The Royal Palace, Corus
"Some speak of heaven's dart, others the symmetry of the rose,
Some of fire, some of blood,
A life without repose."
She stares at her reflection, mirrored in rippling water, in the hedgewitch's scrying bowl. Wisps of the coppery-red hair her family is known for, curl about her face. "What an ill fate you have augured for such a fair young maid," Queen Lianne cries, reaching over to pat the young noblewoman's hand. "I shan't believe it, no indeed. You must make another prophecy for our Marinine."
"Prophecies are not made, Royal Lady," the hedgewitch says with dignity, "They are writ in the stars."
"And bartered for coin," Roxanne of Haryse drawls in a carrying whisper. A graceless blush diffuses the headwitch's face, doing little - and that little, more ill than good - for her patchy complexion. Lianne's delicate brows knit together in disapproval, but Roxanne, famed for the sharpness of her tongue and cheekbones, doesn't care. Later, at the Summersend Ball in between the dancing and being presented to suitors and their beady-eyed, fire-breathing mammas, Roxanne draws Marinine aside.
"What possessed that old hag to speak so to you?" she cries indignantly. Her betrothed's (Martin of Meron) ring shimmers, smooth pearls against pampered skin. In another woman it would be almost insolent - to flash her prospects, her secure future and impending happiness in front of poor, fatherless, dowerless Marinine. But Roxanne is only thoughtless and Marinine doesn't take the slight to heart because beggars can't be choosers. In this court of somebodies, where she seems to be the only nobody, there are few friends to be found. She makes do with the few she has.
"I wonder at that guttersnipe's impudence - a common wench no better than she should be, but she takes consequence upon herself because the Queen called her to court to tell fortunes. She forgets that she is but an hour's diversion for us." Lady Roxanne fans herself restlessly, shaking her head. "They need to be put down with a firm hand, mark my words, my dear. But of course we all know milk runs in place of blood in His Majesty's veins..."
"Oh I liked it, oddly enough," Marinine murmurs. "Fire and blood... it appeals to my Player's nature. Papa used to say Balduin Starsworn would fill my rice-bowl to surfeit if I was a commoner." She catches her uncle's eye and rises. There is another suitor to be presented to, a tall man with unusual eyes. He is young, scarcely past his squirehood, she knows, but he holds himself like one older. She kisses Roxanne's cheek and wonders when her uncle will tire of trotting her out like a show-pony to the men.
The Tusaines swarm like the proverbial locusts over Corus in midsummer. They bring with them the scent of dying roses, fashions so scandalous that they make the Lower City flower-sellers blush, the art of coquettry and etiquette elevated to hitherto unknown forms and the whiff of the decadence of foreign climes. Queen Lianne catches a whiff of it and retires decorously to her chamber while her maids of honor listen avidly to Lady Aenne's fiery tales of love, of romping in pleasure gardens and slow, sweet seduction in the moonlight. At King Roald's command, the young Tortallan bloods maintain a veneer of courtesy for their Tusaine counterparts but courtesy is much strained when Dain of Melor and his squire emerge on the scene.
Alanna of Trebond.
Castle Trebond is a gloomy fortress set against the gloomier backdrop of the Grimhold Mountains. It is no place for Marinine from sunny Tasride in the south.
Lord Alan, her husband makes clear her position on their wedding night. "Our betrothal was arranged because my father felt it would be a kindness to your uncle. You will beget heirs, tend to the household, stitch tapestries, mumble your pathetic prayers to the Goddess... in short, employ yourself in whatever frivolous occupations females of your station consider suitable. You are very young, yet - your guardian tells me you have not yet crossed the threshold of your sixteenth year - but I expect you to understand that I will not tolerate any of those charming little assignations with stable-hands that young maidens seem to consider necessary, nowadays. You will not besmirch my honor and will conduct yourself as a baroness should. I will keep to my studies and you will not disturb me. If you respect my rules, I believe that we shall be our marital life shall be as comfortable as circumstances permit."
And with that, he rolls over in bed, ignoring his trembling young bride, clad so seductively only in her chemise, with the faint petal fragrance rising from her hair.
In the wan, unending winter's dusks, she roams the silent, shadowy halls. The village is a snowscape, the smoke rising from the white-roofed cottages silver in the frosty air. The gargoyles in the castle have their beards of dripping icicles and each peak of the distant mountains she can glimpse from her bedchamber is blanketed in snow. She sees Lord Alan smile for the first time as he glides over the frozen lake - when she wonders at his talent at ice-skating (a talent she would never have expected from him) he laughs and kisses her for the first time. But she is not a child of the mountains and the fiercest winter she has ever known has been in Corus. It cannot compare to Trebond.
Day by day she feels her strength fading and as the winter passes and the burden she bears grows heavier, she wonders whether she will live to see another one. There is a minstrel at Trebond, so full of life and it's joy that it seems to warm her in a way that the hearth-fires cannot. Ayren is handsome too - as the rate at which he tumbles the maids can attest to. He woos her through his music though not a word of love - except in his ballads - ever crosses his lips. Any other man would have noticed how her eyes followed his, but Lord Alan is not a man to notice. His inattetiveness, his nonchalance towards their marital life, hurts her. It makes her feel like the unwanted waif she used to be in her uncle's household - a charity-case, a poor relative to be disdained.
In late spring, she has twins. The midwives hover over her like the shadow of death and she is sure that it will be her last night. But when the dawnlight washes over her, Maude, the healing woman, places one of the children in her arms. "This is your daughter," she whispers and the whisper rings like a shriek in Marinine's ears. "She has her father's eyes and your Gift. If you have nothing else to live for, live for her, child."
While the Tusaines are at court, Corus presents it's best face forwards. Life is a whirl of court galas - balls, picnics, hunts, banquets, fetes - and the only one who is distinctly unimpressed is Raoul of Goldenlake.
"Your Majesty, may I make Sir Dain of Melor known to you?" Lord Mikal, the Tusaine ambassador, draws forward a tall young man. A few of the younger court ladies whisper to eachother, their faces discreetly screened behind their fans. In point of physique Sir Dain is second to none of the Tortallan knights. He might not be Prince Jonathan, but... oh yes, his looks surely merit more than 'comely'. King Roald inclines his head gracefully to the young knight.
"He is the firstborn son of the Duke of Melor and the Princess Raquia, sister to His Majesty, King Ain," Lord Mikal continues with an assiduous smile. "He does his noble pedigree honor and has long been accounted the first in arms, particularly in matters concerning swordsmanship, in our court."
Sir Dain laughs with an easy arrogance. Gareth of Naxen's eyebrows rise delicately and he looks towards his father. "Aye, I fear that I will not retain that position much longer. Your Majesty, if I may present, in my turn, my squire." A slender lad, scarcely taller than a second-year page to Raoul's eyes, comes forward. He is not a lad who would have gone unmarked in a crowd - his face is delicately-structured, almost too delicate for a boy, and his eyes are a startlingly vivid purple that makes the hairs on superstitious Alex's forearms rise. "A native of your country and a gem who would, I believe, have gone unnoticed in your court. Your Majesty, my squire, Alanna of Trebond."
Jon almost dies on the spot.
It is Lord Alan who dies. When the plague spreads southwards from Scanra he sends his wife and children away to Tasride for safety. She manages to sneak Ayren into her entourage. But even before they reach Port Caynn, the missive reaches her.
She is a widow at seventeen.
At Tasride she is treated as she has always been. "How many husbands do you expect us to find for you?" her aunt demands snidely after she's lingered a week at the manor.
"I was very grateful for the one you did provide me with, M'lady," she says meekly.
"Sent him to his death, didn't you?" one of her cousins sneers. "Better that you'd taken the plague and turned your ugly face to the Black God. You and your devil's spawn children - twins! Unnatural and t'would be as likely as not that they've the Trebond madness in their blood."
"And that troubador," her aunt sighs. "From Tusaine of all parts. Pleasure-maddened, depraved brutes, they are. I hope you didn't play false to Lord Alan?"
"Oh how could she, Mamma?" her cousin trills. "She would have loved to tumble him - Goddess, what a dollface! - but he wouldn't have her. Who would, with such a face? Look at her, sitting there, sullen as a cow! Lord Alan'd be the only who'd have her and that would be for the begetting of heirs. Didn't you hear, mamma, that he didn't bed her till a month after they'd been wed?"
Her aunt looks critically over her. "No matter, she did her duty by having the boy, Thom. Now, lass, how long to you propose to stay here? You ought to know that you've been quite a burden to us. Oh we had it all wrong when we thought about getting you married - better to have shut you up in some convent. Daughters to the Goddess don't trouble their relatives half as much, I'm sure."
She curls up in the hayloft over the stables that night and broods. It is a lovely little spot and lying, sprawled out on the warm hay, she can see the stars. Perhaps her destiny is written up there, as the hedgewitch had once told her. She can't bear to go back to Trebond - no, she shudders, she can't bear to think of facing the cold and the loneliness - but to stay at Tasride would be intolerable. She'd love to live in Corus or Port Caynn perhaps, some city, bustling with life, but, the Trebond purse isn't large enough and oh dear, cities were always so expensive...
She doesn't need to look up to know his voice. "Come sit with me, Ayren."
She hears him climbing up the rungs of the ladder and she feels a warm body sprawl out next to hers. Silently, he takes her hand and squeezes it reassuringly. "Lady Svetlana," he says, referring to her cousin. "Is a minx and to pay heed to her words would be to dishonor yourself." His voice turns mischievous, boyish and suddenly he reminds her of the village lads she used to play with in childhood, who never treated her as a lady, a noble daughter of the manor, but as one of themselves. "Want to know a secret?"
"Tell," she whispers. His fingers travel over her wrist, to the soft underside of it and she shivers.
"She tried to tumble me."
"With a face like hers... I couldn't. Not after I'd seen yours."
"Your words smack of cheap ballads conned by heart and delivered to villagers."
"Your eyes are like a thousand stars, shining in the darkness of a..."
"Do be sensible."
He laughs and kisses her wrist gently, almost timidly. It is the tribute of a loyal vassal to his master's wife and there is no love in it. Did she expect there would be? For all his flippancy, he knows his position - and hers. "Come to Tusaine with me."
She rests her head on his shoulder. "Why?" she whispers.
"There is nothing for you here."
"Take them with you."
"Honor is an empty and you know it as well - perhaps better - than I. The Code of Chivalry binds all nobles but where has a noble obeyed it, except to the furtherance of his own desires?" She hears the rippling anger in his voice and feels him shifting. "I was Tortallan born, My Lady. When I was but a wee lad, there is a party of young nobles thereabouts always on the lookout for sport, as young lads will always. They were wine-mad and lust-driven one night and because my sister would not lie with them, they burnt down our cottage. We lived by the Drell Valley and I... I escaped to the other bank of the river into Tusaine."
She keeps quiet. "You didn't have to tell me that," she says finally.
"I wanted to."
Lady Roxanne of Meron claims to have known her mother - Marinine of Tasride. "She was the sweetest little thing," she reminisces. "Tiny - I could have fit her into my thimble, yes indeed - her girl takes after her in height. Oh yes, she was a darling - fancy that, after she had to endure that dragoness of an aunt for so long."
"Well, she must take after her father in everything but height," Geoffrey tells his mother. "Or perhaps it's her great-aunt coming out in her."
The Lion and his Cub, Jonathan privately christens Dain and his squire. Brash and reckless with an arrogance monumental enough to make even Jon feel humble, he seems to constantly be on the look for a fight or for any insults - perceived or otherwise - to his honor. If possible, Alanna is even worse. She hangs around her knight-master like a lovesick puppy but to everyone else she is as temperamental as a Rittevon princess. As one court wit puts it - 'the Magnolia of Court'. Fragile, scented ivory blossom, indeed. Roses, the court has innumerably - fair-haired, beddable virgins and sloe-eyed seductresses with nightingale voices. There is but one magnolia at court.
But even Duke Gareth admits that she shows a good deal of promise when he sees her on the fencing courts. Gary is appropriately aghast - and says so - but his father shakes his head and explains. "I consider her unnatural, but perhaps that is only the effects of her lineage - the Trebondian insanity - and the decadence of the Tusaine court must have exerted a grave influence upon her during her formative years."
"What do you make of it, cousin?" Jon asks Roger during one of their nightly chess-matches.
Roger offers a thin-lipped smile. "For all that we Tortallans mock the Tusaines their decadence, their depraved ways, they sometimes display a foresight that we would do well to follow." He traces his finger over the lines of his ebony queen. "She's a clever girl don't you think? And if your esteemed uncle praises her swordsmanship abilities... your move, Jon."
"What?" Jon says, looking at the chessboard. Then, sheepishly, "Oh."
She goes to Tusaine. It is color and light, sound and laughter and she's finally alive, hang everyone who thinks she's a whore who's turned her back on her family and her honor. She has her babies, always-smiling, always-laughing little Alanna and Thom, more sullen but just as sweet as his twin, and they still think everything Mamma does is perfect. It is just like the ballads he used to sing of, where the fair, noble lady would run away with the love of her life with ne'er a forethought about the proprieties.
It is there that she meets the Duke of Melor.
"A fair little magnolia," he says, laughing, when he meets her. "The minstrels are already strumming their lyres about the beauteous Lady of Trebond and her defiance." He leans forwards and kisses her wrist. "But they are honorless curs, Lady Marinine, for they have lied about your beauty. There is not a maiden in the Tortall, Galla or Tusaine who could match your beauty." He is drunk, of course, but even drunk, his charm and powers of seduction are overwhelming. She cannot bring herself to resist him, which is not surprising. Few woman had ever been able to resist the Duke of Melor - and even fewer would be able to resist his son.
When she falls pregnant, he marries her as his fifth wife.
She is fifteen years old, of an age to be married. He has seen girls of her age being presented at court all his life. Pretty, giggling, featherheaded little creatures with a thousand charming ways, wooed easily by baubles and flattery. The Trebond girl... Jon hangs around the practice court, watching her. If she notices the Crown Prince, she keeps her mouth shut. At least she knows enough to respect royalty and forgive it's idiosyncrasies. He wonders what could have led her to choose this life. He recollects his pagehood days, not without a few twinges of pain. Blood and broken bones, oafish companions and getting dirty...
How could she, a female, have borne it? Surely it must be against the Gods.
Whorechild, he thinks to himself, remembering the stories rife about her mother. Whore.
Alanna and Thom are raised as children of the court. They romp in the mud and have their first riding and dancing lessons with princelings and dukelets. They learn courtly etiquette as little lisping children at their governess's knee and, all of Melor's wives insist, comport themselves with a dignity and grace that seems almost unnatural, considering their land of birth. The Tusaines, Marinine quickly discovers, consider the Tortallans as crude and uncivilized as the Tortallans do the Tusaines over-refined, over-bred, pantywaisted monsters. Marinine with her 'exotic' red hair and her 'antediluvian' ways - charmante, the great ladies of the Tusaine court all agree, so charmante - is the toast of the season. Melor's pretty little 'shepherdess-bride' is a welcome addition to the social scene of Daichel, the capital, and she quickly capitalizes on her position.
As the Duke of Melor's wards, Alanna and Thom are clad in the finest of linen and brocade, petted as only the children born to fortune can be. He spoils them with the good-humored negligence, the trinkets and candies that he showers on any of his blood-children. They are almost his blood children, insofar that it comes as a great shock to five-year-old Alanna when she finds out that her real father - a Tortallan, of all things! - is dead. She spends the whole night weeping inconsolably.
Often, Marinine pictures the life they would have led had she stayed in Tortall - they'd have been raised like little savages, a poor, country baron's heirs, doomed to ignominy. And she...? Why she'd have withered away, or died perhaps in childbed, bearing some miserable wretch that would have been better off never born. Melor virtually abandons her after she bears him a son - his fifth legitimate son -, he'd rather gallivant with a new mistress than a wife who'd always be available for him. The charm of the uncaught, after all... She doesn't mind. There's more than enough to keep her occupied - children, court games, the social round, fashion... and she's more than happy to dabble her hand at amateur playacting, to patronize the penniless playwrights and actors - diamonds in the rough, she thinks of them as - who flock to Daichel. Marinine is glad then for her choice, for lighting upon this dreamland - Ganiel was the patron god of Tusaine and it showed - on the breath of a young girl's heedless whim.
She wears gowns. It comes as a shock to see the unknown young maiden sitting at Lady Aenne's side at the banquet in honor of his birthday. She's clad in the Tusaine fashion, in shockingly-low cut decolletage. In a Tortallan maiden it would have been positively indecent but in one of the Tusaines it is perfectly modest. White muslin too, signifying that she is unmarried (or a virgin, if that is possible in a nubile Tusaine maiden). He's been introduced to all the ladies in the Tusaine entourage, he's sure, yet somehow he can't remember this one... but surely she must be of some importance to merit a place by the ambassador's wife at one of the most lavish feasts of the season? Perhaps one of King Ain's illegitimate daughters, come to be married off to a bounty-hunting Tortallan nobleman who won't mind his wife's lineage...
"Pretty isn't she?" Alex remarks when Jon takes his place next to him. "You'd hardly imagine that she fancied she could best me on the dueling court."
Gary smirked and thumped Alex's shoulder playfully. "She got what was coming to her, Alex and at least you played by the rules even if she didn't."
Alex lightly massaged the bandage stretched taut over the half-healed cut on his forearm. "I didn't expect fair play from the Tusaines. She did what she had to and I..." He smiled serenely to himself. "Those women are a wonder with their powders and rouge aren't they? There should still be a bruise on her cheekbones. A pity, our Tortallan lasses, would do well to learn from them."
"Goddess," Jon whispered. "You don't mean to say that that's...?" He gestured helplessly at the slender, white-clad figure. Her carriage was exquisite, head held high like an empress, her back as straight and unyielding as a rod and never, never touching her chair.
"Melor has taste when it comes to squires," Gary smirked. "Did you see her...?"
"Besmirch not the honor of an innocent Tusaine virgin," Alex chuckled. "Her knightmaster has a most undesirable propensity for popping up in places where he's not wanted - and I would not wish to have my national pride besmirched when he rubbed your nose in the dust, Gary. You're not half the swordsman he is."
Gary pouted and his cousin gaped.
Her face had been fixed up beautifully, to the point that she was almost unrecognizable. A gauzy veil, broidered with silver, covered her hair, and her purple eyes danced as she whirled, displaying the grace that was her trademark on the fencing courts, in a spirited Tusaine galliard. She sat down for all the minuets and the slower dances, he noted, but her eyes followed Dain, like a hungry cat's. He was never without a partner.
Alex took a turn with her and came limping back. "She stepped on my foot the whole time with those cursed heels," he laughed, collapsing on a chair. "And then reprimanded me for looking at her like she was a piece of meat - and when I apologized, I was called an illiterate Tortallan barbarian who had much to learn from the grace and culture of Tusaine, starting with the art of saying sorry." But he was smiling and Jon gathered that the tongue-lashing - which, considering Lady Alanna's famed temper must have been severe - had been softened by the sight of her breasts, exposed in that daring gown.
She's not even that pretty, the prince thinks sullenly.
"My Lady, if I may?" Without waiting for an answer, his arm encircles her waist and feels the hard whalebone corset that keeps her waist so small underneath the thin muslin of her gown.
"You are bold, Your Highness," she murmurs, eyes dancing in amusement as they whirl. It is a Gallan country dance, adopted and refined by the Marenite court, and dangerously fast and complicated. He misses a step and her laughter is low and throaty.
"You are beautiful, My Lady," he says sweetly, looking down at her. "So small, yet so lovely." She scowls, and the ugliness of it mars her prettily made-up face. But she is small, even with her high heels - cobbled with jewels so that they flash in the candlelight when the hemline of her gown rises - her head scarcely reaches up to his shoulder.
"Small but dangerous," she laughs. "I ought to have been a Yamani."
"You ought to have been a shukusen," he says. "Delicate yet deadly."
She raises an eyebrow. "Your education is immaculate, Your Highness," she says, her voice honeyed. "You are well-versed in the words of the Yamanis." She pauses for a bit, her little red lips pouting. "But then..." She lets the sentence trail off and her eyes sparkle wickedly. "Considering that they are well-known to be barbarians to the rest of the civilized world... I am but an ignorant maiden, but it is not surprising that a prince is well-versed in the language of his allies."
He could have cheerfully strangled her then and there. "Be so good as to remember that you are Tortallan-born, My Lady."
"Aye, I shall carry the stigma of it to my grave," she sighs. Then she brightens up. "But Tusaine-bred, Highness, and, Goddess bless, Tusaine-wed." Perhaps it is just his imagination but her eyes flicker just then to Dain of Melor dancing with Lady Gwynnen.
Alanna is the feisty one, headstrong, wilful and petted beyond measure by Melor who calls her his darling. Marinine often despairs over her but Raquia, the seniormost of Melor's five wives, reassures her. "Oh Dain was just like her," she says, serene at her needlework. "He'd simply tear at the wet-nurses' nipples when he was at the breast till she was too sore to feed her own child - thats the prerogative of noble blood for you, my dear! And now look at him, when he isn't scampering around looking up the maids' skirts he's whipping the servants and... but he's such a lovely lad, is he not? Your girl will turn out as fine as him, I'm sure, and I'm never wrong, darling."
"But, My Lady," Marinine protests. "That's just the problem. Alanna is a girl. Would that," she adds bitterly, looking at Thom sitting quietly among the women, absorbed in a book, "Her brother had more fire and she less."
Raquia looks up and there is a mischievous sparkle in her cool silver-grey eyes. "Aye, so much the better for the lass. It'll spare her husband a fortune that would have gone to his mistresses if she has even fire to keep him warm."
"I shall be a knight," Alanna announces grandly one day, when she's six. It is eleven-year-old Dain's last day at the sequestered fortress, 'buried' in the picturesque Tusaine countryside, that the Melors call home. On the morrow he will embark to Daichel to begin knighthood training. They're sitting in the treehouse built years ago for the duke's children. Autumn leaves flutter past in the air, and the fading sunlight catches in Alanna's streaming red hair, dyeing it the thousand shades of the dying sunset. She punches Dain's shoulder playfully. "But first I'll be a page, the first girl page ever in Tusaine, and then I'll be a squire. Your squire, Dain."
He laughs and tousles her hair. "I don't think you'll be up to the task, little 'Lana." But he's only teasing her. At six she's easily the best among all the children who've grown up at the Melor homestead in tracking, scouting and riding. Her archery and staffmanship is second only to Dain's. If anyone, Dain thinks, is up to the task of being his squire its little 'Lana-not-my-sister-not-Tusaine-but-she-should-be.
Alanna snorts. "Just you wait! I'll be the bestest squire you'll ever see. And the bestest knight too." Then she pauses and adds quickly, "Second to you, of course. You'll always be the best."
He smiles with princely grace and accepts her homage. "Naturally."
She's no match for Alex - as their latest duel proved once again - whether in fight, fair or foul. But she has something that Alex and Dain and Duke Gareth and everyone else who comes to watch her 'shadow-fence' do not. And it's not her 'amazing appendages' as Gary terms them, seized by an alliterative Muse.
She is - or will be - Tusaine's knight. Tortallans, as the Tusaine gallants frequently remark, with a disdainful sneer, have no concept of art. No indeed, how could they? A land peopled by uncouth barbarians, after all... why it's too much to expect from the poor, dear little people. And Jon, after he watches Alanna fence, has to admit that they're right about the grace part. Who else but a daughter of the Tusaines could have have elevated swordsmanship to such an art?
No wonder she never misses a beat while she's dancing.
After one bout, Alex, unable to restrain himself, marches up to her. "Your skill does you honor and your country pride, squire." It is a graceful little speech, one which Jon would hardly have expected of his sharp-tongued friend. For the first time, Alex calls her 'squire' instead of 'Lady Alanna' - a term everyone knows by now that she heartily dislikes.
She has a damp cloth pressed over her sweaty face, but it slips off when she looks up, startled, at him. For the first time, she's caught. "Um... thank you?" she mumbles tentatively. Then, catching Dain's eye, she inclines her head in the barest of nods to Alex, like a queen. "Pretty words," she says, her lips curling up in contempt. "Pretty words bought as easily as those pretty gloves you wear with such pride." She's referring to the elegant leather gloves that had sealed their last wager. Whoever won the duel would have to cough up ten gold nobles for an expensive pair of gloves in one of Corus' finest shops that had caught Alex's fancy. Naturally Alex had won.
He grins and begins to pull off the gloves. "If it would make My Lady happy, I would gladly offer these tokens of my high esteem along with a heart as pure and untainted, as flush-red with love as a young maiden's cheeks when she first..."
Unable to restrain her temper, she slaps him but she's careful not to slap him on the cheek. She's suffered too many humiliating defeats at his hands to wish for another. "Raucous Tortallan baboon!" she sniffs. "Hie thee to thy menagerie." With that she stalks away, leaving the Tortallans to burst out laughing.
"Were you trying to get her to challenge you again?" Gary demands. "I thought you'd be happy with a new tack for your horse, a sheath for your dagger and now these damned gloves. You'll work that poor girl to her last penny."
Alex chuckles. "I was just trying to talk to her." But of course no one believes him .
Thom's Gift burns brightly and by the time he is six, Marinine knows that he will never follow in the footsteps deemed appropriate for the eldest son of a noble house. He will never be a knight. The sorcerer's rood will light his knotted path, that much is apparent even when he is a child.
And Alanna, what of her?
"I won't be a lady," she says, her pouty lips, shaped so like her mother's, set in a firm, thin line. "You can't make me one, and that's that!"
And it is. Even at seven, Alanna's temper is a fearsome thing to contend with. Few try.
Marinine tries, how she tries. Alanna is just a little girl after all, a mite too used to getting her own way. She has no conception of what being a knight means, the dangers and the pain and the stress and...
"Well of course I know," Alanna says matter-of-factly when her mother gently brings it up. "Dain tells me the goriest stories, doesn't he? And besides if Thom wanted to be a knight you wouldn't have said anything, you'd just say, 'With my blessings, my son' but just 'cause I'm a girl..."
"A woman's place is by the hearth," Marinine quotes softly.
Raquia hears her and laughs uproariously. "How quaintly Tortallan of you, my dear Marinine! A Tortallan woman's perhaps - poor things, there's positively no concept of culture there and the women must stick to their sty-like hearths too keep from perishing of boredom - but we Tusaines..."
"Would you have her a knight?" Marinine demands.
Raquia smiles. "A pretty little knight she'd make, wouldn't you, Alanna my love? It would be a quaint and charming notion."
"And a notion it will remain," Marinine says sharply. "Alanna, tend to your needlework! I won't have you wasting your time nurturing fond and foolish fantasies."
"What darling little trinkets," a lady sighs. "And so cheap, oh look at that string of jade beads, Kaylie, I'd be hard-pressed to say that it wasn't of the finest Yamani workmaship if I saw it swinging around a gentlewoman's neck in a ballroom! No wonder the Tortallan ladies make out so prettily though they're all so dreadful plain."
I'll show you plain, Jon thinks indignantly. "Lady Imogene, Lady Kaylie," he greets them, smiling pleasantly. The young woman giggle flirtatiously. In the bright daylight, the commoners at the Corus flea-market turn to stare often at them - no noble Tortallan maiden would be clad so immodestly, and to the innocent eye the Tusaines appear like the painted women of the night, albeit vastly more refined-looking. They look quite out of place. "Not alone, I presume? The Lower City is no place for ladies as fair and young as you - certainly not unchaperoned. If I may offer my services?"
"Oh there'll be no need, Highness," a tart voice hisses close to his ear. He whirls around and comes face to face with none other than Alanna of Trebond, protecteress of pretty ladies. She's dressed in a tunic and breeches, her hair pulled back into a serviceable horsetail. A dagger in a Raven Armory sheath hangs at her waist.
"Alanna is chaperon enough, aren't you?" Imogene says fondly, putting an arm around her shoulders.
Alanna nods grimly. "I like playing gooseberry." Her grin turns positively nasty now. "If you had any intentions upon their ladyships' honor, Highness, then you'd best lock them in the darkest corner of your mind now."
Jon scowled. "Better me than the shanty lads, Lady Alanna. If I may be so bold as to put it you are all three most immodestly-dressed. My subjects are unused to such a spectacle."
Alanna tosses her head, laughing. "Your subjects? Begging Your Highness' pardon but would not that be high treason insinuating that His Majesty is in his grave and you are the sovereign lord of the streets of Corus?" Before Jon could reply she said, "Enough. I grow weary of this discussion." She snapped her fingers and sauntered off, the openly-laughing noblewomen trailing after her.
Melor thinks it as darling a notion as his first wife does. "Ain would have a laugh out of it!" he says, breaking into raucous peals of laughter while Marinine stands, tight-lipped, in his private office, trying to muster reasonable appeals against her daughter's ludicrous idea.
"But, My Lord," she says, "Consider..."
"Bah, consider!" he says eloquently. "Tortallan to the bone, aren't you, my sweet shepherdess-bride? If the girl wants to, I say let her. She's a bright little monkey - brighter by far than you. At least she has an eye to pleasing her king."
"Her king," Marinine hissed, "Is His Majesty, Roald of Conte. She is Tortallan."
"She is my ward," Melor retorts grandly. "Bound so by all the legal rites that you begged me indulge in when she was naught more than a babe in swaddling-cloths. You, my dear, have no say in her future. You are, after all, merely a woman and therefore weak, fragile, easily perturbed, with no conception of the world." He inclines his head, dismissing her. "Stick to your playwrights, my love, and your balls and leave things which are best left to the men to me."
White-lipped Marinine turns on her heel and sweeps out.
Even the hot Tusaine bloods have wearied of the summer's round of balls. As Lady Imogene's betrothed puts it, Corus is hopelessly provincial, peopled by pompous, boorish courtiers - such as one of the Prince's most esteemed friends, a certain Goldenlake who spent all the balls hiding behind the curtains - and far too few pretty faces. Gary, fearing his country's honor is at stake, proposes a new entertainment. One night, they sneak out of the palace and to the Lower City, to a filthy tavern mired in the common muck.
The Dancing Dove.
"Good ale, pretty lasses and the finest dice-players in the Eastern Lands," Raoul says airily. "What more could you want?"
The Tusaines certainly don't. Alanna perches by Dain's side, drinking copious amounts of ale but laughingly refusing to throw the dice or try her hand at cards. "I'd lose every coin on me," she says. "I've no head for these." The rich, warm ale and the blazing lights - the Dancing Dove does not scrimp on candles, that much is sure - lend an unusual lustre to her eyes. One of her friends pulls out the ribbon that ties back her hair in its severe horsetail. Laughingly she slaps him, but makes no attempt to retrieve her ribbon. Cascades of silky red hair fall down her shoulders, and a faint fragrance rises from it, tickling Alex's nose. She must have washed it recently.
But then Dain of Melor rises, a blue-eyed flower-seller's arm snaking around his waist. He totters drunkenly to the girl's pimp and drops a few coins into his outstretched hat before tottering drunkenly off upstairs. Alex taps her wrist lightly. "Ready for a game, M'lady?"
"What...? Oh yes, of course," she says, looking slightly disoriented. She pushes her hair from her face and smiles enticingly up at him. Her eyes though have lost their peculiar sheen. "A game. Yes, that'll sit well with me."
"You robbed the poor girl of every noble she had on her," Gary scolds Alex mildly. "And then some."
"I did it for her own good," Alex says sanctimoniously. He jingles his pockets, looking remarkably smug. "I did it to keep her mind off Melor."
Jon snorts. "You've no conscience, Tirragen. She was distracted - you might have spared her."
"All is fair in love and war," Alex quotes softly and Raoul wonders which he means.
The next morning, Alanna finds a little cream-colored box outside her bedroom. There's a necklace of purple stones that glisten in the sunshine like moist pebbles found on the river-bank. They're obviously flea-market ware but even sharp-eyed Kaylie wouldn't be able to tell unless she knew. With them is a note written in a royal scribe's penmanship.
"For your eyes."
"That rogue," she mutters to herself, trying on the necklace for a moment. "I wonder whether I should challenge him to another duel."
"And lose your allowance for the next year?" a snide voice inside her says. "Your extravagances on the duelling court and the card table have lost you this year's allowance for sure."
"Perhaps he'll buy me a pair of eardrops to match the necklace," she says, laughing, and puts the necklace delicately inside the box.
It is a notion that sweeps the court off it's feet for laughing. Melor's ward - that red-haired little thing with the lovely eyes - wanted to be a knight! What brass, what naivete! Wouldn't that set the prim Tortallans up by their ears when they heard? A Lady Knight, now fancy that!
"Why not?" King Ain says, chuckling softly.
"Why not?" Duke Hilam murmurs to himself, plotting to himself about doubling the army by including not all males by general conscription but also able-bodied, willing females. If a girl of noble birth, gently-reared, could bear such bold ideas, be so stubborn in her conviction that she - a mere female! - could be a warrior, why then there must be hundreds of peasant lasses who'd willing take such a life! A life which could never be dictated by the paterfamilias, a life of their own... yes, such an idea would appeal to many.
Count Jemis raises an eyebrow and returns to his reports. "As you say, brother."
"You are pert, Sir Alexander," she murmurs. "When I am a blooded knight, I will teach you a lesson."
Alex sweeps her a bow as graceful as a dancing master's. "I fear that it won't be long till you are blooded - knight or no." He's referring to the situation between Tortall and Tusaine which has turned decidedly testy over the summer. Lord Mikal is already sending reports about the Peacemaker's lack of stomach when it comes to war. War is even the air, though no one will admit it.
"And we will be on opposite sides," Alanna says softly, running a hand through her hair. She looks half-puzzled at the conundrum of it. "And I might kill you." Before he can speak she adds acidly, "The opposite will, I doubt, ever occur. I will have you know that my performance with the mace will put to shame all your jester's antics with the sword."
He smiles indulgently and for a moment it reminds her of Dain's smile, when he's laughing at her.
"How was it?" he asks suddenly. "Page training," he elaborates. "Even the hardiest of us castle lads have not come out of it unscathed. It must have been..." He changes his mind about the word he wants to use when he sees her frown. "Different for you."
She cocks her head to one side. "Yes, it rather was."
It was pain and shame and throbbing bruises on the small of her back, where she couldn't reach to put bruise-balm (and certainly couldn't ask anyone to put it on for her!) It was being thrown again and again on the ground by smug country boys who thought themselves city lads just because they were in Daichel training for their knighthood (they looked like their mothers had all played false with stablehands). It was watching the scabby-kneed gixies who couldn't dance a two-step to save their lives suddenly blossoming into graceful court ladies and mocking her - she felt - behind their sweet smiles. It was being called a runt by Dain and being told off by prim dowagers for her heathenish, Tortallan ways.
It was also being looked up to, by little girls with shining eyes who told her that she was their hero. It was the sadistic pleasure of playing matchmaker to a dozen susceptible boys. It was the satisfaction of trouncing squires in the fencing gallery in front of the whole court and watching it erupt into cheers. It was being lauded by Duke Hilam - easily the handsomest man she'd ever seen - as the Magnolia of Court.
Perhaps it wouldn't have been enough for another girl, but for her it was.
She tucks her hair behind her ears and looks pensively out of the castle window. The sunset had burnished the foliage of the Royal Forest golden. Through the countryside the River Olorun snaked like a great shining band of silver. "Lord Mikal's orders have arrived," she says quietly. "He will announce it to your king at the ball tonight formally though I trust Roald's spies are sharp enough to know it already. If they are not, then your Spymaster has much to learn from ours, I fear."
"Duke Hilam's orders," Alex said. "You are to leave for Tusaine in a week." He grins at her questioning look. "Our Spymaster, fair lady, is without a peer."
She shrugs and folds her hands on her chest. "Tortall is a pretty little place," she admits. "A bit too... dowdy to tarry in for too long, but pleasant enough for a few days."
"You've only seen Corus," Alex reminds her, a trifle impatiently. "Perhaps it cannot compare to Daichel, but Corus is not Tortall. Furthermore, in my humble opinion, M'lady, Tortall, in general, far rivals Tusaine." His eyes mist over as he remembers the beauty of the hill country where he was raised, Port Caynn, Queen of the Emerald Ocean, the untrammeled wilderness of the Bazhir desert, the vast, awe-inspiring snowscape of Tortall's northern frontier in the Grimhold Mountains... He tries to paint a word picture of it for her, but he doesn't quite manage. He's no poet, not even a poor one like Gary, and the disappointment of it colors his tone till at least she takes pity on his clumsy attempts.
She laughs and throws up her hands. "I understand, I understand," she smiles, though he doubts she does. There's a knowing look in her eyes and her voice is indulgent like a mother talking to a small, stubborn son - he hasn't managed to convince her. But then, he hasn't ever seen Tusaine has he? Perhaps it's better not to judge, not without knowing at least.
The servants will up to light the candlebras soon until even the darkest nooks of the great palace glow with light. But for the moment, it is dark in the tower. She stands silhouetted in the sunset, her face in shadow, her hair in flames.
"It's lovely," he finally says and he doesn't know whether he's talking about her or Tortall or the sunset. He's holding her hand, he suddenly realizes with a start. Had she taken it, or had he offered it?
She's playing with his hand, bending each callused finger one by one. It almost hurts. "Well then," she says and suddenly looks up, an impish smile on her face. "Perhaps you can show it to me one day." She draws his hand gently up and places a delicate kiss on it. "My lord," she says formally, but still smiling, still holding it. Then abruptly she drops it and strides out of the tower room.
Without so much as a backward glance.