the wall, before Roger's hands were feeling for the fastenings of his robe.
He tasted red, blood or wine or both, and felt the fragile shell protecting his Gift crumble away, and knew that if Alanna were to see him with her ember, his Gift would be red too.
The candle was missing.
There had been half a stick left yesterday, when he'd been unceremoniously dragged into that humiliating meeting with the Prince's council. But the candle in the holder now was a completely new one, trimmed to the same height, but without the eldritch aura the old one had gained over long nights spent detangling his Gift.
…Which, Thom realized, he'd have to do all over again. Months of painstaking work, kept to morning twilight and under Roger's guard, out the window. Snatching the candle out of the holder, he spun and strode from his rooms, and was halfway down the hallway before he realized he had no one to go to.
Gary was almost back to the blessed peace of his office when the absolute last person he wanted to deal with right now stepped out from an alcove, brandishing half a candle.
"I need to talk to you," Thom said, eyes blazing. "Now."
Gary sighed. "Come in, then," he said, waving the other man into his office.
Gary had just shut the door when Thom said, "Roger knows," and dropped the candle on the desk.
"Are you sure I have to do this?" Thom asked, sounding like nothing more than a petulant child.
Gary snorted, holding the reins of a placid mare. "Would you prefer to walk all the way to Myles' house?" he asked acidly.
"Yes," Thom said flatly, eyeing the mare as if she were about to bite him.
"Too bad," Gary said coolly, shoving the reins into Thom's reluctant hands. "You need to get there fast, and now. It's a long walk into Corus."
"Don't fret so," Duke Gareth said, smothering a smile. "Myles is expecting you, and the ride isn't that long."
Grumbling, Thom clambered awkwardly into the saddle, and rode off towards the gate with all the grace of a sack of grain.
Father and son exchanged glances, chuckling.
Overhead, Stefan shook his head. That poor girl, putting up with such indignity. He vowed to give her the best apples when she got back.
Thom arrived in the courtyard of House Olau in an ungainly clatter of hooves. The horse stopped, relieved, and Thom eyed the ground suspiciously before trying to dismount.
He promptly fell off.
Strong arms caught him and briskly set him upright. "You're clumsier than your sister," said the Shang Dragon, smoothing out his mustache. "Not much of a rider, are you?"
Liam laughed. "The scowl's the same, though."
"Come inside," Myles said from where he stood just outside the door, eyes crinkled in amusement. Thom shouldered his bag and followed as Myles led him upstairs to a guest room.
"Please, make yourself at home," Myles said, watching Thom tentatively set his bag down.
Thom turned to face him, and surprised both older men by bowing. "Thank you."
"Your sister was out," Liam said, "when Duke Gareth's message came. She's not back yet."
The three men turned. Alanna stood in an open doorway a few rooms down.
"Alanna," Myles said. "You just got back?"
"Yes," she said, tossing her head impatiently. "Why is Thom here?"
Myles turned to Thom, who was looking at the floor as if the boards would tell him the secret to putting off his sister. Liam smoothed a hand over his mustache again.
"Thom?" George Cooper had come up behind Alanna, placing both hands on her shoulders. At something in Thom's face, Alanna frowned, and took hold of her ember.
"What do you see?" Myles asked softly.
Alanna's face darkened. "I thought you'd separated his Gift from yours!"
"That's why he's here," Myles said at last, when it was evident Thom wasn't going to answer.
"Roger found out," Thom said, voice cracking. "Excuse me, but do you have a candle?"
"Has he come down to eat yet?" Eleni asked.
George shook his head, eyeing the ceiling. "He's still workin' that magic."
"Still?" Thayet asked, from over in the sitting room. Buri snorted, then stood and strode off.
Moments later, the sound of rapid knocking filtered downstairs, followed by a sharp exchange of words, then a thump and some shuffling. George exchanged glances with his mother, then turned to watch as a vexed Buri dragged an irate Thom down the stairs. She dropped him unceremoniously into a seat.
"Eat," she snarled, going back to Thayet, who delicately smothered a giggle.
Eleni dropped a plate in front of Thom before he could make his escape. "You look awful," she said.
"The fever's part of it. It's getting better," Thom said absently, before registering the food. "Thank you," he said, picking at his plate.
"Eat," Eleni said sternly, "or I'll drug your tea. You really should be sleeping more."
Thom looked faintly alarmed. "I don't have the time." But he scooped up some greens anyway.
"Answer me honestly, Thom of Trebond," George said, letting himself into Thom's room and settling himself on the edge of the bed. "Are you goin' to be able to finish this before Jon's coronation?"
"If you people stop interrupting me, yes," Thom said waspishly. He paused, then looked sharply at George. "Why the coronation?"
The thief smiled thinly. "We both know that's when the Duke's most likely to try somethin'. We understand theatrics, you and I."
His warm hazel eyes met Thom's icy purple, and Thom blushed.
Myles let Jon into the house, gesturing towards the sitting room. "After you."
"Where's Thom?" Jon asked. George sat in a chair by the fire; Myles dropped into the seat next to him.
"Alanna went to fetch him," Buri said from where she stood behind Thayet, at the same time as Alanna said, "Right here."
Jon bit his lip to stop a laugh. She had her twin by his ear. Alanna dropped Thom onto the nearest seat, then positioned herself behind him, menacing despite the lovely lilac dress she wore.
"I have work to do," Thom complained, rubbing at his ear.
Alanna snorted. "You've finished the separation," she said tartly.
"It takes daily maintenance, sister dear," Thom replied in kind.
"Enough," Jon said, amused. "Thom, I thought you were purging your Gift of Roger's entirely."
Thom shook his head. "If I do, it goes right back to Roger. It's only a week until your coronation; after that, letting him have his Gift back does less harm." He and George exchanged glances; Thom looked away.
"About the coronation," Myles said. "Are you going?"
Jon said, "No."
Alanna looked at her brother; he was staring off into the middle distance. "Why not?"
"Do you really want him near Roger again?"
George spoke up at last. "I think he ought to go." He was watching Thom again, hazel eyes dark.
"Why?" Alanna snapped.
"Whose side are you on?" Thom asked, shooting a glance at her over his shoulder. Alanna swatted him.
"Because if we're right, and Roger's plannin' somethin', it's some major magic, sure as the Crooked God cheats," George asked, ignoring their antics. "The only person here who can hold a candle to Duke Roger, magically speakin', is sittin' right there." He nodded at Thom.
Thayet nodded thoughtfully; Buri's face was impassive. Jon looked at Myles, who was watching Thom.
"But I agree that I shouldn't be at the coronation itself," Thom said, finally looking at Jon. "If Roger did transfer his Gift to me deliberately, I don't want to bet on it only being to tap mine in return."
The front door opened; Myles stood to gesture Liam and Coram into the room. "We were just trying to decide what to do with Thom."
Coram grimaced; so did Thom. Liam looked thoughtful. "What have you decided?"
"He'll be in the palace," Jon said, "but not in the Hall itself."
Liam nodded, glancing at Thom, his eyes a pale, pale green.
"What did you see during your ride?"
"Not much," Liam said, turning away.
After several stressful weeks, the coronation was finally underway. Alanna smothered a yawn, earning a wink from Gary and a snort from Raoul. They stood against the wall near where Jon knelt, ready to receive the crown of Tortall.
Alanna knew it was ridiculous, but she held her breath anyway as the priest and priestess jointly lowered the crown onto Jon's head. The moment it came to rest, it - and Jon - flared white -
- And the whole room lurched, the air shrieking as immensity forced its way through.
Raoul had lurched forward when the ground jerked, scrambling towards Jonathan. Gary spun away, unsheathing his sword as men-at-arms in Tirragen and Eldorne colors made their presence known. Alanna ran for the door at a nod from Jon.
She needed to find Thom.
Coram caught up with her as she turned the corner. "Where are ye goin', lass?" he asked.
Alanna swung to face him, then paled as a lump in her pocket pressed into her leg. Hurriedly, she fished out the Dominion Jewel and pressed it into Coram's hands. "Take this to Jon," she ordered. "He needs it, now. I have to go help Thom."
Coram nodded, clasped her wrist briefly, then ran back the way he'd come.
Alanna hurried down the hallway.
The surge of magic knocked Thom off his feet; the sudden pressure in his head as Roger's Gift twisted against his made rising a struggle. He fought his way to his feet anyway, clinging to a crumbling section of wall for support. It took all his concentration to keep Roger from ripping his Gift right out of him.
He needed to stop this.
And Thom, with the quickness of a lit match to oil, was angry.
He staggered out of the room.
Faithful's yowl was the only warning Alanna had. Instinctively, she ducked, and the axe missed her head by inches, striking sparks on the wall. Alanna spun, unsheathing Lightning.
Princess Josiane stood behind her, a great double-headed axe in her hands and a truly maniacal grin on her face. Alanna had no time to wonder how the willowy princess was able to swing the axe; Josiane was giving no quarter.
Alanna parried once, then twice, wondering how long she could keep this up. Lightning wasn't meant for parrying such heavy blades.
Josiane flew sideways, hitting the wall with a sickening crack. She didn't rise.
Alanna whirled; Thom crouched in the intersection, angrier than she had ever seen him, the air around him still faintly purple. She moved towards him.
Thom waved her off impatiently, dragging himself upright. His eyes were glassy and distant, looking at something only he could see. "You need to get to Roger," he said, voice low and breathless. "He's in the catacombs, by the old kings." He pushed himself off the wall.
"Where are you going?" Alanna shouted.
"To help the king," her twin rasped. "Hurry, before it fully opens."
Faithful yowled again - Come on! - and Alanna turned and ran. She would find out what Thom meant soon enough.
Things were getting a little desperate, Eleni thought, grimly tying down group after group of enemy men-at-arms with her thread magic. She had no idea where her son was. Rispah was heading off Delia of Eldorne; Princess Thayet and Buri had gone for weapons and joined the fray. The king still knelt on the dais; Coram had run in shortly after Liam had run out and shoved the Dominion Jewel into his hands. The Own surrounded the king, but they were hard pressed; the imperious Duchess of Naxen was forcefully calming the panicked crowd.
Something had to break soon.
A noblewoman next to Eleni gasped, and pointed; something was half crawling, half dripping down from the ceiling, looking like nothing more than a mass of half-melted ice.
Ice with eyes, Eleni realized, shock stilling her fingers. Myles grabbed her arm, pulling her back to reality with a snap. "Elemental," he muttered. "There are some others near the door. Can your thread trick work on them?"
"I don't know," she replied, fingers already busy on a new knot. "I can try."
Thom staggered upright yet again, pressing his head against the cool stone. He had no time for this. He had to get to the king. But Roger's Gift was fighting him for everything he had, and he had nothing left. He laughed, breathlessly, giddily reminded of the odd game of tug with his sister.
…Wait. Thom yanked back on Roger's Gift with all his might, then, using the favorite trick of obnoxious brothers everywhere, let go just as Roger tugged back.
Roger's Gift went screaming out of Thom, sending him to his knees. But he had no time for this. He could feel the elementals surging up around him from Roger's Gate, turning stone and air and water into treacherous monstrosities.
Thom pushed himself to his hands and knees, scrambling for the Hall entrance as some stone-wights ripped out the floor behind him.
Alanna heard a scream as she approached the old entrance to the catacombs. She frowned; she thought she'd heard the faintest clank of mail from just within the stairwell.
She couldn't take the chance. She sent a flare of her Gift through ahead of her, burning the people lying in ambush and rushing down the crumbling stairs as fast as she safely could.
She didn't notice the smoldering remains of tunics in Tirragen colors behind her.
Thom staggered straight into Duke Gareth, nearly getting beheaded in the process. The Duke frowned at him.
"I need to get to the king," Thom gasped.
The Duke was still staring at him, eyes dark with suspicion. Thom held up his hands, letting a pure purple glow fill them. "He's no hold over me anymore," Thom said. "Please."
Duke Gareth spun, neatly skewering an opportunistic man-at-arms, and nodded, wrapping one arm under Thom's and practically throwing him at Raoul. Raoul dragged him over to the king, who was kneeling, distracted, in the center of a ring of the Own.
Thom fell to his knees next to him as Raoul spun back to cleave an approaching elemental in two. Jonathan, veiled in pure white and Conté blue, was clutching the Dominion Jewel, forcing the palace and the land beneath it together even as he struggled to contain the elementals.
"Your Majesty," Thom said. No response.
Biting his lip, Thom reached deep into his magic. I have no time for this. He reached deep, and tore open the barrier between his Gift and the rest of himself, letting it pool into his hands.
"Any time now," Raoul said through gritted teeth, battering another elemental away.
Thom, no longer quite himself, grabbed Jonathan's wrists.
His Gift went streaming out of him, straight into Jonathan and down into the Jewel and back again until he couldn't tell where he ended and Jon began.
The world stopped as he fought himself over what to do, as he told himself to let the palace crumble - It's only a building, you idiot, most of the people are here - and the earth crack - An earthquake or two is manageable - and reached deep into the Jewel, the Jewel that Alanna had - not - brought him, and turned it towards the swarming elementals instead.
And they were swarming, too many, far too many, converging on the Hall and the dais within it from every point, even the impossible ones -
- Jon flared whiter than before, blue-white like the hottest of stars, the Jewel lost inside his bright corona. Thom didn't so much as blink, barely breathing, hands locked tight around Jon's wrists, wondering with his last conscious thought how much he had left to give.
With a roar, the northern half of the palace collapsed.
Alanna found Roger by a wide-open Gate of Idramm; a quick glance at the swirling sigils confirmed what she already knew - he had used the variant for summoning elementals. He stood just next to the rip that hung in the air itself, watching with the air of a gleeful child as thing after slug-like thing streamed out, this one fire, that one water, then metal, then ice, burrowing into the walls and floor.
"Hello, Roger," she said, Lightning steady in her hand.
Roger spun, a gleeful grin turning his handsome face vicious. "Hello, Lioness," he chirped. "Enjoying the fun?"
"Fun?" Alanna snorted. "Hardly." She picked her way towards him, mindful of the sigils.
Roger grinned and gestured; Lightning, humming, jumped and strained towards him, fighting her grip. "You just had to corrupt my handiwork, didn't you?"
"Handiwork?" she said, gritting her teeth and pulling back with all her might.
"The sword you fused your Lightning with. I was an amateur jeweler in my youth, you know." He gestured again, orange light glinting along his fingers. Her feet slipped forwards a few inches; she dug in her heels.
Alanna suddenly, insanely, thought of the inane picture she must make. It's almost like one of those stupid games of tug I played with Thom, she thought. And Thom had always let go just when she was getting into it…
So she'd steal a page from his book. As Roger gestured again, Alanna let go.
Lightning screamed as it flew, and Roger, frantically, threw up a brilliant orange shield -
- Only to scream in utter fury as the shield flickered and died, and the scream was her brother's name.
It was the last word Roger ever said. Lightning impaled him, slowed but not slowed enough by his shield, and Roger died for the final time.
He died laughing.
The Gate dissipated into nothingness. The shriek of the larvae caught within it echoed across the palace grounds; at the sound, Alanna felt her skin break out in gooseflesh.
Alanna had to clamber over what seemed like tons of debris to make it back to Jonathan. A veil of pure white light shivered down the stones, sucking the elementals down into the ruins and holding them there.
She looked down only once, at the eldritch creatures clawing at the inner surface of the stones and tiles, now gone glassy and strangely silken. Shuddering, Alanna looked away, and scrambled on toward the Hall.
Please let it still be there. Goddess, please.
It was. The whole southeastern section, including the Hall of Crowns, was still mostly intact, glowing a clean, pure white that left blue spots on her vision.
She entered the Hall, Lightning in her hand. A dust-covered Gary met her.
"It's safe," he said, and she nodded, sheathing her sword.
"Jon and Thom got rid of them."
Alanna moved around Gary, but he gripped her arm and pulled her back. "Wait."
"Gary, let go!"
"Alanna." It was Jon's voice, raspy and barely audible.
Gary let her go.
The first thing she saw was Duke Baird, crouched down next to a tall figure. It took her a moment to recognize Duke Gareth; she gasped.
"A heart attack," the Duchess said, coming up behind Alanna. "Hmpf. I warned him," she said, moving off to kneel gracefully beside her husband.
Turning, she saw Jon, still on the dais, still surrounded by Raoul and his men, still clutching the Jewel. His wrists were burned, she realized, badly burned in the perfect imprint of -
- Thom was lying sprawled before Jon, and Alanna could not tell if he was breathing.
She wasn't breathing, and she didn't until she dropped to her knees next to her twin and felt the faint rise and fall of his chest, the faint thread of his pulse. Thom was alive. Barely, but alive.
She rested both palms on his chest and looked up at Jon. "What happened?"
Jon looked weary beyond measure; there were strands of white threading through his jet-black hair. "We were running out of power," Jon said simply. "He poured all his Gift into me," and here he gestured wryly at his wrists, "and when we still needed more, he reopened the latent connection Roger had left in him, from all the compulsions, and tapped out Roger's Gift." Jon paused. "And then his own life."
Eleni, limping on a wrenched ankle, let Myles lower her down next to Thom. "He's alive," she pronounced after a moment's exam, "but he's in a deep coma. I'm sorry, Alanna."
"We'll move him to Legann. We're moving the court there," Jon added at Alanna's look. He moved, finally, to rest one hand on Thom's head.
Alanna looked at her brother's still face, then back at Jonathan, and nodded.
"Welcome back to the land of the living," was the first thing Thom heard when he woke. He slitted open his eyes and turned, feeling oddly weak, to see Duke Baird sitting in a chair by his bed. "Do you remember what happened?" the healer asked.
Swarms of elementals, the palace disintegrating around him, the king's wrists in his hands and the smell of burning flesh, his Gift and more pouring out of him…. Thom nodded.
"Good," the Duke said, standing. Green fire played over Thom; finally, Baird stepped back, and sat down again, pulling the chair closer.
"You are in the summer palace at Port Legann. The old palace is uninhabitable and still infested by elementals; we may never be able to rebuild it." Thom nodded to show he was listening. The Duke paused, looking Thom over. "It is currently October ninth."
…October? "What?" Thom croaked.
Baird regarded him gravely. "You powered King Jonathan with your own life force; it left you in a coma. I must say, I am surprised you woke so soon."
The door to what Thom now recognized as a private sickroom opened; the king stood in the doorway. "May I come in?"
Baird met Jonathan's eyes for a long moment; finally, he nodded and rose, bowing to the king before leaving them alone.
Jonathan moved to stand behind the vacated chair; he surveyed Thom with dark blue eyes, hands pressing into the chair back. Thom stared back, too tired to do more, noting idly the shiny burn scars wrapping the king's wrists.
"There's something you need to know," Jonathan said finally, and Thom realized that the king had not quite met his eyes. Jonathan opened his mouth, closed it, opened it again, then closed it and smiled grimly, raising one hand.
Dark indigo fire bloomed around the king's fingers.
"No," Thom breathed, but it was protest, not denial. He had known. He had known the moment he'd woken, feeling so hollow and light and tired, all at once. He looked at the indigo fire twining around Jonathan's fingers for a long time.
"You don't have a fever," Thom said at last, dully, as the implications set in.
"No," Jonathan agreed, reaching out to brush his thumbs under Thom's eyes as he wept.
Alanna rode into Legann three days later, sun-tanned and weatherbeaten; George, now of Pirate's Swoop, rode with her.
She hugged Thom until he thought he'd pass out again, then socked him in the arm and proceeded to yell at him for a solid half an hour. George stood discreetly behind her the whole time, alternating between grinning like a fool at everyone in the room, and smirking at Thom.
Finally, when Alanna had exhausted her worry and relief, and slumped back against George, Thom managed to get a word in.
"I'm glad you picked the thief," he said, lips curving at the look Alanna was giving him. "You'd've made a godawful queen."
She turned beet red and punched him again - fairly gently, for her - as George roared in laughter.
"And you're sure none of the elementals escaped the palace grounds?" Thom asked, pressing his hands flat on Sir Gareth's desk. He frowned; they were still trembling, and he'd been up for two weeks.
Oh, well. At least he could walk now, mostly. Thank Mithros for Duke Baird.
"We're positive," Jonathan said. "I saw it at the time, and I've been checking regularly since."
"The problem," Duke Gareth said from where he sat being hovered over by his son, "is that we can't get rid of them. Whatever you and Jonathan did at the coronation seems to have been a one-time event."
"It was," Thom and Jonathan said at once. They looked at each other; Thom looked away.
"Anyway," said Jonathan, "that's where things stand."
Thom paused, weighing his words. "I seem to remember mentions of something… I would have to go to the City of the Gods to check," he said, looking at the king.
Jonathan seemed to read something in his eyes; slowly, he nodded. "We'll arrange the details later."
"And that's that," Jonathan said, scattering sand on the signatures to dry them. "I'll file this tomorrow, after you're gone, but as of now, Trebond passes on absolute primogeniture."
Thom nodded, settling back, both hands folded over the top of his walking stick.
"Are you sure you want to do this? You've been awake not even a month."
"I'm sure," Thom said. "Your Majesty, we need those answers. And the only mentions of elementals in the City were all in northern texts."
Jonathan sighed, then smiled. "My friends call me Jon."
Thom looked up, startled, into his eyes, and smiled.