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Always One More

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Kings must sometimes be ruthless, and Roald was no exception to that.

There were plenty of people ready and willing to do the dirty work a kingdom sometimes demanded. Plenty of people for whom honor was found in doing what was necessary, or to whom honor was a foreign concept entirely.

Roald wondered, sometimes, which category Alan fell into.

He suspected it was some unstable mix of both. But that was Alan for you - he had never quite connected with reality in the same way others did.

Yes, a king had his pick of loyal, if disturbing, folk ready and willing to do his dirty work, but they usually worked in the shadows and kept their dark deeds hidden from polite society.

What made Alan all the more terrifying was that he didn't. Roald suspected he honestly didn't see why he might want to keep his work a secret.

But Alan had a standing royal pardon, and no one was quite so suicidal as to challenge him - or try to eliminate him in other ways.

And Alan's mother was long dead, and his father had taken one long look in his mad son's eyes and turned willfully deaf to all whispers of his dealings, and his sister had finally been declared a traitor to Tortall and exiled, and his brother was about the only person in the realm more terrifying than Alan himself - though at least Thom was sane, and would, if provoked to it, only incinerate you.

Roald shook his head. His thoughts always headed in a predictable direction when he walked the path to this room, and he didn't entirely appreciate it. He pressed one hand to the hidden lock and opened it with a whisper of his magic.

"I heard that you were back," he said coolly.

Startled hazel eyes met Roald's blue. "I just got in," Alan said.

Roald nodded. He knew. He kept lookouts posted around the palace grounds, just to know when Alan came and went.

Keeping track of Alan was something of a necessity.

"Were you down in the catacombs again?" Roald didn't need to see Alan's nod.

Alan had, sometime during his page training, taken to haunting the tombs of the old kings, completely disregarding the fact that the whole section was off-limits. He never did trip any of the mage alarms, so it took haMinch and the other masters the better part of two years to figure out where the young man kept vanishing off to.

Sir Padraig had told Roald later, when asked, that when they finally followed Alan down they found him avidly tracing the melted-in swirls of the Gate of Idramm and entirely ignoring his mother's famous sword. When confronted, Alan had simply grinned and shrugged, like any page caught in a misdemeanor, and strolled back out.

He had never, to the best of the training master's knowledge, gone back down to the old tombs for the remainder of his training. But it was in the catacombs that Roald found him, after his Ordeal, and it was to the catacombs that Alan vanished, when his mother was thrown from her horse.

"A rather ignominious death for the great Lioness," Alan had said with a strange not-quite-chuckle when Roald stopped next to him. Alan had promptly turned on his heel and left, face perfectly composed and even cheerful, eyes far too dry and bright with mirth.

And all Roald could think about, later, were the stories of how Alan had nearly killed two fellow pages during training with a smile on his face, and how Alan laughed as his fingers briefly danced along the blade of his mother's sword.

Roald wondered, even later, how his father could be so taken by surprise when he had supposedly seen his own death. Alan, gently wiping his knife clean, accepted Roald's offer of the post of Champion with nothing more than a soft smile, perfectly polite.

It was a dangerous move, but this was a dangerous dance.

Roald never asked what, precisely, happened to his father's body. There were many things, with Alan, where it was better not to pry. Because Alan would happily answer, in his usual tactlessly honest way, and there were some things Roald didn't want to know.

"You're very distracted today," Alan breathed, suddenly right in Roald's face.

Roald jerked his wandering thoughts back into focus. This was a dangerous dance.

"I was thinking."

"You do that too much," Alan whispered. "Do you know why we laugh, at the little sword?"

The non-sequitur was typical Alan. It was usually best to humor him. "Why?"

Alan grinned roguishly at Roald. "Because it cannot hurt anymore."

Of course not, not while it was -

"And not because it's stuck in the floor now, either," Alan finished. His eyes were too intent on Roald's face.

"Why, then?" Roald asked, refusing to be unnerved.

"Because it is no longer the blade it was."

"Except for three inches by the hilt," Roald reminded him.

Alan spun away, and Roald left. This, too, was part of the dance. The steps, of course, were always new, and always old.

Years later, when Thom finally broke down and begged him, Roald would leave Alan's corpse cooling on the floor of his hidden room, those untainted three inches driven straight into his heart from behind, and would order the stones of the Black City overturned, broken open, and scorched entirely with the hottest fire possible. And there, under some of the pillars, they would find piles of bones, gnawed clean.

And Roald would scuff out the strangely-untouched marks of a small man's hands, where he had dug beneath the mad black stones.

There is always one more Ysandir.