George Cooper was a smart man, for all he was common-born and thus had never seen the inside of a study hall. His eyes and ears had taught him as much as his mother’s enforced lessons in reading and sums. He did well, and trusted his senses, but George was still shocked when a red-headed, purple-eyed lad in the market square of Corus had near set his mind afire, such was the nudge his Sight gave him at his first glimpse of Alan of Trebond.
The boy was a puzzle, and George hated puzzles. He spent long nights and many dawns, trying to figure out why in the world his Gift had decided he needed to be companionable with the Court’s newest page.
He wasn’t sure if it was Alanna’s perfect artifice or his own lack of skill, but George still kicked himself for not figuring out Alan of Trebond was a girl ’til she’d told him so.
He never stopped trying to figure her out, though, even after his mother had assured him all was well. Alan of Trebond quickly went from excellent page to exceptional squire to extraordinary woman. She was the bravest female he knew of, including his own cousin Rispah. Alanna was a fierce fireball, tough and insistent that no matter of gender would keep her from what she wanted. If George brought up her sex, even in teasing, Alanna could back him down, waving his arms in submission, faster than a thief could slit a purse.
George also knew that his lass had a mountainous, terrible fret of a time being comfortable with people that she liked, let alone sommat passing on the street. Her own friends were willing to admit that Alanna was a prickly thing under the best of circumstances. Strangers and close companions alike were bound to see the sharp side of her tongue before a smile. George’s dealings with her brother, Thom, had taught him that Trebonds were a standoffish lot, at best; growing up with no mother and a useless git of a father hadn’t helped.
There were nutter Healers in Corus who would say Alanna of Trebond had problems with abandonment. Even though they spouted nonsense most times, and it made George testy to admit it, the Healers were correct. They were still nutters, though.
His Lady Knight had finally come to him in Port Cain all on her own, fresh from the southern desert and hot from a very public breakup with Jonathan of Conté, crown prince of Tortall. George liked the lad, and often considered him to be one of his closest friends aside from the folk of the Dancing Dove, but had young Jonathan shown his face after George had seen the pain in his lass’s violet eyes, George would have been hard-pressed not to take the damn fool’s eyes and ears. Perhaps his nose, too.
His lass needed a gentle hand, and for once seemed to welcome it. Some days it seemed as if George had been that for her since that first morning she’d come to him in a panic and needing a healer. Well, far be it from George Cooper not to provide. During her stay in his Port house, George showered Alanna with affection, silly tokens, delicious meals, and warm conversation—things he’d wanted to do for her since she’d made squire, prevented by circumstance and her own stubborn refusal to accept his courtship.
George wasn’t quite sure if she was seeing his current kindness for the courtship he wanted it to be, but he wouldn’t dare press things. He’d never had the luxury of Alanna’s company for so long. Best not to risk that wrathful temper. Best not to risk driving her back to the Bazhir. Or worse, back to Corus.
Fat chance of that happening. Heartbroken she may have been, but this was still his Lioness. George would have let Jonathan live; Alanna would like as not set him afire, now that the shock of the fight had worn off.
“I don’t know what he was thinking,” she grumbled one night, glaring down at her wine as if it were the fool Prince in question. They were past her latest artifice, now, when she’d pretended at first that nothing was wrong. ‘All is well’ seemed to be her favorite lie, one George didn’t begrudge her.
He’d known something had gone awry even before Alanna had arrived. Messages from Corus had spoken of the Prince returning from the desert in a temper so foul that it was discussed only in shocked whispers in Court.
Only his lass could infuriate someone so.
“I mean, did he think I could be Queen?” she continued, scowling. “Your mother can’t even teach me to walk like a girl when I put on a skirt. Did that stupid twit think I would hang up my sword, give up my shield, and spit babies from my womb the moment we were wed?”
George grinned. His girl had picked up crass from his cronies, and it warmed his Trickster’s heart to see a noble of Tortall speak so.
Still, he needed to be cautious. Despite his anger with Jonathan for his foul treatment of Alanna, he wanted to keep the young man’s friendship. She was still vassal to the crown, and he didn’t want my Lord Provost breathing down his neck for angering the Conté heir. George was not the fool his mother sometimes proclaimed him to be—balance was needed, here.
“I’m not sure he was thinking much at all, lass,” George said, adding more wine to her glass when she held it out. The gesture was noble and imperious, trained into her from birth, but it was habit, not arrogance. “I’m surprised he didn’t rebel against his fate sooner.”
“What do you mean?” she asked.
“I mean that he was locked into th’ path of his life as surely as you almost were, lass. The difference being, you had an option that he never did.” Jonathan of Conté was born to be King of Tortall. Short of the country crumbling to dust, there was no escaping that fate. The poor lad had known it all of his life, accepting it with an equanimity expected of royalty. George was still surprised that Jonathan had lasted so long before finally trying, in some small way, to rebel.
Alanna sighed. “I had thought as much. But his timing was bloody miserable.”
“D’ye love him, lass?” he asked, trying not to hold his breath.
“Of course I do, silly pickpocket,” she said, and smiled at him. “He’s my Lord, and one day he will be my King. I’d hate to serve a ruler that I had no love for.”
“But would you go back to him?” George asked, taking a careful sip of wine as she stared at him. “If he stopped bein’ an ass, if there was no concern of one day needin’ t’ be Queen.”
Alanna was silent for a long time. George let her be, knowing that his lass was careful and honest with her answers, when her temper wasn’t roused.
“No,” she said at last. “No. We’re done, George.”
He managed not to breathe a sigh of relief. Courting a Lioness was hard enough without royal competition. George had always refused to be jealous of the fact that she shared her body and bed with the Prince. He had not exactly been chaste during her younger years, either. Throw no stones that you didn’t want returned.
“It would never have worked between us, even without the throne to contend with.”
“Why’s that, lass?”
“Because he’s a prig,” Alanna spat, and George laughed.
When she kissed him under bright Port Cain sunlight, he’d accepted the gift of it gladly, because for the first time, she’d looked him in the eye when their lips had touched. There was affection there, and no sadness, and she was not stiff beneath his hands as he took her in his arms and took her to bed.
Having his lass in his bed was every bit as glorious as George had dreamed.
Despite his happiness, and her genuine pleasure at sharing his bed, there was still a shadow over them that not even the bright coastal sunlight could diminish. It hadn’t taken George long to realize that, for all she enjoyed sharing his bed, Alanna of Trebond feared something. It hadn’t taken him much longer to puzzle out what.
He didn’t know how to speak of it, at first, because while he understood the Healer twaddle, George had little clue as to how to breach that gulf. It wasn’t the first time George had cursed Alanna’s misbegotten git of a father. His distance had meant her ruse as Alan of Trebond had succeeded, but there were deep wounds remaining, wounds that Alanna would sooner eat horse dung than admit to.
“Are you so afraid for me, lass?” he asked one night, after seeing to Rogue business and trying to stave off a headache. At the rate things were going, he would need to return to Corus. For the first time he could recall since becoming King of the Rogue, he didn’t want to go. Gods, but he was getting soft.
“I know you can hold your own,” she said, stroking Faithful and watching the fire.
“Not what I asked, and you know it,” he retorted, briefly annoyed.
Answer the question, fool, Faithful purred, and George blinked. It still struck him odd when the cat chose to be heard.
Alanna narrowed her eyes, and stopped petting the cat. Faithful twitched his ears and began grooming himself, unperturbed. “Of course I am. Half the rogues in the kingdom would stick a knife in your back, if given the opportunity.”
“Which is why I’ve never given it to ’em,” George replied. “D’ye know, I’ve outlasted every other King or Queen t’ever sit on th’ throne?”
Alanna jerked up, finally looking at him, surprise arching her brows. “I had thought you’d held it long, but no. I hadn’t realized.”
George gazed back at her, taking in the pale skin that had finally, under unrepentant Bazhir sun, gained a golden sheen. Even the parts of her that had stayed clothed had picked up on that sun-color, and he realized his eyes had dropped, following the curve of her breasts, revealed by the low cut of the gown she’d worn that evening.
She noticed where his eyes had gone and smiled. He knew Alanna considered herself plain, but when smoke heated her purple eyes and her lips gained that sultry twist, his lass was nothing but beautiful temptation.
“Why, Your Majesty,” she purred. “Have you lost your taste for the current conversation?”
George grinned back. Faithful sniffed and stalked off, leaving the room in a quick trot before they managed to get their hands on each other.
Later, he awoke to the soft sound of her voice. She thought him still asleep, he knew; Alanna rarely spoke so plain.
“I’m afraid to love you, George,” she was whispering, and it was a struggle to remain silent and still once he realized she was crying. “Whenever it’s been months since I’ve heard from you, I worry that some cutthroat has finally succeeded, there’s a new King in the Lower City, and I won’t know unless Rispah or Solom survive to send word. I may be a Knight, but I’m not a target the way you are, even if I am a Lady Knight. If someone manages to kill me, it’s just weeks of ill gossip in the Court, maybe a few silly speeches. Thom would have to get married. Can you imagine the look on his face if he suddenly had to find a wife and make heirs for Trebond?”
She sighed and shifted. George remembered to breathe like he was still having crooked dreams. “I think he fancies men, too, though good luck getting him to admit it. Silly sod.”
That threw George. It had never occurred to him to think that Thom of Trebond’s partner preferences were part of the reason for his cold, aloof exterior.
There are a lot of priests who are harsh on that sort, he thought, the realization making him angry. Thom would have spent much of childhood surrounded by disapproval. Servants of Mithros they might have been, but serving the gods didn’t stop folk from being fools. For the first time, he felt real sympathy for Thom, and Alanna’s unwavering dedication to her twin made more sense.
“But you, George? You’re a target, all the time. No one gains anything but a bit of infamy if they kill me. But if someone kills you, they get a throne.”
“I can’t stop bein’ what I am, lass,” he said, gripped by unaccountable sadness.
“And I would never want you to do that, just as I know you’ll never be silly enough to wish me anything other than what I am. These are my fears, George, and you were supposed to be asleep, pickpocket.”
“If you don’t wish me t’ know something, best to just find a vault to speak in,” George said, rolling over to face his lass. The moonlight from the window glinted off wet trails on her face, and he reached out and wiped her cheeks clean with gentle thumb and fingers.
An expression somewhere between disgruntlement and fondness twisted her face. “Oh, like that would stop you. You’d find a way. A spelled rat, perhaps.”
“A rat’s too big. A flatbug, mayhap,” George said, musing. A spelled critter was a nice idea.
She rolled her eyes at him. “When you find a mage who’ll do it, don’t mention it was my idea. I have standards to maintain.”
He smiled, trying to ignore the miasma of rot roiling in his gut. He’d sent his lass off to the war in Tusaine feeling much the same way. “My beautiful lass.”
He knew her well enough to know she blushed at the words. “Charmer.”
His lass, his lad; George had been entranced with her since they had first talked of friendship over a pint of lemonade, thinking he was gaining the occasional companionship of a young male page. His Sight was a wonderful Gift, one he thanked the gods for whenever he could. “The only one I wish t’charm is you, Alanna.”
“I know,” she said, and he hated to hear the sadness in her voice.
She snuggled into his arms when he reached for her, glad to be held. She was a tiny thing compared to his lanky bulk, a small woman who could best anyone on the continent with a sword or her vicious tongue.
It was true when he said he’d outlasted every other known ruler of the Court of the Rogue. George had always known that death would be his fate if he kept the throne. He’d never regretted the decision; his leadership had taken care of the others in the Lower City and of Corus who followed the Trickster, repairing years of negligence from the previous three Rogues.
If I stay Rogue, I die, George thought, and for the first time, the thought perturbed him. He didn’t want that fate—had never really wanted it, but had taken it as part and parcel of the responsibilities that lay with the throne.
Alanna was right, saying he was a target. She didn’t want him to change his spots, but that certainty of knowing his fate kept her from bridging the gap that would lead them from bedmates to betrothed.
He lay there awake long after his lass had fallen asleep, snoring lightly in his arms, and knew that this was what he wanted, for the rest of his life. He wanted it more than he wanted to be king.
Rogues didn’t retire. George frowned as he stroked Alanna’s back, making her mumble happily in her sleep. She would get antsy soon enough, ready to travel and seek out the adventures she’d earned her shield for.
He wanted to be with her. He wanted to see Sarain and Tusaine and Scaran and Galen. He wanted to cause trouble and raise a ruckus wherever they roamed.
Rogues didn’t retire. George would have to find another option.
* * * *
“I have to go to Corus,” he told her over breakfast a few days later. He had ideas about the throne, but that wasn’t what was dragging him back to the capital.
“That problem you’ve been frowning over every time a messenger bird comes in?” she asked, munching on toast. She had that narrow tilt to her eyes that told George that his lass was not yet ready for it to be morning. George supposed that if some dratted bell had roused him before dawn every single day for seven years, he’d hate mornings, too.
“The very same. I don’t know how long I’ll be, but you can stay here as long as you like.”
Alanna frowned but nodded. “Hate to be here without you. I expect I’ll be bored.”
George smiled. When he had been busy with Rogue work, she had sparred in the courtyard, wrestling and learning dirty tricks from visiting rogues. If she wasn’t learning, she was riding and exploring. His lass didn’t know how to be bored. “Would you like anything from Corus, lass?”
“Look in on Sir Myles for me?” she asked, a hint of entreaty on her face.
He nodded. “Easily done.”
The rest of the meal passed in silence. “I’ll miss you,” Alanna whispered, biting her lip.
It was too adorable to resist. George got up, skirted the table, and kissed her. “I don’t leave until noon.”
She nodded and stood, taking both of his hands with a silly smile on her face. “Let’s make the most of it, then.”
George returned to Corus to find more murdered rogues, and an aura of nerves that was bewildering for its source. “What in all hells is going on?” he asked Stefan, after sneaking onto the Palace grounds.
The hostler was chewing on a piece of straw, but his normally open face was pensive. “It’s m’Lord Trebond, Majesty,” he said, voice quiet. “Here ’bout two nights ago, when you would’ve been halfway home, he did some big magic that’s left allus in the Palace spooked.”
“Not just the Palace,” George retorted, feeling goosebumps break out on his arms. “The entire city’s keyed up.”
“Aye,” Stefan agreed. Below them, the horses were wickering, neighing, snorting, and stamping in the biggest show of nerves George had ever seen from stabled warhorses. “Not surprised. Lord Thom won’t confess at what he’s done, but young Timon heard an’ told me what he said to Lady Delia. Said he could do anything the Earthshaker could do.”
George felt himself pale. “That nutter could raise the dead.”
“T’weren’t no corpses roamin’, this morning or last, so mayhap he didn’t try such things,” Stefan said, but his brow was furrowed. “But things haven’t felt right. “
“What do it feel like to ye, Stefan?” George asked quietly. He trusted Stefan’s insight almost as much as his own, and Stefan had been here when George had not.
Stefan took the straw out of his mouth and spit. One of the horses split the air with a shrill neigh. “Like th’ gods have turned their faces from us.”
George tried to get in to see Sir Myles and found him locked in Council with the King; he tried to see Thom of Trebond and heard nothing but a hoarse shriek and the thud of something hitting the locked and mage-sealed door. George had known Alanna for almost nine years, and could take the hint.
He got back to the Dove to find more bad news waiting.
“Message just arrived, yer Majesty. Your houseguest had a bad spell, some two nights back,” Solom told him in a low breath, while wiping down the already-clean bar. “Weak as a kitten, but gettin’ better, so no cause for alarm.”
It was long habit and training that kept him from rearing back in surprise. “Glad t’ hear that all’s well,” George said. “Two nights ago, was it?”
“Aye,” said Solom, and there was no mistaking the nervous look to his face. “Same as our little Palace storm.”
Thom of Trebond, what in the name of the gods did you do?
George leaned in close, pretending to peer at one of the vintages lined up on the wall behind the burly barkeep. “I need my Council,” he murmured. “Send ’em up to my rooms as they arrive.”
Solom nodded, and George went upstairs, dogged by a certainty that dire things awaited them all.