Thayet stared at the indigo stone cradled in Alanna's hands. "Let me tell you something, Lady Knight. We heard about you at my father's court, the infamous Eight Lady Knights of Tortall. You lied about your sex for years and yet were still allowed to keep your shields. The majority opinion was that you all should be burned, although one group held out for death by torture." She shook her head and tore her eyes away from the Dominion Jewel. "Besides, no woman may hold the Saren throne. The Book of Glass forbids it."
Alanna settled the Jewel securely in her lap and stared at Thayet. "But Thayet… You're not a woman." She hesitated, remembering interesting charms that could be purchased back in Corus. "Are you?"
Thayet smiled crookedly. "I guess it's impossible to keep a secret on the road. The Warlord prayed every day for a son. My mother made sure he never knew he already had one." He fingered the bridge of his nose. "It was her greatest act of defiance against the lowlander barbarians, and the only way she could give me any chance of survival at all, really. As the son of the Warlord, I would have been the target of every assassin from here to Maren. As the Warlord's daughter, at least there was a greater chance his enemies would keep me alive as their pawn." Thayet stared into space.
After a few moments of silence, Alanna extended the Jewel again. "You don't want it? To try and claim the throne anyway?"
"No." Alanna jerked back at Thayet's vehemence, and Thayet smiled apologetically at her. "I choose to be what my mother wanted. I choose to be her daughter, her revenge against the Warlord."
Alanna cleared her throat. "I'm sorry, but I have to ask - I should address you as a woman, then?"
"I'm not, and I know it," Thayet said. "I'm not even one of those spirit-touched people, either, the ones born in the wrong bodies. This is a masquerade." He tugged at his dress, then met Alanna's eyes steadily. "But in public, yes, I am a woman."
"Got it," Alanna said.
They decided to all go back to Tortall by boat. Alanna was the one who pushed for it, though it was clear to all that this displeased her; Liam, who had suggested it way back in Berat, just shook his head in resignation. Coram just chuckled and clapped the Dragon on the shoulder. Buri didn't want to set a single foot back in Sarain, so she eagerly agreed, and Thayet didn't honestly care, as long as they got somewhere warmer soon. Even with Chitral in a better mood, Lumuhu Valley was still damn cold.
They made it to Udayapur in record time and quickly settled in to an inn by the harbor.
"I'll go and ask about that Tortallan galley," Liam said.
"Use my names - Trebond and Olau," Alanna said, cracking a yawn. "It might get you a better response."
Liam nodded and left, and the rest of them drifted away to their rooms. Alanna flopped down onto her bed, determined to catch a quick nap, when a knock sounded at her door.
Sighing, she got up and answered it. A nervous maid informed her she had a visitor, but before the woman could get out more than a sentence, a burly form shouldered past her and caught Alanna up in a bear hug. "Mithros bless, it is you!"
"Rilla, you oaf, put me down," Alanna snapped, thumping the other knight on the arm.
Rilla smiled, black eyes dancing, and complied, then enthusiastically hugged her again as soon as her back was turned. Alanna finally wrangled her friend into a seat, and Faithful jumped up on the other woman's lap to keep her still.
"What are you doing out here in Udayapur?" Alanna asked.
"Myles got your letter about your visit to the Roof," Rilla explained. "Joanne's got people posted in every port and all along the Great Road, in case you chose to go back that way."
Something in Rilla's eyes was making Alanna very nervous. "I thought only the king had the authority to send out diplomatic couriers," she said, throat dry.
Rilla nodded. "Look, Alanna…" Her voice trailed off.
Rilla nodded again. "The Queen died while you were in Berat," she said. Alanna bowed her head briefly in respect for her passing. "Roger's blasted doll wrecked what was left of her health, even after Thom destroyed it and Roger was locked away. The king…" Rilla trailed off. "Remember that gorge? The one above Willow Falls?" Alanna nodded. "He went riding there, about a month after Lianne's passing. He didn't make the jump."
"So Joanne's Queen. She must be heartbroken."
"She's coping, though she hasn't had the chance to get away and mourn." Rilla coughed. "And she'll be styled King Joanne, though the coronation's not for another two months."
They sat in companionable silence for a few minutes, then Alanna asked, "Roger's still locked away?"
"You said Joanne's been too busy to mourn, though."
A crooked smile crossed Rilla's face. "The court still doesn't have any better idea of how to deal with us than they did when you left. It's part of why Joanne's insisting on being King Joanne - she wants to make it very, very clear that she's the one in charge." Rilla paused. "A large number of nobles - not quite a majority, thank Mithros, but enough to make trouble - are agitating against Joanne. Claiming we're all deceitful witches, illegitimate knights, that Joanne's a traitor for becoming Voice of the Tribes, that Alex is the sign of an imminent Hill Country revolt - that sort of thing."
"Civil war?" Alanna asked, voice tight.
"Not quite that bad, yet. But they're moving to have Joanne stricken from the succession, and even pushing to have Roger exonerated." Rilla shook her head. "Roald almost pardoned Roger, shortly after we all went questing, but Duke Gareth, Duke Baird, and the Queen talked him out of it, thankfully."
This time, the silence that fell between them was not so comfortable.
The only good thing Alanna had to say about courier boats was that they were fast. They were back in Tortall within a week.
Alanna staggered ungracefully but quite thankfully off the boat at Port Caynn. A familiar hand curled around her bicep and held her upright.
She peered up into George's face. "Hi!" she chirped.
George grinned. "You look glad to be home, lass."
Alanna grinned in return. "Gladder still to be on solid ground." Even now, her stomach was still rolling.
George looked over Alanna's shoulder and whistled. Alanna, knowing precisely who he'd just seen, felt her grin slip wider before she could stop herself.
George eyed her, looked back at Thayet, then squinted. A moment later, his lips twitched in a barely-suppressed grin of his own. "The most beautiful woman in the world, eh?" he whispered.
Thayet was close enough to overhear. She curtseyed. "You must be the one with the Sight."
"And the one with discretion, your highness."
Buri thumped over. "Good. Let's go eat, then, I'm starving."
George bowed and gestured grandly to a nearby eating-house. "Right this way, Mistress Tourakom."
"I don't care how many letters Alanna wrote you, stop using our names before we've been introduced," Buri snapped. "And don't call me 'mistress'."
This time, George let himself laugh.
They made it to Corus by nightfall. George escorted all of them but Rilla to Myles' townhouse, ignoring the protests of Thayet and Liam.
"Once he hears you're here, he'll be upset if you stayed elsewhere," George said. "He's that generous. He's taken in Ma and me, too."
Alanna turned sharply to face him. "Why? What happened?"
George sighed. "Myles and Joanne'll want to talk to you about it later, I imagine. Long story short, some would-be Rogue's been goin' after respectable folk connected to me and mine, and Myles agreed to protect Ma. Then there was the riot in the Great Square when Joanne last rode through, and a general increase in violence throughout the city."
George's face was grim. "Someone tried to assassinate the princess," he said. "Shouted somethin' like 'Death to the traitorous whore' and dove for her with a knife. Alex cut him down before he got close, but then the whole place just erupted." He gave Alanna a tense smile. "Everyone got out safe, though, if a bit banged up."
"That doesn't really reassure me, George."
"It doesn't really reassure anyone."
A scant day later, Alanna was summoned up to the palace. She trooped up with George and Myles, who had both been likewise summoned, and wondered what was in store.
She soon found out. Rilla and Sacherell met them at the gates and escorted them to a private conference room. Inside, Joanne, Duke Baird, Duchess Roanna, the Lord Provost, and the rest of her friends. George shot the Lord Provost a habitually nervous glance, and the Lord Provost smirked at him in return.
Joanne cleared her throat. "Now that we're all here, let's get started." She nodded regally to Alanna. "Welcome back."
Alanna smiled. "It's good to be home," she said. "Myles and George caught me up on things."
Joanne nodded again. "Good, then we can get straight to work."
Alanna cleared her throat, then gently tossed a pouch onto the table in front of Joanne. It landed with a dull thunk.
"First things first," she said mischievously. "I brought you a present."
Gingerly, Joanne opened the bag and extracted the rock inside, which shimmered as she touched it. Wordlessly, she held it up to the light.
"The Dominion Jewel," Alanna's old training master murmured. The duchess shot Alanna a wry look. "You don't think small, do you, girl?"
Tearing her eyes away, Douglass idly traced circles on the tabletop. "This might well be what we needed to pull the rug right out from under the rebellion, Joanne."
Joanne gazed sightlessly into the depths of the Jewel. "I think it is."
Ro and Rilla neatly separated Alanna from the menfolk after the meeting broke up. Ro bowed to her imperious mother, awkwardly resettled the monstrous stack of papers in her arms, then led them off down the hallway with her usual ground-eating stride.
Alanna trotted to keep up. "Where are we going?"
"Lunch," Ro said over her shoulder.
Rilla held open the door of one of the smallest dining halls. "We've sort of taken this one over," she said. Alex, who had somehow managed to get there before them despite leaving later, glanced up and waved perfunctorily, then went back to contemplating her plate.
"You know," Ro said, dropping the papers on the table with a sigh and upsetting Jess' cup, "us. The famed Eight Lady Knights."
"Infamous, more like," Jess said, ineffectually mopping up her juice. Ro shot her an apologetic smile and went to hunt down a towel.
"Joanne joins us when she can, which isn't all that often anymore," Douglass said, depositing a few plates on the table. "Pick one," she said at Alanna's glance.
Gingerly, Alanna slid one plate in front of her. The others quickly snagged their own. "What do you mean?"
"She's too busy. Working lunches, usually." Douglass sat down across from Alanna and kicked out a chair for Sacherell. "This whole thing, the lunches, kind of started by accident once we started coming back to court, but it's a nice way to… unwind, I guess, in the middle of all this fuss." She waved sourly at the room in a way that encompassed the palace as a whole.
"So when did you all get back, anyway?" Alanna asked, tucking into her food.
Alex smiled. "We were all back within, oh, the year," the hillwoman said dryly. "You're the only one who decided the court needed an extra six months to adjust."
Alanna knew she was blushing. She intently stabbed her fork into a piece of beef. "That wasn't why it took me so long, and you know it," she snapped.
Jess clapped her on the shoulder. "We know."
"You're just the only one of us who found anything suitably heroic to do," Ro added absently, scanning a grain report.
Alanna cast about for another line of discussion. "So only you seven ever come down here?"
Alex smirked at her, but relented. "No. Others do, sometimes."
"Delia, usually," Rilla added. She smiled at Alanna's expression. "She's an entirely different person around women, Alanna. Give her a chance."
Alanna glanced sideways at Alex, who was studiously examining her plate again, and nodded. "Of course."
"Thom comes down, too," Ro interjected. "Whenever someone remembers to pry him out of the library for food."
"Duke Baird's come down a time or two. Myles. George."
"People who don't mind us," Sacherell said sadly, tipping her head back. "Like Her Majesty, before she couldn't make it down anymore."
They all bowed their heads for a moment, then Douglass leveled a fork at Alanna and said, "Spill. How'd you really get the Dominion Jewel? All the bards are saying you fought some mighty mountain for it."
"Well," Alanna said sheepishly, "I sort of did."
After lunch, the group broke up: Ro back to her office to do prime-ministery things, Rilla back down to the barracks of the King's Own to supervise "her boys," Jess and Sach down to the practice courts for want of anything better to do, Douglass off, for some inexplicable reason, to the library.
Alex caught up to Alanna as she headed down the hallway that'd take her out of the palace. "Mind if I walk with you for a bit?"
Alanna shook her head and regarded her pensive friend. "What's wrong?"
Alex tugged open one of the side doors and was silent as they strolled through the busyness of a sunny afternoon. "I'm worried about Joanne," she said at last, just when Alanna was getting ready to prompt her again.
Alanna's eyebrows raised. "How so?"
They came to a halt at a junction in the paths; Alanna started toward the left. "I walked up today," she explained at Alex's look.
Alex nodded and followed. "She's … not coping well."
"With Their Majesties' deaths?"
Alex shook her head.
"Well, she's not over losing them, yet, if that's what you meant. But that's not what worries me." Alex took a deep breath. "I think she's having problems readjusting to her own skin, so to speak."
Alex smiled crookedly. "I know we're all unbearably manly - most people'll keep thinking we are until we hang up our swords, put on pretty dresses, and grow our hair past our asses." Alanna snorted, and Alex continued, "But we've all embraced our femininity in at least small ways."
"Rilla's bows, though at least she matches them to her uniform now," Alanna murmured, fingering her pierced earlobe. "Ro was wearing nail paint."
Alex nodded. "And none of us are binding anymore, even if it's not exactly obvious," she said with a wry glance down at her own chest. She paused. "Well, except for Joanne."
"Either that, or she's been using the interesting charms again." Alex looked sideways at Alanna. "I think for most of us, revealing ourselves was a relief."
Alanna nodded. "Not for Joanne?"
"I think it was, at first. I think it still is a relief for her, when she comes down to the lunches or our practice court and gets to just be herself. But…" Alex trailed off.
"You've not seen her much since you got back, but she's still relentlessly and entirely masculine in her appearance. About the only thing she's not doing is faking facial hair."
"Thank the Goddess," Alanna said. "Can you imagine Joanne with a mustache like Ro's?"
Alex winced. "I'm trying not to. Thanks, Alanna."
"You're welcome," Alanna said serenely. They walked in companionable silence for a few minutes.
"She was the only one of us raised male," Alex said finally as they approached the city gate. "From what she's said, Their Majesties, especially her mother, tried to make sure she felt comfortable as a girl, as much as they could, but I imagine that sort of thing leaves a mark on a person." She paused at the top of the road down and looked sightlessly out at the city. "And now that Joanne's going to be king, she's worried."
"The rebellion?" Alanna asked.
"Not just that." The crooked smile came back. "I get the feeling that if it were just the rebellion, Joanne would be able to handle it."
Alanna raised an eyebrow.
"Don't do that, you look unbearably like your brother," Alex said tartly. "Joanne's worried about heirs."
Alanna's other eyebrow rose to meet the first. "Oh," she said.
Alanna got to see Joanne's changes for herself the very next day, when the crown princess marched into Myles' sitting room and threw a rolled-up parchment at George's head. Gingerly, George unrolled it, and gaped at the contents.
"I don't want to hear a word about it," Joanne snapped irritably, hands on her hips. "We've discussed it before. It's a done deal - just accept it."
George sighed. "I wasn't goin' to say anythin', Joanne."
"What is it?" Alanna asked.
George tossed her the parchment. It was a royal pardon and a decree of nobility. "Baron of Pirate's Swoop?" Alanna asked, tracing the line gently with her finger.
"Joanne's convinced me to work as her spymaster," George said. Dryly, he added, "Somehow, she got my lord Provost to agree."
"He likes you," Joanne snapped.
George raised his hands in mock surrender. "I know, I know."
Joanne sniffed, turned, and marched out of the room, only to run headlong into Thayet. They lurched awkwardly around and clung to each others' arms for balance; Thayet finally disentangled herself and attempted a curtsey, but Joanne was still holding her elbows and staring, awestruck, down into her face.
Alanna's eyebrows rose. George was trying so desperately to stifle his laughter that he was turning a rather unhealthy shade of purple.
The silence grew, thick with an electrifying potential like some tired cliche in a Beltane ballad, and then George couldn't take it anymore. He spluttered, then doubled over and laughed so hard it came out as angry wheezing.
Joanne jerked back, released Thayet, and bowed stiffly. "Your Highness," she said, pitching her voice low.
Thayet stared, then dropped into a proper curtsey. "Well met, Your Majesty," she replied.
Joanne nodded stiffly, then tottered unsteadily out the door. Thayet watched her go, one eyebrow raised.
"Is she always like that?" Thayet asked finally.
The smile abruptly dropped off of George's face. "Er. Well." He paused, clearly flailing about for words.
"Alex told me Joanne's been having a hard time adjusting," Alanna said quietly. "I didn't expect the anger, though."
"You saw a bit of it, in the desert," George reminded her.
Alanna pursed her lips. "I guess. Not quite like this, though."
"No," George said. "Not quite like this."
The week flew by. Coronation preparation was temporarily overshadowed by preparations for a ball; Joanne had insisted it was the best way to reintroduce Alanna and show off the Dominion Jewel, and had steamrolled over all Alanna's protests.
Buri marched her down to the sitting room one day, shoved her inside, then fled. Alanna, a bit consternated, looked around the room.
All of her fellow Lady Knights except Joanne were there, perched awkwardly on the furniture, which had all been pushed up against the walls. In the center, Eleni, Thayet, and a mulish-looking woman Alanna vaguely recognized as a seamstress stood clustered around a sheaf of papers. The men were nowhere in evidence.
Douglass rose, a look of abject relief on her face. "Oh thank Mithros, you're finally here," she said, locking one hand around Alanna's wrist and dragging her over to the couch.
"What is going on?" Alanna asked.
"Dress fittings," Thayet said. She looked over at the seven knights and grinned wickedly at their dismay. "Oh, come on, now. You don't have to look like you're assembling for battle."
"Dresses?" Alanna spluttered.
"For the ball," Alex muttered, staring fixedly at her hands.
"I got that, thanks," Alanna snapped. "But … dresses?"
Eleni, hiding a wicked grin of her own, murmured, "I didn't think you were still so ill at ease in gowns, Alanna. You've been wearing them since you were a squire."
One by one, her fellow knights turned to stare at Alanna, who went beet red. "If I'd known you'd hold it against me, I'd've never asked for lessons," she snapped.
Eleni's smile gentled. "I'm not holding it against you, dear. We're just trying to figure out what you all will wear to the ball - it's a rather formal occasion, and there's no protocol that I'm aware of for lady knights."
"They were always treated as ladies for balls and such," Ro muttered, looking mulish. "Unless there was a specific reason for them to wear something else, like a uniform."
"I could wear my formal Knight-Commander uniform," Rilla mused. "I don't look half bad in blue."
"That's fine for you, but what about the rest of us?" Douglass snapped.
"But we do have a specific reason for not dressing as ladies," Jess said quietly. "If we start that now, the pressure will never let up."
Ro nodded, staring almost angrily at the seamstress, whose mouth was set in a sour line. "It might have been fine back when female knights were openly accepted and part of an established tradition, but not now. Not when there are so many people who'd love to use any pretext to force us to give up our shields."
"You can't be showing your legs in front of the whole court," the seamstress snapped, with the air of someone who'd said this a hundred times already. "It's indecent."
Sacherell snorted and lazily stretched out her legs. "We've all been wearing tunics and hose for years. We're already indecent."
"That's as may be, but this is a formal ball, my lady," the seamstress snapped back.
"And indecency would also be a good pretext to send us packing," Alex said resignedly.
"Damned if we do, damned if we don't," Rilla said. "But, y'know, it's not like the only clothes in the world are dresses or hose."
Everyone turned to stare at her. The big woman blinked. "Well, it's like this," she said, with the baffled air of someone who just realized she was in a room full of idiots. "Breeches exist, right? And some places have long tunics, too, like the ones ladies sometimes wear for riding."
Thayet, chuckling, held up a charcoal sketch. "Like this, you mean?"
She'd drawn a shirt and knee-length tunic over full breeches. Rilla nodded thoughtfully.
"I also drew a version with a split skirt," Thayet added. "I don't know much about Tortall yet, but back in Sarain ladies often wore them for hunting and riding." She handed the sketches to Sacherell.
Alanna and the others clustered around. "That's not half bad," Ro murmured.
Jess sat back. "I kind of like the split skirt," she said. "Women wear them back in Persopolis, too."
Alex looked uncomfortable. "I prefer the breeches, I think." Alanna nodded.
"I think, whatever we decide, we should all wear the same thing," Sach said quietly. Douglass nodded. "We need to present at least something of a united front."
Rilla traced one blunt finger down the sketch of the skirt. "We can each wear the style we prefer," she said. "The shirts and tunics are the same in both sketches, and so are the details. The only difference is the skirt or breeches, but with all the rest a unified style, that would look like options, not an argument."
Ro craned her head back to look at her friend. "Since when did you become an expert on fashion?" she asked tartly.
Rilla grinned sheepishly. "I always rather liked it," she said.
"It's a good idea, and you're right," Thayet said. She took back the sketches and handed them to the seamstress, whose expression soured further.
"They're still not decent, Highness," she said.
"Nonsense," said Eleni, bustling over. She beckoned to the assembled knights. "They're the only thing that fits. You lot come over here and tell us your preference, then we'll get to the measurements."
With a sigh, Alanna complied. One by one, so did the others.
Thom strode into the sitting room and was met with ten outraged female glares. He glared crossly back. "Come off it, you were done anyway."
"What do you want, Thom," Alanna asked flatly.
Thom fidgeted with a stack of small boxes he held in his hands, then looked up. "All seven of you did the exact same thing right after your secret was revealed," he said. He tossed the boxes to the assembled knights. "You got your ears pierced."
Alanna gingerly opened the box, and when nothing exploded, she peered inside. A pair of small pearl studs sat innocently inside.
"I'm confused," Rilla said after a moment.
"Not that these aren't nice," Ro said dryly, poking at her own pair.
"They're magicked," Thom said.
The room was dead silent.
Thom met each of their eyes in turn. "Poison, curses, disease, even treachery. As many protective spells as they'd hold." He paused. "It's impossible to protect a body from all possible harm, but these come pretty damn close."
Douglass was already swapping out her old studs. "Did you see anything in particular, or are you just being your typical paranoid self?" she asked idly as she fixed the last one in place.
Thom's face was grim. "I'm just taking precautions," he said. "Tortall can't afford to lose any of you."
Alanna stood in the receiving chamber just outside the ballroom with Buri and Liam, clutching the box that contained the Dominion Jewel and trying not to fidget.
Buri fidgeted with the cuff of her K'miri jacket. "Am I all in one piece?"
Alanna smiled. "You look fine, Buri. Your mother and brother would be proud."
"We are proud," Liam added. The herald beckoned, and he moved past them with a muttered oath, smoothing his bright tunic as he went.
"It's not fair he doesn't get stuck in mourning colors," Alanna muttered enviously to Buri.
"Stop staring at his ass," Buri murmured in reply.
The herald, who had reentered the room just in time to hear that last comment, blushed and stared resolutely at the ballroom doors.
Buri poked Alanna's arm; she turned. Thayet had emerged from the robing room, dressed in an elegant, fire-red gown that exposed quite a bit of bosom. Alanna raised an eyebrow.
"They sell interesting charms in Udayapur," Thayet murmured wickedly in Alanna's ear. Buri rolled her eyes.
Alanna flushed. "I have it on fairly good authority they sell some in Corus, too."
Thayet looked over Alanna's shoulder, and her grin widened. "Do I look alright?" she asked, smoothing her hands nervously over her skirts.
The herald flushed, stuttered, and bowed. He turned away for a minute to compose himself, then beckoned the three forward and flung open both doors. He walked forward a few paces and banged his staff authoritatively on the floor. The crowd, already hushed, waited in anticipation.
"Her most royal highness, Princess Thayet jian Wilima of Sarain, Duchess of Camau and Thanhyien," the herald announced. Alanna walked forward, Thayet on her arm and Buri on the princess' other side. "Sir Alanna of Trebond and Olau, knight of the realm of Tortall. Buriram Tourakom of the K'miri Hau Ma."
Joanne, resplendent in a black silk outfit almost identical to Alanna's, rose and walked to the foot of the staircase and watched as they descended. Alanna noticed pearls in her earlobes as well, and glanced around the room for her brother. Her eyes met Thom's, and he gave her a gentle half-smile in acknowledgment, then subtly tilted his head to the side.
Alanna followed the gesture and stared. The other six lady knights stood there, directly across from the Grand Staircase, in the same silver-embroidered deep gray as Alanna, swords at their sides and proud, solemn expressions on their faces. The duke and duchess of Naxen - Alanna never could tell which was which - flanked them on one side; Liam had worked his way through the crowd to flank them on the other. All of them watched Alanna descend, a reassuring gravity in their eyes.
Thayet let go of Alanna's arm to curtsey deeply to Joanne, and Alanna pulled her attention back to the scene before her. Joanne welcomed Thayet gravely and extended her Tortallan hospitality, then turned to Alanna.
"Sir Alanna, come forward," she said once the appreciative applause had died down.
Alanna drew Lightning and laid it at Joanne's feet, then knelt. "Your Majesty," she said, startled at how her voice rung out in the silence. "This I swear: to serve you and your heirs with all I possess, in the Mother's name." She flipped open the lid of the box and extracted the Dominion Jewel, which she raised up in offering. "I bring you the fruit of my traveling, my king: the Dominion Jewel."
Joanne took the Jewel from Alanna's hands and held it aloft. It blazed like a fallen star at her touch. She said something suitably solemn, but it was largely forgotten amid the rustling of first one, then another, courtier kneeling, until every person in the room was on their knees before their sovereign.
"Well, that was suitably dramatic," Thom said, wrapping one arm around Alanna's shoulders and steering her out the door as the ball broke up.
Alanna elbowed him in the ribs, hard, which earned her a satisfying yelp. Behind her, George chuckled.
They meandered down to the lady knights' hall. "Food?" Alanna asked, blushing as her stomach voiced its own opinion.
"I hope so," George said. "You nobles throw lousy parties."
Thom glared over his shoulder at the ex-thief. "You're a noble too, now, you know."
"I try not to think about it too much, lad."
Sacherell pushed the door open and poked her head out. "I thought I heard voices," she remarked. "Come on in."
The others - again, sans Joanne - were already there. Buri and Liam had joined them.
"Where's Thayet?" Alanna asked the K'mir.
"Out for a walk with the king," Buri said, gesturing vaguely in the direction of the palace gardens.
Rilla threw a roll at Alanna's head, then went back to trying to tug a stack of papers out of Ro's grip. "Eat, you," the big woman commanded, though it was entirely uncertain to whom she was directing that.
"Yes, Mother," Alanna said, dropping into a free seat.
Ro murmured something crossly and hung onto the papers with both hands.
"Where'd she even get those?" Alanna asked Liam, who was sitting across from her, watching in amusement. "Don't tell me she snuck grain reports into the ball."
"They're not grain reports," Ro said, glaring at Alanna. Rilla took advantage of the distraction and pried one of Ro's hands loose. Ro immediately returned her attention to her documents and sunk her nails into Rilla's wrist. Rilla yelped, and backed off.
Triumphantly, Ro set the stack primly on the table. Jess promptly set a plate of food on top of it.
"Eat, Ro. You get cranky when you're hungry."
Murderously, Ro picked up her fork and began eating. Alanna was a bit surprised she didn't end up driving the fork right through the plate.
Douglass plunked down next to Thom and pushed a couple of plates down the table to George and Alanna. "Hey, Sach, I thought you were going to talk to your great-uncle today."
Sacherell leaned back in her chair. "I did," she said.
Ro's head snapped up. "And?"
A satisfied grin curled across Sacherell's face. "He said yes."
Ro whooped and dove for her papers.
"What's this?" Alanna asked.
"My great-uncle's the Lord Magistrate," Sacherell explained. "I asked him about, y'know, what it might take to follow in his footsteps."
Alanna's eyebrows rose. "He's taken you on, then?"
Sacherell nodded. "Well, sort of. If Joanne agrees, I'd have to go off to the City to study law for a few years, but he's promised me an apprenticeship when I get back."
"So you're angling for Lord Magistrate… Lady Magistrate?" Alanna shook her head. "Whatever. And Ro's essentially already taken over as prime minister. Rilla's commanding the Own. George is spymaster, Thom's the Crown's mage … Has Joanne picked her Champion yet?"
Alex and RIlla exchanged glances. "She's considering someone, last I heard," the hillwoman said.
"You all planned this, didn't you?" Alanna accused.
"Planned what, sister dearest?" Thom asked. She recognized that mischievous look; this time, he barely managed to dodge her elbow.
"This." Alanna waved at them all. "You've taken over, or are preparing to take over, every major position in Tortall."
Jess smirked. "Joanne's been a bit too distracted to quite realize it yet; she just sees it as her friends stepping up to support her. But yes," the heir to the realm's largest fief continued as Alanna opened her mouth, "we have been planning this."
George grinned crookedly and raised his cup in a toast. "To those who can make the world dance to their tune," he said, and drained the cup.
The weeks to the coronation dragged by. Alanna was dragged into all aspects of the preparation by her friends, much to her displeasure. Liam and Coram rode through Corus each day, looking for any sign of unrest, and Myles still had his agents out looking for any trace of the man Claw, but so far, there was nothing.
Duke Roger was still imprisoned, and he was permitted no correspondence to the outside world. That didn't entirely put Alanna's mind at ease.
"He's still trouble, I'm sure of it," she said one afternoon to Jess.
Jess' lips twisted. "You sound like Alex." She held up a hand at Alanna's instinctive protest. "Not that you don't both have reason. And you're right - he is still trouble, even if just because he's still alive."
Alanna swallowed. She didn't want to think about how much more convenient it would be if Roger were dead, largely because she spent all too much time thinking about it anyway. "He can't get out, though, right?" she asked instead. "Or work magic outside his cell?"
"He can't work magic inside, either, if your brother's to be believed," Jess said as they turned the corner. "Duke Gareth - or, er, Duchess Roanna, I don't remember which - got him to very thoroughly coat that cell with Gift-repressing spells."
"Good. And nobody's been in to see him?"
"Not a soul, aside from the necessary magistrates, jailers, the Naxens, and Joanne." Jess tugged open the door to the lady knights' practice court, stopped dead, stared, then backed away slowly and shut the door again. "I think we ought to go use one of the outdoor courts today."
Alanna shouldered past her friend and opened the door. "Why?" she asked, just as a savage-looking Joanne punched Rilla square in the face.
"That's why," Jess said gently, tugging Alanna back. "Her Majesty comes down here rarely, whenever she can, to blow off steam. She gets … a bit aggressive."
Rilla recovered from her stagger and promptly bashed Joanne upside the head.
"Rilla and Ro are two of the few people who actually fight her back," Jess added. "Ro says she does it in revenge for all the pranks Joanne pulled on her when they were younger. Rilla just likes a good fight."
They stared at the no-holds-barred sparring match a moment longer, then turned in unison and closed the door again.
"The outdoor practice courts, you said?" Alanna asked, as nonchalantly as she could.
"Come on," Jess said. "Let's go round up Alex and see which of us is the better swordsman."
Joanne found them in an outdoor court later. "Alanna, I need to talk to you."
"One moment," Alanna said, darting forward to hook Alex's sword out of her hand. Alex grinned and raised her hands in surrender, and Alanna turned to survey her king.
Joanne had clearly swung by the healer's wing before coming down, Alanna thought. If Alanna hadn't seen her sparring with Rilla with her own eyes, she'd never have guessed.
Alanna sheathed Lightning and walked over. "Yes?"
"I've been giving some thought to who I want as King's Champion," Joanne said, blue eyes steady on Alanna's face.
Alanna was many things, but slow wasn't one of them. "No."
"You said you wanted to be useful!" Jess hollered from her perch on the back fence. "Wasn't that what you were complaining about the other day?"
"Alex should be. Or Jess. Maybe even Douglass," Alanna argued. "Not me." She looked around. "Where is Douglass, anyway? I haven't seen her in days."
"Will you ever stop arguing against honors you've earned?" Alex asked. "And she's probably skulking about the library again."
Alanna shot her a quizzical look, then turned back to the important matter. "Joanne, there's never been a female Champion! Not even when women could be knights!"
"Not strictly true," Joanne said.
"You were just arguing for a different one of us to be Champion," Alex pointed out. "That can't possibly be your real objection."
"You're the one who went all across the known world to bring back the Dominion Jewel," Jess pointed out, from right behind Alanna. Alanna startled. "They sing heroic ballads of you, individually, which they don't do for any of the rest of us."
"Yes, but she's not ten feet tall," Alex noted dryly. "Maybe that's her objection."
Joanne's eyes never left Alanna's. "Say yes, Alanna," she said.
Alanna sighed, then smiled impishly. "Yes, Alanna."
"So…" Alex started, turning to Joanne, "what's up with you and our resident Saren princess, anyway?"
Joanne spluttered and turned red.
The day of the coronation finally arrived. Alanna, who'd been up all night holding vigil with Joanne, leaned against the wall behind the altar and bit her lip to keep from yawning. Rilla, who towered perfectly alert next to her, winked and grinned. Alanna wished she were a little closer - and the occasion not quite so solemn - so that she could kick her friend in the shins.
Mourning was officially over, and the assembled watchers were decked out in all the colors of the rainbow. It was like looking at a field of flowers that had just riotously broken free of the ice.
Joanne knelt at the altar before the priest of Mithros and priestess of the Goddess, who were chanting in unison as they blessed the silver crown of Tortall. Joanne was clad in gold-embroidered white breeches and tunic, like a slightly strange bride at her wedding day.
Alanna glanced around. Aside from Rilla, who was wearing her formal knight-commander's uniform, all the rest of the lady knights, including Alanna herself, were once again wearing the stormcloud-gray outfits they'd worn to the ball. Magicked pearls graced all of their ears.
The chanting stopped, snapping Alanna's attention back to the coronation. The priest and priestess, still acting as one, took up the crown. Joanne bowed her head, ready to receive it.
A shrill scream of rage erupted from in front of the City Doors. "Death to the false king!" bellowed a vaguely-familiar badly-scarred man, who had unsheathed his sword and was rushing the dais.
Rilla's sword was in her hand in a flash; so was Alanna's. The Own moved to cut off the would-be assassin, but before they could get into position, a dagger took him squarely in the throat. He fell dead at Hakim's feet.
Hakim turned the body over roughly with one booted foot. He glanced around warily, and Delia gave him a cheeky wave.
"Ralon," Rilla hissed.
"Claw," George said from the front of the crowd, at almost the same moment.
They looked at each other. Rilla surveyed the crowd intently, sword still in her fist, then slowly sheathed it as no one else moved. "Get the body out of here," she ordered two of her men curtly. At a nod from his commander, Hakim gave the dagger back to Delia.
Everyone moved back to their positions, but the festive air had been shattered. The priest and priestess glanced at each other, shrugged, and picked up where they'd left off; as they lowered the crown onto Joanne's head, a brilliant white light flared, echoed by a flare of royal blue from Joanne's own Gift, and Alanna sighed in relief. The important part was over.
She stepped forward as Joanne rose and turned towards her, fingers fumbling at the pouch on her belt. Alanna got the Dominion Jewel out just as she reached the dais, then knelt and offered it for a third time to her king.
Joanne, still glowing blue and white, picked up the Jewel, and it too flared with light - a deep indigo. Joanne strode to the middle of the dais, just in front of the great altar, and faced the assembled nobles, flanked by the blue-robed First Daughter of the Goddess and the gold-robed High Priest of Mithros.
Alanna felt the fine hairs on the back of her neck stand up. The whole scene had an eldritch quality to it, like something out of a mystery play.
The priest's voice boomed as he spoke. "The king has been accepted by the land," he said.
The priestess, now alternating lines with her counterpart, spoke next, almost singing. "Come you forward, then, lords, and pledge your solemn oaths."
Duke Gareth - and it was the duke, this time, Alanna was certain - stepped forward as the call continued and knelt before the dais, laying his sword at Joanne's feet. The other lords present lined up behind him. Thom, fifth or sixth back in line, caught Alanna's eye and winked.
Alanna smiled back and stifled another yawn. Only the long part left, she thought wryly, and forcibly dragged her attention back to the action.
The oath-taking was winding down, and only a few nobles were left, when a murmur rose from the back of the stands. Alanna, whose attention had wandered off again, jerked upright, one hand going instinctively to Lightning's hilt.
Her hand slid off again almost immediately, as her eyes caught up with the commotion.
Buri stood next to the end of the line, dressed once again in her formal K'miri jacket and breeches. Next to her, at the end of the line itself, stood Thayet, long hair braided tightly back, face lacking all trace of makeup, clad in an identical outfit that was tight enough to show off a conspicuously flat chest. Both K'mir bristled with daggers; both had the traditional short and long swords belted to their waists.
Joanne continued to take oaths and watched them approach, eyes steady and supernaturally calm. Finally, they were the only ones left before her. Buri backed off a step to the side; Thayet locked eyes with the king.
The whispers in the crowd cut off abruptly as Thayet knelt at the dais, laying both swords across each other at Joanne's feet. Thayet's eyes never left Joanne's face.
"I may not have a place here, Your Majesty, but I too would swear my oath to you, for myself and my kinswoman," Thayet said, voice dropping to what Alanna realized must be his natural register.
Joanne regarded him for a long, long moment. "You have a place here, if you want it," she said at last. "But I will gladly accept your oath."
The priest and priestess glanced at each other in mild consternation, and then the priestess leaned forward to whisper furiously in Joanne's ear.
For the first time since the coronation began, a smile crossed Joanne's face. "But first, we need to know your name," she said.
"It's still Thayet, Your Majesty," the self-exiled prince of Sarain said, quirking a smile of his own. "K'miri names are gender-neutral."
"So Joanne and Thayet are really engaged, then?" Sacherell asked later, when the seven of them, along with Buri, George, Liam, Coram, Delia (who really was nicer around women), Myles, and Eleni, had congregated in their dining hall.
"Yup," Ro said, for once not absorbed in a stack of papers. "Mother and Father are happy. They were a bit worried about the whole royal marriage issue."
"Huh," Douglass said, staring off into space. Sacherell kicked her under the table, and she started, looking around wildly, before rising abruptly and striding towards the door. "Be right back."
They watched her go.
"What was that about?" Alanna wondered.
Alex had a slight smile on her face. "I think I know," she said, and refused to elaborate.
Myles cleared his throat. "I realize this is rather overshadowed by the King's engagement," he said. "But I have a rather important question of my own." He turned to Eleni and bowed. "Will you do me the great honor, Mistress Eleni, of marrying me?"
George whooped, and Eleni smiled. "I thought you would never ask," she said, rising to embrace her man.
Buri slapped her hands on her thighs. "Right, then," she said. "I don't care if it's legal in Tortall or not, K'mir custom allows for it and Thayet's got the authority to perform a proper wedding." Everyone blinked at her except for Alex, who was turning steadily redder. Buri kicked the hillwoman in the ankle. "We're getting married too, and I don't want to hear anything about it."
"Shouldn't you at least ask her family first?" Delia drawled, grinning at the evil look Alex shot her.
Buri blinked. "Why?" she asked. "She's her own woman."
"Aren't we all," Jess murmured.
George grinned down at Alanna, then sank down on one knee in front of her chair and pulled out a box with a Player's flourish. "Knowin' how little you like fuss, lass, I was goin' to wait until we were in private, but with all the romance in the air, I just can't help myself," George said.
Somewhere behind Alanna, Coram snorted, then choked on his drink. Liam pounded him helpfully on the back, grinning broadly.
Alanna crossed her arms and glared down at George. "Don't be stupid," she said tetchily. "We already discussed this."
George and Alanna shared a conspiratorial smile, and Alanna continued, "I already said yes."
"Also, I'm marryin' my woman, just so you know," Coram said.
George grinned at him, too. "Where is Rispah, anyway?" he asked.
"Back at the house," Coram said, looking more than a bit tipsy. "She said all this was too much fuss for her."
The door banged open and Douglass entered, steered a befuddled Thom to an empty seat next to his sister, and took the chair on his other side, grinning like the cat that caught the canary. Joanne strode in behind them, looking furious, and tossed Alex a sack of money.
"I am never betting with you again," the king snarled. She nodded curtly to Alanna, turned on her heel, and strode out again.
"What was that all about?" Alanna asked, mystified.
Thom, looking equally mystified, turned to regard her. "I think I just got engaged," he said.