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Alanna has always wanted to be a knight. She has wanted nothing else since Coram started teaching them hunting and telling them stories about what knights do in a vain attempt to catch Thom's interest.

Heroic tales never interested Thom much at all. He would just sit there and pick them apart, going on and on about how this or that was stupid and if he were a grand sorcerer, he would've done it this way until Alanna got fed up and rolled him into the pond or shoved snow down his shirt.

But Alanna always wanted to be the knight in those stories. Chivalry wasn't stupid, it was a grand and noble code, and the knights weren't stupid either. They were heroes, and they saved people.

Alanna had always hoped, childishly, that somehow her father would send her off to be a knight and Thom off to be a sorcerer, and she had thus never actually acknowledged that that would never happen. She is so disappointed when her father sends her off to convent and Thom off to the palace that she almost suggests switching, but it's a stupid suggestion and she knows it.

She stiffens her spine and turns north with Maude. The lords of Trebond have always been known as the Iron Lords, and Alanna is not about to be anything lesser. She will have to make the best of things, same as Thom will, that is all.

***

The convent is not at all what Alanna expects. Sure, they teach etiquette and needlework and dancing and other frippery, but they also teach hunting and fief management and strategy and even - Alanna's breath catches on the inhale when she thinks about this - fighting.

"Did you think the convent as regimented as page training?" the Daughter in charge of her dormitory asks. Her eyes are laughing. "Different fathers want their daughters to learn different things; different lords look for different talents in a wife."

They are sitting together atop the low wall that separates the dormitory garden from the temple proper. Alanna watches as the temple's warrior maidens practice their forms.

The Daughter follows her gaze. "They teach any youngster who's interested," she says idly. "Not many are, and a lot of those aren't interested in learning everything, but-" here she turns to Alanna and catches her chin in a long hand, turning Alanna's face to hers, "-I think you are."

Alanna gulps. "My father won't like it," she replies.

The Daughter smiles faintly. "Your father was very vague in his letter. In fact, he told us he 'trusted our judgment in all matters.'" She lets Alanna go.

"I wanted to be a knight," Alanna says to her knees after a long moment. She's not sure what the tone in her voice is.

"I know," the Daughter replies. "But sometimes we have to find new dreams." She jumps off the wall, acting more like a girl Alanna's age than a woman in her fifties. She smiles at Alanna. "Maybe you should ask yourself why you wanted to be a knight in the first place, and go from there."

It's not bad advice.

***

The only frustration, for Alanna, is that the temple warriors don't learn fencing. They use bows, their famous axes, their bodies, and occasionally long knives, but not swords.

Of all the things Alanna has most wanted to learn, it is the sword.

Her brother, for some inexplicable reason, sends her one for her thirteenth birthday, a whole month late, at that, and Alanna really, really wishes he were here right now so she could hit him. All he said in his remarkably terse note was that one of his teachers found it in some ruins and insisted that it be passed to her. Alanna gets the feeling Thom isn't saying something.

It is a beautiful sword.

Daughter Katrei, her dorm Daughter, glances at it, then looks long and hard at Alanna. Alanna looks back, a bit bewildered, and Daughter Katrei sighs. "I wondered when it would come to this," she says with a faint smile. "Come with me."

Alanna rises and is about to set the sword aside when Daughter Katrei adds, "And bring that, too." Alanna, curious, does.

They go out of the dorm and up the garden path to the main convent building, where all the classrooms and offices are located. Daughter Katrei leads her all the way to the austere meeting room where the First Daughter does her paperwork.

First Daughter Iris is there, of course, like she always is, and she glances up, then does a double-take when she sees what Alanna is carrying.

Alanna flushes. She has met the First Daughter only twice: once on arriving, and once when she tossed Delia into the fast-flowing creek that borders the south orchard.

The First Daughter raises an eyebrow. "What brings you two here?"

Daughter Katrei smiles. "We have an interesting problem." She explains.

The First Daughter is silent for a long time. She surveys Alanna, drumming her fingers absently along the edge of the table, and then says, "Tell me something, Alanna. Tell me why I should let you learn the sword."

Alanna blurts out the first thing that comes to mind. "Because I want to be a hero." It is the truest answer she has, and that is why she flushes.

The First Daughter sits back and regards her for another long moment, hands clasped in front of her. She sighs. "I know a lost fight when I see it." Alanna's heart stops. "I have already asked an old friend to teach you. None of your other work must slip, mind, even the other lessons with the temple warriors, or I will rescind the privilege." She gives Alanna a sharp look.

Alanna murmurs her assent and barely remembers to curtsey properly before leaving the room. The sword is clutched in her hand as if it was always meant to be there.

***

Alanna learns the sword, in three years. She has no more time than that; she is still a young noble maiden, and she must still be introduced to Court.

She also, in the time that she is at the Mother of the Rapids, learns archery, hunting, etiquette, magic, strategy, axe work, knife work, cooking, fief management (though she can't fathom why), lock-picking (entirely under the First Daughter's nose), dancing, riding, and many other things. Even her needlework is decent; she has discovered, in fact, that she has a surprising talent for embroidery. A year and a half after receiving her sword, which she has dubbed Fire, she received an ember, straight from the hand of the Goddess herself, while she tended the fire in the guest-house.

Among other things, Alanna has learned duty.

She still cannot quite believe that she served the Goddess herself a bowl of leek soup, but that is what happened. Alanna has also learned hospitality, and she is now very fond of leeks.

But now Alanna is sixteen, and Corus awaits her; the country may be at war, but life in the palace goes on. Alanna has delayed this as long as possible.

Gwynnen gives her a bracing hug, then helps Alanna into the saddle. Alanna can mount her own horse, thank you very much, but Gwynnen is a tactile person, and so Alanna lets her help.

Young women are supposed to be escorted to the palace by men from their home fiefs, but no one is waiting for Alanna. Her father is dead, and Coram is busy trying to bring back the fief, and Alanna knows very well that precious few people actually live at Trebond. There is no one, really, who can be spared; Thom had planned to be there to escort her, but he is in Carthak.

She snorts to herself and shakes her head. She is going to be a hero, somehow, and heroes don't need escorts. Alanna rides out of the convent, and finds Coram on the road.

He reins in his horse and grins at her surprise. "Ye didn't think I'd let ye go all the way to Corus on yer own, now, did ye?" he asks. Alanna boggles at him. "Besides," Coram says with a knowing twinkle in his eye, "even heroes have friends."

They ride for the palace together, and Alanna quite enjoys it.

***

The court is stifling. Alanna hates it.

"Well, of course you do," Roxanne says. Alanna hasn't seen her since her first year at convent; Roxanne came to court when Alanna was twelve. Alanna is ridiculously relieved that Roxanne is the same no-nonsense woman she's always been.

"What do you mean, of course I do?" Alanna asks. It is August, and they are waiting for the men to come home. Well, Roxanne is; she has a not-so-secret crush on a certain squire, and is anxious to find out if Geoffrey is well. Alanna is just here to support her friend.

"You've always been a, hm, free spirit," Roxanne says. "You came bustling into the convent brimming full with plans, and now you're sitting on your ass in Corus doing absolutely nothing useful."

Alanna stares at Roxanne, who looks down her long nose at her. Roxanne rolls her eyes, unrepentantly unladylike. "You were trained as a temple warrior, but never took the oaths; from what Delia's said, you convinced the First Daughter to let you learn fencing. Your nutcase of a brother sent you an ancient sword - that somehow just happens to be in perfect condition; if it's not a magic sword I'll eat my corset - from eldritch ruins, one that just happens to be the perfect size for you, and, oh yes, you have an ever-burning coal from the Goddess' own hand at your throat."

Unbidden, Alanna's hand rises to her ember. "I didn't tell anyone about that," she rasps.

Roxanne snorts. "It happened in the guest-house of the convent," she says. "You know as well as I do that it's impossible to keep a secret there."

Alanna's mouth is bone dry. "What's your point, Roxanne?" Roxanne never minds bluntness.

Roxanne stares her down. "You are kitted out like a heroine from the old legends," the other woman says. "Maybe you should go act like one."

A trumpet sounds in the distance, and Roxanne rushes out of the courtyard, eager to see if she can spot her squire. Alanna sits where she is, and thinks.

***

This heroing business is harder than I thought, Alanna thinks to herself. She didn't even stay to see the army return, but headed to her room, packed her few things, saddled her horse, and left Corus before any were the wiser.

That was half a year ago. It is now March, and so far Alanna hasn't done much. She's helped a few people with a few problems, but the most exciting thing she's done has been to drive off a few bandits, and that doesn't feel all that heroic.

She has, in addition to that, doled out a few healings, helped one family repair a collapsed barn, sent a couple of orphans on to Trebond, dredged out a mud-flooded well, and helped a pair of obstinate brothers figure out a map. The mud from the well is still under her fingernails.

She wonders if maybe she needs to leave Tortall to find proper hero work; Tortall is, after all, quite a civilized nation. There are no great monsters to fight here. But something in her balks at the very idea.

Instead, with a sigh, Alanna turns south. Maybe sand will prove preferable to mud.

***

The Bazhir who run into her don't know what to make of her. Here she is, a northern woman traveling alone, wearing a sword and a sacred stone at her throat. The name of Trebond means absolutely nothing this far south, and Alanna is just a daughter of the fief anyway. Alanna's name means nothing to anyone, and that galls her even as she expects it, because if there is one prideful ambition she's ever had, it is that her name be known.

The Bazhir won't fight her, because she is a woman and, anyway, is not a warrior sworn to the King of Tortall, who is the man they really hate, but they won't just let her leave, because that's not proper hospitality. Even if they don't know quite what to do with her, they'll at least feed her before seeing her on her way.

Alanna is vaguely amused, but mostly just thankful. The whole encounter could have gone very badly, and Alanna doesn't think that fighting a bunch of people just trying to defend their tribal homeland would be very heroic.

Alanna very much does hate the tribe's shaman; he is ignoring his duties and abusing the three promising young orphan mages she meets in the camp. By the end of the week, Alanna can't ignore it any longer, and she goes to speak with Halef Seif.

The headman shakes his head. "There is only so much I can do. Only the shaman may train mages," he says.

Alanna is not satisfied in the least. "Tell me, Headman, is there really only one Gifted one per tribe?"

"Of course not," he says, weary. "But they must still only be trained by the shaman."

"Farda told me that anyone may pass on their knowledge to their children, or other family," Alanna persists.

Halef surveys her with steady eyes. "You are not Bazhir," he says with heavy finality.

Alanna seizes his arm as he turns away. "Then adopt me," she hisses.

Later that night, Gammal the blacksmith challenges her to trial by combat, and Alanna accepts.

By the next night, Alanna is the newest member of the Bloody Hawk, she has two sisters and one more ornery brother, and Gammal is trying to persuade her to teach his inept nephew how to properly hold a sword.

Ibn Nazzir pronounces all four of them cursed, but Alanna just ignores him.

***

Almost nine months later, Alanna returns to Corus. Her adopted family stays with the Bloody Hawk; she offered to bring them along, but Kara, Kourrem, and Ishak are all determined to forge a place for themselves in their tribe before they go about sightseeing, as Ishak so delicately put it.

It is December, and it is damn cold. Alanna has forgotten how the cold sticks to you up north, and she is not quite dressed appropriately. She shivers.

A tall, weatherbeaten young man sidles up to her and offers her a cloak. "You look a bit cold."

"Thanks," Alanna says. She allows him to put the cloak around her shoulders. "What's your name?"

"George Cooper," he says with a disarmingly crooked smile, "And you'd be Alanna of Trebond."

Alanna chuckles. "It's the hair, isn't it," she says.

"And the eyes," George agrees. "I was going to visit my mother," he says. "Would you care to join me? Ma's met your brother, but I'm sure she won't hold it against you."

If she needs to, she can skewer him, but Alanna is pretty sure she won't need to. "Lead the way," she says.

Eyes twinkling with silent laughter, he does.

***

Thom after his Ordeal is strangely silent, strangely thoughtful. Or maybe he is usually so; Alanna hasn't seen him since she went to the convent. The brother she remembers was as loud as she was, but she is not the same little girl, and he is not the same little boy.

"So," he asks her a few days later, "How's the hero business these days?"

Alanna blushes. "Not much of a business," she replies. "I haven't done much heroing at all."

Thom raises an eyebrow. "What, no great deeds worthy of song?"

"No." Alanna remembers something that she's forgotten to tell him. "Oh, by the way, I found three new siblings."

Thom manages to spit the brandy clear across his room. He also somehow manages to choke, gasp, and goggle at her, all at the same time.

Alanna replays the words in her head and groans. She yanks Thom upright and glares at him. "I adopted them, Thom! By the Goddess."

"You weren't exactly clear," Thom croaks.

"Do you really think Father was the type to go siring bastards all across Tortall?" she asks tartly. "Anyway, there were these three Bazhir orphans - Kara, Kourrem, and Ishak - and they have the Gift, but the tribe's shaman just kept saying they were cursed. People were treating them horribly, Thom, and they needed the training, so I sort of persuaded the headman to adopt me into the tribe and then I adopted them." Alanna swallows. "I didn't think you'd mind."

"I don't," Thom says, and there is a strange light in his eyes as he regards her. "Just make sure I get to meet them sometime," he adds.

"I will," Alanna promises.

***

Thom leaves on desert patrol just after Midwinter, with a letter from Alanna of the Bloody Hawk tucked in his purse if he needs it. The Prince, who is a bit of a dolt, decides that it is the perfect time to try and get himself eaten by the Ysandir.

Alanna decides this might be suitably heroic, and follows him. Besides, it's not like she can just let the crown prince go off and get killed.

Alanna has wondered, more than a few times over the course of the last eight years, if she really is supposed to be a hero, after all. It is a childishly arrogant dream, after all. But when the Ysandir attack and her sword sings through the air in defense of her prince and her people, and the monsters fall to her sword, his sword, and their combined magics, there is something so very right about it all that Alanna knows, with a bone-deep certainty, that this is exactly what she is meant to do.

But when the Bazhir in Persopolis throng around her and Jon and fall to their knees, Alanna turns and runs.

Jon is, surprisingly, the one who comes after her. He surveys her for a long moment, then says, "People do generally want to thank the people who save them. You might consider getting used to it."

It isn't what she thought he'd say. "Thanks is fine," Alanna says. "That wasn't thanks."

Jon runs a hand through his hair. "The greater the deed, the more awed people will be," he points out, sensibly. "Isn't that what you wanted?"

It's a question to which Alanna doesn't want to know the answer.

***

News of the civil war in Sarain filters slowly to Tortall. Alanna, for only the second time in her life, finds herself truly torn.

On the one hand, it is another opportunity for her. On the other, Alanna doubts very much there's any way one person can stop a war.

Thom is the one who kicks her out. "Just go," he says. "You know you want to."

He follows her out to the stables. "Just-" Thom bites his lip.

Alanna turns. "What?"

"Go fast," he says, "and straight to the capital."

She doesn't ask him why. Thom has a way of knowing what is needful.

***

Alanna arrives in Kuqa in time to hear the Queen's death song. The Queen, noble and heartbreaking in her beauty and her fire, steps off her balcony and plummets before the shocked eyes of the Saren lowlanders and the burning eyes of the silent K'mir. She hits the ground with a sickening crack.

One of the Warlord's guards finally steps forward and checks for life. He shakes his head a moment later. Alanna hears the Warlord bark something, and after a shaken pause, the soldiers clear away the watching citizens.

Kalasin's body is left on the cobblestones.

Alanna steps forward; when a guard grabs her arm, she fixes him with her most imperious glare. The man actually flinches.

"I am a Daughter of the Goddess as Hag," she says, "to whom every man alive owes fealty. You will let me go."

He releases her.

Alanna kneels by Kalasin's corpse, ignoring the blood that soaks her dress. Quietly, she straightens out the broken body, laying her out as best she can, careful to arrange her dresses modestly. This woman deserves no further indignity.

Dredging up half-remembered words, Alanna intones the low, long death chant of the Dark Goddess, wishing she didn't know this but grateful, blindingly grateful, that she does.

This is the first time Alanna has ever been called upon to perform the Rites of the Dead, and she fervently hopes it is the last.

She has nothing with her, nothing that is right for the rites. Alanna makes do with what she has, washing the Queen's serene face with water from her own skin, laying her own cloak over the woman in place of a shroud. It doesn't cover her feet, and Alanna is ridiculously perturbed by this.

When Alanna goes to sprinkle some dust from the street over shrouded Kalasin, a hand stops her.

"Use this," says the guard from before. He holds out a pot of dirt. Alanna takes it and looks up at him questioningly.

"She deserves mountain dirt," the man mutters, "but we are not in the mountains. That was for her beloved roses."

Alanna doesn't ask what happened to the flowers. "Thank you," she whispers. He nods and scurries away.

A woman's hand reaches into the flowerpot and removes a handful of dirt. Alanna, startled, looks up into the Goddess' eyes, which glow the color of the midnight sky.

"Beloved daughter, be at peace," the Goddess intones in a voice like a crow's caw. Dirt sprinkles down over the body between them.

Alanna joins in for the rest of the chant.

***

There is one thought that burns through Alanna's mind. I must find Thayet.

Kalasin's daughter has fled the city - fled, in fact, even before Kalasin's suicide, ordered away by her mother and dragged away by her guard. Alanna owes it to the dead woman to see her daughter safe.

She nearly runs over the man in the road.

He's a bit more sanguine about it than she is. "In a bit of a hurry, are we?" he says, mustache twitching.

"Sorry about that," Alanna says, her face burning.

The man's green eyes are mirthful but watchful. "Where are you off to, in such a rush?"

Alanna looks him over.

The man extends a hand. "My name is Liam Ironarm," he says. Alanna can't help staring. Liam grins. "I heard the Wildcat taught you how to use that," he says, nodding at Fire.

Well, if the Shang Dragon asks your business, it's probably a good idea to answer him, Alanna thinks. "I'm trying to find Princess Thayet," she says.

Liam is quiet for a long moment. "You were the priestess at Kuqa," he says at last.

Her throat closes up on her, but Alanna manages a nod.

What Liam does next surprises her deeply.

He bows.

***

They find Thayet and her K'miri companion on the road to Rachia, struggling along with several children and an infant. All are hollow-eyed and sallow-faced, and all are understandably wary.

Liam introduces himself gallantly, and it puts Thayet, at least, slightly at ease.

"Who's the woman?" Buriram asks sharply, gesturing with her crossbow.

Liam pauses and gives Alanna an unreadable look. "This is Lady Alanna of Trebond," he replies finally. "The priestess who gave Queen Kalasin what last rites she could."

Thayet goes white, but it is Buri's response that Alanna isn't expecting. The surly K'mir lowers her crossbow without another word and reaches out a hand to Alanna. Alanna, uncertain, extends her own, and Buri clasps her forearm.

"Thank you," Buri rasps.

Alanna can only nod.

***

At Rachia, Liam saves Thayet's life.

Alanna, feeling utterly useless, can do nothing but lead Thayet and the children to the Mother of Waters as Buri and Liam go haring off after the assassin. Alanna wants desperately to join them, but getting Thayet and the others to safety is more important.

The Daughter Doorwarden refuses to let them in.

Alanna kicks the door open.

The Doorwarden gapes at her. "You can't-!"

Alanna has had enough. "Listen to me, dolt," she hisses. "I am Lady Alanna of Trebond, sister of the Bloody Hawk, Daughter of the Hag of the Rapids in the City of the Gods. I know quite well what duties we owe all travelers. You will let us in."

The Daughter Doorwarden gabbles something incoherent and runs off. Alanna motions the others inside.

The First Daughter, followed closely by the Hag-Daughter, rushes up to her. "What is the meaning of this?" the First Daughter demands.

The Hag-Daughter rolls her eyes.

"These people demand sanctuary," Alanna says, "and I am a visiting Daughter."

The First Daughter pales. "We cannot give you sanctuary," she says to Thayet.

Liam, who along with Buri has finally rejoined them, asks, sharply, "Why not?"

"Because the Warlord is dead and we are not proof against assassins," the Hag-Daughter replies when the First Daughter simply stammers.

Thayet goes pale. Buri reaches out and steadies her.

The Hag-Daughter looks at Alanna. "We will take the children. We cannot protect any of you."

"That's fine," Alanna says, something burning in her gut. "I will protect them."

She turns on her heel and stalks out.

***

Their little party stops for the night in a secluded little grove. It is strangely untouched.

"I don't like the feel of this," Buri mutters. It is the first thing she's said, other than grumbling about the Rachia Daughters, all day long.

To Alanna, it feels like home in an eerie key. "It's safe," she says with utter certainty. Her ember is warm at the hollow of her throat.

Liam is watching her, eyes gone pale. "If you're certain," he says, and dismounts. The others follow his lead.

They go into the trees. "Oh," Thayet says, stunned, "It's a motherswood."

Buri bolts.

Alanna grabs her by the back of her jacket and drags her back into the trees. "It's fine," she says, and there is a note to her voice that Alanna knows isn't her own.

Slowly, Buri trudges back to camp, but she remains tense.

"I'll take the watch," Alanna says, and nobody argues.

The others sleep, all as peaceful as babes, and Alanna sits back on her heels and watches.

This feels very much like a vigil.

"It is, rather," says a voice Alanna is very much expecting, but one that always startles. The Goddess comes forward, out of the darkness beyond the grove.

Alanna smiles and silently offers Her a seat. The Goddess, amused, shakes Her head. "This is how they start, you know. Ordeals. Vigils. Rites of passage." She looks around. "One person sets the pattern, and others follow it to show their own distinction."

Bright eyes fix on Alanna's. "You wanted to be a knight, once." Alanna nods. The thought still gives her a bitter pang.

The Goddess smiles crookedly. "A secret, then. I wanted very much for you to become a knight." At Alanna's startlement, She says, "Oh, yes. I was banking on your passion, and your unique situation, to sneak you into the palace of Tortall and bring female warriors back to the Eastern Lands. Human decisions, however, are not something even we can overrule." She smiles again. "Maybe it is better this way. You have forged a new thing, my Daughter, and I am proud of you."

Something warm fills Alanna's heart. The Goddess drifts backward.

"Advice at the parting, from Mother to Daughter," She says. She is blending into the shadows at Her edges. "Try asking Chitral nicely."

With that, the Goddess is gone from the motherswood.

When dawn breaks, Alanna still hasn't slept a wink, but she is just as refreshed as the others.

***

"Chitral? You mean the pass?" Liam looks a bit startled.

Alanna supposes that was a bit out of nowhere. "I guess."

Liam smoothes his mustache. "I'm pretty sure it's still closed. It's one of the two passes through the Roof, and it's the worse one."

"We need to go there," Alanna says.

Thayet looks uncertain; Liam looks moreso. Buri, however, snorts and turns her horse east. "I'm not staying in Sarain a minute longer than I have to, Thayet," she snaps when the princess looks at her. "You don't want to be here, either, especially not with zhir Anduo's assassins after you. Crazy quest or not, at least it's away."

"I don't know what's there," Alanna says. "I just know that if the Goddess tells me something, I rather feel I ought to listen."

"She let you sleep in the motherswood, too," Buri adds, "and none of us are cursed yet. We owe Her, I think."

Her friend's determination banishes Thayet's uncertainty. Liam looks around at them all and shakes his head. "You forceful women are running me ragged."

Alanna whacks him.

***

Liam is right; Chitral is closed, and there's an almost unseasonably late winter storm bearing down on the inn.

Alanna decides to go up the pass anyway.

"Are you insane?" Liam snaps. It's the first time she's actually seen him angry - well, angry at someone who hasn't just attacked them.

"If you want insanity, talk to my brother," Alanna says tartly. "Look," she says, exasperated by all their intransigence, "whatever is up there isn't something that's meant to come easily. If it were, it wouldn't be there."

Liam grabs her elbow. "This isn't some heroic ballad!" he snarls. "This is real life. That is a killer snowstorm."

Alanna wrenches her arm out of his grip. "The only one allowed to take that tone with me is Thom," she snarls back. "And you do not get to make my decisions for me."

When she leaves, only Thayet and Buri see her off.

***

Alanna walks into the wind and finds a cave. "Hello?" she asks.

Something in the back of the cave flickers.

"I'm sorry to intrude," Alanna continues, feeling slightly foolish. "I was told to come speak with you, but I'm not sure about what."

A presence looms over her suddenly, something indefinable that is all swirling snow and crisp mountain air and, somehow, the blue, blue sky. It seems to be waiting.

Alanna swallows and curtseys as best she can in snow gear. "Um. I'm not certain what makes an appropriate gift for a mountain pass, but I brought you this," she says. Gently, she sets down the only thing she has to offer.

Kalasin's pot.

The snowy presence seems to bow, curious, and then the pot is abruptly gone. In its place is a lumpish indigo jewel.

It is the Dominion Jewel, Chitral says. I made it, a long time ago, and it finds its way back to me from time to time. Go and give it to your princess.

Alanna, this time, graces Chitral with a bow, picks up the Jewel, and leaves.

***

"Chitral wants you to have it," Alanna says as soon as she reenters the inn. She holds the Jewel out to Thayet, who gingerly takes it.

"What is it?" Thayet asks.

"The Dominion Jewel."

Thayet drops it. Alanna gapes. "I can't," Thayet says tightly. "No woman is permitted to sit on the Saren throne."

Buri snorts and retrieves the Jewel. "Don't take it to Sarain, then," she says, forcing it back into Thayet's hands.

Thayet gazes into the Jewel, then looks at Alanna. "You want to go home, I imagine," she says.

"I'll go wherever I need to go," Alanna replies.

***

When they leave, Liam comes with them. Alanna wasn't sure he would, but he is there when they ride out, and he rides alongside Alanna as they descend down towards the lower mountain roads.

"I am not sorry for being worried," he begins, "but I am sorry for snapping."

Alanna sighs. "So am I," she says.

Liam grins. "Still friends?"

"Still friends," Alanna affirms.

The rest of the ride to Udayapur passes quickly.

***

Alanna is very unfond of boats, but Thayet wants to leave, wants to put Sarain behind her, and she doesn't want to do it by going back through Sarain. Alanna can't blame her.

When they arrive at Port Caynn, Alanna damn near falls to kiss the ground; it is only the thought of all the jokes that would inevitably follow that prevents her.

Buri is looking around, wide-eyed. "It can't be all that stunning," Alanna says. "Kuqa was bigger."

"Kuqa was a prison," Buri retorts. "This is like Udayapur."

"It's just a port."

"It's a free one," Buri says solemnly. "There are happy people here."

There is nothing at all to say in reply.

***

A month later, Alanna is relaxing at Sir Myles' townhouse with her friends - all of them, including the ones she hasn't seen in ages. Jon - soon to be king - has fallen head over heels for Thayet, and they are all teasing him mercilessly about it.

"And he didn't fall for her just because of the Jewel, either, which is the galling thing," says a familiar wry voice that Alanna is surprised to find she's actually missed.

"Hello, Delia," she says absently.

"I was going to be Queen, you know." Delia's green eyes are fixed on Jon. "I had him right in the palm of my hand." She holds up one perfectly manicured hand and clenches her fist in emphasis.

Oddly, the older woman doesn't look at all angry, or even sad. "What happened?" Alanna murmurs.

"What do you think?" Delia asks, with a sharp glance sideways at Alanna. Alanna is about to apologize when Delia continues, "I fell madly in love with your brother and tried to get him to marry me."

Alanna promptly chokes on her drink.

Delia pounds her on the back with excessive force.

"What?"

"Don't worry," Delia coos soothingly. "That fell apart, too."

"Uh."

"I'm pretty sure Thom's not all that into women, if you catch my drift." Delia snickers. "He turned some really funny colors when I asked him, though."

"I bet he did," Alanna says.

"Anyway, what about you?" Delia asks. "How's the hero thing going?"

Alanna sighs. "I gave it up," she says.

Delia stares.

"What?" Alanna snaps.

"Goddess, Trebond, I knew you were slow, but that's carrying it a bit far," Delia says, acerbic as always.

It is Alanna's turn to stare.

"They sing ballads about you, you know. I've heard two in the past week, though now that I see you again I remember you aren't really ten feet tall and fire-breathing. You wander the Eastern Lands helping anyone in need, with a coin for any beggar and a healing for any sniffle. You forced a Bazhir tribe to adopt you - a tribe hostile to the Crown, at that - just so you could adopt its unwanted children. You burned out a whole city full of demons, buried a queen who'd been left to rot, rode across a war-torn country to save its princess with the Dragon of Shang at your side, and brought the Dominion Jewel back to Tortall. Face it, lady, you're a hero. You couldn't give it up if you wanted to."

Alanna knows for a fact she's red to her ears. "It wasn't like that," she mutters. "Not at all."

Delia's smile is surprisingly sympathetic. "Dreams only feel like dreams when you wake," she says, and vanishes back into the parlor.