"Just where do you think you're going?"
Jon's heart damn near stops.
Slowly, he turns his head, already knowing who's behind him. Thom is perched on a bench in the courtyard, looking for all the world like a demented scarecrow.
Jon can't stop the groan that escapes him. "Thom, go back to bed."
"Not unless you do."
Why oh why must he always be so very chirpy? Jon wonders. "I have to go see something."
"No, you don't." Thom's voice is steady, and that scares Jon almost more than anything. "You have to go back to bed."
"Thom, I order you-" A raised eyebrow, and Jon reconsiders his words. Okay, yeah, that was kind of stupid. He tries a different tack. "If you won't let me go on my own, why don't you come with me?"
The other copper eyebrow rises to join its mate. "I'm not exactly looking for a grand heroic adventure," Thom says tartly. "You want my sister for that, your Highness."
"Too bad she's not the one here, then," Jon mutters, but not low enough, and he is startled by the intense flash of something broken and bitter, there and gone again behind Thom's eyes. Something of it lingers, held tight in the bright, strange wickedness that always haunts the younger boy's face; Jon realizes he has just seen the seed from which Thom's twisted mind has grown.
"Too bad," Thom agrees, and Jon gets the impression that Thom means more by that reply than Jon will ever know. Thom shakes his head, like someone awakening from a dream, and returns to staring unwaveringly at Jon. "Back to the matter at hand."
"You," Thom says, stabbing his finger pointedly at Jon, "are being ridiculously stupid. Having fallen for the simplest compulsion in the book, you are now on your way to go get yourself killed, thus paving the way for a complete overthrow of the Tortallan monarchy. Are you dense?"
It is Thom's turn to grimace. "Okay, stupid question. The point," Thom says, unfolding himself from the bench in a way that shouldn't be so very menacing but is, "is this. They've," a disdainful wave somehow encompasses all of Corus, "been trying to beat into my head for, what, four years now - four whole years in this blasted court, wow - that I should be dutiful, concerned with doing the right thing, and mindful of my overlord." Thom pauses, then gives Jon an incredibly ghastly grin. "I've either learned my lesson too well, or not at all."
That and the faintest glimmer of purple is all the warning Jon has before he passes out cold.
Jon wakes, and it is morning, and he is back in his room at Persopolis.
"You heard what Mukhtab said," says the absolute last voice Jon ever wants to hear coming from his bedside. Thom cackles as Jon startles.
"Not even a 'good morning'?" It is all Jon can think to say. What can he say, he's not witty first thing in the morning, especially not after having been magicked to sleep and waking to a nightmare.
Thom graces him with a lopsided grin. "Good morning, your Highness," he purrs, staring intently into Jon's eyes.
Jon flinches. If he'd been properly awake, he would have known better than to leave Thom that good an opening. "Good morning to you too," he manages with reasonable aplomb. "I assume it is, indeed, the day after I last spoke to you?" With Thom, you never know.
Thom gives him a look. "Of course it is. Nobody can botch a sleep spell, and if I wanted you to get caught I'd've just gone to Lord Martin and had done with it."
"Okay, then." Jon pauses. "What were you saying earlier?"
"When I woke up," Jon says, with a patience he doesn't feel. "You said something about what Mukhtab said."
"Oh, that." Thom fidgets with something imperceptible on his wrist. "He said that they tie down any Bazhir who gets lured by the Black City."
Thom's pauses are getting ominous. Jon's patience wears out. "And?"
Thom slowly raises his head from his intent consideration of his own arm and graces Jon with the same ghastly grin as before. "So I've taken a page out of their book." He plucks the air between them, and a thin line, otherwise invisible, turns eye-searingly purple. It runs from Thom's wrist to Jon's torso.
Jon can't find anything to say.
Thom bows to him, mockingly, and leaves.
The desire to go explore the Black City remains. It burns more and more now that he's missed his chance, but there wasn't another opportunity, not after Thom caught him out the first time.
Even in Corus, Thom's string hasn't faded. It reverted to its original, invisible state, but now that Jon knows it's there he finds that he can feel it.
"What happens if I do go back to the City?" he asks Thom idly.
Thom shoots him a look disturbingly reminiscent of Jon's own father when he has caught Jon attempting mischief. "You'll find out, I suppose."
That's more than effective. Jon doesn't try to go back.
Five years later, Thom is, against all odds, a knight of the realm, and King Roald assigns him to desert patrol as soon as the winter breaks. Absolutely no one wants Thom to remain in Corus, including Thom himself, and nobody sane wants him in any heavily-populated area. Thom grumbles about heat and sand, but goes willingly enough, for him.
Jon can't resist the opportunity. He, too, has learned to take the openings he gets.
He is preparing for his own trip to the desert, ostensibly to visit Persopolis and learn more about the Bazhir, when Lady Alanna accosts him in the stable.
"Just where do you think you're going?" she asks, hands on her hips, and Jon's heart stutters at the phrasing.
"To Persopolis," he replies coolly.
She's barring his way. "Oh, no you're not. Thom told me about what you tried the last time you were there."
It figures. "Move aside, please," Jon says. It is not a request.
Alanna sighs and rubs her forehead. "Look, can you just give me a few minutes to saddle up? If you're so determined to go, at least let me come with you."
Thom was right, Jon thinks. Alanna is most certainly the more daring twin. "As you wish, my lady."
Alanna kicks him. "Knock it off, your Highness."
The ride to Persopolis is surprisingly peaceful.
The night after they arrive, Jon and Alanna make their way to the Black City. Jon is curious; Alanna is cautious. What little light there is gleams along the naked edge of Alanna's sword.
Jon doesn't remark on it, but he does wonder if she isn't, perhaps, taking the Bazhir fairy tales a bit too much to heart.
He stops dead on the edge of the City, feeling something constrict sharply around his chest.
"What?" Alanna whispers, eyes scanning the dark recesses like a seasoned war veteran.
"I can't go in," Jon murmurs back. Unconsciously, he crosses his arms.
Alanna chuckles. "Your Highness, Thom's little trick was just a light show. He didn't really do anything to you."
Jon really should've expected it. He really should have. He pinches his nose and fights off the incipient headache.
Alanna still hasn't stopped chuckling. "I owe him a silver noble," she says. "I didn't think you'd really fallen for it."
Jon scowls at her, and she mercifully falls silent, aside from the occasional spluttering chuckle she can't quite repress. Jon manfully ignores her.
They set about exploring the City. When the eerie altar explodes in a sickly yellow-green light, Jon knows they're in trouble.
"Burning-Brightly One, eh?" Jon remarks later, when they're staggering wearily out of the City. Alanna's blush burns brightly enough. Jon barely dodges her punch, laughing.
Someone coughs behind them, and they both whirl; Thom nearly gets ignominiously slain by his own sister.
"What do you want, Thom?" Alanna snaps.
Thom raises one eyebrow and then his hand, which is holding the reins of their horses. "D'you want an escort back to Persopolis or not? I brought food," he adds, gesturing to the pack on his own horse.
Alanna falls on the pack like a ravening wolf. Jon is not quite punchy enough to mention that out loud.
Instead, he stalks over to Thom, who is actually looking slightly nervous. "You didn't actually magic me, back then, did you."
Jon sees his mouth quirk. "I take it Alanna told you." Thom spins on his heel. "Sister dearest! You owe me a silver noble!"
"I know, I know," Alanna says, striding over to them with an arm full of wrinkly apples, cheese, and bread. She hands Jon an apple.
It is hard to look intimidating, Jon realizes when Thom turns back to him expectantly, when you are holding a wrinkly apple. Thom grins as if he knows exactly what Jon is thinking.
Jon looks over at Alanna, who is busily hacking at the bread. "Is there anything I can say that will properly convey my irritation to your brother?" he asks.
Alanna graces him with a grin of her own. "I strongly doubt it. I used to just toss him in the duck pond, but the Bazhir might get mad if you pollute their oasis." She winks at Jon, then throws another apple with unerring accuracy at her brother's skull.
Jon's irritation is ever-so-slightly mollified when it connects.
"Ow!" Thom stoops to retrieve the apple, then glares at Jon. "Stop flirting with my sister."
Alanna rolls her eyes.
Jon has learned to take the openings that come to him. "Okay, then," he says, "I'll just flirt with you."
Alanna's wicked cackle splits the night air.
It was entirely worth it, Jon thinks to himself as Thom's whole face burns bright red.
He is not sure just what it is about Trebonds that makes them both so crazy, but Jon has almost, in a strange way, grown fond.