Thom looked up at the clatter of hooves in the courtyard, then ducked aside as a horde of stampeding barbarians (otherwise known as his niece, his nephews, and the prince and princess) nearly ran him over in their haste to get to their mothers.
"You'd think they'd been brought up in a barn, wouldn't you," George asked from right behind him.
"Weren't they?" Thom muttered, bookmarking his page.
Onua sauntered over, her new assistant in tow. "Daine, this gentleman-"
"Don't call me a gentleman. I work for a living," George interrupted.
Thom rolled his eyes. George glared at him.
Onua grinned. "This nobleman is Baron George of Pirate's Swoop. The other one is Lord Thom of Trebond."
Daine, looking a touch overawed by George's full-charm smile, shook George's hand.
Thom, meanwhile, was glaring at Onua. "Oh, so I'm just 'the other one' now?"
"Would you prefer 'the cranky one'?" Onua asked. "George, stop flirting with her," she said, turning to him. "How long have the prince and princess been here?"
"A week," George replied.
Thom and George both eyed Daine; the girl went red.
Onua put a hand on the girl's shoulder. "You can trust her. We all do."
"This is a fine welcome you've given me," Alanna interrupted before the conversation could continue. Alan and Aly were tucked under her arms, clinging like monkeys.
"Excuse me," George said gravely, plucking the twins from her hold. He bent her back for a very thorough kiss, dramatic as any Player. Everyone clapped, whistled, and cheered.
Thom absently picked up a nearby bucket of water, and tossed its contents over the pair.
They separated, spluttering.
"Thom!" Alanna roared. She lunged for her brother, but a tug on her breeches brought her up short.
"Yes, Ma?" said her eldest, looking confused and a bit alarmed.
"Not you, Junior," she said, kneeling. "I have to go kill your uncle now, okay?" Thom Jr. nodded, still looking slightly worried. Alanna detached his hands, handed him off to his father, and turned back towards her brother.
"Why are you here, anyway?" she asked. "Don't you have your own fief to be running?"
George guffawed. Thom went red.
"Coram kicked him out," George said. "Something about him not having the head for fief management anyway, and could he please stop scaring off all the workers with his magics?"
Alanna took one look at her brother's face and cracked up.
"I still don't know why he's here and not in Corus bothering Jon, or in the City bothering his fellow Masters, but that's probably because they all know him."
"Don't make me go refill the bucket," Thom muttered.
The next day, the Stormwings vanished.
This threw the others into a tizzy, but Thom just sat on the balcony, balanced precariously on its low wall, working his way through the book he'd liberated from the palace library.
"You're not at all concerned about this?" Alanna demanded. Purple fire played over the surface of her scrying mirror.
"Not especially," Thom said, turning another page in the book.
Eventually, Alanna and Numair went off, arguing spells. Thom hmpfed, and nearly fell off the balcony when someone tapped him on the shoulder.
"What?" he snapped.
George surveyed his brother-in-law, hands on his hips, and said, "Daine and I were just talking about the Stormwings."
No, really? Thom thought.
"We were talking about how everyone sees 'em differently: Numair sees the return of old magics, Alanna sees a threat, I see a portent."
"I see predators," Daine murmured.
George inclined his head towards her. "Or that." He stared at Thom. "I wonder what you see in them."
Thom smirked out towards the sea. "An advance guard."
The week passed in excruciating boredom interspersed with the random bouts of insanity Thom expected from his family. He took to hovering within sight of Daine, who had been adopted by the Terrible Trio and who had no idea what to do with any of them. It was surprisingly entertaining.
Either that, Thom thought, or all this waiting was driving him 'round the twist.
Then Alanna was called away to Mandash to deal with their little ogre problem.
"I don't care what Ma says," Junior said, frowning at his feet. "Ogres are huge."
Thom scooped up his nephew in one arm and lugged him back towards the keep. Daine shepherded Roald and Kally along, bemused. "And your Ma's got a mean streak bigger than any ogre, by far," Thom said. "Trust me."
Two days later, Daine walked into George's study, escorted by Sarge and Kally and covered in bats.
"What news have your friends brought for me?" George asked after a few minutes.
"The Swoop's surrounded," Thom replied absently.
Every eye in the room turned to him, and then the room, to Daine's eyes, seemed to explode.
George dragged Daine over to the table and had her note down the troop figures; the others scattered to prepare for a siege.
Thom slipped up to the observation tower, unnoticed in the fuss.
Later, Numair and Daine, and later still George, came up to the observation deck. "There are a little more than six hundred men in the woods," Daine reported. "They're camped."
"Waiting for dawn," George said. "For that." He nodded at the artificial fog that hovered, dead still, around the waters of the Swoop.
"Numair?" George asked.
"It's opaque. I can't even feel the spells holding it in place."
George's face was tight. "Why'd we have no idea this was coming?"
Numair looked at George, face drawn. "There are more illusion and diffusion spells than there are stars. Scrying is an inexact magic-"
Thom couldn't help it. He snorted.
They spun to face him. "You knew," George hissed. His hands twitched, like he wanted to seize Thom by the collar and shake him.
Thom just grinned. "They're not the only ones waiting for dawn."
Dawn brought the fog rolling over the Swoop's walls, and the fog was weird: one minute feeling dirty and wrong, the next minute evaporating away in patches.
By midmorning, the fog was gone, the first pieces of driftwood were washing up on shore, and the waters of the cove shimmered as red as if it were still dawn.
The men in the woods, more than a bit freaked out by the quiet destruction of their fleet, were relatively easy to mop up, especially when Alanna returned with two companies of the Own.
Thom sat perched on the wall of the observation deck, staring out at the cove and idly kicking his heels, when he heard footsteps behind him.
He half-turned to see who was intruding. "Ah. Interesting. I didn't expect you."
Daine paused. "I can go away," she said quietly.
Thom half-smiled. "It's not a problem. I was just wondering who it would be. You have a question for me."
"Yes." Daine struggled for a moment. "What did you do to the ships? Numair said there were dampening spells all over, that nothing should've worked on them with that fog."
Thom felt his smile stretch into a smirk. "I didn't magic the ships."
"I magicked the water." He twisted his seat to face her fully. "Seawater amplifies magic, you know."
"I know," Daine murmured, backing up a step.
"But how did you know?" she asked.
"The same way I knew someone was going to ask these questions today."
"I'm a paranoid son of a bitch with enough Gift to magic a plague from Corus to the heart of Carthak itself. More than enough Gift," he added wearily.
"Does that answer all your questions?" Thom asked sweetly.
Daine hovered in the doorway, clearly torn between fleeing and asking something else.
Thom sighed. "What, Miss Veralidaine?"
She swallowed. "There was some Gifted twins back home," she rasped. "Two little boys. Both their Gifts was yellow, same shade as buttercups."
Thom folded his hands in his lap and watched the girl.
"Lady Alanna's Gift is purple," she said.
"It is," Thom agreed. No reason to make this easy for the lass. He hated questions enough as it was.
"So why isn't yours?"
Thom had to give Daine credit; she met his eyes squarely when she asked.
"Because I'm a monster," he told her.
Daine's nerve broke, and she fled.
That night, Thom sat beneath the stars and stared at his cupped hands. Slowly, he let his Gift - still weak after destroying the pirate fleet, but recovering nicely - pool in his hands. It sloshed in his hands like liquid light, like a bloody offering, like the sea at a red dawn.
Oh so slowly, Thom pulled his hands apart. The colored light trembled and stretched like taffy, splitting apart into stringy ribbons.
Deep purple like the shadows on midnight snow clung to his right hand; bright orange like the heart of the setting sun writhed around his left.
Thom surveyed them for a moment, then clapped his hands together with a sigh.