Author's note: Hi there, Tortallan readers! I've been a fan of the 'Song of the Lioness' series for a while now, but this is my first time writing a fic for it - I don't know why I waited so long, nor why now seemed like the right time to start. Needless to say, I have started a fic, which focuses around my favourite character - one George Cooper. I thought I'd write something that fills in the gaps between the Coronation Day battle, and the ending proposal scene in the desert. Some of the characters, such as Warren and Jobrey, are my own creations; others are mentioned in other Tortall books, particularly the Immortals series. I hope you enjoy reading! ~ W.J.

Master of the Swoop

Chapter One

Warren Lansark clucked discontentedly as he surveyed the master bedroom.

It was not the room itself that dissatisfied him. The broad bed had been spread with a luxurious coverlet, embroidered with fine threads K'miri silk. A velvet canopy stretched between its four carven posts. Heavy curtains swathed the windows, and the walls were decorated with intricate Scanran tapestries. The cabinets, shelves, and even the backs of the chairs had been buffed to a brilliant shine, their wood as bright as brass.

Warren absently ran his hand over the windowsill; not a single speck of dust came away on his fingertips.

It was a stark contrast to the state the room had been in a mere few days ago.

This particular bedchamber was currently being used as the master not because it was the largest, nor the grandest, but because it was the most habitable. The old castle had previously lain abandoned for more than twenty years. Its last owners - for want of a better word - had been pirates, and they hadn't exactly been the most courteous tenants. Holes pierced many of the walls, where overzealous fights or enemy cannon fire had battered them. Sections of the roof had caved in, and every floor had been littered with the debris of past revels - old ale bottles, moldering table scraps, fragments and rags and all manner of rubbish, now so rank and rancid as to be unidentifiable.

It had taken Warren Lansark, head steward of the Swoop, and his small phalanx of fellow servants the better part of the past two weeks to make even part of the place look passable. The preparations had set them in such a mad scurry, none of them had had time to visit Corus for the coronation of the king. The maids still grumbled about the new dresses they had bought just for the occasion, never to be worn as intended. Warren chastised them when he heard their complaints. He reminded them that it was the newly-crowned king who had set them to their task; if they really wanted to pay tribute to their new liege, they would do better by dusting the parlour and setting the library straight.

Besides, from what he had heard, it had been far safer to stay at the Swoop than to venture into the capital. The tremors that had rocked Corus, very nearly destroying the Royal Palace itself, had barely reached them here. They had felt the rocky outcrop beneath the Swoop give a single, slight shudder; it had been nothing compared to the devastating shocks that had shaken the city, killing many citizens.

Warren had told them all this, with a grave sense of dignity. They respectfully lowered their eyes at the mention of the dead, but soon began to twitter among themselves again as he turned down the corridor.

In private, Warren allowed himself as inward grumble of his own. Though he'd had absolutely no intention of making the days-long ride to Corus for the occasion, he had rather resented the fact that he hadn't had a choice in the matter.

This was just another of the many reasons that he tutted testily to himself as he glanced the room over one last time, making sure that everything was in proper readiness.

The thick rug upon the floor was laid out with nary a wrinkle. The mirror had been polished to such a high sheen, it looked like a burning sun suspended on the eastern wall, just above the bureau. Well, where the bureau should have been. This was the only thing about the room that was less than immaculate: a faded patch of floor, where the boards had once been covered by some large piece of furniture, now stood bare and exposed. Warren muttered darkly to himself. If it wasn't in place soon, they would run out of time...

A distant grunt echoed down the hall. Warren greeted it with a nod of satisfaction. Think of the Trickster, he told himself, and he rewards you with a snatch of his luck. He hesitated, then finished the phrase in full: for good or ill luck, one can't choose.

It was good tidings that came to him now, in the form of the estate's two porters, struggling to lift one end of the heavy bureau between them. It had been taken out into the yard, where the village carpenter had replaced one of its thick side panels, worn clean through by the damp and decay that emanated from the nearby ocean. It was only just now ready to be set back in place. Puffing and panting, the stewards backed into the room with it, barely managing to keep it hoisted above their endangered toes. Warren was just wondering who had the other end, when a shaggy black head peered through the doorway at him.

"Alright, 'Ren?" a laconic voice asked; it sounded rather like the genial grow of a grizzly bear. Its owner would have passed for such a beast, at a glance. He was a massive man, and an immensely strong one; he carried the other end of the bureau all on his own, and even then didn't seem to be fully exerting himself.

"All's well, Job," Warren said, in answer to Jobrey Coltsham 's greeting. The pair had known each other almost all their lives; they had both grown up in the village beneath the Swoop. Though they had never been fast friends - Jobrey liked to drink and could regularly be found at the local tavern, while Warren never set foot on the slope leading down from the castle at all, if he could help it - they were nonetheless quite familiar with each other by now.

"This is the finishing touch," he told Jobrey, indicating the huge oaken desk, which three men set down with a thump. The stewards leaned against it, panting heavily and mopping at their sweat-slicked brows. Jobrey, however, was not even hard of breath. He merely flicked a few stray strands of hair out of his eyes, regarding Warren with a conspirative smile.

"Already filled his bed with sea urchins, d'you?"

Warren scowled at him. "You know I can't do that, Jobrey. Not to a man whom the king himself has appointed. Even if it is just a prank, the crown would surely have my head for it."

Jobrey gave a snicker which sounded almost sinister, though his eyes danced gleefully beneath heavy brows. "I doubt as much," he retorted. "Us commoners all've thick skins, dun' we? Doubt he'd s'much as feel it."

Warren sighed. Jobrey had been saying things of a similar vein for the past few weeks - ever since they had all learned that their fief would be given to a new lord. Jobrey, an under-groom at the local rider's outpost, had jumped at the chance of promotion to head ostler - and at the castle itself, no less. His enthusiasm had waned when he had learned more about the 'lord' whom he would serve. He had been holding a severe grudge ever since.

After the Swoop had been rid of its brigands - the last corsair in Tortall had been laid to rest on Traitor's Hill near the end of King Jasson's reign - the Swoop's estate had been returned to the Crown. Neither Jasson of Conte, nor his son Roald, had taken much interest in this small, dilapidated corner of their realm. It was Crown Prince Jonathon - soon after to become King Jonathon - who had finally remembered the forgotten fief, perched on the very edge of his Tortall, overlooking the Emerald Ocean. He had personally commissioned the immediate restoration of the buildings and grounds, providing funds from the royal treasury for the purpose.

However, the neglected castle had not been deemed fit for his use, nor that of any other, proper noble's. Instead, he had bequeathed it, along with its income and its title, to a lowly commoner.

The news had not been well-met at the Swoop. Jobrey was scandalized, and he wasn't the only one. The chambermaid declared that at his age, this 'lord' should be well used to making his own bed. The porters claimed they had no intention of carrying bags for some mere peasant brat. Even the boot-boy, a paltry sprig of a lad accustomed to being harried by everyone else in the house, asked if he would really have to scrape mud from a commoner's shoes.

Whenever he caught word of such dissent, Warren quickly quashed it with a firm rebuke. However, he couldn't help but secretly agree with their sentiments. He had served as the steward of Pirate's Swoop for more than twenty years; snug in his own little house on the bluff, overlooking the draughty barony below, it had been his dubious duty to watch the old estate slowly falling into wreck and ruin. Now, he was expected to repair and refit the castle for some new lord - and not just any. His master would be a newly-appointed noble, who had, up until a month ago, been born and raised a commoner of the Lower City.

This so-called 'lord' was right now on his way to the Swoop, no doubt expecting to be feted and cosseted by the servants who came with his new domain. Once installed, he would be all too eager to wallow in the wealth and privilege that came with his newly-awarded stipend, they were quite sure of it.

Warren had never claimed to have any real allegiance to the fief. The ramshackle castle had not exactly inspired any great loyalty; his position was akin to being caretaker of a rundown old sty. Nevertheless, the surrounding village had always been his home. He found, to his own great surprise, that he was rather protective of it. An outsider of any kind would have been only grudgingly welcomed; but to think that his beloved homeland was seen to be fit only for a common-born...

He felt a fierce resentment, which he had confided to no one, and barely even acknowledged himself. There was little point in protesting. There was no possibility of resigning; he had nowhere else to go, he did not wish to lose the home he had made for the past twenty years.

And so he had no choice but to serve this commoner lord, as the King had commanded. He obediently swallowed his pride, though his displeasure still festered, somewhere deep inside of him. A number of snide comments had already devised themselves, threatening to rise to his lips at the slightest provocation. He knew that once this common footpad of a fief-lord arrived, he would have to keep a heavy restraint on himself, as well as closely watching the rest of his staff. The way they had been carrying on for the past few weeks, an insult to His Lordship seemed almost inevitable.

In the yard that lay beneath the bedroom window, there was a clatter of hooves and a loud cry. He glimpsed a fluttering banner, before it was whisked out of sight; a mounted standard-bearer had just entered the stables. He had ridden ahead of his master, as a warning to the castle that they must now prepare to receive their lord.

"Quickly!" Warren hissed at his companions, shooing the still-puffing stewards from the room. "Back to your stations! Job, get down to the stables, you'll be needed for the horses!"

Jobrey raised his brows in a sarcastic arc, but said nothing. He turned and strode back the way he had come, at a deliberately casual pace. The stewards scurried away a few strides ahead of him.

Warren quickly checked his appearance in the mirror, now with the bureau in its rightful place beneath it. He straightened his collar and smoothed his hair; his reflection looked pale and slightly drawn, staring stolidly back at him. It was the last time, he realized, that he would be able to use this mirror as if it were his own.

Despite himself, he found that he was enveloped in a perfect storm of panicked nerves. In all his years, he had never known the Swoop to house a legitimate master; within the hour, it would be his task to welcome the new baron to his home.

Warren had had enough little to do with nobility in his time. As the fief's stand-in overseer, he had sometimes hosted a duke or a viscount, even the odd knight on occasion, who had passed through the region on their way to one of the neighbouring ports. He knew enough about the upper classes to understand what was required of him. This, however, was an entirely different prospect. This was the Swoop's own baron, who would live out the rest of his days here; and Warren, assumedly, would serve him until his own days, too, were done. Suddenly, it seemed like a far more daunting prospect than he had first thought: he was about to meet the man whom he was bound to give his life and allegiance to.

What would this new lord think of this - his - shabby, sea-lashed barony? What would he think of the ramshackle little town, the remote coastal outcrop, the sulky servants - and of Warren Lansark, head steward of the Swoop, lulled by twenty years of inaction and nearly as run-to-seed as the estate he came with?

Suddenly, the impending arrival filled his lower gut with a swarm of frantic butterflies.

Then a small, cynical voice within his own mind asked: So what of it? 'Baron' he may be, in name and in title; but he is still just a commoner. His opinion can't possibly count for much.

The thought was rather comforting, and, to his mind, entirely valid.

George heaved a heavy sigh - the hundredth, it seemed, since he had left Corus.

The evening was shrouded by a gathering curtain of gloom. He both cursed the clouds overhead for their presence, and thanked them for not yet dumping a deluge of cold rain on his head. There was still a chance that they might soon get around to it. He reached down and gently patted the smooth neck of Beauty, his faithful mare. Both of them could do without a drenching. Even if a squall would better suit his own stormy mood.

He silently sent a request to the Crooked God, hoping that his luck would hold out.

Having sent his plea to the gods, he spared a thought for mortal men. Scowling to himself, he both silently thanked, and roundly cursed, the man who was one of his dearest acquaintances, and currently his greatest source of vexation. He thanked King Jonathon of Conte - or Jon, as he had come to know him, after years of unlikely friendship - for allowing him to never again have to fear my Lord Provost. But it was a grudging thanks, tempered by his curse, for having forced a change of identity on him that was so complete, he hardly knew who he was anymore.

George sighed again, tiredly this time. Besides the physical weariness that inevitably came with the days-long ride, he felt mentally fatigued. With every league he put between himself and Corus, he was getting further and further away from the only life he had ever known. This made him strangely grateful that the journey was a long one - he needed time to come to terms with it all, work things out. Work himself out.

He absently shifted the reins in his hands. The motion caused his sigh to turn into a grimace, as his sleeve-cuff caught against the edge of a newly-healed cut on his wrist. It wasn't a serious wound, though its discomfort was growing more pronounced after the many long hours he had spent in the saddle. He could have let his mother place a healing on it for him before he left Corus; when he had called on her to make his farewells, she had offered as much. But he had wanted to keep it with him, as a token of remembrance.

It marked the very spot where he had lost his mastery of the Rogue.

George bowed low, his manner slightly mocking, as he daringly bared the back of his neck toward the man who stood opposite him. He raised his head. "Your Majesty," he intoned, an ironic smile upon his lips.

Marek Swiftknife stared back at him, his expression aghast. When he spoke, he stammered. "B-but... M-majesty-"

"That's you now, Marek," he told the man sternly, using what little authority he still had over his closest ally. "I'll be callin' you Majesty - everyone'll be, from now on. All these years you've been covetin' my role, and here I am, a-giftin' it to you! You should know better than to look a gift-thief in the mouth!"

Marek's own mouth was open as he gaped at him. "But... Majes- er, George, the succession-"

"This one will be bloodless. Even if it is the first time in two hundred years that the Rogue hasn't been passed on through combat." He regarded Marek gravely; his drawn face spoke of past ordeals. "You know well what took place up the hill."

He jerked a thumb towards the window of the Dancing Dove, through which the palace's gleaming towers were visible, caught in the setting sun's last rays. At the mention of events that had taken place within its walls on Coronation Day - the thieves of the Lower City had all heard what had occurred there, half in rumour, half from George's own account - Marek made the sign against evil.

"It's a noble's game, to scheme and skewer each other over a throne," George went on. "We've seen enough of the like in this kingdom. I've never had any qualms about dyin' for my mastery here; but truth to tell, I've lost my taste for rulership, and I'm more than willin' to meekly pass it over." He had been talking all this while with a straight face; now his chiselled features split in a wicked grin. "You still want it, don't you, eh lad?" he asked, in a laughing tone which somehow brooked no argument.

Marek didn't reply. He looked as if he hardly believed his luck. True to his name, he was a quick draw with a blade; but even so, he knew he was no match for his chief. In every past tussle they had had for leadership, George had come out tops with barely any effort on his part; Marek had been flabbergasted, not to mention humiliated, by just how easily he had been bested. What was more, he had kept his life own into the bargain; George had refrained from taking so much as an ear, even though, as a ruling Rogue dealing with a would-be usurper, he had had every right to punish him for treason. Instead, George had spared him; more than that, he had installed Marek at his right hand. At first, Marek thought it an act of arrogance, a need to parade his lack of fear before the rest of the court; he had suspected that George had only wanted him close in order to keep tabs on him. By now, however, he knew better. If George seemed over-confident, it was only because his enemies underestimated him; there was good reason why he was the longest-serving Rogue since Rosto the Piper. George had no real reason to fear Marek Swiftknife, a fact they both well knew.

And there was more to it than that: George, clever in deceit and sly though he was, knew the value of a man when he saw it, and was honest enough to give praise where it was due. He recognized Marek's talent, and kept him close at hand during the rest of his reign, simply because he knew that Marek was the best man for the job. This act of faith, though it may have seemed misguided to any onlooker who knew the two men's history with one another, had well and truly earned Marek's unwavering loyalty. He had served George as faithfully as any of Jon's sworn vassals might serve their own king. Many were the times when he had wielded his blades in George's defence, rather than in an attack against him - not that George ever needed much defending.

Now, he regarded his master and friend with an imperious stare, looking every inch the long-kept Rogue-in-waiting. "I'll not take any charity," he said.

George regarded him with raised eyebrows, biting back a grin; he himself had said much the same thing, not a week ago, to another king. "You'd prefer to take my life along with my rule, then?" he asked, in a tone which, though light, held the first hint of menace that Marek detected. Both men tensed almost imperceptibly on the spot, shaping for a fight. "You'd better get your knife up, then."

In a flurry of movement, both men drew. They were closely matched - closer than any other men of the Lower City. Marek's early defeats at the hands of his king were well-remembered; though he had come to regard the one who had beat him as his closest friend, it had still stung. He had steadily been working at his skill, trying to draw even, hoping to someday surpass the man whom he himself regarded as the best.

Two arcs of silver split the silent parlour; there was a shrill clash of shrieking metal as the blades met. Both men, jolted by the impact, withdrew a step, each keeping their guard up. George's face was serene, but Marek frowned to himself. He had calculated the striking distance between them; in the split-second before their blades had met, he had seen George take an extra half-step across the gap.

Against George Cooper, whose speed was legendary, a half-step mattered as much as life.

He stood nearly motionless, watching George with respect in his hardened gaze. His pulse thundered uncomfortably in his throat. From that one pass alone, he well knew how likely it was that he could end up speared on his opponent's blade. He knew that he was still far slower, weaker, less experienced. It would take every ounce of guile that he possessed to, by some miracle, come away unscathed...

He lunged forward, feinting towards George's left. It was a beginner's move, obviously never meant to strike. Hoping his lack of tact would lull George into false complacency, he whipped his blade out and in with quick succession, jerking the knife up at an angle which threatened to wrench his own shoulder from its socket, but which aimed its point directly at George's prone right side.

An elbow jammed into his wrist, nearly dislodging the knife-hilt from his grip, sending his attack off-course. Off-balance and unprepared, he caught a gleam of bare steel out of the corner of his eye, but was powerless to counter it.

He felt the breeze of the knife against his bare throat. That was how close he came to death.

Eyes widened, he followed the bright blur of George's blade with disbelieving eyes. The former Rogue's wrist was curved at an awkward angle, ill-suited to pursuing an attack. He had purposefully withdrawn the knife in his grasp, pulling it back just short of slitting Marek's throat. His eyes, which were perfectly calm, told Marek that he had done exactly as he had intended.

Marek was so busy comprehending this, he almost didn't notice as George dodged to his right and, quite deliberately, drew his own outstretched arm across the tip of Marek's blade.

Marek gave a hoarse shout; after all these years at George's side, it was his first reaction to be dismayed at seeing any injury dealt to him - even one that he himself had inflicted. No, that wasn't right; George had purposefully manipulated the fight to draw first blood, making Marek the automatic victor of their brief duel.

"There now," George said, holding his wounded arm up for better inspection; his shirt-cuff was shredded, and a short, shallow gash was bleeding feebly down his wrist. "I yield. You are officially the rightful Master of the Rogue, Marek Swiftknife."

Marek mechanically sheathed his blade, with a hand that shook slightly. "C-Cooper," he rasped, overcome with emotion.

"I'm sure you'll rule well," George said, beaming down into his bewildered face."But for Mithros' sake, practice those upward slashes a bit more - you'll be overthrown in a week if your first challenger is even half the combatant I be!" When Marek's only response was to stare blankly at him, he laughed and clasped him warmly, clapping him on the back. "I'll be vacatin' the 'castle' shortly," he said, indicating the packed trunks and chests that littered the floor of his chamber. "I've become a ruler of a different kind now - a legitimate one, if you can believe it." He raised his eyes to the ceiling, as if he himself hardly could - which, truth be told, he didn't yet. "But just because I'm abdicatin', don't think you'll be seein' the last of me, Majesty. Us lords should stay on friendly terms, and I don't doubt that we'll keep some old contacts in common. I'll have a few uses for you in future as well, my lad, mark my word - if you're agreeable."

Marek regarded him for a long moment, still looking slightly dazed. Then he drew himself up, endeavouring to look as regal as he possibly could. "I'm yours to command, Freeman Cooper." He gripped George's hand, a grim smile on his face. "Always. I hope you enjoy your new rule - you'd better terrorize them new subjects of yours just as much as you did us."

George grinned impishly at him. "I intend to," he said, wholeheartedly.

George mulled the memory over, not for the first time since he had left Corus. The succession already felt as if it had taken place a long time ago, though it had only really been a few days.

It had been a long ride. A company of the King's Own had ridden with him for the first day and a half, as far as the beginning of the Coastal Road. At that point, they had received word that Eldorne fugitives had been sighted near Lake Tirragen. As the closest available unit, they were obliged to respond.

George had waved off Sir Raoul's placating speech, as the large knight tried to apologize for abandoning him so. He reminded the commander of the Own just who it was that had taught Squire Raoul how to palm a knife. He was no soft-handed statesman who couldn't fend for himself, and he refused to be treated as such. He had protested the need for a mounted escort from the start, only conceding because Jon had insisted that it was a proper baron's due. George, common-born and Rogue-raised all his life, was accustomed to mocking the absurdities that made up a typical nobles' conduct; he had laughed heartily when Alanna had told him the things she had been forced to learn in her lessons of deportment. Now, he was swiftly realizing that he himself would be forced to adhere to some of these foolish constraints. This last chance to defy them was far too alluring to resist.

As they had prepared parted ways, he had waved away the offer of having a few men left behind as his escort. He was far happier on his own. Though Raoul of Goldenlake was a good friend, being surrounded by so many uniforms made him nervous. A month ago, having them about could have only meant being finally captured by the Lord Provost; the thought of facing an immediate writ of execution still made his insides writhe. Even with things as they now were, he was frankly pleased to see the last white cloak disappear into the distance, swallowed by the dust of the road and the glare of the noonday sun.

He tried to ignore the fact that they had taken the Great Southern Way, which, if they followed it all its length, would eventually lead them into the desert.

He had ridden on for the rest of day in welcome solitude. The journey had been a pleasant one; the weather, for the most part, was hospitable. The fierce June sunshine was tempered by the fresh breeze coming off the ocean. It stung his face more sharply the closer he got to it, coating his lips with the astringent tang of salt-spray.

I'll have to accustom myself to that before long, he thought wryly to himself. Pirate's Swoop, he knew, was right on the edge of the coast.

He didn't bother seeking out an inn as night closed round him. He made camp and built a fire, watching it flicker as he ate his solitary meal. He was glad to be alone - except for Beauty, he quickly reminded himself, giving the mare's inquiring muzzle an affectionate stroke. For a man who had always surrounded himself with both friends and enemies aplenty, the sudden lack of company was strangely restful.

It suddenly dawned on him that, as long as he'd lived, he had always defined himself by the companions he had kept. He had first been Eleni's errant son, loyal to a fault, for all that he was crooked; then just one of several street urchins whom the fat-pursed merchants took pains to avoid. Next he had become King of the Rogue, respected and envied by every thief in Tortall, acknowledge by all of them for what he was - but never who he was. Soon, he would transform again, becoming Baron of Pirate's Swoop, as well as the King's Spymaster. He didn't resent his impending duties; after all, managing the Rogue had been akin to herding cats, and spying could only be as hard, surely not any more. Still, he revelled in this brief chance to be, for a night and a day, not a thief, nor rogue, baron, nor spy - not even a son. For now, he could just be George Cooper - owner of Beauty, traveller in transit, who would soon bank the fire, check his mare's feedbag, and settle in his bedroll under the stars, where he would doze fitfully until morning.

However refreshing though this spate of solitude was, it did not set him entirely at ease with himself. His mood had been steadily growing more and more sombre. Since he had seldom travelled far from Corus during his tenure as the Rogue, he should have been revelling in this change of scenery, enjoying his newfound freedom, anticipating the wealth and fortune that would soon be his to claim. However, he felt strangely restless, and at the same time a little stifled. He wasn't yet wholly sure that being free of the Rogue was a worthy cause for celebration. As it happened, he felt much the same way about being tethered to a fief.

For a fleeting moment, he dared allow himself to think of the only other role - the favoured role - he had ever played: that he had held in Port Caynn. At House Azik, he had ceased to be the Rogue, would have gladly even forgotten that he was George Cooper, so long as he could become known as lover of the Lioness. He gave the heaviest sigh of all, wondering if his brave lass were even now on sentry duty for her tribe, looking up at the exact same stars as he now gazed at, glittering down from high above her desert camp. He liked to think so; and liked even more the wistful dream he had, in which the pair of them shared the same sky - and the same bed.

That possibility seemed even further from him than the Rogue now was.

By late afternoon of the following day, he reached the Swoop's nearest village. At the rider's outpost, he shrugged off offers of a fresh mount, though he did concede to convention and let a standard-bearer gallop ahead of him, to give the Swoop sufficient notice of his impending arrival.

How the lads in the stable-yard all stared at this strange noble, who arrived without an escort, his hair tousled by the wind, his cloak covered in dust. He flashed a genuine smile at them, watching with concealed pleasure as they shifted nervously on the spot, unsure of how to take him. His old, immoderate pride swelled up within him.

He'd show them just what a noble could be. Already, he was unorthodox enough to set them off-balance. Given time, he would find plenty of other ways to make them stare in amazement.

He had let the standard-bearer - Josua, the lad's name was - get well ahead of him. After three days in the saddle, he didn't feel like exerting himself - nor Beauty - any more than necessary for the last leg of the journey. He rode at a casual pace, examining his surroundings with keen interest.

So, this was what his fief was like.

The town was pleasant enough - as quiet as the Black God's temple, it seemed to him, for whom the bustle of Corus had always throbbed like a second pulse. He thought of it with a pang, then quickly banished it from mind. There was no going back now, he well knew.

This hamlet seemed a bit livelier, at least, than Port Caynn.

In the streets, heads swivelled to watch him pass. They were off the main highways, and besides travellers being rare, they were all on the lookout for the new baron, whom they knew was due to arrive soon. Farmers, maids and children alike eyed him with thinly-veiled curiosity as he passed. Men steadily met his eyes, then looked away again, in what was a clear dismissal. The women whispered about him less discreetly than their men-folk did, while their children cavorted ahead of his mare, shrieking and pointing, until even they too lost interest. As he passed the local tavern, several heads poked out of the windows, eying him appraisingly; they then whisked out of sight again, far more intent upon the contents of their tankards.

George smirked to himself. Haven't lost the touch yet - I can still go inconspicuous when it pleases me.

He knew it wouldn't last. If he had thrown back his cloak to expose the barony crest emblazoned on his tunic - he had changed into it before he rode out that morning - the reaction would have been vastly different. Even without bearing proof of his title across his chest, word would soon get round, and the locals would come to know him on sight. Watching as various heads turn away from him as he rode by, he wondered how friendly they would be, once the truth was known.

Nobility had a way of dividing people, he well knew.

As he left the last of the houses behind, heading further south, the ground began to rise steeply. He let Beauty have her head, picking her way up the incline at her own pace, as his swift hazel eyes took in the sweep of the coastline. Now those storm clouds were brooding overhead. The wind increased its vehemence, tugging insistently at Beauty's mane, making his travelling cloak billow out behind him like a pennant.

Wondering how cold and draughty the barony itself would be, George cursed Jonathon roundly. Was he expected to defend this stretch of desolate shore against invading Copper Isle forces on his own?

No, he realized; there would be people at the Swoop. Servants. They must be expecting him by now; his standard-bearer would have arrived well before he did.

How would they receive him? he wondered. He imagined how he himself, in their place, would regard such a high-falutin' common-born who gave himself airs, and chuckled grimly at the thought. He knew it couldn't be far off the mark; he expected to see several noses out of joint once he arrived.

Well, such jibes didn't bother him the slightest. This was where Jon wanted him; and despite any hostile welcomes he might get, despite his own misgivings, his near-overwhelming desire to just keep riding south, this was where he would stay, like it or no. He was the Baron of Pirate's Swoop, and there was plenty of work for him to do here. They would all see if he didn't do it well - he was accustomed to mastery, after all, and meant to have it here as well, with cooperation or no.

Beauty carried him round a bend in the cliff wall, and the Swoop came into view for the first time. He appraised it carefully. He was no expert on castles; the Royal Palace was right fine enough, but it had always existed as a separate city unto its own, quite removed from the common folk who huddled in its shadow, too regal to be relegated to the likes of a regional outpost such as this. He had feared the place would be a gaudy old bauble, pretty to look at and ill-suited to any practical purpose. What he saw impressed him. The surrounding hillside formed craggy fortifications of its own accord; the keep's high sea walls, though battered, looked difficult for any enemy to assault. The place was not vast, perched as it was on a rather precarious-looking cliff top, but it seemed deceptively spacious; especially if, as Jon had told him, there were further rooms and passages cut into the rock, as deep as the capital's own catacombs. Above ground, the towers of the barony stabbed into the sky like drawn blades, looking suitably imposing, if only a little worse-for-wear.

That suited him, he decided. He'd rather have a well-worn, serviceable dagger than an ornamented fencing-sword any day.

To his surprise, his mood was slowly brightening. Mayhap in Corus, sure of himself and his surroundings, he had begun to grow complacent - a bit too comfortable. The situation in Port Caynn, and the machinations of Claw, had provided a diversion which, though risky and unwelcome, had certainly kept him well-entertained. The task set before him looked to be far less hazardous, though no less of a challenge. He was very like his own lass, in the way that he didn't like to be kept rusting in the scabbard; he liked to be set to a specific purpose. Only a man - crooked or otherwise - who liked to be kept busy would dare take on the Rogue in the first place. And this new role would certainly keep his attention for some time to come - for the rest of his days, if things went as intended. He might even come to enjoy it in that time.

Clucking to Beauty, he straightened in the saddle and urged the mare forward, letting his newfound eagerness spur him on.

Barony Pirate Swoop, best prepare yourself, he thought to himself, chuckling inwardly. With a former Rogue as your new master, you'll hardly know what hit you - not once I've taken you into my nimble, pocket-picking paws.

Author's note: well, that's it for the first chapter. It went on far longer than intended; hopefully the next few chapters will be shorter vignettes.

The geography surrounding Pirate's Swoop is based on the maps that appear in the front of the books. In Wild Magic, it took the trainee Riders several days to travel from Corus to the Swoop; I sped up the journey, since I figured that skilled horsemen like the Own, and a single rider like George, would cover the distance a bit quicker. I set this in late June, since the Coronation was said to take place in summer, and Alanna's letter to George, sent to him at the Swoop, is dated as late July, by which time he had had some time to settle into his duties (and yes, you can count on me to incorporate that letter into this tale - just you wait for it!). If you can spot it, there was a slight reference to the Provost's Dog series - don't expect any more than that, since I haven't read the Doggy books yet.

I hope I haven't got any details wrong, feel free to contact me if you think I've missed the mark in any way! Also, I'd love to see your reviews of my handiwork, please remember to sign in if you want me to reply! I'll try to come up with a second chapter soon - we'll get to see George's arrival at the Swoop next! ~ W.J.