Prologue: Dreadful Tidings

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"I don't believe it."

Cythera of Elden glanced up from her embroidery, eying her redheaded friend curiously.

Alanna stood as still as a statue in one of the dark corners of the chamber, staring in disbelief at a letter.

"What is it?" Cythera asked after waiting impatiently for a long moment.

"My dearest father," Alanna spat, her tone positively dripping with disgust, "has seen fit to betrothe me to one Lord Gareth of Naxen the Younger."

The handkerchief Cythera had been working on fell to the ground, the wooden hoop frame clattering. The young blond woman gaped at her friend, green eyes wide.

"Gareth the Younger? He's the king's nephew, his father is the king's brother-in-law! And I thought Gareth the Elder had a grudge against your father?"

Scowling, Alanna crumpled the missive and threw it to the ground, grinding it into the floor with her slippered heel. "Don't you mean, 'But Alanna, you're only fifteen!'"

"That too," Cythera amended with a roll of her eyes, "But honestly, Thom is always writing to you about how Lord Gareth hates him and your father. Why on earth would he betrothe his eldest son to his enemy's daughter?"

Alanna strode to her cot and collapsed onto it with an annoyed 'humph', before rolling to face Cythera, her head propped up on her hand, her elbow digging into the thin mattress. "Probably because Thom healed all those people of the Sweating Sickness a while ago- including the prince. This is probably the King's idea of thanks."

Cythera, who was sitting rather primly in a small wicker chair next to her own bed, frowned. "Well, it is an extremely good match for you- Naxen is one of the first names of the realm. This'll certainly boost your family's prestige."

"Bugger prestige," Alanna snapped savagely, rolling onto her back. "Father's too caught up in his little literary world to care about his good name. This is Thom's doing."

Privately Cythera had to agree. She only knew Thom through his letters to Alanna, but she'd gleaned a certain amount of familiarity with his character through them. Her friend's twin was obviously ambitious and somewhat arrogant- being made squire to Duke Roger of Conte certainly had boosted his ego.

More and more often these days, Cythera found Alanna frowning at her brother's notes, when before she would laugh and smile. Thom was becoming cold and hard, and neither Alanna nor Cythera liked it.

"How long will the betrothal period be?" Cythera finally asked, to break the silence.

"Eighteen months," Alanna replied moodily. "Not long after I turn seventeen. But I'm to leave for Corus in two weeks."

"Well then," Cythera said with a smile, clapping her hands together, "You'll be with me! You know I've been instructed to leave for the capitol soon to find a husband." Cythera was a little more than a year older than Alanna, but the only girl in the convent who would agree to room with the redhead.

Alanna could be rather...temperamental.

"That's the only good part," Alanna said dourly. "And if it *was* Thom who cooked this all up...." She trailed off, her eyes glinting dangerously in a way that spelled trouble and possible grievous bodily harm for her twin.

Cythera had known Alanna since the girl was ten, and had seen her friend get that look in her eyes more than a few times. Whenever Alanna was about to do something inadvisable, her amethyst eyes positively gleamed.

Really, the girl had far too much spirit. She only rarely turned up for her proper lessons, spending most of her time in the city. Cythera wasn't quite sure what Alanna *did* when she was in the city, but she knew it involved the Rogue and the Shang.

The Daughters were at a loss as to how Alanna managed to always escape, and after Alanna's first year they'd given up on her altogether, allowing the strange girl to come and go as she pleased. They only put up a token protest when she, two months before, had brought home a few daggers and a slender sword named Lightning. They only barely managed to keep Alanna from wearing men's clothing, and even then Cythera suspected the Trebond girl changed into trousers and tunic in the city.

There was only one lesson that Alanna bothered attending regularly- the class for the Gifted. From what Cythera had heard, she gathered that Alanna was practically bursting with the Gift and was an extraordinary Healer. Alanna, however, disliked speaking of her magic.

One thing was plain: Corus wouldn't have a chance.