The day George Cooper is crowned King of the Thieves, he comes home to find a woman sitting on his bed.
He’d headed into the Dancing Dove, arm and ribs and thigh bandaged from his fight for the throne. “Any ins or outs?” he’d asked old Solom, and gotten a mute head shake. The same from Marek on guard by the stairs, and Lightfingers on the landing. All the locks on his door had been untouched, hasps and shackles tight. And yet. And yet.
She is sitting on his bed, dark hair waving around her shoulders and neck in a wind he can’t feel. Her green satin dress is cut low in the preferred style of the Lower City’s prostitutes, and laces up the front with ribbon. Her hands are folded in her lap. She smells intensely of lilies. George knows exactly who she is.
He closes the door behind him and locks it.
“I didn’t think you’d look like —“ he starts, and then shuts his mouth.
The Goddess curves her plum lips in a smile. “And why not? All women who walk in the night are under my care.”
George chooses his words carefully. “For those who are now under mine, I thank you.”
Her smile widens. “They prayed you would win, you know. The women of the Rogue. Old Garsay was not kind to them, nor the King before him. But your mother, whom I love, raised you well, and so you in turn have never raised your hand to a woman.” She stands bonelessly and floats towards him. Her skirt doesn’t ripple the way it would if she were walking. “If you start that nonsense now, there will be no hiding from me.”
George would never. He would never. Rispah would cut his jewels off. “I understand.”
She stands in front of him, and for some reason she has chosen to be shorter than him. He looks down at her dark hair and her dark skin and her wide light eyes with their odd glow. She is very beautiful and also very frightening. She presses one cool hand against his chest and he stops breathing.
“I am here with a gift as well as a warning. I want you to be mine, George Cooper,” she says, sweetly.
He’s dizzy with blood loss and adrenaline, and he doesn’t say yes, but he doesn’t say no, either.
She opens her mouth to show him an amethyst resting on her tongue. She closes her mouth, slides her hand up to his throat, and kisses him. For a moment he goes blind, and when she pulls away he feels the stone smooth and hard in his mouth.
“A token of my affection,” says the Goddess. “Swallow it.”
He’s swallowed worse, he supposes, and does it. It’s cold going down.
“Good,” says the Goddess, and moves away again. “Another of my chosen is coming to Corus within the next year, destined for the palace. A child, with a dangerous path to walk, who will need help from a man such as you.”
“I’m not in the business of child-rearin’, my lady,” says George automatically, as he has said to many women who look like her before.
She rolls her eyes at him. “I know that. This isn’t child rearing. This is —“ she waves a hand. “Periodic assistance.”
George narrows his eyes. “I also don’t fight or thieve for nobles.”
“Do not debate with me.” She hasn’t moved so far away that she can’t press one finger firmly into his chest again. “You are my chosen, and you will do as I say.”
He can feel the stone rising into his throat, a gentle threat, and swallows it down. “Yes, my lady.”
The Goddess smiles like a cat. “Good. You will know who the child is; I will guide your eyes. And you will know what to do.”
She doesn’t stay for much longer. He’s fine with that. It’s been a long day and she’s a little intense.
Three months later he’s walking through the market when his eyes fill with purple fire. He blinks rapidly to clear them, and when he does, he sees two riders on horseback moving through the busy square: one, a battered swordsman, and another, a small redheaded boy.
He weaves his way easily through the crowd, casually getting closer. The boy glows faintly purple, wreathed with silver, in his Sight. As he approaches, the swordsman glowers at him. “Keep an eye to your saddlebags,” he says to the boy, voice warning. “There are some here as would steal their own mother’s teeth!”
George grins. It’s a good line. The boy turns his head to look at George, and their gazes meet. George takes a breath. The child’s eyes are as purple as the light that surrounds him. He blinks at George, like he’s about to ask a question, but the swordsman urges him on, and they keep pushing through the crowds up to the palace.
When he can’t see them any more, George turns to return to the Dove. “So that’s him?” he says under his breath as he walks.
That is the child, yes, says the Goddess’s voice in his ear, but she is nowhere to be seen.
He tells Stefan and his crew in the palace to keep an eye on a redhead, likely a page, and to let him know if the lad leaves to come into the city. One of Stefan’s birds lands at his window three weeks later with a note that says: on his way.
The boy is on foot this time, with the Duke of Naxen’s son in tow, and is brave and stupid enough to say yes when George asks them both into the Dove for a cool drink. George has an affection for brave and stupid. It doesn’t take much for them to become friends.
Alan of Trebond is tiny for his age and mad about it. He’s mad about everything. He’s also stubborn, and blunt, and when there’s a brawl at the Dove he throws himself in the middle of it and George has to hook a hand in the back of his shirt and drag the little scrap upstairs so he doesn’t get trampled like a mouse.
But as the years turn George also slowly realizes that this child, the Goddess’s chosen, is likely the most talented fighter he has ever known.
George teaches him to throw knives, and they land sure and true. George teaches him how to fight hand-to-hand, and the he picks it up like he was born to it. He’s a disaster on horseback, but that’s because he rides a fat old pony. George can’t help himself: he buys a beautiful mare and sells it to the boy for a third of the price just for the joy of seeing Alan’s eyes light up, and for the satisfaction of watching the lad with an animal that can match him. George dresses as a messenger and ambles into the palace and watches from the sidelines of the practice fields as Alan trounces the older and bigger lads with sword and lance and arrow. He is ferocious and sharp and works twice as hard as every other page.
George keeps dragging him out of fights at the Dove, but now he does it because he’s fairly certain Alan, all of twelve years and five feet tall, could kill someone.
Then one morning before dawn Alan breaks into his rooms, almost gets his throat slit by George, and tells George that he’s a girl.
We are having a talk later, he tells the Goddess, silently and firmly, before taking Alan, whose name is Alanna, to see his mother.
Alanna is not the oddest patient George has ever dropped on Eleni Cooper’s doorstep, but she is perhaps the most frightened. Eleni is unflappable and calming. She gives Alanna tea and advice on her monthly bleeding and a charm to wear around her neck. George sends Alanna back to the palace and goes home. He lights a fire to warm the cool morning, tosses lavender in it, and waits.
After a few minutes, the fire glows silver instead of orange, and a trail of lilies grows across his carpet.
“You could have told me,” says George softly.
“You didn’t need to know,” says the Goddess.
“It would have been nice to,” George points out.
The Goddess, sitting next to him, stretches her bare feet out towards the hearth. “Perhaps. But I also thought you’d appreciate the reveal.”
He turns to look at her. He doesn’t entirely trust her. But she is lovely. And she’s not wrong.
“I appreciated it,” he says. She smiles, and runs her fingers through his hair.
“She needs you now more than ever,” says the Goddess. “Her life is complicated, and she needs men she can trust. Tell her to only write to her twin through you. And watch the Conté Duke.”
“For what?” asks George, but the flowers are receding and the fire is going out and she is gone.
Alanna saves the prince from the Sweating Sickness that ravages Corus. She goes to Olau with Sir Myles and shows up in George’s chambers with a sword that stinks of old magic. She gets completely drunk in the Dancing Dove for the first time and George has to hold back her hair and his laughter. She and Jonathan go to the Black City beyond Persepolis and defeat the beings who have caused terror among the Bazhir for centuries. Jonathan makes her his squire. George and Jonathan become friends. Her father dies, and she and George go for a long quiet ride outside the city and then have dinner with Eleni.
She comes back from a night in the woods with a glowing ember that she wears around her neck on a chain and a cat whose eyes match hers.
(“It’s a bit obvious,” George tells the Goddess on her next visit.
“Not all my gifts are easily swallowed,” she answers, haughty and cryptic.)
When she is fifteen, she duels a knight from Tusaine twice her size, and wins. George gets in a fight with Jonathan about it.
“You put her in danger,” snaps George.
Jonathan sighs and rubs the bridge of his aristocratic nose. “Did you make me to come all the way to the Lower City just so you could yell at me?”
“She was fine. I knew she could beat him. Perhaps if you had more trust in her —“
“I have trust in her. I taught her how to fight myself. I don’t trust you to not bait folk who’ll take it out on her because you’re His Untouchable Highness and she’s your squire —“
“I would never,” says Jonathan, white with rage.
“You already did,” snarls George, and they are at the brink of blows when Alanna walks into the empty Dove. She greets them both cheerfully. They drop it. But when Alanna rolls up her sleeve to show the wound Dain of Melor gave her, George gives Jon a hard look. The prince swallows and looks away.
“He doesn’t deserve her,” George says to thin air when they leave for the palace. Then he has a personal revelation that makes him put his face in his hands. Of all the women in the world, why does he have to fall in love with the well-armed, bad-tempered, god-touched one?
The evening before Jonathan’s nineteenth birthday, Alanna comes to visit George in the Lower City. He bundles her arms full of gifts for the prince, walks her to the Temple District, pulls her into the shadows, and kisses her sweet mouth.
He’s careful. He’s gentle. He takes his time. Until she parts her lips under his and starts trembling under his hands and he almost loses his mind with want.
When he lets her go her eyes are wide, and there is a moment where they are very close and silent. Then she yells that she should have stabbed him. He bursts out laughing and kisses her forehead and walks home whistling.
At midnight, his bed dips sharply at one end as a massive weight settles on it. George smells an ocean wind and rotting lilies and hears a wolf howl. He doesn’t open his eyes.
“I told you to protect her, not seduce her,” snaps the Goddess.
“The heart wants what the heart wants,” says George, keeping his eyes closed.
“You have no idea what you’ve put in motion,” says the Goddess bitterly. “You have ruined everything — oh, stop laughing —“
I’m not, George goes to say, but when he rolls over and opens his eyes there is another god in his bedroom. That god is doubled over at the foot of George’s bed. That god is laughing so hard he can’t breathe to make noise.
“This is your doing, isn’t it,” snarls the Goddess. She is much larger than usual.
The Trickster straightens, taking a ragged inhale. He uses the edges of his sarong to wipe the tears of laughter from his eyes and his extravagant kohl doesn’t smudge an inch. “It surely is not, sister,” he says, grinning, voice hoarse.
“It surely is. I had a plan —“
The Trickster throws back his head and laughs again. “Oh, yes, you had a plan. And what was your plan? That the girl-knight’s great love would be the King in Tortall?” When he shakes his head his earrings chime. “You forget, sister. Tortall has always had two kings. And one of them —“ he points at George — “is him.”
The Goddess looks furious. Her eyes are all black and her mouth is very red.
“I hate this,” she says.
“I love it,” says the Trickster.
The Goddess turns her all-black glare on George.
“You are a thief and a rake,” she informs him sourly. “Were it not for my affection for your mother I would char you where you lie. As it is, you are no longer my chosen, and I want my token back.”
She snaps her fingers. George has to sit up very quickly so he doesn’t choke on the amethyst that is suddenly in his mouth.
He spits it into his palm and holds it out to the Goddess, wet.
She makes a face and takes it. The Trickster starts laughing again.
“Shut up,” snaps the Goddess. “I know you’re behind this, somehow — you wanted the girl and you’re jealous that I got her —“
The Trickster spreads his hands, palms up. His attempt at being the picture of innocence is ruined a bit by his wide smile and the weight of the gold rings on each of his fingers. He says something in an ancient language. The Goddess says something back, nastily, and vanishes.
Her absence leaves an echoey silence in George’s bedroom.
The Trickster looks at George, and winks. George does not wink back. One god in a night is too many. Two is really pushing it.
“Please don’t try to give me a gift,” he says tiredly.
The god smiles. His eyes are golden and hard. “Men like you are my hands and feet in this world,” he says. “As long as you’re Rogue, you’re mine. No token needed.”
George lies down and stares at the ceiling. “And what if I leave the Rogue?”
It hasn’t been done, in all memory, maybe ever. No one leaves the Rogue. That’s what death is for.
The Trickster is fading out of sight. “You can try,” he says. “But the Rogue will never leave you.”
He’s easy with Alanna, and doesn’t kiss her again for a time. But he lets her know, as gently as he can, that he has an eye on her. She blushes when she catches him gazing at her, but when he strokes her hair or rubs her shoulders she leans into it and lets her eyes flutter shut. She’s starved for affection, for someone to treat her body like a site of pleasure and not a battlefield.
Jonathan sees that hunger. Jonathan takes her to his bed. George gets in another fight with him about it. This one gets ugly.
“Twice now I’ve brought her to my mother in tears.”
“Women need to talk to other women,” says Jonathan dismissively, like the imperial ass he can be.
“Don’t add her to the ranks of all those folk who deserve more from you,” George tells him, cuttingly. “You know what she means to me. If I find you’ve mistreated her again, you won’t like what happens.”
Jon huffs. “Are you threatening me?”
“I surely am.”
“Oh? With what?” he snaps. “King of the Thieves, going to break into the palace and pinch something of mine?”
George looks at the prince through half-lidded eyes. “Mayhap I’ll show her what she’s missing.”
It’s the wrong thing to say, or the right thing to say. Jonathan goes incandescent with anger. “You wouldn’t dare.”
George thinks about the afternoon in the palace library before the battle of Fort Drell, when Alanna had kissed him back and arched into him, hands fisting in his cloak, and it had taken all his self-control to not undo her breeches and slide his hand inside. “And what if I already have?”
He catches the first blow Jonathan throws at him, and dodges the second. People are easy to fight when they’re angry. He gets the realm’s crown prince face-down on the floor and holds him there. “Listen to me,” he says in Jonathan’s ear. “She’s in your bed. Her pleasure is your responsibility. Make her come. Or I will.”
He lets Jonathan up. The younger man straightens his tunic and storms out. But George never has to take Alanna to see Eleni again.
Roger of Conté is smooth and handsome and George has him watched twenty-four hours a day. No chances. None. Alanna sends one of George’s messengers to see her brother and a week later a white-faced girl tells George the messenger was found dead by the road, five poisoned arrows in his back, everything he carried spread out across the snow. Alanna decides to go to Thom on her own and tries to give George the slip. As if George doesn’t have her watched twenty-four hours a day too. He meets her at the palace gates and together they ride to the City of the Gods.
Thom of Trebond is even crazier than his sister, but she loves him, and so George will deal with it.
On the way back six men swarm them on the road and George doesn’t duck in time. An arrow comes right through him. He yells at Alanna to ride on, but when has she ever listened to him? She fights harder than all of them, leaves none of them alive, races George to an inn, heals him, and presses her tear-stained face into his chest until he sets a hand on her head and tells her he’ll be just fine. She calls him an unprincipled pickpocket. They fall asleep, exhausted, in the same bed.
Something between them shifts after that. She isn’t skittish or blushing around George any longer. Sometimes she’ll wrap her arms around him and hold him, brief and tight, and listen to his heartbeat for a few moments before letting him go. She doesn’t stop sleeping with Jonathan. Nor does George try to get her into his bed. But the way she watches him sometimes, under her lashes, eyes full of wants and questions, makes him smile and think: soon, darlin’ girl.
On the day of her Ordeal Alanna is anxious to the point of nausea. She paces in his rooms, pale with nerves. He puts a glass of brandy in her hand and tells her to drink it. She does, and immediately can’t keep her eyes open. Eleni’s sleeping powder is a fine thing.
“You — you drugged it!” she accuses him, even as she sags into his arms.
“Did you really think I’d let you fret yourself sick?” he tells her, scooping her up. “It’s just for a nap. You have an important night ahead of you.”
She mutters something into his neck and then she’s out like a candle flame.
He carries her into his bedroom and sets her gently on his bed, and bundles blankets over her. She gets cold easily. “You knew,” he comments to the purple-eyed cat. “Why didn’t you warn her I was puttin’ a little extra in the brandy?”
“Because he knows what’s best for her,” says the Goddess behind him.
He turns around. She’s leaning on his bedpost, looking affectionately down at Alanna. She glances at George, and then looks away. They haven’t seen each other since the night she took her token back.
“I suppose you think you know what’s best for her, as well,” says the Goddess, not looking at him.
“I try,” says George quietly.
The Goddess’s mouth tightens.
“I know you don’t like it,” George tells her. “But I’m not giving her up.”
The Goddess crosses her arms and scowls. After a moment, she looks at him sideways. “You have done a decent job of keeping her safe.”
“I love her.”
The Goddess huffs a sigh. “I know that.” She scuffs a foot on the floor. George can’t believe that gods fidget. “You will need to be at the palace on the day she’s knighted. I will do my best to protect her, but she will feel better if you are there. She’s going to do something brave and stupid.”
George sighs and looks at the small body snoring on his bed. “Per the usual.” He looks at the Goddess for more information on just what kind of brave stupidity Alanna is going to get up to this time, but she has disappeared. Alanna wakes up an hour later and comments that the room smells like lilies.
She survives the Ordeal. She is knighted. Roger slices her shirt open and everyone is confused about why Alan has breasts. Thom, resplendent and theatrical, explains. Roger loses it. Alanna kills him. In the ensuing post-mortem chaos, she decides a good, long trip to the desert is in order. She leaves with George’s kiss on one cheek and Jon’s on the other. For the first time in eight years, George goes without seeing her for more than a week.
He feels odd with her gone. He misses her laugh and her blunt opinions and her ease with a knife and the way she fits under his chin. He misses the rare times when he can catch her by the wrist and reel her towards him and watch her give in and let him kiss her. He sends Lightfingers to check on her. The man barely escapes with his life but returns to say: she’s fine, she’s healthy, she’s taken in three witchy younglings and turned a tribe on its ear. George is unsurprised and proud.
Three months later Jonathan drops by the Dove and speechifies about bringing Alanna home.
“She belongs at my side,” he states, gazing out the window with his hands behind his back.
“So you’re plannin’ to marry her, then?” asks George lightly, feeling his heart pound. Don’t say yes, lass. Don’t say yes.
“Of course I am,” says Jonathan.
“And what does Alanna think about that?” George asks.
Jonathan looks confused, and makes noises along the lines of well, of course it’s obvious, not that they’d really talked about it, but — and George resists the urge to hit him again.
“How much longer do I have to deal with him bein’ an idiot?” he asks the air, after Jon leaves.
About a year and a half, answers the Trickster’s voice.
“That’s too long,” sighs George.
I would speed it up, but his parents have to die first.
George winces. He doesn’t ask any more questions.
Jonathan is back in Corus a month later with a new furrow in his brow and a horrible temper. He doesn’t have Alanna with him. George pours himself a whiskey. The Trickster, who also goes by Kyprioth, shows up to help him drink it.
Because Jonathan still has a year and five months of idiocy left, he has immediately taken up with a Princess Josiane of the Copper Isles, who is beautiful but rumored to be a tad insane. “What’s goin’ on with the Copper Isles?” George asks Kyprioth as they drink.
The god opens his mouth, closes it, looks very innocent, and immediately changes the subject to the brewing Rogue insurrection in Port Caynn. George makes a mental note that the god of liars is terrible at lying, and also that something is definitely going on with the Copper Isles.
He takes Kyprioth’s advice about Port Caynn, though. He leaves Corus and its gossip about the royal love life and gets to to the seaside city just in time to quash a nasty little rebellion. He takes up residence in a house to do the work of putting the town back together under his rule. He’s upstairs one day redrawing neighborhood boundaries when he feels a violet pressure in the back of his mind, and the maps in front of him blur. He’s out the door and down the stairs, running blind, even before Rispah can call for him.
His eyes have cleared by the time he comes through the door into the courtyard. There’s his girl, swinging off her horse. He doesn’t break his stride. She’s dusty from the road and tanned from the sun and her hair has lightened to the color of new copper. That’s all he has time to take in before he yanks her into his arms.
Her too-thin arms go around his shoulders and he kisses her, fiercely, and she kisses him back, and then she bursts into tears.
He carries her inside and holds her in his lap and tries to quiet the roar of mine inside his chest. He makes her blow her nose. She hides her face in his shirt and refuses to say what happened between her and Jon. He doesn’t push. He can guess.
A week later, Marek Swiftknife comes to bring George updates from Corus. He’s waxing rhapsodically about Princess Josiane’s lips when George senses the violet glow in the corner of his eye that tells him Alanna is on the other side of the closed door. She hovers for a bit, and then disappears. He doesn’t see her at dinner that evening.
Late that night, though, she knocks on the door to his rooms.
He’s sitting beside the fire with Marek’s latest reports in hand. She shuts the door behind her and presses herself to it.
He doesn’t stand up and he doesn’t say anything. It’s best to let Alanna work on her own time.
She watches him for a long moment, and then she tells him what happened in the desert.
When she’s done, George sits back in his chair and looks at her. The details aren’t much different from what he’d expected. Jon is a noble. Nobles are a predictably proud and ungrateful lot. Alanna is exempt. From across the room the firelight is sinking into her skin and turning her hair a dark red-gold and deepening the color of her brilliant eyes. He feels want unfurling inside him. “Good,” he tells her.
“I didn’t want you marryin’ him.”
“Why —“ she swallows. “Why didn’t you want me to marry him?”
George drops the reports and stands to walk towards her. He sets his hands on the door, on either side of her head. She grips her hands together in front of her. “You know why, sweet girl.”
She chews on her lip and doesn’t meet his eyes. He sighs. “If you’re about to give me another like-must-wed-like lecture, I suggest you save it. I’m waitin’ a few more years to ask you again.”
Alanna takes a breath and lets it out. Then she very gently, tentatively, fingers the edge of his shirt. “What about in the meantime?”
George smiles. “If I’m not botherin’ to keep you pure for a royal wedding, we have plenty of options.”
She huffs a laugh and slips her fingertips just under his shirt hem, tracing lightly across his stomach. He slides one hand into her hair, and she leans into his touch, like always. “Such as?”
He strokes her cheek and gives her a very specific, very explicit option. Her jaw drops.
He suggests another, and then another, and by the fourth she says “oh” and presses right up into him and then says “yes, please,” trembling a little, and he drags her into his bedroom and throws her into his bed.
She’s all fight and fire, but he nips her and teases her until she’s dizzy with sensation and gives herself up to him. He gets her soaking wet and slack with pleasure before he settles between her thighs. She gasps and swears against his neck when he pushes into her. He murmurs to her and caresses her as she shudders, feeling scars and sweat and strength under his hands, and rocks them both until she falls apart, kissing him and taking him over the edge.
They don’t sleep at all that night. Or the next, for that matter. Or the next.
The next three months are delicious. He shows her everything Jonathan hadn’t. It’s a vast territory. He teaches her what he likes and lets her figure things out and they talk sleepily afterwards about what works for them and what doesn’t. She likes his hands. She likes to come before he gets inside her. One night she straddles him and pins him down and rides him until he goes to pieces. Afterwards she watches him try to catch his breath and her eyes sparkle with triumph. He’s never been so proud.
But she is who she is, and come the early winter she starts tracing the pathways on his maps. She starts scrying into the fires at night and teaching herself new spells. She starts going for increasingly longer rides along the coast and not coming back til dark.
“You’re goin’ away soon, aren’t you,” murmurs George into her hair one night.
Alanna turns over and looks at him for a long moment. Then she says: “come with me.”
His heart skips.
George can’t leave the Rogue. For him go wandering now, with this vicious Claw fellow looking to take his throne, would be to condemn his people to a cruel leader. Claw would prey on their fear and leave them impoverished. He would beat and prostitute the women and make the children beg and steal. He would upend the deals George has made with the Provost’s men and condemn many in the Lower City to jail or execution. He would ruin lives and cause deaths. George can’t leave the Rogue. Not even for Alanna.
For a moment he thinks he sees Kyprioth, standing beside the bed in the dark.
He starts to say I can’t, but his voice catches in his throat. He has never had to say no to her before.
She takes his hand and kisses it. Then she presses her forehead to his. “I know you can’t leave,” she whispers. “I know. I just wanted you to know that I would have you along.”
He covers her mouth with one hand so she can’t protest like she usually does and tells her, very firmly, that he loves her. She rolls her eyes, but he can feel her smile against his palm.
They have four more days together. In bed, out of desperation and longing, they get rough with each other. Alanna fights him for dominance but he’s the one who taught her how to fight and he knows all her patterns. He knows where to throw his weight. He knows where to put his mouth. He knows what to say, low and harsh in her ear. She always ends up underneath him, hot and slick and swearing and needy. Her grip is bruising and her teeth are sharp and he loves it. He wants to hold her down. He wants to mark her. He wants to be marked by her. He feels their last night in his lower back for a week after she’s gone. It distracts him from the ache in his heart.
His people track Alanna for him as long as they can, but when she crosses into Sarain they can’t follow her, and her letters stop too. It’s almost a blessing. A storm is coming to Corus, and he needs no distractions. Queen Lianne’s health is failing. King Roald is retreating from public life. Thom of Trebond is wreaking havoc. The strength of the monarchy is faltering, and the country feels it. Jonathan writes to George and asks if they can meet. George checks the calendar, notes that Jon’s days of idiocy are coming to an end, and agrees.
They get the Alanna conversation out of the way first.
“You hurt her.”
“I know.” Jonathan looks at his hands, and then at the floor. “She stayed with you?”
“She did.” He doesn’t try to hide the drawl from his voice.
Jon’s cheeks redden slightly. But he swallows whatever he was planning to say, and just nods. They leave it at that.
That meeting turns into a weekly one. They sit across from each other upstairs at the Dove or in Jon’s rooms at the palace and lay out maps of Tortall. George tells him what he knows about each city’s internal politics and leanings, and Jon fills in the internal dramatics of their ruling families. Jon asks him what it’s like, to try to hold a kingdom together. They talk about how to balance competing interests of powerful parties, how to compromise without seeming weak, how to forgive without losing face. They talk about when to appease and when to confront. They talk about taxes and tariffs and tithes. They talk about being a symbol, about being in the public eye, and about being careful about who you let into your private life. (Jonathan quietly phases Josiane out, after that conversation.) They talk about death. They talk about their mothers. On the hard weeks they drink ale and play chess and don’t talk about anything.
For the first time, George understands why Alanna might have loved Jon.
It doesn’t make him any less grateful that she didn’t marry him.
The snow is thick on the ground when the Goddess appears in his kitchen, taller than usual and holding an axe.
“Why did you let her roam without you?” demands the Goddess.
“I’m King in these parts. I can’t leave my people.” George eyes the axe warily. “And she didn’t want to come back to Corus. What’s all this about?”
“She has deviated from the plan,” she tells George, voice tight.
“Your plan had some holes to begin with,” remarks George.
“Do not be impertinent with me,” snaps the Goddess. “If you had not vied for her heart —“
“None of that,” George interrupts her. His ma would smack him, but his ma’s not here. “Tell me what’s going on.”
“She has gone where I cannot protect her,” says the Goddess, voice deep and final. “She has gone to fetch the Dominion Jewel. She has gone to fight Chitral at the Roof of the World.”
There is a long moment of silence.
George knows his geography, as all good kings do. The Roof of the World is high and freezing and desolate and abandoned. There are no passes through the range of mountains that surrounds it. The peaks are frozen year-round. The snowstorms will rip a man’s flesh from his bones.
She gets cold easily, thinks George faintly, seeing ice-blue skin, red hair, violet eyes. Oh, my darlin’.
The Goddess looks at him again. “You could have gone with her. You could have talked her out of it.“
Even through his fear he knows that’s stupid. “You try talkin’ Alanna out of anything and let me know how it goes. And why can’t you protect her?”
“It is not given to us to interfere with the Elementals,” intones the Goddess.
“Horse shit. Your kind interfere with everything.”
The Goddess shakes her head. “It would upset the balance of things,” she says, and her voice drops. “She is foolhardy. She must not get herself killed. She is a fulcrum upon which the world turns.”
George is suddenly not afraid any longer. He is furious. “You have no right to make her your instrument and then leave her unprotected,” he says. He starts towards the Goddess. “If she dies —“
“Come no closer!” cries the Goddess.
“I’m not yours any more,” George tells her, keeping his voice steady as he advances. “I owe you no obedience. And if she dies —“
The Goddess levels her axe at him. She is growing taller and wider, her hair streaming out into the room like snakes, her huge eyes expanding out of her skull. The edges of her form start to melt, and that is the only warning George gets before the floor vanishes from underneath his feet and he pitches into darkness.
You dare threaten Me? Her voice is the baying of hounds, and it comes from everywhere. He is in the great void that is the source of the Mother’s power, where she creates and destroys. George feels the blackness pressing against his eyelids and down his throat into his lungs. You dare to tell Me what to do, I, who control the tides, who steer the moon across its arc, who order the constellations with My own hands —
“If she dies,” George chokes out into the dark, “there will never be another one like her. For either of us.”
The darkness goes silent.
George floats in it.
George tries very hard to not think of the love of his life dying alone in the cold.
The darkness sighs and lets him go.
He lands on his knees on the floor of his kitchen. The sunlight is blinding and makes him retch. He’s sick for the three days. Rispah, who knows him well, nurses him and doesn’t ask questions. When he’s better, he throws himself grimly back into his work and tries not to think about red hair, violet eyes, ice-blue skin.
Alanna comes back alive.
He has folk along every border waiting to send word if they see her, and one day he gets a note: the Lioness is landed at Port Caynn and is making her way to Corus. He leaves the next day, riding hard, heart in his throat.
He finds her at a roadside inn. She’s traveling with the loveliest woman George has ever seen, a K’miri warrior girl whose attitude towards life makes Alanna seem like a ray of sunshine, and the Shang Dragon. Liam Ironarm is tied in knots over Alanna. George is sympathetic. He knows what that feels like. It doesn’t stop him from taking Alanna upstairs almost immediately to show her just how happy he is to see her, and to test that everything on her still works.
(He slides into her and they both sigh with relief and delight. “Learn anything from your Shang friend?” he asks against the taut line of her back, kissing new scars.
“Oh, plenty,” she says, breathless and smiling over her shoulder at him. “Want me to show you?” — and oh, he doesn’t mind sharing Alanna with a man who knows what he’s doing. He’d thank Liam if it wasn’t too much like gloating.)
They make their way back to Corus, where Jon is now a driven and grieving king. He is moved to tears by Alanna’s return, and embraces George like a brother. The three of them spend an evening over wine and it only gets better when Thayet arrives and knocks Jon purely sideways.
“So you’re not on the outs with Alanna, then?” George asks him the next morning.
Jonathan looks rueful. “I was terrible to her, and I never apologized for it, and she brought me the Dominion Jewel and the most beautiful woman in the world.” He shakes his head. “I don’t deserve her.”
“You don’t,” says George cheerfully, because it’s true, and because it feels good to say it to Jon’s face, after all this time.
He opens his eyes at dawn on the morning of Jon’s coronation.
“It’s not going to be a nice party, is it,” he says quietly.
The Goddess is lying next to him in bed, flat on her back, hands folded on her stomach. She is normal-sized this time, simply dressed and unarmed. George wonders if it’s a sort of apology for how she treated him the last time she saw him. “Crossroads in time never are,” she says.
“Where will you be when it gets bad?”
“Watching,” she says.
“Not in the midst?”
She shakes her head back and forth on the pillow. Her hair is dark and glossy. “We can’t fight in mortal wars. But I have my chosen, and they are armed.”
“Do you know what’s going to happen?” asks George.
She rotates her head to look at him. Her eyes are green and glowing. “No,” she answers. “That’s up to all of you.”
It is heinous. Roger, back from the dead, decides to rip the land apart. Alanna descends silent and resolute into the catacombs of the palace to kill him again and doesn’t let George come with her. He grits his teeth and throws himself into the fray. He finds himself fighting back-to-back with Buriram Tourakom, who has not brought Thayet all the way from war-torn Sarain only to have her die in a stupid family squabble. She makes her displeasure at this nonsense known by efficiently killing everyone who gets in her way. George finds great comfort in her bad mood.
At the end of it, Liam is dead and Thom is dead and Faithful is dead and Josiane is dead and Si-Cham is dead and Gary’s wife’s sister is dead and Stefan’s lover is dead and the guardsman who always looked the other way when George strolled into the palace is dead and the palace itself is crumbling to bits —
Alanna is not dead. Alanna is alive. She standing at the altar, looking at Liam’s body with dry red eyes. Jon, sitting at her feet, is holding her bloody hand.
By the time George gets to her, she’s swaying. He wraps his arms around her. Jonathan calls her lioness and George calls her love and Jon kisses her hand and George kisses the top of her head and Alanna’s eyes flutter shut and she goes limp in George’s arms.
He eases down next to Jon on the altar and bundles Alanna into his lap and thinks, yes, sleeping would be good. The next time he wakes up he’s in a healer’s ward. His wounds are bandaged and clean. Alanna is asleep in the cot next to him. The healer who stops at the foot of the bed gives him an appraising glance. “This is the men’s ward, you know,” she says meaningfully. “We tried to move her and she yelled at us until we let her come back to you.”
“That’s my girl,” murmurs George, reaching across the space between them to take her hand before he goes back to sleep.
After it all settles, Jon ennobles him. Jon gives him a seaside barony. Jon gives him a pardon for his crimes. Jon gives him a post as confidential agent to the king. It’s all too much. George wants none of it. But Jon is proving to be an adept politician, and makes sure to have Alanna in the room when he gives George all of these things. One look from Alanna’s bright, pleading eyes and George has to say yes. It’s stupid, how much he loves her.
That night, perhaps one of the last in his own old bed at the Dove, he looks at the ceiling and says to himself: “I’m leaving the Rogue.”
Kyprioth leans at the head of his bed, eating a gold apple. “Is that what you think is happening?”
“I hardly believe it myself. But I signed a paper today that says I’m to be a baron.”
Kyprioth grins. “Paper. Fah.” He spits a gold seed into thin air and it vanishes. “You’ve forgotten what we talked about. The Rogue will never leave you.”
“I don’t want it to,” George says, quietly. He lets his eyes close. He thinks of his life, the past ten years of his kingship. He thinks of the whole realm of Tortall that has been under his protection, that he has come to love, that has protected and grown him as much as he has protected and grown it. “It’s a gift.”
He can feel Kyprioth smile. “Of course it is. It’s my gift. Why do you think I didn’t need to give you a token?” The god taps his chest. “You will always be mine. But I’ll leave you alone for a bit. Make sure you invite me to the wedding.”
“To the —“ George opens his eyes. There’s no one there. He sighs.
He gives Alanna five months.
It’s the longest they’ve been apart, but they need the time. She goes to the desert. She writes to him often, and says that she’s getting enough sleep at last, that it’s quiet under the stars. He writes back to tell her all of what’s happening: The Rogue Court took a vote about who should replace him and chose Marek. Myles and Eleni have decided to get married, as have Rispah and Coram. Buriram Tourakom has, incredibly, not murdered anyone, thanks to Raoul of Goldenlake, who took her under his wing and taught her how to drink to excess and insult people in Common. Thayet is keeping Jonathan humble. George is ferreting out the last of the coronation rebels for Jon. He’s also fixing up the barony of Pirate’s Swoop. He draws sketches of the castle in the corner of his letters and sometimes she makes additions of little flags and dogs and archers on them and sends them back.
In the fall, he saddles his horse and rides alone into the desert.
When he finds her, she’s had time to think. She’s calm. She tells him, very clearly and without hesitation, that she loves him and that she wants to be his and that she’ll marry him and bear his little ones. He tries to speak but realizes he won’t be able to without crying, so he just picks her up and buries his face in her hair and listens to her breathing and feels her heart thump against his chest and feels her strong arms tight around him.
“I’m not going to be tame, though,” Alanna warns him, voice muffled in his shoulder.
“I want you wild, my love,” he assures her, smiling.
The Bazhir insist on a tribal marriage ceremony a few days later. Alanna hesitates on his behalf, but George points out that he’s been waiting for years to wed her, and the sooner the better. She laughs. They ride back to Tortall with matching ritual scars. Every time George sees it on Alanna’s forearm he feels a surge of primal possession. At night, he holds her close and kisses her breathless and covers her strong body in bruises and bite marks again. Mine, mine, mine.
Since the Bazhir already married them, they don’t have a wedding, but they do have a party. “And you’re invited to that, so don’t pout,” George tells the air, waving a hand in what he thinks must be the general direction of the Trickster.
Both gods show up. The Goddess, disguised as a priestess, greets Alanna like a daughter and acts like she’s never met George in her life. The Trickster lounges in the corner and drinks. George goes and joins him. Together they watch Myles give a tipsy speech about how much Alanna and George mean to him, which fairly soon slides into a speech about how much George’s mother means to him, and it takes Alanna to tug him back down into his seat so he doesn’t scandalize the crowd. Then she gets up on her own chair, blushing red, and very quickly says that she loves everyone and thanks them all for coming. Raoul and Buri heckle her mercilessly until she throws something at them.
Next to George, the Trickster chuckles. “Full of fight, that one.”
George glances at him. His eyes are on Alanna, glittering. George knows that look. Liam looked at Alanna that way. Jonathan looked at Alanna that way, and still sometimes does. George looks at her that way himself.
He remembers something the Goddess said to the Trickster, years ago: you wanted the girl.
Years of thieving have given him an elastic definition of ownership, but he still doesn’t like anyone else claiming Alanna. He flexes his hands.
Kyprioth sees it. “Relax,” he says, amused. “I’m not here to take her from you. But she would have been perfect for me.” He swallows his oddly gold drink. “She played the greatest trick on a court these realms have ever seen. Eight years of hiding in plain sight?” He shakes his head. “I couldn’t have done better myself. She should have been mine.”
George drinks, too. “What got you to give her up, then?”
The Trickster smiles. “It suited me that she should be yours,” he says. “And —“ he closes one eye, raises and lowers his palms like he’s weighing something. “I made a deal.”
“What kind of a deal?” asks George.
Kyprioth doesn’t answer.
“What kind of a deal,” demands George, suddenly suspicious, but when he turns his head the Trickster is gone.
Jon makes Alanna King’s Champion and keeps her running all over the realm until George puts his foot down. He hasn’t fought with Jon in years. He still knows how to do it and win.
“Alanna is my vassal,” snaps Jon, standing behind his desk with his fists planted on it. “She swore an oath to serve me —“
George has his marriage scar on one arm and his wedding ring on the other hand. He’d made Alanna come twice that morning and can still taste her in his mouth. “She’s my wife,” he tells Jon, voice low and deadly. “I’m gettin’ her pregnant. You’re just going to have to deal with it.”
They have little Thom, who is the joy of his father’s life, and then — gift after gift —they have twins. Alan and Alianne, a boy and a girl. The day the twins are born, they are two tiny soft almost-nothing babies in their cribs, sleeping on this side of their mama for the first time. George crouches to place a hand in each bassinet and gently touches their little feet. He loves his children so much he thinks his heart might break.
“And you said you weren’t in the business of child-rearing,” says the Goddess, over his right shoulder; and then, to someone else, she says: “Which one do you want?”
“Definitely the girl,” says Kyprioth on his left.
By the time George whirls around, seething, the gods are gone.
He doesn’t tell Alanna. It takes sixteen years for the other shoe to drop.
On the boat home from the damn Copper Isles, having found his teenage daughter in the employ of the land’s intended rebel queen and in the arms of a young man who has a peculiar birdlike air about him, he stands at the prow.
A crow lands on the railing next to him. There are no crows this far out at sea. George wonders what would happen if he shoved the crow into the ocean.
“I would, unfortunately, be just fine,” says the crow.
“Would it at least hurt?” asks George.
The crow shakes its head.
“I wish it would,” says George, jaw clenched. He looks down at his hands, at their white-knuckled grip on the railing.
Crows cannot smile but George knows it would, if it could. “I told you I made a deal,” it tells him.
“She is my daughter,” says George.
“Alianne is her own woman,” says the crow. “Which, by the way, makes her very difficult. Uncontrollable.” The crow stamps its feet irritably. George feels a glimmer of pride. He also feels very tired.
“Can the gods be done with my family now?” he says.
“I’ll see if I can arrange a break.” The crow tips its head. “What would you give for it?”
“Nothing, to you,” snaps George. “No more gifts.”
He stays in his bunk for the rest of the voyage and misses his wife something fierce.
Here is what he knows: Alanna had emerged from eight years of pretending to be someone she wasn’t and had become allergic to all forms of dishonesty. She never lies, not even when politeness demands it. It causes diplomatic headaches and the occasional outright disaster but George loves it. It is the antidote to all his work. After a day of building delicate webs of deception, Alanna’s brutal truthfulness is like a spring storm in his life. She keeps him clean. He gets her dirty. It works. When they are apart for this long the imbalance makes his head hurt.
The ship pulls in to Blue Harbor and she is waiting for him on the pier. He couldn’t book passage on a faster ship without giving his identity away — merchants travel slower than barons — but he’d arranged for a courier to take a letter to Pirate’s Swoop ahead of his arrival. She knows everything that’s happened. As he disembarks and approaches her he realizes that she is smiling.
“Hello, husband,” she greets him.
“Hello, darlin’.“ He sweeps her up against him, feeling overwhelmed by gratitude and relief. She fits right in his arms and under his chin the way she always has. She’s softer now, and her copper hair has silver threads in it.
“She’s so entirely your daughter,” Alanna says into his shirt, laughing.
“Not true. Stubborn as a mule, brave and stupid? That’s you to the bone, my love.”
“So she’s fine, then?”
“She’s fine. She’s more than fine.” He kisses her forehead, slides his hands across her back, tugs her closer. “Oh, I missed you. Alanna —“ and he is all of a sudden desperate for her. She tilts her head up and grins at the look on his face. Then she cants her hips against his just a little, because he has taught her too well how to be wicked with him, and it is imperative that they find a bed immediately.
He still can be surprised by how much he wants her. So much of her body has been shaped by war but some of it has been shaped by him — the long scar from their wedding and the little ones around her fingers from when he taught her how to juggle knives, thirty years ago; the curves in her hips and stomach and breasts from the children she bore him — and it’s those parts that make him lose his mind.
They spend three days in a Blue Harbor inn behaving like teenagers.
Three months later Sir Nealan of Queenscove comes to visit Pirate’s Swoop. George likes Neal, who was his wife’s first and only squire, very much. Despite his penchant for theatrics he’ll make an excellent spymaster someday.
On the second day of Neal’s visit George finds him standing over Alanna in the Swoop’s small healing ward. Neal has his hands on his hips. Alanna’s face is bright red. George raises his eyebrows.
“I’m too old for this,” Alanna wails, putting her face in her hands.
“I’d say you are,” says Neal, brutally. “And furthermore, I am scarred by having to give you such an intimate appraisal.”
“Excuse me —“ starts George. Neal rounds on him.
“You got your wife pregnant. And I —“ he sets a hand on his chest and closes his eyes — “had to confirm it for her.”
“Shut up,” snaps Alanna. “I didn’t trust anyone else to ask them.” She leans back in her chair and knocks her head gently against the wall. “I thought it was menopause.”
Neal is washing his hands. “It is assuredly not.” He glares at his former knight-mistress. “The number of times you hit me over the head and told me to always use a pregnancy charm. The number of the damn things you had me make.“
“I know, Neal. We were — distracted.” She looks at George, sheepishly. “How do you feel about having another child?”
It’s such a stupid question that George doesn’t even bother answering it. He would have gotten Alanna pregnant ten times over if she’d have let him. He can’t stop smiling. She looks at his face and sighs. “I should have known you’d love it.” She closes her eyes. “Maybe I’ll even stick around and help you raise this one.”
“You should,” comments Neal, who is completely unafraid of her. “It would be incredibly stupid of you to be past forty, post-natal, and the King’s Champion.”
“I’m going to have to resign,” says Alanna, to the air. Then she looks at George. “Jon’s going to be so mad at you.”
“He’s always a little mad at me where sex with you is concerned,” George points out.
“Please do not go any deeper into that particular topic,” says Neal, long-suffering, who grew up immersed in court gossip and knows exactly what Jon and Alanna did when they were young and how it panned out.
Alanna makes Neal take the news to Jon himself. “You’re lucky I love you so much,” Neal yells to her as he rides out the next day. “If he bites my head off I will come back to haunt you.”
“Being headless would improve your personality,” Alanna yells back, grinning.
George takes Alanna for a long walk along the beach to discuss what their lives will look like, now. Alanna will need to be careful during the pregnancy and after it. They’ll both have to lay off roaming for a while. They talk about delegating, making sure there’s a healer they trust at the Swoop for the next year, what Alanna will do to keep from going stir-crazy. Maybe Thom will come home for a while when he’s finished his studies. Evin Larse has taken over the Riders after Buri summarily announced she was quitting to marry Raoul and that anyone with anything to say about it could meet her on the archery range; they’ll ask Larse if the trainees can come to the Swoop for the summer like they used to do before the Immortals War. George will see if he can get Neal’s cousin Domitan to leave the Own and come work for him in the spy service and take over some of the roaming parts of the job.
Suddenly Alanna grips his hand. “George —“
There are two figures on the beach far ahead of them.
George narrows his eyes.
The Goddess controls motherhood. Kyprioth controls surprises. They are arm-in-arm.
Ah, thinks George. Of course.
They both wave, and then they disappear.
“Gods and their gifts,” says Alanna, rolling her eyes, one hand protectively over her belly, and George has never loved her more.
In the spring, Neal comes back to Pirate’s Swoop and delivers Alanna of a healthy baby girl. She is bigger and stronger than all her siblings were, with round hazel eyes and a full head of reddish-brown hair. They name her after Eleni. They ask Raoul and Buri to be her godparents. Raoul gets teary when he says yes. Buri just gives a curt nod, but when George goes to put the baby in her cradle for the first time, it is wrapped end-to-end in traditional K’miri protective charms and has a tiny bow-and-arrow hung on the post and a row of little stuffed horses lined up along the side.
Neal orders Alanna on bed rest for the first several days after the birth. On the first day he lets her up again, she leans against George and looks into the bassinet where their daughter is sleeping.
“Let’s not tell her she’s a gift from the gods,” she murmurs.
“Agreed,” says George. Then he frowns, and reaches down.
There is a golden apple and a silver lily in the crib with their daughter.
We couldn’t resist, comes Kyprioth’s voice.
It’s the last one, we promise, says the Goddess.
“It had better be,” snaps Alanna, looking at the ceiling, but George laughs and rests his cheek on her hair and holds his child’s tiny hand and thinks about his whole life and says, silently: thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you. For all of it, thank you.