The Lower City housed the loudest public houses in Corus. The whole neighborhood was tilted, sloping away from the distant palace on the hill towards the river docks. The deeper a traveler descended, the closer the streets crowded together, packed with a mix of locals, sailors, travelers, thieves, and the occasional silk-clad rich man from the Upper City.
On the up-city end of South Street, a throughway so narrow the hanging signs on either side appeared to be jousting, there was an establishment known as the Lion and Dove which had been taken over by an unusual collection of patrons. All of them well-dressed, nary a rip or patch to be seen. Half wore the robes of the Bazhir, half the more traditional tunic and breeches – and all in a dashing color scheme of blue, silver, white: the uniform of the King's Own.
An older man in matching colors ducked through the building's slightly off kilter door, his face going through an interesting mix of contortions as he saw the group arrayed across the common room. Many of the rowdy tables quieted at his presence. The Bazhir, though they recognized the newcomer, were less steeped in the culture of Tortall's capital and carried on.
The older man, whose name was Flyndan Haryse, made his way to a shadowed table in the back not so crowded as the others. A tall Bazhir with a tendency to trace a thumb across his own sharp cheekbone watched patiently. He sat with three pale Northerners, the first young, the second older and wearing marks of rank.
The third Northerner was the reason for the extra space at the table. Stretched out, his long legs kicked up on a nearby chair, he took up the space of three men. He smiled up at the new arrival. His eyes, now crinkled in welcome, were dark like a Bazhir and the gold marks of Commander glinted on his uniform.
Conversation died away.
"Good gods," Haryse said. His lips pressed tightly together, the only white on his face. "I thought they were joking."
The Commander, whose name was Raoul of Goldenlake, gave him a false smile. "About what, Flyndan?"
"You are a symbol of the realm!" Haryse flung out a hand at the mass of royal blue and silver, at the common backdrop. "Conduct yourself accordingly."
The young man at the table, who had barely been with the Own longer than the Coronation Rebellion, muttered under his breath, "Trust me, m'lord, there's no way t' feel the symbols like a few shots of this piss."
"This," Raoul mimicked Haryse's gesture, "is the natural outcome of too many days spent reading about supply line logistics. I'm preserving my health of mind."
"Of all the ridiculous..." Haryse sighed. He yanked out a chair. Just in time, Raoul removed his boots.
"That's the spirit." Thoughtfully, Raoul shoved his tankard across the table. Zirhud laughed, tapping his fingers against his cheek.
"Gods help us," Haryse muttered and drank.
Raoul stood among the trees of the Royal Forest. An hour's ride into the wood, the forest opened into a clearing on a ridge above a stream, sunlight slanting into the green dimness. The ground here was even and well-packed, an old haunt. He held a bare oak branch in one hand and an uncommon frown of concentration on his face.
With the branch, he moved through the familiar motions of the sword. His arm cut through the air with grace; His leg... hesitated. The scar pulled at him. Not badly, just enough to remember.
Not long ago he had not been able to stand at all. Lucky bastard to have healed so well, he thought. Lucky.
He remembered Duke Baird's gray face, the exhaustion of all the healers in the days--weeks!--after Roger's failed rebellion. Maybe, had there not been such casualties, had they not been so tired... but that was a more meaningless might-have-been than most. At what other time than war would he find himself with a sword slash the length of this thigh?
Still the leg had healed now. Set in stone, recorded in the books of the Gods. What could a healer do with a wound that had no wound left in it?
Raoul stepped forward, slashing out his fanciful sword. He would push himself--his leg--as much as he could take and make do. He'd rejoin the lists and make a few points about the strength of Jonathan's vassals, even if he had to strap himself to the saddle.
He didn't think it'd come to that.
From the north came the sound of a sure-footed horse making its way along the trail. Horse and rider moved through the trees like a shadow, one black and the other dressed in black trimmed in silver. Jonathan had found him, a storybook vision as always.
"Ho! What glory do I see in yonder wood?" Raoul called, mocking.
In the light, the kingly vision broke apart somewhat. Jon gave him a smile that was barely more than a twitch of one side of his mouth. It was sincere despite that. Weariness showed in his body as he dismounted. Darkness dropped his head to nibble at the brush.
"I decided I was envious of your daily escapes," Jon said.
The oak branch rested obviously in Raoul's hand, a garish standard Raoul couldn't decide if he wanted to conceal. Instead, he propped a foot nonchalantly on a fallen log, leaning forward with an elbow on his knee. He made his own storybook image, only huger, filthier, and--ouch, that pulled.
"My failed escapes," Raoul said glibly. "I seem to end up in the same bed each night no matter how many times I try to flee."
Jon rubbed a hand over his face, smile turning wry. "I've been also hearing about your--ah, carousing."
"If you lived a quieter life, I wouldn't have to boost their morale so much." Raoul stepped down from the log, walking away like he wasn't trying to work the tightness out of his thigh.
"Raoul," Jon said.
Raoul turned. The king's face was fond.
"I mean no censure. Come back with me. I have two cases of port from Tusaine, I need my own carousing."
"Your ‘Own’ has been carousing quite successfully."
Jon rolled his eyes. He took in the clearing with a frown – there was no second horse. "Raoul--did you walk?"
"Hmm?" Raoul said carelessly, about as casual as iron. Jon watched him, all his focus brought to bear, suddenly paying attention. "I suppose I did walk."
"Ah," Jon wisely let it drop. "Well, then I can walk Darkness back."
"It'll take a while."
"Oh don't worry, there are many, many things I can pour into your ear to pass the time."
Raoul tossed the oak branch into the underbrush, making a face. Darkness' ears swiveled towards the sound, as alert as any hound. "Don't keep your vassal wondering what joy is in his future, my beloved liege."
"Tariffs," Jonathan said, face comically blank. "The joy of internal tariffs and the lords of the realm who want to enforce them without my permission."
They walked back through the woods, surrounded by the rustle of leaves and the calls of birds, devoid of human company. Darkness' heavy footfalls sounded behind them. It was a calmness, Raoul felt, that was tragically wasted by talk of politics.
To Jon through, the human emptiness was a dam set loose. Without an audience, he no longer had to treat his every word like a force to be directed or restrained. Raoul had not wanted to be this to Jonathan--his tedious political confidant--but he could bear the burden of an hour of unchecked irritation at economic regulations every now and then.
Jonathan's speech slowed, fell into silence. Raoul lifted his eyebrows.
The king looked away, sighing. "Of course, I could just smash them in obedience with the Dominion Jewel, and really get the civil war started."
Raoul said nothing. His was not a political mind. Instead, his whole body, his mind and heart resonated with one song: Send me. Let him go and take Jonathan's rule where his careful words in Corus could not. Let him do something to right the realm. For god's sakes, let Jonathan not need his bodyguard here so very desperately.
All of this was wishful thinking.
Still, he said, carefully, "I could do with another jaunt."
Jon laughed. He'd heard nothing under the casual tone. Forgivable, as he was bent to the task of piecing together a kingdom. The exhaustion showed down to his bones, that fundamental framework more apparent in his wrists and sharp rise of his cheekbones than it had been since he was a boy growing into his height.
"If only I could," Jon said regretfully. "I need you here. There's no other sword I would trust at my back."
"Not Alanna? Hell, you've ennobled Cooper."
"But I couldn't keep them here." Jon looked to him for a shared laugh at the known wandering nature of the Lioness and her Rogue.
But Raoul looked away. There was the trouble, wasn't it? He'd agreed to the cage himself.
Raoul woke with the sun bright at the upper corner of the window, a slow awakening that he could have done without. His poor, ravaged quarters in the north wing of the royal palace had faced west and generally been much better for hangovers. He had a headache and a nasty taste on the tongue--and always, the chilly ache in his thigh.
Springtime does not become me, he thought. The birds were making a racket outside the window. With a great mocking sigh, he heaved himself up, squinty-eyed--and froze, one hand jerking towards the sheathed long sword propped against the wall.
A small figure bundled in the desert robes of the Bazhir was lounging quietly in the oak chair at his bedside, ankles crossed beside a stack of papers on the floor.
She did not react to the lunge for his weapon except to push her hood back from her face. She was sun-tanned and freckled, plain but for her shock of red hair, streaked with blonde now, and her eyes, which shone a deep purple in the warm, early light.
"Goldenlake," she greeted him. "You lazy oaf. I've been here half the day already."
Raoul gave a delighted shout. He regretted it immediately, a hand to his head. "Alanna--gods, my head--how long have you been back?"
"Not long." She gave her dusty clothing a wry glance. "We broke camp before dawn and rode the rest of the way in the early morning."
He reached out and gripped her arm. The distance from the bed to the chair was nothing to him. "Your road was safe?"
"Yes, but elsewhere..."
"A Tyrian caravan was taken on Tuesday just across the border--on the road to Corus, no less! The usual highwayman or rebellion remnants is anybody's guess."
They sat for a second and looked at each other, familiar faces so long apart. Alanna scrubbed at her face tiredly. Old sunburn had begun to peel on her cheeks.
"Your desert solarium has done you good, but excuse me--" Raoul staggered upright, "I have to vomit."
Alanna trailed him down the hall idly. She had a rolled paper in her hand, one she'd picked up from his own floor, studying it as she walked.
The King's Own had a long tradition of concern for luxury. As its commander, Raoul lived in the palace proper while they sorted out the destruction Roger of Conté had left behind. This wing had only a few cracks in its plastered walls and not a single fallen roof. It meant, more practically, that Raoul didn't have to limp so far as an outdoor privy.
He straightened, wiping his mouth. The light outside the window was too bright, and nausea left him shaky. "Hell of a time to show up."
Alanna said nothing, crouched on the bare stone in the hall, limber as a young boy, a sharp interested expression on her face, and the paper she'd picked up curled in one hand. She was looking at his leg, at the scar that cut a pale line across his thigh and down behind the knee. Quickly, the expression turned to recognition and guilt.
"I'm sorry. I could have--"
"You? You killed the viper. It's not your fault you had to do it twice--"
No, true, but the man who brought the evil mage back to life had been Alanna's own twin. Alanna's head dipped, eyes shut. Raoul sighed, leaning heavily against the door frame.
"How goes the Own?" she said, subdued.
Raoul stopped. "It is what it is," he said and could go no further.
He reached for the swell of pride he had felt little more than a year ago when Jonathan, already bearing the dignity of the throne, had called him in to tell him of his appointment. He felt nothing; the feeling had faded with time. It was easier now to remember the cold fear that had pervaded every aspect of those first few months of Jonathan's reign. The people Jonathan could trust had been reduced to his innermost circle, those boys in whose company he had grown to knighthood. Despite his youth--and in the case of the Own, his lack of impressive titles--Raoul had quite possibly been the only name on the list.
"The Own protects the King," Alanna said by rote.
Raoul sighed. He stared at his open palm, curling the fingers one by one. "The Own is a road to court for second sons and impoverished nobles. They haven't left the capital in 30 years except as pretty body guards to traveling royalty. Not since the Old King." He clenched his fist. "For the political games Jonathan plays, perhaps they're worth the money they spend on pretty uniforms, but they're dandies and power-seekers, and they do nothing."
Alanna blinked at him, poleaxed. He was glowering, Raoul realized; Jon's Saren Princess had called the expression `thunderous'. Had he frowned so much as boy? His mother had claimed he didn't know how. Jon had said as much once.
A crash interrupted them, thunderous and jarring. Alanna leapt to her feet, whirling. Her burnoose flared out. Underneath, she wore a dusty tunic the color of rust--it might once have been red--and across her chest, an appliqué of a rearing, maneless lion.
Startled out of melancholy, Raoul grinned. "Don't worry, Lionness. It's just the palace falling apart."
Alanna came outside at a full stride, boots hard against the cold ground. They were surrounded by the sound of tools against stone and the shouts of working men. Mist hung over the grounds, though the sun would chase it off by noon.
"Welcome back to daily life at the palace of the Conté kings," Raoul said, following her at a more stilted pace.
He wished he'd put on a thicker overshirt. The cold moved through his wool shirt as though it wasn't there. Alanna simply wrapped her robes around herself. With her hood over her hair, she became instantly anonymous. Raoul was not so lucky--his height, his curly hair, and now, oh, irony, the cursed limp were a beacon to anyone with eyes.
"Every morning?" Alanna tilted her head towards the working crew.
"Them or the sun," Raoul said. He curved his arms and clenched his fists, mimicking a wrestling match with some invisible, mountainous opponent. "Makes me feel active."
Alanna snorted, the rest of her expression hidden by a thin scarf attached to her burnoose.
"My lord! Goldenlake!"
The east wing stood behind them, battered but whole. Raoul's dratted sunrise window was there with the rest, reflecting the orange sun. Across the pitted and cracked courtyard, the core of the ancient building had not been so lucky. Whole swaths of its white stone façade were missing. A dark crack that ran from roof to ground bisected the once grand entrance. The windows on either side no longer lined up.
Stopping to look at it for the first time since her return, Alanna said, "Gods, I'd forgotten it was so bad."
"You must have come in at the very break of dawn."
"Yes, it was too dark to see--any of this."
Raoul looked back towards the workers. The man who'd bellowed was picking his way towards them, hopskipping through stony debris. He would have been called large in any company other than Raoul's.
"Progress has been made," Raoul said, "but Jon insisted the palace be last."
Alanna's frown turned inward. "I shouldn't have left."
"What are you now, Lioness? A builder?"
Alanna sighed. "At least you've been here--you can be useful."
Raoul laughed out loud. "Now that is something I have little danger of becoming."
Alanna looked at him sharply. Her purple eyes were all that he could see of her face.
"My lord Goldenlake," the crew chief said, stopping a few yards short and cutting a brief bow. His eyes passed over Alanna entirely. Raoul was known to be surrounded by Bazhir.
"Hallo, Termas," Raoul greeted him in a friendly way, though he only knew the builder through Gary and by the sound of his work crew chipping away outside Raoul's window.
Termas, incensed, shook a large-knuckled hand back the way he had come. Raoul and Alanna turned obligingly.
One of the work crew was more slender than the others, her tunic and breeches baggier and cinched more narrowly at the waist than her fellows. She'd stopped to gaze up at the palace, fingers worrying at some small bit of debris she'd found on the ground. The morning light warmed the flawless cream of her complexion and added an auburn highlight to her raven hair.
"We cannot get rid of her," Termas pleaded. "When she's crushed by a gargoyle the size of a horse, it will be me who's to be hanged in the square for a fool."
Alanna laughed. Termas started; he had not expected her to be a woman.
Raoul pursed his lips, making a show of considering. Across the ruined courtyard, Jonathan's bride-to-be had turned, watching them with a wary curiosity. Her reservation meant she too hadn't realized which Bazhir he was traveling with. Raoul would gladly be party to this reunion. He liked Thayet, but it was Alanna who'd traveled with her, fought with her, knew her.
Alanna snorted and started to pick her own way through the rocky mess. It was Raoul's turn to trail behind. As she approached, she threw back her hood and let the warm light catch her hair.
Thayet shouted, face clearing, and leapt forward to pull Alanna into a tight hug. Alanna gripped back, clearly pleased. "You're back! Now you can tell us what news it is Jonathan has been keeping from us. And gods, I hope it gives us an excuse to throw a real party."
Raoul shot a glance at Alanna, surprised. She was biting her lip, and her red cheeks were probably not just from the chill in the air.
"Oh, it's not the sort of thing that lends itself to a party," Alanna said airily. "I'm just marrying George."
Raoul blinked, startled to find that time moved forward for other people.
Thayet, too late, clapped a hand over her shriek of delight. Alanna tried and failed to roll her eyes. Belatedly, Raoul thumped her on the back so hard she stumbled forward.
"At least dinner tonight will be a little lively, finally! You'll have to announce it--or I will. Or George? I wonder what the etiquette is here."
"Etiquette?" Alanna burst out laughing. "I thought you'd grown tired of affairs of state."
"I can make exceptions for this! And god, it's the dreary dumps around here." For a moment Thayet's demeanor changed, back to the somber contemplation they'd found her in. She opened her hand, shaking a small handful of fragmented marble as though she might find something salvageable.
A silence sunk over them like fog. After a moment, Alanna spoke awkwardly, "Well, it wouldn't be much of a celebration tonight. George and I parted ways more than three weeks ago at Persepolis. Jon had an assignment for him."
"The Tyrian caravan?" Raoul asked.
"East. To Tirragen."
If there were holdovers from the Coronation Rebellion, they would be there. Of the two, Tirragen would be the more dangerous, but George was not someone a person worried about--unless that person were Alanna. He said to Thayet, "Where is his majesty?"
Thayet let her handful of broken marble fall to the grass. "Where is he ever these days? Sitting in the rubble of the Hall of Crowns, scheming."
"Oh, drat," Thayet said, "I forgot."
"What?" Alanna said, eyeing the clusters of people ahead, mingling on a raised pavilion.
"With the palace the way it is, court has moved outdoors," Raoul said, eyeing the courtiers with a certain aversion. The crowd was thin due to the hour, but they were each of them finely dressed--out of place against the backdrop of destruction the mad Duke had wreaked. They reminded him too well of the old guard of the King's Own, and he thought of them waiting in the Own’s sumptuously appointed sitting room in the East Wing, expecting him to appear in a few hours time and discuss politics.
"What, is Jon not here?" Thayet stood on her toes. Through the gaps in the mingling courtiers, the king's chair stood empty.
"It is early," Alanna said.
"His majesty would give up sleep if he could find away," a new voice spoke behind them. "If you don't have the political pull to meet with him privately, you'd best be going to bed early."
A thin angular man was approaching from the palace, a full sheaf of papers under one arm and flanked by two men in the familiar colors of the King's Own. His angles made him look older than he was, but in truth Gareth (the Younger) of Naxen was of an age with his guards. The members of the Own nodded to Raoul. One of them looked more put out than the other--Gary had given him several more sheafs of paper to carry, equally stuffed as the one Gary had under his own arm.
"Hullo, Alanna," Gary said without a hint of surprise. He had always been an incurable gossip and the talent had sharpened into a skill as he grew up.
"Princess!"--from the direction of the court. They'd been spotted.
"I don't know why they want to talk to me," Thayet muttered. "I'm not even married to Jon yet."
"Close enough," Gary said seriously. "Do me the favor of mingling, your highness."
"What, dressed like this?" Thayet laughed, spreading her arms in her drab and filthy work gear.
"Change if you like. But as a gift to me--and to Jonathan--be there. I'll take the two social failures with me." Gary opened his mouth as though he'd say more, but instead shot them a look out of character for its seriousness.
Raoul narrowed his eyes. Alanna, newly returned and oblivious to Gary's professional tells, was laughing at Thayet's sour expression--but even Thayet had spent more time with Alanna's old friends than Alanna of late, and after a moment, she dipped her head in surrender.
Alanna hesitated, twigging to the odd note in the air. Raoul touched her shoulder. His hand looked like a bear paw on her small frame.
Gary nodded. "This way then." And shuffled them back through a dim doorway of heavy oak into the surviving rooms of the palace.
"You've heard about the Caravan?" He threw the question over his shoulder, walking at a pace just below a trot.
"Yes," Raoul said. The rider had come in exhausted early Friday evening just as the lantern-lighters had begun making their rounds. Within a day, everyone knew; the roads were not safe. Jonathan's reign remained uncontested, but Raoul could not shake the feeling of the country divided in different shadows of power waiting to see what Jonathan would do, if he could clear the roads, secure trade.
"Do you know who it was?" Alanna matched Gary's stride with a swordfighter's grace, steps quick and feather-light. Raoul let them pull ahead, feeling like a heavy tree swaying this way and that before it decided which way to topple.
"Admittedly, my expertise is more administrative, but in the absence of your father or the new and enigmatic Baron of the Swoop, I will say: Highwaymen." Gary paused in the hallway, stepping back to study the wooden paneling between two grand tapestries that hung almost to the floor.
"Highwaymen," Raoul added, "with ranks likely thickened by those men-at-arms and mercenaries we put out of a job last year. Alanna, don't make that face. You earned your right to rest in every way imaginable. If I'd been to the Roof of the World and back again, I wouldn't have come back from the desert."
Alanna threw up her hands and turned away, but Raoul could see her expression of regret did not change. She had a blunt pragmatism and the stubbornness of a bull. To her the facts were simple: she could have helped. She had not been there. And in a way it was true. They had made do without her, but Raoul would never tell her how grateful he would have been to have had her with them in that mess of a year.
"The lords of the realm are helping to clear the roads," Gary continued, "but they want to charge tariffs in exchange, and they're not waiting for permission. Thank the gods the troubles aren't impacting the ships that go through our ports. Overland trade is a different matter--" Gary made a disgusted sound. "Let's not discuss it. Ah, here we are!"
He stepped forward, and lifting the edge of the heavy tapestry, disappeared with the faint `click' of a lock. Alanna and Raoul followed him into a narrow, dusty space, lit inadequately through faint cracks in the mortar of the rooms they passed. Raoul thought to look for an oil lamp, but Alanna raised a hand, mage light blooming around her spread fingers, a violet glow that grew to a warm, colorless light.
The light reflected off of Gary's face, watching them seriously, his papers forgotten. The guardsmen entered and shut the door of the secret passage behind them.
"Your timing is good," Gary said, "aside from getting here a day earlier--or perhaps a year. The king collapsed early this morning."
Raoul went cold. Visions of disaster--of those shadowy powers waiting--flashed past. It felt like every muscle went tight, ready rend and tear and protect--and he had to grab at a beam in the wall because his traitorous leg suddenly couldn't hold him.
"Not an attack?" he said as Alanna cried, "Gods, why? What happened?"
"Exhaustion, probably," Gary said shortly. "Duke Baird is with him."
"Exhaustion? " Alanna said, enraged. Like this too was something she would have fended off with a sword.
To Raoul, the news was only shocking in how it wasn't. All the muscles coiled to readiness softened. He closed his eyes, let out a quiet, "Damn. Does Thayet know?"
"For some reason we thought we'd keep it a bit hush. Ho hum and so forth." Raoul realized abruptly that Gary was concealing an irritation akin to fury, and had been the entire time they'd been speaking.
"I should have been told."
"I'm telling you now," Gary said.
"Where's his room?" Alanna said.
Gary lifted a hand. "Ah, ah, no one will be seeing him until he has woken up naturally, preferably sometime tomorrow. Still he'll likely be awake this evening--and ornery. At which point, Alanna, your expertise would be most appreciated."
She eyed him. "In orneriness."
"My orneriness is a much too easy-going breed for his majesty. Also, far too familiar."
"Who's with him?" Raoul managed, more calmly.
"Whiteford, Brightleigh, and Ibn Zirhud." Gary gave him an arch look. "Unless you disapprove?"
"Gary," Alanna said. "I'm a healer. I want to see him."
"I'll take you," Raoul said. "I know where he is."
Gary spread his hands palm up in acquiescence.
Raoul ran his hands up and down the cane, tracing the silver hounds that formed the curved handle. It was easier than pacing. He sank farther back against the richly upholstered settee.
He knew every hall and passageway in the palace. He knew more secret doors and crannies than Gary; some he'd found himself when he set out to survey what would be his domain. He knew the number of able-bodied men he had at his disposal and where and when they patrolled the grounds. He had maps and lists kept under careful lock and key, and oral reports each week on the progress of the construction.
None of these things would protect Jonathan from himself.
"How long will he sleep do you think?"
Gary glanced up from the papers he'd spread across the sitting room's heavy, mahogany table. "Likely longer than it will take Thayet to escape the socialites, unfortunately."
Lunch had come and gone. Noon sun shone through the taller windows of the palace's upper story onto the room's dark furnishings. The walls were panels of carved oak, hunting scenes and snarling cats. These were the King's rooms, the décor lavish but old. In a year of residence, Jonathan hadn't left a visible mark.
The door to the inner rooms opened. Alanna entered, her traveling robes discarded though she had not changed out of her faded tunic.
She perched on the edge of the settee, restless against Raoul's slouch. He was still taller. "Exhaustion. How did this happen?"
"Everyone is working hard," Gary said. "Jon didn't standout."
"We were also expecting him to understand he needed to sleep," Raoul said, letting out a laugh that turned into a groan.
"How bad is it?" Alanna said. "I mean, the kingdom."
Gary waved a hand. "We're reasonably confident that Jonathan's reign will continue to be Jonathan's reign, which we weren't sure of not too long ago. Things are just a bit messy."
"Messy," Raoul repeated.
"I'm open to alternate descriptions," Gary said dryly.
"I wouldn't know anything about it," Raoul said. "My business ends outside the bounds of the palace." He spread his arms, a sharp, violent motion. "This is my realm."
Gary ignored that. With a bare shift of his head, his attention swung to Alanna like a door decisively shut. Raoul dropped his hands back to the head of the cane with a crack.
"We need to assert ourselves," Gary said persuasively. "No single move is going to make our roads safe, but we need to appear to... bring our forces to bear. We need someone experienced with travel, a warrior respected widely--an acknowledged hero, you might say--to deal with the bandits who are making a career out of disrupting our trade."
Raoul dipped his head, his hands closed around the staff of the cane between his knees, overcome with a sudden desperate need. For all the work it took to keep the Own as the formidable shield Jonathan needed, Raoul could not shake the feeling of creeping stagnation. He was doing nothing. Gary aimed his plea at Alanna, but it pulled at Raoul's soul.
And that was no surprise, since the plan Gary was outlining had not been Gary's idea.
"Traveling with who?" Alanna said, businesslike, oblivious.
"We'd assemble a group of irregulars from the army. Give you a small mobile company, probably light cavalry, a few knights."
"The Own could do it," Raoul said recklessly.
Alanna gave him a baffled look. Gary said nothing. "The Own are the--they're the King's Own guard," Alanna said, looking to Gary for confirmation. "Do they leave the capitol?"
"No," Gary said.
"They damn well should," Raoul burst out. "You're sitting there telling me we need a mobile military unit, separate from the army that can move about the Kingdom easily with short notice. That's the Own! The Own if it weren't a stagnant gem around Jonathan's neck, there for him to dazzle the vultures of the court—”
"That is hardly the extent--" Gary turned abruptly away. "I can't give you this. Talk to Jonathan."
"But you're with him on this," Raoul pressed.
"The King's Own protect the king." Gary did not look up, words unyielding as iron. More quietly he added, "And he needs it."
Raoul could not give a response. The inner door opened. A corporal of the King's Own held it open to admit a man in healer's robes.
"My lords, my lady?" the healer said. "The king is awake."
The heavy, velvet curtains had been shut in the large bedchamber, but the fire burning in the hearth chased away some of the dark; as did the magelight lamps arranged at the side of the canopied bed. Raoul nodded to his captains standing shadowed in the corners. Duke Baird sat in an armchair by the fire, his expression rueful.
The king was in bed, lying against silk pillows, bedcovers folded back to his waist and dressed impeccably in a cobalt nightshirt embroidered in gold at the cuffs and collar. It was a poor choice, underscoring Jon's paleness.
"Hello," Jon said quietly, more boyish than he'd been in years. He gave a wan smile. "How much trouble am I in?" He made a fetching hero king, his eyes noticeably blue even in the firelight. It unnerved Raoul sometimes to realize that Jon knew how to use that.
Raoul knew his own answering grin was soft and a little stupidly fond, no matter what incomprehensible political creature his king had grown into.
Jon frowned, gaze dropping as Raoul approached. "Still the limp? Alanna is back--"
"Please, no encouragement. She's already been sniffing at it like a dog after a bone." Raoul hooked a chair with his foot, pulled it close to Jon's bedside.
Jon looked away at nothing, turning inward and somber. "I need you whole," he said, almost to himself. He shifted, trying to pull himself straighter. Raoul grabbed him under his arms and lifted him easily, though Jon was not light. The hard months of work had made him lean, but he was heavy with muscle and broad. Jon settled upright against the pillows, face tight with frustration.
"Jon," Raoul laughed. "I almost lost the damn leg. Let me enjoy a few months of lurching around. If you're feeling kind, for a little while, don't make any enemies I can't defeat ahorse."
Jon smiled. "You command an elite calvary unit, that shouldn't be hard."
"Elite, my ass. The Own is still the road to court for status-seeking fops."
Jon paused. It was something Alanna did, taking the time to focus all of her thoughts on one thing. They were, the both of them, possessed of the kind of methodical intellect that would not be satisfied until all obstacles had been overcome. Raoul could see on Jon's face the careful construction of the conversation he had missed in the sitting room. Jonathan straightened, shoulders stiffening and chin lifting. Like a picture flipped, he discarded his youth for all the dignity of a king.
"Change it then," he said implacably.
Raoul turned away, all his frustration bundled up behind his teeth. "You know, I remember liking you once--"
"The traditions of court are a clockwork monstrosity," Jon spoke over him, softly, regal. "And they are slow to change. The coronation rebellion has given us an impetus we shouldn't waste. Make the King's Own into a tool I can use."
"--a very, very long time ago," Raoul finished grimly. "It seems longer every day."
Jon looked at him. His eyes were still bruised and tired, but he looked better, sharper than he had in weeks.
Raoul should have noticed.
"Don't give me that, you political fiend," Raoul said. "I'll give you your fine warriors, your deadly shield, and I'll leave you Captain Haryse and his ambitious aristocrats to bejewel your royal table."
"You'll have to work with them."
"We get along."
Jon stared in disbelief. "Taking half your men to carouse in the lower city is not--"
"So you and I both learned things from Cooper we shouldn't have."
Jon sighed. "You want more than that."
"Jon. The Own--you chose the wrong man. I would give my life to keep you safe, but I cannot stay trapped here watching your back while your kingdom needs rebuilding."
"I've heard about your plans."
"Gary can't keep his mouth shut."
Jon laughed. "Gary is a gossip, and that serves me well."
Raoul said nothing.
"Your plan is good--very good." Jon threw up a hand. "I didn't know you were such a planner. We'll do it--"
"I heard what you'll do. I had to listen to Gary wooing Alanna with it without even a glance--"
"It cannot be the Own," Jon said bluntly.
Jon gave him a look with all the weight of the throne behind it. "The Own stay in the capital, Goldenlake. And you stay with them." He visibly sagged, setting loose some of the vulnerability Raoul had seen when he first entered. He met Raoul's eyes, an honest manipulator. "I need you here."
Raoul could not meet that gaze. He shoved violently to his feet. Pushing past Alanna standing outside in the sitting room, he left to wreak havoc on his officers.
He didn't see Alanna for several days. Maybe she had been swept up in all there was to do, or perhaps she knew now that her old friends were not above using her as a pawn in the political games they played with each other.
In the morning, Raoul threw himself into the work of running the Own. In the evenings he rode out into the forest that stretched out to the south of the palace. His leg was stronger than it had been and best in the afternoons when the stiffness had faded after a day of activity. It was still an unforgivable disability to the man who had been one of the ablest knights in Tortall. Gary had his expertise on commerce, Jon had his towering political intellect, Alanna her gift and her destiny. Raoul---Raoul did not know what he had if he could not fight. What was more laughable than a giant at a desk? Would he slay Jon's enemies with an inkwell?
He had not expected to find answers in paper work. That was supposed to be his doom, his undoing. The day to day duties of commanding the Own were enormous, all encompassing, and the most tedious task that Raoul had ever undertaken. Each day he struggled not to throw up his hands and give the whole day over to riding. But when he stepped back and looked at it in weeks, not days, Raoul couldn't tear himself away. More than that, he couldn't stop the plans.
The Own was one company still, but for as long as Raoul had been in command, it had been slowly dividing. The unofficial gray space between the two was the gap between those he thought were useful in a fight and those who looked good in uniform at a courtly ball. He would need to form an official second company soon and to decide if that division was also a division in purpose.
It was there that he always stopped himself, pulled up short by the boundaries Jonathan had drawn for him. Raoul could spend all year building up the Own--better, faster, more mobile, more organized, bigger--but as a unit whose existence was that of the King's bodyguard, he didn't strictly need a second company. Or a third. Even if Jon went on to have half a dozen children.
Raoul sighed. He liked the Bazhir. They'd only asked him to ride well and work hard.
There was a knock at the door.
Alanna entered. She wore tunic, shirt, and hose, far finer than she would have carried with her on the road. A pair of amethyst drops hung from her ears, bright against her hair hanging free to her shoulders. No doubt Jonathan or Gary had corralled her into making appearances at court.
She also carried a leather-bound, gilt-edged book the size of her own torso with apparent ease. A flattened dewdrop crystal as big as her fist rested on top of the book's cover.
"Goddess save me from politics," Alanna said.
"Can't be done. Even when I don't attend a single court function, I'm still mired in it."
Alanna's attention had already wandered. As if the massive book weren't a big enough clue that she'd come with a purpose in mind.
"Do you need that thing?" she said abruptly.
Raoul turned. She had her eyes on the silver handled cane propped against the end of his bed.
"I'm going to look at it, it that's alright with you."
His shoulders tightened involuntarily. "The cane?" he joked, transparent.
"Don't be an idiot," Alanna said, so matter-of-fact it was like she didn't have time to notice his illogical nervousness. "Flex it for me."
She made him turn his chair, bend and unbend his bad leg. It didn't hurt--he'd been up and about in the morning, wandering through the horse yards, around the perimeter of the grounds. Barely even stiff. Not satisfied with this demonstration, she had him up and about, walking back and forth across his floor.
"Huh," Alanna said, eyebrows up. He was back in the chair, his foot propped up on another while she bent over him, her hands resting just above the knee, a bright spot of heat through the cloth.
"What does that mean?" He gave her a half-smile, one eyebrow raised, putting on the face of the good-natured.
"It's not as bad as I thought. Have you been avoiding the practice yard?"
"Not when I have the time to spare."
"No one has time these days apparently," Alanna said wryly. She added seriously, "Make the effort, and see myself or Duke Baird afterwards. There's no need to let your body think it's finished healing. Hasn't Baird told you this?"
"The injury is old now."
"There are ways around that."
She reached for the book, leaning over his outstretched leg. Open, the thing dominated his writing desk. The pages turned with a flair of color, hand painted illustrations and careful script. The pictures were anatomical, grotesque. It had to be worth a small fortune.
"Medical text?" Raoul guessed.
"No," Alanna said absently. She found a two page spread of a human leg, trapped forever in ink mid-dissection. "It's a book on magical forms of torture."
Raoul stared at her.
She let it slam shut. "We don't need it, thank the Goddess. If I had to, I would cause hurt to heal hurt." She sat heavily but with a relief, like a weight had lifted. Terrifying to imagine what that weight might have been, if it scared Alanna. "It's not--a good way to do it, unreliable and difficult. The power involved is ridiculous, and the pain would be exquisite. And then--" she smiled, a quick flash of sunlight through clouds, "--at the end of that, we would both be yelled at very loudly--and technically I could worry about keeping my knighthood. But..." Just as quickly, the smile was gone. She leaned forward, speaking with an earnestness that cut to the bone. "If your leg fails you, if you can't find your strength again, know that I will make you whole."
The magnitude of her offer, with that book of blood and bone lying silently across his papers, struck him dumb. He reached for her over his outstretched leg. His fingers folded around her wrists easily, thumb to first knuckle. "Alanna--" but he had no words, could only bend his head, overcome with a sudden warmth and gratitude.
"Lionness," he said finally. "What a kingdom this must be, to deserve you."
Alanna had never had Jon's knack for heroic dignity. She turned bright red and threw her arms around him. Raoul gripped back tightly.
Jonathan received a clipped, coded message from Tirragen on Monday evening, delivered to the King's spymaster and then from Myles to Jonathan. The information was so minimal as to seem unfinished.
Translated it said: Trouble. Governor H sympathetic to rebellion. Captain K dead. Reports falsified.
Wrapped around it, they found a second note in a more common cypher, written hastily. This one said: Kordan's regiment is dead, dispersed, or imprisoned. We are under siege at Castle Tir. Estimate 150 enemy troops, infantry. 30 knights. One mage, master class. Send support immediately.
The first note, worrisomely incomplete, was in George's handwriting. The second, more recent and a plea for aid, was clearly not.
Alanna said, white faced, "I'm leaving as soon as possible."
"I can spare 25 knights from Corus. Lord Palim--" Jon turned to man across the table with broad shoulders and round face, his senior by more than two decades, "When can you leave?"
"Three days to prepare, your majesty," Palim said gruffly. "And that's pushing it."
Jon nodded. "You'll have to get the rest from Whitehorn as you go. Any infantry as well. I'll send messenger birds to Torhelm, to have Lord Jaek send his knights to you at Whitehorn."
"Gods, the waiting rankles," Raoul burst out.
He looked to Alanna, expecting agreement, but she'd didn't protest, for all her skin looked too tight and too pale. She nodded in acceptance. "I will speak with you and your knights this afternoon, my lord," she said, and then pushing back her chair--she left.
Raoul watched her go, the beginnings of suspicion stirring in his gut. He pretended he couldn't feel Jonathan watching him.
He saw Alanna again when she all but body-checked him in an alcove off the main hall. They were alone, his back against the wall, her elbow still pressed low against his ribs. Her left hand was low, arm straight. He half-expected her to be holding a knife, but it was a piece of paper tightly rolled. He recognized it; she had picked it from the floor of his rooms days ago for no other reason than to keep her hands busy.
Abruptly he realized what it was, and he knew exactly what clues she would have found recorded in his steady hand.
"You want the Own to be ready for rapid deployment throughout the realm," Alanna said with the same intensity only Jonathan could muster but so lacking in guile it was like the hard edge of a sword against his throat.
"That's the plan," Raoul said.
"That's the plan you've proposed to Gary and to Jon." Alanna's eyes narrowed, and maybe there was guile there after all. "But nobody really understands what you mean when you tell them you have to act."
Raoul waited. Something hot was rising in his gut, something a little like hope and the heady recognition of someone who knows your soul.
Alanna's patience faltered at his silence, her tone taking on an edge of desperation. "You didn’t wait for approval," she insisted. "These plans – they’re already in place. Implemented."
"Jonathan might need to leave suddenly,” Raoul hedged. At Alanna’s continued stare, he admitted, “But not with 150 troops--50, maybe. 2nd company."
Alanna's grin was fierce, triumphant. "You'll have me, and the army behind us by two days. 50 will do." She paused, her expression flickering. "The Own has a second company?"
"Well--if we leave today, I guess you'll have made that decision for me."
Against his will, his gaze drifted towards the center of the palace, to Jonathan's rooms, and he stopped. Alanna slapped that paper against his chest. Barely more than a swat, it struck to the core of him--to his aspirations, to the ambition he hadn't thought he had.
"What is this?" she demanded. "Scribbles? I know the language of war. You’ve recorded supply and personnel plans for a military unit ready to act throughout the entire kingdom! Is this paper the end of it? A few daydreaming notes?"
He stared at her. The shadows dimmed her strange eyes until they were almost mundane. In his mind's eye, Jonathan's gaze was sharper than ever. How odd to find himself unable to strike the blow when he finally held the sword in his hand.
"Alanna, why do you push me? Is it for the good of the realm that my plans have to be realized now? You are afraid for the life of your lover."
Alanna, always brave, met his eyes--mundane? Never. She swallowed and said simply, "Yes."
Raoul was cowed. The heat spread through his chest and down to his fingers as he reached for the paper in her hand. He confessed, borrowing her honesty: "This is not a few scribbled notes. This is what the Own can be, what it should be."
"Will you bring the Own to Tirragen, then?" Alanna said.
Raoul took a breadth. He spoke like a man breaking free of a fog.
He said, "Yes."