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Alanna just laughs at the thought. She has never been intimidated by her twin, and she never will be. If anything, he's the one intimidated by her.

It gives her surprising power in court, when they all finally realize that. Moreso, even, than burning out the Black City or finding the Dominion Jewel does.

Besides, she has had a window into his mind since they were ten. They have exchanged letters constantly, since they first arrived at the palace and the convent, and thus she has watched his mischievous streak develop. He's told her all his tricks, even, and she's used them herself to good effect, on occasion.

She was the one who egged him on, actually, but she will never let that slip.

***

George has the advantage of having seen Thom, however briefly, before Thom actually entered page training. That brief glimpse showed George two things: a scared and bitter boy, and an intimation of something that reshapes worlds.

…The promptings of George's Sight are never easy to put into words. But he hasn't gotten where he is by ignoring his magic, and so George insinuates himself into Thom's life, and is profoundly glad that he did.

George has never been so entertained in his life. The boy turns the whole palace on its ear, just out of pure, unadulterated spite, and George is more than happy to aid and abet him in his mischief. He is, in a weird sort of way, profoundly honored.

George is more honestly touched, later, when he realizes that he has somehow become Thom's anchor in the chaos of Corus, and that he is the only person who ever sees the sane man underneath the craziness.

***

Alex knows the boy is trouble from the moment he sets eyes on him. Malven is picking on him, trying to get a rise out of him, and Thom just stands there, watching Ralon with disturbing attentiveness. Ralon, blustering coward that he is, doesn't react well.

Alex isn't sure if it's fortunate or unfortunate that Jon interrupts before the situation devolves further. Later, he decides that on the balance it was probably fortunate, since the gods alone know what Thom would have done if Ralon had actually taken a swing at him.

Thom's antics are ridiculously amusing. Alex happily plays along, grateful for anything that interrupts the tedium of training, and it is almost more amusing to see how the playing along throws Thom off.

…Alex is not entirely stable, has not been for a long while, and the shape of his madness worries him even as he hides it. He is not entirely sure what it would have become, without the outlet Thom provides.

***

Myles is, at heart, cynical and world-weary. It is why he drinks, and it is why he is the only teacher who can handle Thom with aplomb. Thom is not anything expected, but that just makes his antics all the more refreshing.

Myles is used to handling surprises as they come; it is part of what has made him world-weary.

But even surprises are ultimately predictable; Thom may try his damndest to throw them all for a loop, but Myles knows there is a method to the boy's madness, that there is a core of unshakable cynicism to the boy even before he enters the city.

Myles knows all too well that cynicism leads easily to darker things; it is a battle he fights every day. Thom doesn't faze him because Thom is him, a younger him, one who's brave or foolhardy enough to actually turn that cynicism outward at full blast, and Myles has long ago mastered himself.

***

Arram is intimidated by a lot of things in Carthak. It is big and noisy and big, and Arram knows he's being redundant and damn well doesn't care. He's twelve, he's alone in a city that is as dense as Tyra but so, so much larger, and it is a place that is so strange with its nobility and its obsessions with rank and appearances and all things military that Arram is just sort of generally overwhelmed.

He feels like a country bumpkin, and he sort of hates Carthak for that. But Carthak holds the promise of - finally - mastering his out-of-control Gift, and so Arram soldiers on, as only a hardheaded Tyran merchant can.

Meeting the older boy is actually a considerable relief. Thom is refreshingly normal, someone who speaks his mind as bluntly as any Tyran, and as sharply as any in Arram's family, at that. Thom is three years older, true, but he is as out of place as Arram feels, and he has been in Carthak for nearly a year, and he finds Arram annoying enough that he helps the younger boy learn the ropes, and they become sort-of friends. In an odd sort of way.

Arram tests that sort-of friendship nine years later, when he is no longer Arram, no longer anything, and desperately needs help. He can't lead the Emperor's men back to his family, so he doesn't flee to Tyra; instead, he runs to Tortall, and with the boldness of the utterly spent, persuades a reluctant and vaguely alarmed servant to show him to Lord Thom's room.

Numair knocks on the door, and Thom lets him in without a word.

***

Delia would never admit to being intimidated by anything, but she is. She is intimidated by her father, by the court, by Lady Roxanne, and most especially by Jonathan of Conté. So she stays well away from Eldorne, makes the whole court dance to her tune, ignores Roxanne, and wraps the prince around her little finger.

When in doubt, conquer.

Thom doesn't even notice her as anything more than another person to be studied and ignored, so he does nothing but, entirely inadvertently, catch her attention. Delia has dealt with his sister, and even become fond of the bold girl, and she knows good and well that Alanna is far scarier than Thom can ever hope to be.

She flirts with Thom, mostly to fluster him, and dances with him, which actually forces him to learn the steps. He is the one she picks to escort her back to her rooms more often than not, because Delia is absolutely sure he has no designs on her and he enjoys riling up the other young men as much as she does.

Sometimes, he stays for a while, and they exchange gossip, and plot ways to make court life even more exciting. Thom could run the court, if he wanted to, but all he wants is to be left alone; he supports her in her ambitions, though, and she loves him for it.

***

Of all the people she has met since coming to Tortall, Buri is least impressed by Thom. She isn't quite sure what she expected of Alanna's brother, but the cranky and somewhat inept knight isn't it.

Alanna is fire and passion and silk and steel, an image of untamable womanhood that Buri knows haunts Thayet's dreams. Alanna is like the old stories Buri remembers her mother telling her, about the daughter of Shai Southwind, the fiery demigoddess who freed Sarain from monsters and the Great Ice and led the tribes into the good land, in that time long before lowlander history ever started.

Thom is … disappointingly human, after that. Buri remembers the old lowlander superstition, that one twin was always divine and the other mortal, and she thinks that, for once, the lowlanders may have been onto something.

But it is Thom, not Alanna, who first seems to notice how adrift Buri is in Corus, and it is Thom who plops down next to her and unceremoniously shoves a sheaf of papers into her hand.

"What is this?" Buri asks.

Thom grins. "Plots for how to utterly ruin the solemnity of Jon's coronation, of course," he says, as if it were obvious.

…Maybe there is something to be said for mere mortality after all. The man is a lunatic, Buri can't deny it, but as she peruses the plans for nothing short of utter chaos, Buri can't help but think that she may have, in an entirely non-romantic sense, just found her soul mate.

"So? What do you say?" Thom asks after she reaches the end.

Buri looks up and gives him her fiercest grin. "I know the perfect stuff for spiking the punch."

***

There are very few things that can intimidate the Shang Dragon; the vast majority of them are not even human. Nothing, but nothing, is scarier than what nature can create; the impersonality of a sandstorm or a hurricane or a rockslide or a calving glacier will always scare Liam far more than anything a human can do.

Perhaps, Liam muses, that is why he fears the Gift so much; it is the only thing that can allow humans to pull off acts of the gods.

But no matter how strong Thom's Gift is, Thom himself is just not that intimidating. Not for lack of trying - Thom has been nothing short of walking mayhem since his sister dragged Liam, Thayet, and Buri all the way to Corus.

But Liam has always had a gift for reading people, and he knows what even Thom hasn't quite realized: that the younger man is looking for people who will face him unflinchingly. Liam is happy to oblige.

It helps, Liam admits to himself, that he knows just as certainly that Thom wouldn't really hurt anyone, wouldn't ever unleash the real power of his Gift against Liam without damn good reason. Honor and duty come in many forms, and Thom has a moral code all his own.

The Tortallans might say it's a twisted, stunted code, but Liam disagrees. Thom may wear a twisted mask, but it is the actions that make a man.

Liam has never cared much for the egos of nobility, anyway.

***

Daine might have been intimidated, had she met Thom under different circumstances, but as it is she is weary, scared, grief-stricken, and hopeful all at once, and the volatile mixture has left her with no room for anything else.

It's hard to be intimidated by a mud-splattered man who looks like a weedy scarecrow, anyway, especially when he's carrying on an irate dialogue with his horse.

Not that Thom knows what the horse is saying, but still.

Onua looks both relieved and vaguely alarmed to see him, but she ultimately settles on irritation. "Why are you here, anyway?" the horsemistress asks, hands fisted on her hips.

"Border patrol," Thom replies tersely, then goes right back to glaring at his long-suffering mount. The mare snorts, tosses her head, and gives Daine an expressive look.

"That still doesn't explain why you're here," Onua insists.

Thom rolls his eyes and looks at Daine. "She's been trying to get me to admit for years that I'm capable of future-telling. I haven't admitted it yet."

Onua snorts, sounding very much like the horse.

Later, when Daine and Onua turn off on the Great Road East and Thom follows, Onua gives him a look. "Border patrol, eh?"

"It doesn't last forever, you know," Thom replies tartly.

It's not until the fiasco near Fief Sinthya, where Thom moves heaven and earth to find a hawk that is not a hawk and to drag his sister out, with all possible speed, to heal him, that Daine realizes Thom wasn't on border patrol at all.

And so by the time they reach Corus and Daine sees his demented noble facade in action, she already knows it's a lie.

***

Lindhall Reed has always been a profoundly unshakable man. It has served him well in life, especially here in Carthak, especially these last few years.

It certainly served him well when tutoring Arram.

Lindhall hadn't had the chance to meet Thom the last time he was in Carthak; though the boy was there for nearly four years, the University is a city unto itself, and their paths simply never crossed. The Tortallan's reputation for mayhem seems to have stopped at the water's edge; it is only through Lindhall's Tortallan contacts that he has heard the stories about him. For some inexplicable reason (inexplicable to the Tortallans, anyway), squire Thom actually behaved himself in Carthak. More or less.

The rumors in Carthak were different. Here, Thom was known as a creepy, solitary, overly studious young man who practically lived in the deeper, ancient sections of the library. But Arram spoke fondly of the older boy, and that, ultimately, carries more weight with Lindhall than anything else.

The man Lindhall finally meets, when the Tortallan embassy arrives in Carthak, is quiet, solemn, and consequently has the whole Tortallan party (save his sister and Arram - no, Numair now) on edge. But Thom is perfectly polite, perfectly restrained, and rather tightly wound, and he is watching everyone with a shrewdness that other men might find terrifying and a paranoia that Lindhall wasn't aware Tortallans were capable of.

But Lindhall is also a shrewd man, and also a hard one, though he is also kind. And Lindhall knows without a shadow of a doubt that the Tortallan king is also shrewd, and that he has just eliminated the threat that is Carthak.

All that remains is for Carthak to figure that out.

***

Ozorne is not intimidated by anyone. He never has been, and he never will be; other people exist to be intimidated by him. He is the rightful Emperor of Carthak, the most powerful man in the world, and he is a god on earth.

Most of the Tortallans are polite and meek as all diplomats, even though they try for steely resolve. It never works, Ozorne thinks, not on me. My will is supreme.

The lady in particular vexes him. She is bold - which is, admittedly, only proper in a noble woman - but she also does not know her place. She carries a sword like a man, though not in his presence, and she does not bow her head to anyone. If she were his subject, Ozorne would have severed her stiff neck already.

Young Veralidaine is strangely charming. She is a commoner, but she is trying so very hard to act properly, and she is the only one of the delegation properly awed by his court. She is also as enamored of his birds as he is, the only person ever (aside from Arram, but Ozorne refuses to think of him) to find them as precious, and Ozorne briefly wishes that he were not Emperor, that he could woo her and wed her and live simply with her, in a house of birds. Maybe he will do the next best thing, and wed her to one of his lesser courtiers, or ennoble her and marry her off to his nephew. It is a possibility.

Numair, Ozorne watches. Numair (and it is so much easier to think of the traitor thus, than as his beloved Arram; Arram is dead and gone) has always borne watching. Ozorne wonders idly if the Tortallan king realizes what a viper he has nestled to his bosom, but if King Jonathan wants to surround himself with traitors and undermine his own authority, Ozorne is not about to stop him.

Numair is a vexation that will not go away, but Ozorne is not overly bothered. Ozorne invited this vexation, insisted, in fact, on the mage's presence, and Ozorne knows precisely how this will all end: with Numair's head at his feet, and Arram finally interred as he should have been.

Ozorne is looking forward to it.

Ozorne has actually met Thom before, remembers him as the silent, watchful shadow perpetually scurrying out of Ozorne's orbit. He does not think much of the knight, or of his supposed skill at sorcery. He does not think much of the Tortallan at all, actually.

(There is a small, distant part of Ozorne's brain that remembers that he is a mortal, and therefore fallible. It is this part that thinks to be alarmed by the Tortallans, that notes the old duke's iron strength, the fiery lady's scorching might, the wild girl's frisson of divinity, the bitter watchfulness of Arram. It is this part that has noted the budding authority of Kaddar, the deft machinations of Master Reed, and that notices now the terrifying potential, tightly leashed, that Thom holds.)

(This is the part that notices the way the Tortallans all watch him, with the hungry calculation of predators in their eyes: they are jackals, they are wolves, they are vipers, they are Stormwings, circling his empire, looking for weakness.)

(It is this small part that finds the Tortallans quite intimidating, indeed. In wiser men, it would be known as survival instinct.)

When the attack comes, it comes from a completely unexpected direction.

It is the longtime ambassador to Carthak who casually runs Ozorne through; Ozorne had not even realized the man was in the room. The emperor, slowly dying, can only watch as the man he had, in his own way, almost trusted pulled his sword free and wiped it clean.

Duke Roger slips the sword back in its sheath, then goes to answer the soft knock on the door.

"I thought you would be less direct," Thom says, eyeing the dying emperor with faint distaste.

"Sometimes indirect measures don't work," Roger replies.

His smirk, the slow curl of the satiated lion, is the last thing Ozorne sees.