Roger's sword arced through the air and scored a line down Alanna's chest, cutting neatly through her special corset.
The court fell silent. Blushing furiously, Alanna ducked behind a curtain and fixed up her shirt as best she could while Thom attempted an explanation. She stepped back out just as the king demanded to know who knew of her masquerade.
"I knew," Jon said, voice strong and ringing in the silence.
"I knew," Coram admitted, shamefaced.
"I knew," Gary said with a strangely casual shrug.
"I knew, also," Myles said. "I guessed when Alan - Alanna - saved the prince's life."
King Roald looked at Alanna and opened his mouth.
"I knew," Duke Gareth said. He stepped forward and caught his brother-in-law's eye. The king sat back. "Lord Alan knew as well," the duke added quietly.
Alanna was pretty sure her jaw was hanging somewhere around her knees. Myles reached over and gave her a bracing pat, and she glanced sideways at Thom, who looked grim but not surprised.
"Father knew?" she hissed at him.
Thom nodded. "The City sends home progress reports too, you know. He sent me a package to give to you whenever it was safe to do so. It's in my room - remind me later. For now, pay attention."
Alanna followed Thom's glance. Roger was looking steadily more furious and had retrieved his sword from where he'd dropped it. Orange magic was rippling through the air around him.
"You lying, cheating demon!" he snarled, lunging towards Alanna.
A hand grabbed the duke's sleeve and yanked him off-balance, sending him sprawling to the floor. Roger moved to rise, then froze as the point of a sword brushed the bridge of his nose.
Alex leaned over him, looking more than a little wild-eyed. "You son of a bitch," Alex snarled. For once in his life, his hand trembled on the hilt of his sword. "You lying, treasonous son of a bitch."
Alanna padded over, Lightning held uncertainly in her own hand. "Alex?" she asked tentatively.
Alex's head whipped around. He stared at Alanna, something strange burning in his dark eyes.
A dainty hand grasped Alex's elbow with surprising force. "You'll have to excuse my cousin, Your Majesty," Delia said to the king. She shot Alanna a conspiratorial smirk. "She's a bit overwrought at the moment."
"She?" Alanna yelped.
Alex glared at her. "What, you think you're the first girl to ever want her shield?" she snapped.
Raoul coughed, then started laughing. Gary shot him an irritated look.
"Well, this is fun," Raoul said around his laughter. "I'm starting to think this blasted corset wasn't necessary at all."
Gary went bright red, smoothed his thumbs over his awful mustache, and glanced around awkwardly. His mother shot him a sympathetic smile, and his father came up and placed one hand on his shoulder.
"There have long been women who have stopped at nothing to earn their shield," Duke Gareth said. Gary went steadily redder. "You of all people ought to know that," the duke added, staring at the king.
Alanna had given up on trying to formulate a coherent response and was just gaping at everyone. Thom, who had propped her up against a wall and was leaning on it next to her, was watching everyone with avid interest and smirking.
Duke Gareth eyed his son, then patted him firmly on the shoulders. "Besides," he added, smiling broadly at his wife, "Gareth always wore a dress better than I did, anyway." The person Alanna had thought was Duchess Roanna winked flirtatiously at his wife.
Gary humpfed and peeled off the awkward mustache. "I hate facial hair," he said conversationally, trying and failing to look completely at ease.
King Roald was rubbing the bridge of his nose, looking like he was developing a world-class headache. Alanna could sympathize. Queen Lianne, trying very hard to stifle laughter, looked at her brother, niece, and sister-in-law, bit her lip, and patted her husband gently on the knee. "Maybe we should tell them now, dearest."
Roald stared at her.
Jon cleared his throat, attracting his father's attention. "Please?"
Looking intently at the ceiling, the king nodded.
Thom raised an eyebrow. "Interesting."
Jon shot Alanna a nervous smile. "I, uh. Well."
It would take a blind man not to see where this was going. Alanna, feeling very much off-kilter, snapped, "That's not possible, Jon! I've seen you naked, remember?" The whispers that had started up again as the revelations built cut off abruptly.
King Roald's head snapped down, and he leveled a truly vitriolic glare on his son. Jon flinched, and Lianne started laughing.
Delia, still standing at her cousin's side, said, "So have I."
Jon was redder than the page tunics, now. "Well, uh." He scratched the back of his head sheepishly.
George, hidden somewhere in the back of the crowd, stage-whispered, "They sell some interesting charms in the city."
Roald, still staring intently at his heir, raised both eyebrows. Jon looked everywhere but at his father.
"They do," Thom said, grinning ear to ear. Alanna turned and leveled a look at him. "I never told you because I didn't think they were all that useful for your situation," he said, raising his hands defensively. He nodded at Jon. "Clearly, I was wrong."
Roger, who had either been biding his time or trying to swallow all the revelations, chose that moment to try and lunge to his feet. He got halfway to a sitting position and managed an inarticulate scream of primal fury before Alex kicked him square in the throat and Delia sat on his legs.
She pulled a slim dagger out from between her breasts and leveled it at the Duke's anatomy. "You'd hardly be the first person I've unmanned for threatening my cousin, Your Grace," Delia murmured, green eyes mocking and steady. "Please do keep struggling."
Alanna had to hand it to Roger: he knew when he had been defeated. Still wheezing inarticulately, he tossed his sword weakly away and lay very, very still as Thom, Duke Gareth, and the palace guards came to take him away.
Myles waved to Alanna. "It's over," he said.
The feast that evening was canceled. Nobody was at all surprised, and most were greatly relieved. Jon invited everyone to her rooms for a private meal, and Alanna, filled with a strange effervescence, went.
Jon, Raoul, Gary, Geoffrey, Douglass, Sacherell, and George were all there. Alanna plopped down next to George and eyed him.
"Why are you here?" she asked.
George smiled. "Jon decided to introduce me to the rest of his - of her - friends," he said. He nodded at Geoff, Douglass, and Sacherell; Sacherell raised his glass. "So far, so good."
Alanna leaned against his shoulder. "Don't tell me you've been availing yourself of interesting charms, too," she said.
George swallowed a laugh. "No, lass, I'm really a man."
Jon, looking strangely giddy, said, "At least someone is!"
Gary, who had thankfully given up on faking facial hair, smacked her cousin. "You are not one to talk."
The door opened, and Alanna turned to look. Alex tripped through it, propelled by two delicate hands.
Jon rose and stuck her head out the door. "You are welcome to join us."
There was a rustle of skirts as the person in the hall curtseyed. "Thank you, your highness, but I have other plans," Delia said. "Just don't introduce my poor innocent cousin to any of your … interesting charms," she added, and Alanna could perfectly imagine the wicked smirk on her face.
Jon, red-faced, quickly shut the door. An equally-red Alex buried her head in her hands.
An awkward silence fell. Alanna found herself sneaking quick, furtive glances at all her friends, and it was only when her eyes met Jon's that she realized all the others were doing the same thing.
Except for George. George was watching in amusement, barely reining in laughter. Alanna gave up on shyness and elbowed him in the ribs, earning a satisfying yelp for her trouble.
"So," Alanna said. "Thom told you all that my name is really Alanna." Nods all around. Alanna swallowed back the strange nervousness that would still not let go. "What are your real names, then?"
Geoff raised a hand. "Actually, one more thing to clear up, first." He glanced at Douglass and Sacherell. "We're women, too."
Alex dropped her head back into her hands. "Of course you are. Is there anyone we know who isn't female?"
"I meant, in page training."
"Ralon," Raoul said, voice very, very dark.
Things clicked into place. "That's why you hated him so much, wasn't it?" Alanna asked quietly.
Raoul shook her head. Unlike the others, she'd taken the opportunity to let her inner girl out: a bright pink bow was tied awkwardly to her close-cropped curls. "It was part of why," she said. "He kept trying to pry. But he was a vicious monster anyway, and that doesn't change whether we were male or not."
"Francis was female too," Gary said quietly. "It was discovered - revealed, rather - at her funeral. I, er, overheard my parents talking about it, and how the Nonds were going to seal her tomb to make sure no one ever found out."
Alanna swallowed. After a moment, she asked, "Names, please?"
"Francis was Frances, I think," Gary said, "Same name, really, just a different spelling. It's stupid to change a name too much. I'm Roanna."
"Your family really likes naming people after their parents, don't they?" Raoul muttered. "My name's Rilla." She shook her head. "That sounds weird, to say it out loud."
"Alexandra," Alex said quietly to her hands.
"Jessica," Geoff said cheerfully. "Everyone called me Jess."
"My name really is Douglass," Douglass said. "My parents were a bit confused. By the time they realized their mistake, they decided it was a sign from Mithros and they might as well roll with it."
"My name is Norma," Sacherell chirped.
Everyone turned to stare at her. "Norma?" Jon asked.
"You can see why I prefer 'Sacherell'," Sacherell said sagely.
"Right," said Roanna. "Roanna, Alanna, Rilla, Jessica-but-prefers-Jess, Alexandra-"
"Alex," Alex muttered.
"-Alex, right, Douglass, Norma-but-prefers-Sacherell, and … my cousin." Roanna gestured imperiously at them each in turn, then smacked Jon.
"What?" Jon snapped.
"Your name, dolt," Roanna snapped in turn.
"You get more like your mother every day," Jon said, rubbing her ear. "I thought you knew it, anyway."
Roanna shook her head. "My parents never told me you were a girl," she said. "I guess they didn't want to risk me spilling the beans." She fixed a glare that was pure Duke Gareth on her hapless cousin. "Name, Jon."
"Who's the royalty here?" Jon muttered sullenly. "It's Joanne," she sighed, defeated.
"Alanna, Joanne, Roanna, Rilla, Alex, Douglass, Jess, and Sacherell," George repeated. He sat back, smiling. "Nice to meet you all."
"So the duke is really the duchess and the duchess is really the duke," was the first thing Thom said to Alanna when she went back to her new room.
"Hello, Thom, nice to see you," Alanna said sarcastically. "You just figured that out?"
"I keep getting confused," he said, staring into the fire. "So, what are your friends' names, anyway?"
"I'll reintroduce you later," Alanna said. "What are you doing here? You have a room of your own."
Thom rose and tossed a largeish package at her. "From Father," he said.
Alanna felt the package. It felt strangely familiar. Swallowing the lump in her throat, she slit open the paper and gently placed the special corset on her bed. A piece of parchment fluttered to the ground; Thom snagged it and handed it back to her.
This was your mother's. She earned her shield four years before I married her - it's the one that hangs in the hall here. Ask Duke Gareth about Marion of Tasride sometime.
I wish you had told me. I would've given you this sooner.
She would be so proud of you. So am I.
Alanna handed the letter to Thom, dropped heavily onto her bed, cradled an unusually-cooperative Faithful to her chest, and smiled.