It isn't often that they get ladies in the Court of the Rogue.
She's being pretty smart about it; George is honestly impressed. Her clothes aren't flashy at all, even if they aren't as worn-in as they would be if she'd really been wearing them. But plenty of women wear nicer clothes if they're coming for an audience with the Rogue. And her hand keeps straying to her purse, but that's common too, with poor folk bringing their life savings. The purse she's brought isn't bulging too much, either. That was smart.
It's the way she looks around that gives her away; she doesn't know who she should be looking for, and anyone from the lower city who comes to the Rogue knows who the Rogue is.
George slides out of his usual seat, casual, not wanting to draw anyone else's eye to the noblewoman. She's a young thing, probably only sixteen or seventeen, short with long red hair. She doesn't look afraid. If anything, she looks curious, excited even. She's happy to be at the Court of the Rogue.
"Buy you a drink, mistress?" George asks, giving her a smile.
She looks up, surprised. "I'm not here for a drink," she says. She has violet eyes. "And I'm not old enough to be a mistress."
"Everyone drinks here," he tells her. "You wouldn't want to be drawin' anyone's attention, would you? Not when it looks like you're here on business."
She looks conflicted, but only for a moment. "A drink would be lovely. I thank you."
He hides his smile and signals Solom for two ales. He takes her to a secluded table, not his usual, and signals Marek that no one should bother him. He gives a waggle of his eyebrows, as if he's hoping to take the girl to bed. He doesn't do that sort of thing often, and never like this, but it's useful to have folk think he does.
"Now, what business brings you here?" George asks, once they're settled and private. "Lady," he adds, playing his hunch.
She slumps, looking frustrated. "Am I that obvious?" she mutters.
George hides another smile. "Not nearly so much as the young lords who come," he tells her honestly. "They get robbed in the first minute. You're touchin' your purse overmuch, and you're a little wide-eyed."
"I'll keep that in mind," she says, and George believes her. She wants to learn.
She's a curious one.
"Now, that business?" he prods.
"Why should I tell you?" she asks. "No offense meant, but I wasn't born yesterday."
"Who else were you plannin' to tell? I assume you're lookin' to hire someone, and everyone in here, the Rogue'll vouch for. Don't see as it makes much difference which one of us you pick. Unless you don't like the look of me."
She looks him over for a long moment, like she's really deciding. He could tell her he's the Rogue, of course, but he likes to keep that to himself with the nobility. At least until he has a better read of them. Finally, she nods. "Do you know anything of the court?" she asks. "The King's Court, I mean, not the Court of the Rogue."
"Some," he says. "Have you enemies, lady?"
"Alanna," she says.
"Your enemy?" he says, just to see her smile.
She obliges. "No, my name. Just Alanna, if you please."
"Well, Alanna, have you enemies?"
"After a fashion." She drums her fingers on the table. "I wish to hire a man to court me."
It's not the last thing he would have expected, because he doesn't think he ever would have come up with that, if he'd thought for a thousand years. "I think you may be in the wrong place if you're lookin' for a husband."
"I'm not," says Alanna, eyes flashing. "I'm looking for the opposite of that. My father's looking to marry me off as soon as possible, and I've no interest in marrying a noble and starting a family. I'd like to hire someone who can court me, so my father won't go looking for someone himself."
"You can't just pull a nobleman out of nowhere," George says, intrigued in spite of himself. Noblewomen come to court to get married. What's this one planning to do, if she doesn't wish to marry?
"You can if he's foreign. We know all the Tortallan nobles, of course, but foreigners come from all kinds of backgrounds. And surely a man of the Rogue knows how to forge papers."
It would be a challenge. Being foreign would help, she's right, but there are still ambassadors, the king's spies, and whoever he father sends to look into her suitor. He's sure there are men in his court who could pull it off. Other men, ones who aren't as known to the Lord Provost.
He should recommend her to one of them.
Instead, he says, "Alright, then. How much are you payin'?"
His name is George Cooper. He says he's never made a barrel, but he's tried his hand at most other things. He says he's a superb pickpocket, and when she objects, he takes her purse twice while she's paying attention.
"If I hire you, will you teach me that too?"
He looks bemused. "You want to learn to pick pockets, my lady?"
"Alanna," she says again. He's taken her to a room--to much jeering from his friends; if she had a reputation here, it would be ruined--and now that they're in private, he's not doing as well with her first name.
"It wouldn't be proper, me callin' you by your first name while we're courtin'," he says. It's reasonable, but it makes her scowl nonetheless. "I don't want to get in bad habits."
"I suppose not," she says, grudging. "Yes, I'd like to learn to pick pockets."
"Hurting for money, then? Is that why your father's so eager to marry you off?"
She snorts. "He just wants me to be someone else's problem." She fixes George with a hard look. "Can you really do it?"
"Pass yourself off as a gentleman."
"I've never tried before," says George easily. "But I think I could, like as not. My ma taught me how to speak properly." He flashes her a grin. "I only didn't to vex her."
"Is that why you became a thief as well?"
"No, I did that to keep food on the table." She must grimace, because his expression softens. "We haven't gone hungry for some years, my lady. My ma has a good livin' as a healer, and the Rogue of Tortall takes care of his own."
She nods. "Yes, I've heard that. We have a good Rogue, they say. Looks after his people."
"I've never heard complaints," says George. "Do you want to see my manners? See how I do with dancin'? If you've a test you'd like to give me, I'll take it."
Alanna considers. She'd planned to go directly to the Rogue, but she'd felt embarrassed, telling George she didn't know who the Rogue was. And if he wasn't allowed to do his own business in the Rogue's own court, she's sure someone would have stopped him. Too, if she's honest, she has a good feeling about him. He feels trustworthy, and she knows how ridiculous that is, given he's a thief she's hired to be an impostor. But she's always trusted her instincts.
"Where would you be from?" she asks him.
"Sarain, I think," he says. "Sarain's a mess at the moment, you may have heard. Civil war and all. There's no ambassador in the Tortallan court, and they'll have trouble looking into my background. Sarain has more important things to worry about than verifying every one of their nobles who've fled."
"And you know enough of Sarain to do this?" Alanna asks.
"I've met enough traders I know the accent. And I've got some clothing I can use or alter. I don't think anyone will look into it hard enough to find me out."
"You really think we can do it?" Alanna asks.
"It's my neck if it doesn't work," he says cheerfully. "No one has to know you were involved at all, my lady."
"I'm not going to leave you to hang alone if you're found out!" she says, horrified. "I wouldn't do that to you."
He looks at her for a long minute, and then says, "Can I ask somethin', my lady?"
"What will you do after this?"
"I don't suppose you're plannin' to marry me when all's said and done. What's going to happen when it comes time for me to propose?"
"A riding accident, perhaps," says Alanna. "I'd be in mourning for a while. Or we could travel to Sarain and be lost, if I'd come up with--" she cuts herself off. "I just need some time." He doesn't look convinced, and Alanna smiles. "I won't make you marry me. You needn't worry."
"That, my lady, was the least of my concerns."
"So, if my Lord Provost kills you, I'll be the Rogue, won't I?" asks Marek. "Even if I don't get to do it myself."
"My Lord Provost isn't goin' to kill me," says George. "He'll arrest me and put me on trial. The executioner will kill me, and then he'll be the Rogue."
"George, honestly," says Rispah. "It's too much of a risk."
"He won't be looking for me courtin' some lass from Trebond," says George, adjusting his outfit. "It'll be the King who arrests me, if anyone."
"That's a comfort," she says. "I hope this girl is worth it. She must be lovely. Buxom?"
"She's alright, I suppose," says George. He grins. "She's real interestin'."
"That's even worse."
"I'll be fine. We'll dance, we'll court, it'll be right proper. And then she'll tell them I've died, or anything else she wants to do, and I'll be back here, just like always."
"And what will happen to the Rogue while you're off courtin' some lady?" asks Marek.
"The two of you can handle it," says George. "It's not like I'll be livin' there. I'll still have plenty of time for the Rogue. Just helpin' out a lady in need for a few hours a night."
"Until you're killed."
"If I'm killed, you can tell me I was wrong," says George. "Until then, don't let anyone take over my throne. I'll see you in the mornin'."
He's already met the king, introduced himself, explained he's fled from the civil war in his home country, and he's been invited back to spend time at the court, as he knew he would be. Tonight, he'll be meeting the rest of the nobles, and he can start courting Alanna.
He's looked into her too. She's sixteen. Her father is baron of Trebond; her mother died in childbirth. She has a twin brother, Thom, who is squire to Alexander of Tirragen, and doesn't spend much time at the Court. Alanna was educated at the convent in the City of the Gods, as befit her station, and had only just come to Corus. From what he can tell, she hadn't done well at the convent. She disrespected the daughters, picked fights, and tried on more than one occasion to run away.
He's looking forward to getting to know her better. He wants to see what she'll do next.
It's dangerous, of course. Marek and Rispah are right; if the Lord Provost recognizes him, he'll be arrested, there's no doubt. He's a good Rogue, and he performs a valuable service that the crown needs. But no king and no provost could ignore him waltzing into the palace and pretending to be a foreign nobleman.
But he's doing it anyway.
He isn't seated with Alanna at dinner, which isn't a surprise. The nobles he's seated with want gossip of Sarain--they know something is happening, but they don't know any details. George had sought much information as he could find about the state of affairs there, although he'd already been well informed. A Rogue who doesn't know what's happening in neighboring countries won't be ready when trade fails or regimes change.
After dinner, he finds her. She's speaking with the Prince, and he can't help noticing what a fine couple they make. Prince Jonathan is tall and handsome, and Alanna is--well, she's not the most beautiful lady of the court, that's to be sure, but there's something about her. The two of them look easy together, more than he would have expected. He would have thought she didn't get along with anyone here, not having heard her opinion of marrying a noble.
He approaches slowly, putting more of his focus on the Prince. He met the King already, but as a foreign noble, he should introduce himself to the rest of the royal family. It's only polite.
Luckily, Jonathan notices him before he has to actually approach them. "Ah, Lord Jyorgi, is it?"
"Yes, your highness," he says, with a bow. "I apologize for interrupting."
"Not at all, I'm sorry for not having found you sooner. I was meaning to introduce myself." He takes Alanna's arm. "Lady Alanna, this is Lord Jyorgi, of Sarain. Lord Jyorgi, Lady Alanna of Trebond."
George kisses her hand. "A pleasure, my lady."
"My lord," she says, demure.
"The Lady Alanna is also quite new to our court," the Prince continues.
"It's all most overwhelming," she says.
"For me as well," says George. He smiles. "Perhaps the lady will be kind enough to help me. I am no expert on the customs of Tortall."
Alanna drops a curtsy. "Of course, my lord."
Jonathan looks amused. "That's very--helpful of you, Lady Alanna."
Alanna gives him a sweet smile; George hopes for Alanna's sake that her father doesn't see the two of them together. Not if she doesn't want to be married. A prince would be quite a catch for an ambitious father. "I do try, your highness."
"I had no idea."
Alanna shoots Jonathan a look and takes George's arm. "Do you dance, Lord Jyorgi?"
"I certainly attempt to, my lady."
She's a good dancer, which he didn't expect. "From what I heard of you at the convent, I wasn't expecting you to excel at courtly manners," he murmurs.
She doesn't miss a beat. "From what I heard the other night, I wasn't expecting you to speak this well. How did you hear about my time at the convent?"
"A man in my profession has his sources. None of them mentioned you were a friend to the Prince."
"The Prince is very friendly," she says, making a most unladylike face. "He likes to meet all the young ladies of the court."
"Your father must be thrilled."
"I don't think he's heard. He knows better than to take it seriously, I'm sure. There are more rumors about the prince's affairs than the rest of the court put together."
"I had no idea."
"You clean up rather well," Alanna observes. "I almost didn't recognize you."
"That was the idea," he says. "Not you, mind. But there are other people here I'd rather didn't recognize me."
"Have something of a reputation, Lord Jyorgi?"
"Somethin' like that," he says, letting a little of his drawl slip in. No one is paying them any mind here.
Lady Alanna of Trebond has something of a perfect smile. George wonders if the Prince has noticed.
Alanna can't quite believe it's working. George makes a decent lord; he's effortlessly charming and fits in well with the rest of the courts. Some of the other ladies have even noticed--he's not handsome, according to Lady Cythera of Elden, but he has a certain air to him, and he looks rather nice when he smiles. He hasn't forgotten who's paying his way, though. He's polite to everyone who approaches him, but it's obvious to everyone that he only has eyes for Alanna.
"I'm not sure what to do, though," she tells him. She's in the city tonight, visiting the Dancing Dove. George is teaching her how to open padlocks.
"Oh?" he asks. "Here, try this one."
"My father wrote to me about my conquest," she says. "He doesn't like foreigners, but he's glad I've found anyone who might be willing to take me as a wife. We might have to visit Trebond, if you're able. He's asked us to."
"He won't come here?"
"He hates court. I don't think he'd come unless he was thrown in a carriage and brought by force."
"I can't say as I blame him," says George. Alanna tosses him the open padlock, and George whistles. "You've got a knack for this, my lady. Don't suppose you've considered a life of crime."
"More than once." She tucks her hair back. "I don't suppose you have a reason we can continue to court, but not marry."
"I'd like to wait to marry until the fightin' in Sarain has calmed down," he says, looking smug. "I certainly wouldn't be a good husband to you if my family lost all our holdin's."
Alanna laughs. "And do you think the Rogue would let you come to Trebond?" she asks. "I know you must have other duties. I could give you more coin to make up for--"
"It's fine, lass," says George, with a smile. "But I haven't got anyone to chaperone us. Wouldn't be proper if I took you alone."
She waves her hand. "I have a chaperone. We have a man from Trebond at the palace, he came with my brother Thom when he started his knight training. My father has already asked him to escort us."
"Nice of him to be so obligin'," George observes. "He must really want you married."
"I've always been a problem for him. I've never been interested in being a lady. He thought that being at the convent would fix me, but--" she flashes George a grin. "I wasn't going to let that happen."
"And we're all right grateful you didn't."
"He's hoping to marry me off to someone before he realizes what a handful I am." She sighs. "And I'm not any closer to coming up with another plan." She tosses him another opened padlock. "Aside from joining up with the Rogue, of course. But I don't think he usually takes nobles."
"They don't usually ask." He stretches. "So, when are we headed for Trebond?"
"My father said he hoped to see us next week, if that's not too soon for you. If you have things to wrap up or--"
"Alanna," he says, gently. "I don't mind goin' out to Trebond. I like your coin and all, but--" he looks away, as if he's suddenly grown bashful. It's a strange look on George. "I thought we were gettin' to be friends."
Alanna bites her lip to keep a grin from taking over her face. "I thought so too," she says, and is rewarded with his own brilliant grin in return.
"And what will you being doing in Trebond?" Eleni Cooper asks her son.
"Got a job," says George, trying to keep his voice light and casual.
Judging from the way her eyebrows shoot up, he fails. "And what job would this be, that's taking you so far away? Rogue business?"
"Doin' a favor for a friend," he decides.
"A favor for a friend," she says flatly. "George Cooper, I--"
"Leave it be, Ma," he tells her. "It's nothin' illegal. Might even be a good deed." Her eyebrows just go higher, and he sighs. "A noblewoman hired me to court her. Says she isn't ready to get married yet, doesn't want her da findin' her some husband she won't like. She's takin' me back home to meet him, since he won't come to court."
Eleni stares at him, agog. "You're courting the lady of Trebond?"
"Not serious like," he says, but he can't help a grin. "She's a real firecracker, Ma, you'd like her. Has me teaching her how to open locks and pick pockets when we aren't busy at the king's court. Curious as anything. Wants to learn everything she can. Gifted too, though she doesn't use it. She'd be wasted, just marryin' some lord, keepin' his house and poppin' out babies."
"So it's a good thing I'm doin', helpin' her."
"Ma! Stop lookin' at me like that. It's not serious. I'm just tellin' you in case you need me the next few days. Get Marek instead, he'll help you out."
"I will." She smirks at him. "And you'd best bring the young lady over, George Cooper. If you're meeting her father, it's only fair I get to meet her."
"It's not really that kind of arrangement, Ma."
"Well, why don't you ask her if she'd like to meet me," says Eleni. "And you can see what she says."
George is quite sure he knows exactly what Alanna would say. He can just see her in his ma's little house, asking for stories about him when he was a boy, looking through her herbs, chatting easily with Eleni over dinner.
He swallows past a lump in his throat and calls himself ten thousand kinds of fool. "I'll see what I can do," is all he tells his mother.
"I don't see why you're talking a suitor home to meet father when I haven't even met him yet," Thom says, but he's got a teasing smile on his face. Alanna grins back.
"If you want to meet him, all you have to do is drag yourself into court once in a while. Aren't you squires supposed to be serving drinks and charming ladies?"
Thom makes a face. "Not if they're trying to catch up on all the magic they weren't learning while they were pages. Besides, you know how much I enjoy court."
"You take after Father that way."
He makes a face. "Don't say that. I don't want to take after him." He slants her a look. "But really, Alanna. I thought you didn't want to get married. Now I hear you're flirting with a lord from Sarain and bringing him home to Trebond?"
"He's from Sarain," says Alanna, shifting uncomfortably. There was a time when it would have been unimaginable not to tell Thom the truth about George, but this doesn't feel like just her own secret. Thom is still her lord brother, and if he's worried that she's spending so much time in the company of a rogue, it's George who will suffer. She can't risk him. "He likes me well enough, but as long as it's still so uncertain over there, he says he could never marry. So it's--safe. Father will see I'm putting in an effort. I don't want him picking a husband for me himself. I scared off the first one, but who knows how long that can last."
"And what if peace comes to Sarain and your lord is free to marry again?"
"Then I'll deal with that when it happens," says Alanna. "He isn't bad," she adds, for some reason. "If it were to come to marriage. I could do much worse." Thom looks at her for a long moment, long enough that she has to look away. "Any messages for father?" she asks, clearing her throat.
"No," says Thom. "Nothing."
Coram Smythesson has the look of a former soldier, and it's no surprise he's joined the palace guard. He looks George over with a critical eye he doesn't like; his disguise has held under the scrutiny of kings and princes, but Smythesson clearly loves his young mistress, and would judge any man courting her harshly. George smiles and says all the right things, and Coram seems, if not enthusiastic, at least not suspicious of his credentials. Only his worthiness.
Alanna is an accomplished rider; she wears breeches and refuses to go side-saddle, and when she challenges George to a race, she almost wins, even with her pokey old mare. She could use a real horse, he thinks, one who could keep up with her. He wonders if he's allowed to give her one, given he's courting her. It might be an appropriate courting gift.
"I almost had you on that pass!" Alanna tells him, grinning. She looks happier than he's ever seen her on the road, away from Corus and expectations. He grins back helplessly.
"It was a close one, my lady," he agrees.
"I didn't expect you to be so good on a horse."
"I may not have trained as a knight like your lord brother, but I know my away around the rein."
"I wonder if I can find a better horse at the stables in Trebond," she says, sighing. "Dusky has been a good mount for me, but she's getting on." She pets the horse's mane. "She can't keep up with me like she used to."
"I'm not sure anyone can keep up with you, my lady."
Alanna glances back at Coram, frowning. "I think you could call me Alanna. At least in private."
George looks at Coram too; the old soldier is smiling, just a little, and George feels a flutter in his stomach. "I suppose I could try," he says.
Alanna's father doesn't come to meet them when they reach Trebond; his steward says he's in the library and refused to be disturbed. Alanna rolls her eyes, but George can see something like hurt there, something he doesn't like. "We'll be lucky if we see him before we're due to leave for Corus again."
George wants to put an arm around her or offer some comfort, but he doesn't know if she'd appreciate it. Instead, he glances around. "Well, if we don't have to speak with your father, I'm sure there's somewhere here I could take you and teach you how to throw knives."
She brightens instantly, face lighting up. "I'm sure there is."
It's strange having George at Trebond. Her father drags himself away from his books long enough to come down for dinner, and George is as effortlessly charming here as he is at the king's court, saying all the right things and asking all the right questions. Her father seems, if not impressed, at least satisfied, but Alanna can't help missing his lower-city drawl and easy smirk. She prefers the George she gets to see in private, the one she likes to think is the real George.
"Now, Lord Jyorgi, I don't know how it is in Sarain, but there are too many young men here in Tortall who seem to think they no longer need to wait for marriage to enjoy the the benefits of the institution. I hope that you do not share similar delusions about your relationship with my daughter. Alanna is a finely reared lady, and if you take advanta--"
"Father!" says Alanna, horrified. Her face feels as if it's on fire.
"I would never, my lord," George says, but Alanna can see a little red on his cheeks as well. "You needn't worry over your daughter with me. I'd never do anything to hurt her."
Her father nods absently, as if he's already forgotten his concern, and turns to take to the steward.
Alanna reaches out under the table and finds George's hand to squeeze it. He looks over, surprised, but his face softens at her expression, and he squeezes back.
The rest of the visit they spend riding and practicing. George has knives, and Alanna finds the old swords Coram used to teach her and Thom with as well. She's never been an expert with blades, but George has plenty of experience, and he's a patient instructor.
"Only 'cause you're such a good student," he tells her, grinning. "Wish all my men had your dedication. And your skill."
She flushes, pleased. If she's lucky, he'll think it's just exertion. "I'm sure you say that to all the ladies."
"All the other ladies I've trained in fightin' and thievin', you mean?"
She laughs. "Yes, all of those ladies."
"You're right, I'm just a flatterer," George agrees. He stretches and looks around. "I like Trebond," he declares. "Shame about your da, though."
She grimaces. "He told me you were a fine conquest."
"If only he knew the truth, he'd change his tune right quick."
She brightens. "That's true, at least. Maybe when all's said and done, I'll tell him."
She tries not to think about being done with George Cooper. No one's ever been such a good friend to her, or so easy with her. He doesn't mind teaching her how to fight and pick pockets, but nor does he mind dancing with her, or telling her which of her earbobs he likes best. He doesn't seem to mind at all that she isn't the kind of lady she's supposed to be, and she doesn't think it's just politeness.
"Let me know before you do, lass," says George. "I'd like to be far away before anyone finds out what I've been up to."
"It's the least I can do," Alanna says. She picks up the sword. "Again?"
"As my lady wishes."
George doesn't get the chance to go back to the King's Court for several days after returning from Trebond; he has his own business to do with his own people. Rispah mocks him about his lady; Marek asks if he isn't losing his touch, mooning over noblewomen. He wants to deny it, but he doesn't quite know how. If he thought she might say yes, he'd propose to Alanna tomorrow, give up the Rogue and find a respectable position, something that would keep the both of them safe.
They're dangerous thoughts for a commoner to have about a noblewoman.
Alanna sends word that she'll be coming to see him after three days, since he's too busy to come to the palace. He's embarrassingly excited to see her; he's found a horse he thinks will suit her, and he wants to see what she thinks.
At first, when she doesn't show up, he's hurt, thinking she's found a better way to spend her evening, and he stays hurt for longer than he should. Alanna isn't the type to forget her obligations, and she knows he worries when she comes to the lower city. Not having seen her for a few days, he thinks she might be angry with him, but when Alanna is angry, she says it outright. She'd come and tell him to his face. Loudly, vehemently, and until he was properly apologetic.
Something must be wrong.
He hasn't done as much breaking and entering since he started posing as a lord, but he has no trouble getting into her house; he is, after all, still the King of the Thieves. Alanna's rooms are empty, and she wouldn't have gone anywhere else, not when she was on her way to see him.
Something is very wrong. He follows the path Alanna might take to the Dancing Dove, cursing himself for never having gone with her. He has men who are supposed to watch her, but it's not the kind of thing he should have trusted to anyone else. He should have been taking care of her personally.
He's never going to forgive himself if anything happens to her.
Halbeck was the one supposed to be keeping an eye on her tonight; George finds him at the Dove, chatting with one of Rispah's flower sellers.
"She saw me!" Halbeck protests, when George shoves him up against the wall. "Held a dagger to my throat and told me if she caught me tryin' to rob anyone again, she'd have my hide 'fore the magistrate! I told her the Rogue just wanted her looked after, but she didn't believe me. We were almost to the Dove, I thought she'd be with you by now. I never knew she didn't make it!"
George can't help a little twinge of pride. That's his girl.
"Where was she when she spotted you?" George asks. "Where'd you see her last?"
Halbeck takes him over to the alley where Alanna cornered him; it's not the kind of place he would have advised her to start a confrontation, but Halbeck is right. It's not far.
He should have told her he was the Rogue. He should have told her why he had her followed. He's heard plenty of people whispering about the woman the Rogue's been taking to his rooms. He doesn't think anyone knows who she really is--they all think she's just a common-born woman who shares his bed. But it's not safe, being a Rogue's lover. He should have told her what people thought she was, so she could have kept herself safe, and so she'd know why he wanted to do the same.
"Who works this area?" he asks Marek. "Who's living here? The provost will have all our heads if a noblewoman disappears in the lower city, you know he will."
"That's why we don't bring noblewomen down here," Marek says, apparently unable to resist the reminder. But he straightens and looks at the map. "I haven't heard of anyone gunning for you recently. Except me, of course."
"Course," George agrees, too distracted to smile at Marek's ribbing. "There'd have to be a few of them, she's handy in a fight. I'm surprised they actually took her out with whoever they sent."
"Maybe they saw her take Halbeck and brought backup."
George snaps his fingers. "You're right! They probably saw her take him and realized they'd need help. That'd mean wherever they've got her can't be far from where she lost him, if they could get more folk in so fast." He glances over at Marek, sheepish. "I know I've been foolish over this. I won't drag the rest of you into trouble."
Marek snorts. "We all knew you'd go stupid over a girl someday, Cooper. I just thought you'd pick a better one."
George smiles grimly. "Come now, Marek. I've picked the best one."
Alanna's glad she kept her mouth shut when the men took her, because now, when she gets out, she'll know that she needs to kill George.
She'd been a little cocky after finding the man who was tailing her, high on catching a pickpocket and sending him on his way. Maybe he'd been a decoy for the larger group who came after. It seemed like a lot of trouble to go to for a young noblewoman, one they wouldn't have expected to be able to fight for herself.
Then again, they hadn't thought she was a young noblewoman.
She'd assumed they wanted to ransom her to her father--as if he'd care--but she wasn't going to give them the satisfaction of begging, or of telling him that they wouldn't get a penny out of Trebond. And she was right to wait, because she'd be in much worse shape if she'd told them there's more than one person who might give good coin to keep her safe.
They don't think they took the baron of Trebond's daughter. They think they took the Rogue of Tortall's lover.
When she gets out of this, she's definitely going to have words with George. They're not going to be pleasant.
The binding they put on her wrists are a joke--they even bound them in front of her. Considering how many people they brought to take her down, they really didn't have much faith in her skills. Surely they should have realized George would have taught her a few tricks.
They didn't leave any obvious weapons in the room with her, and they found the knives she was carrying. But she's far from helpless without weapons; George has been training her in hand-to-hand fighting as well. They'll bring her food eventually, and as long as only one of them comes, she likes her odds in a fight, even without a knife. And as long as the door is open, she can get out, go to the Dove, and give George a piece of her mind.
When the door opens, she's ready for them, and she's already thrown her first punch when she hears the man ask, "Lass?"
George, being George, catches her punch easily, and wraps her up in his arms instead, crushing her against his chest.
"You aren't hurt?" he murmurs. "Gods, Alanna, I'm sorry, I can't believe--"
She shakes herself out of her surprise and shoves him away, glaring fiercely. "You can't believe? Imagine how surprised I was to discover I'm the Rogue of Tortall's lover!"
George looks away, color creeping up his neck. "You've every right to be angry with me, lass, and I won't tell you not to be. But this isn't the right place to have this conversation. I don't know if there are other ones I didn't get."
Alanna has no doubts about what George did to anyone he found keeping her. "And what if I hadn't been here? What if you'd been wrong?"
George smiles grimly. "They had very guilty consciences, darlin'. Eager to unburden themselves as soon as I came in."
George Cooper, the Rogue of Tortall. Somehow, it's not as much of a surprise as she thinks it should be. He glances back at her over his shoulder as he takes her out through the house. "If I hadn't been ready for you to attack me, that would have really hurt. Anyone else would have gone down. That was a good punch."
"You were expecting me to attack you?"
George grins. "I taught you to pick locks myself, and you're the best student I ever had. I didn't want the guard out looking for a missing noble and poking their noses in my business, so I came and fetched you, but I knew if I didn't, you'd get yourself out, make no mistake."
"Flattery won't stop me being angry."
"I've never flattered you, not once."
She frowns when he turns away from the Dove once they're outside. "Where are we going?"
"It's near dawn, and I doubt you told your servants you'd be gone all night. Won't be any good, gettin' you out of there if they still think you're missin." He gives her a serious look. "I'm not tryin' to get out of talkin' to you, Alanna. I know I should have told you who I was before."
"Why didn't you?" she asks.
He shrugs. "Didn't see any reason to at first. I didn't get where I am by trustin' every lady who wanders into the Dove with a strange story."
The answer rings a little false, somehow, but Alanna can't find fault with it. "And later?" she asks, trying not to sound too hurt. She'd thought they were friends. She thought he trusted her.
He looks over, and then puts his arm around her shoulders, drawing him against her. "Being the Rogue--I do a lot of things I'm not proud to tell someone like you, lass. I don't know who you thought I was before, but you don't get to be King of the Thieves without walkin' a bad path."
"What do you mean, someone like me?" she asks, glaring.
His smile is wistful. "I know you like learnin' Rogue work, but I don't think you'd take to murder. I hope you wouldn't."
"I was glad you murdered the men who took me."
"But you wouldn't have."
Alanna shrugs. "You should have told me anyway," she says.
"I should have at that," he says.
"So--the man who said the Rogue asked him to watch me. You really did?"
"I've got enemies, Alanna. It's not safe for--people I care about. To be walking around alone. I have my own mother watched, not that I'd ever tell her that, stubborn as she is. It's against the code of the Rogue to target those who aren't involved, but not everyone follows that. I couldn't forgive myself if anyone hurt you to get to me."
She leans against his side, letting him draw her closer. He was frightened for her. "Now that I know they might, I won't let them."
George smiles. "I should have known."
He kisses her hand when he leaves her, and Alanna wonders, not for the first time, what exactly she's gotten herself into.
He makes Marek the King of Thieves.
It's not how the title is supposed to be passed on, but he doesn't much want to let Marek kill him. It's rather pointless to give up the Rogue for Alanna if he won't be alive to benefit from it.
"You're sure," says Rispah, sounding dubious. "Have you asked her?"
"I can't ask her to marry me when I'm the Rogue," he says. "It's not fair to her."
"And if she says no? It's not fair to her to tell her you've given up the Rogue and expect her to marry you."
"Then I'll just kill Marek," he says, winking at her. "Shouldn't be too difficult."
Rispah rolls her eyes. "I told you this was a bad idea, pretending to court a noblewoman. But I didn't think even you would make such a mess of it." But she kisses him on the cheek and wishes him good luck all the same.
He runs into Alanna on his way out of the Dove. He doesn't recognize her at first, dressed as she is in a heavy traveling cloak. But he catches sight of her face, pale and panicked, and catches her. "Lass?" he asks, soft.
"George!" she throws her arms around him, shocking him with the ferocity of her embrace.
"What's wrong?" He glances around and pulls back. "Wait, don't tell me just now. Come upstairs." He leads her back to his rooms, sitting her down on his bed and giving her a glass of water. "What happened, Alanna?"
She bites her lip. "My father is having money problems," she says. "He wants to marry me off, as soon as he can. He's not satisfied with how quickly my courtship is moving, and he thinks--" She looks away. "He has another husband in mind for me. I came to say goodbye."
Alanna snorts in a most unladylike manner. "Of course not. I'm running away."
It surprises a laugh out of him. "Can't believe I made that mistake. Should have known better. Any idea where you're runnin'?"
"South," she says. "I'm done with winter." She looks up at him through her lashes. "I'll miss you. I--thank you. For everything."
George clucks his tongue. "You know, I've never gone south. Might be worth a visit."
She laughs. "Well, I was thinking of going to Maren. If you ever find yourself headed that direction." She leans down and kisses him, softly. "Thanks, George."
He's too surprised to stop her when she goes.
Alanna is an hour out of Corus when George catches her.
"You're not going to get far on that old mare," he tells her. "I didn't think we'd catch you so fast."
His cousin Rispah is riding with him on another horse; it looks much swifter than the one Alanna is on. "I didn't think you'd catch me so fast either. What am I supposed to do with Dusky?"
"Rispah will take her. She's been wantin' a horse of her own."
Alanna won't argue with a better mount, not when she wants to be long gone by the time her father realizes what she's done. She and Rispah switch, and Rispah gives George a lingering look before she starts back to the city.
George doesn't say anything, just spurs his horse, and they ride in silence for a long time, until Alanna can't stand it anymore. "Doesn't the Rogue of Tortall have responsibilities? I didn't think you could just go riding off to Maren on a moment's notice. If I'd known you'd come this quickly, I would have waited."
"He can't," says George, overly casual. "But Marek's the Rogue of Tortall now. I'm retired."
"Retired?" she asks, shocked. "When? Why?"
"I was on my way to tell you when you came to the Dove. I gave it up yesterday, sorted everythin' out. Marek's been helpin' for a long time, wasn't hard to get things in order."
"That was only half of what I asked."
"I was thinkin' of marryin'," says George. His voice is overly casual again, but there's color climbing up his neck. "I'm not as young as I used to be."
Alanna swallows. "Marrying?" she asks. Her heart is beating too quickly.
"Didn't seem fair, askin' a lady to marry a rogue," he says. "Thought I'd best get myself a respectable profession. Somethin' where I have a chance of growin' old. Haven't decided what yet."
"I won't be a lady in Maren," she says, soft.
"No, suppose not," he says. "But you could still marry there. If you wanted to."
"I'm going to Maren so I don't have to marry." She smiles. "But I'm not going to Maren because I never want to marry."
He laughs. "Well, then. As long as it's not never."
When they get to the inn, Alanna asks for a room for herself and her husband. George's jaw drops, and Alanna grins at him. "I've heard young men of Tortall are--enjoying the benefits of marriage before they're married," she tells him, conspiratorial.
He closes his mouth and manages a grin of his own. "I've heard the same thing. I can't believe you'd be considerin' it, my lady."
"Of course you can't." She cocks her head at him. "Well, are you coming?"
"Right behind you."
As soon as they're in their room, George pushes her up against the wall, kissing her hard and desperate. Alanna laughs softly, pushing him back. "Easy," she murmurs. "I'm not going anywhere, George."
"You're going to Maren," he teases, sliding his hands up her sides, raising goosebumps everywhere he touches.
She shivers. "I'm not going anywhere without you."
George leans in to kiss her neck, and Alanna cranes her head away, giving him more room. She doesn't know how she ever waited this long. "Nowhere without me, is it? I like the sound of that."
Alanna tugs him closer, cautious, and smiles. "I do too."