It was not quite a week before the start of Midwinter festivities when Neal's lovely knight-mistress kicked open his door.
"Up and at 'em, Queenscove," Alanna ordered. "Let's get a move on."
Neal blinked blearily. "Why?"
Alanna's brows snapped together in a terrifyingly familiar glower.
Neal, frantically, threw up his hands. "I just meant, I thought you said you were going to stay here for Midwinter."
Alanna's face smoothed out. "We are. We're just going into Corus. Now come on, Neal. I'll meet you at the stables."
An hour or so later, they pulled up in the courtyard of a very nice townhouse. The door swung open as Alanna dismounted, and an elegant lady Neal recognized as Baroness Eleni walked forward to embrace her daughter-in-law.
"Alanna, you look well," Eleni said. "And this must be your squire."
Neal dismounted and bowed. "Nealan of Queenscove, my lady, but please, call me Neal." He flashed her his most charming smile. Next to him, Alanna snorted.
"So like your father," Eleni said.
Neal … didn't really want to think about that too hard. Alanna, fortunately, came to his rescue.
"Are the children here?"
"MA!" came a bellow from inside the townhouse; too much experience with a little sister caused Neal to duck aside out of the path of not one but two hyperactive blonds who came flying out the door towards Alanna.
Alanna wrapped her twins in a hug, the biggest smile Neal had ever seen on her face. "Aly. Alan. You've been behaving, I hope?"
The two eleven-year-olds nodded. Their grandmother, behind them, smiled and nodded as well at Alanna's glance.
"Good," the Lioness said, clapping each twin on a shoulder. "Where's your brother hiding?"
Aly eyed her twin, who shrugged. "In the library, I think," she said.
"I don't think so," Neal said softly. Alanna looked at him, and he nodded at the open door, where a shy, gawky redhead was peeking around the doorframe.
"Thom," Alanna said. "Come here."
The boy ducked back behind the wall with a nervous glance in Neal's direction. Alanna sighed, exasperated.
"That's Squire Nealan. I wrote to you all back in June that I was taking a squire."
Thom muttered something inaudible. Aly giggled, then subsided at a glare from her mother.
"You know Duke Baird. This is his son."
"My lady?" Neal asked softly. "May I?" At Alanna's questioning frown, he tipped his head at the door.
Alanna's frown cleared. "Don't upset him, okay? I don't want him holing up in his room again."
Neal nodded and, with an apologetic bow to Lady Eleni, walked inside the house.
Thom, taken completely by surprise, squeaked. He stared up at Neal with wide greenish eyes that must have come from his father. Neal, undeterred, bowed.
"My name is Neal," he said. "Your mother talks a lot about you."
"She does?" Thom whispered. He startled as if remembering himself, then bowed. "I'm Thom. Those are Alan and Aly. Don't mind them too much."
Neal grinned. "I won't. I have a little sister."
Thom looked dubious. "There's two of them," he pointed out. "And Ma always says Aly's as bad as three people."
An outraged squawk came from outside.
"That's okay, then. Father always said Jessa was as bad as any four."
Thom ducked his head, but not before Neal saw his shy grin.
"Your mother says you've applied to the University," Neal said. Thom glanced up at him. Neal grinned. "Did you know that I went there for a while?"
Thom, shyly, reached out to grip Neal's hand. "Can you… Can you tell me a bit about it?"
Neal squeezed his hand. "Let's let your ma inside, first." He looked back over his shoulder at his knight-mistress. "We don't want to make her grumpy."
"Ma's always grumpy," Alan grumbled. Alanna mock-glared at her youngest.
"Well done," she whispered as she moved past Neal.
It was later, after dinner, when Eleni shooed her grandchildren into the kitchen and Sir Myles had moved into the lounge, that Alanna took Neal aside.
"This is my Midwinter tradition," she explained. "I'm away from the Swoop a lot, and I usually have to be at the palace for the Midwinter festivities themselves. You've been to them; they're not exactly the place for rambunctious children."
"No," Neal murmured, remembering how many mishaps there had been with nothing but sedate adults.
"And, well." Alanna fidgeted uncomfortably. "You've met Thom."
"He's going to have an interesting time of it at University," Neal said. He remembered what his classmates had been like; he doubted Thom's yearmates would be any less boisterous.
Alanna squeezed his arm. "Talk to him? Later?" she asked, worry in her eyes.
Neal bowed. "Of course, my lady."
Alanna swatted him, relieved. "Enough of that."
"Ma! You're supposed to be in the lounge!" Aly hollered, outraged.
Laughing, Alanna dragged Neal down the hall. Neal resisted.
"I can go upstairs," he said at her look.
Alanna snorted. "Don't be ridiculous, Queenscove. I didn't drag you down here just to let you hole up like Thom."
"You're my squire, now. That makes you honorary family." She shoved him into a chair. Myles covered a laugh with a cough.
Neal accepted a sugared Midwinter bun from a shy Thom and smiled. He'd always wanted a large family.