Tortall, its people, places, divinities, histories, environs, and all contained therein are the copyright property of Tamora Pierce.

"'Tis so strange that,
Though the truth of it stands off as gross
As black and white, my eye will scarcely see it"
-Henry V; II.ii.102

Thick, angry waves crashed into the cliff below the Swoop; a hard, mean wind slammed into its battlements. It was a rotten evening, and it suited Sir Alanna, Lady of Pirate's Swoop and Olau, and King's Champion of the realm of Tortall, perfectly. She was lonely. In only a few months, it would be a whole year since George had died. He had passed on quietly to the Black God, murmuring softly that his time had come none too soon, but they had both known that it was a lie. He hadn't been very old - there were many at court who were ten, fifteen, even twenty years or more his elder and still hale and nearly battle-ready. Faithful Coram was gone, too, and Geoffry of Meron had died on the northern border. She herself was beginning (though only barely beginning) to the feel the wear of many years of service. Damn old age! At least she still had her children, though Alianne was in the Copper Isles, and Thom and Alan at the University and the Palace respectively. Numair had told her only a week ago that Thom was doing brilliant work, that he would very likely be given his Mastery early and be elected to the College of Mages. Alan now served King Jonathan as squire, and would receive his own knighthood this Midwinter. And when she returned to Corus for that, she would be among friends.

But Alianne -- ah, she did not like to think too often on her daughter. The news was darker now from the Copper Isles. And they had all been so hopeful when they had visited that summer… She had been so proud of her daughter… But now, Alianne could barely hold her queen's capital: both the recently dispossessed nobility and the newly empowered natives fought the Crown. Alianne's letters were full of bewilderment and fear. She had been so sure of herself, so confident -- too confident, Alanna thought privately. And now she was floundering, shocked by the realization that she had made errors. Alanna wished on one part that her daughter would come home, but she was proud that Alianne stayed. Though she would have preferred that all her children serve her own realm, it was well enough that Alianne remain loyal to her adopted queen. Nevertheless, she was glad that two of her three children had followed paths that she herself could imagine and of which she could easily approve.

A great knock resounded on the castle's heavy door. For a moment, a single brief moment, Alanna expected to hear George's hearty call. Then she remembered. Who could be come on a night like this? Superstition said that the dead sometimes came back to call on the living, and here, certainly, was an appropriate time in the midst of a late autumn storm. She made herself refute that thought quickly - she would not fall into her dotage yet! No ghost of her dead husband was at the door. It was a messenger, perhaps, or a visitor. In such a time of peace her gates her open, and through them anyone who could account himself to the men at arms might ride freely. Perhaps Keladry of Mindelan, who had promised to come for a stay. A traveler could not choose the night of his arrival, after all.

"Open! In the king's name!" Came the call. Alanna signaled impatiently for one of her men to unbar the door. Really, life was impossible surrounded by mice like her servants. Couldn't they think for themselves at all? She vaguely knew that she had frightened most of her servants with her black temper over this past year, but she chose to ignore that fact in favor of feeling righteously indignant.

It was no faceless herald who entered, but an old friend. Alanna was reminded of another time, many years ago, when she had expected a stranger and found a well-known giant of a man. Raoul of Golden Lake (and now of Malorie's Peak as well) had greeted her gladly then, sweeping her up into a bear hug, but now he was solemn and almost distant. She dismissed the servant quickly.

"Raoul, what is the matter? Why do you look so?"

He didn't answer for a moment. "I bring terrible tidings, Alanna. I can't … I don't know how to break it - how to begin to tell you."

"No!" She imagined Alianne's body, limp and watery, washed up on a distant coast. No, Raoul had come from Corus. She could see Alan, then, crushed beneath the hooves of a warhorse in some freakish accident, or, more likely, Thom, his mind and body destroyed by a dangerous magical experiment. "No … not Thom … He isn't dead?"

The Knight Commander's face hardened. "Your son is alive, and… He is alive."

"Then who? Not Myles? Or Buri? Thayet?" She watched his face. "Not … Oh Goddess, no! Not the king? Not Jonathan?"

Raoul nodded. "The King is dead, may the gods rest him. Long life to King Roald." His tone was impassive and cold.

"But how? He wasn't old; he was in the best of health!"

"By treason, Alanna. Base, disgusting, unspeakable treason!"

Alanna's mind was spinning. "What do you mean? Who? How?"

"By … there is no way I can say it gently, Alanna. By your son. By Thom." He took a deep breath. "He is held as a traitor in the highest degree and an accessory to regicide. If not a regicide himself."

There was a ringing in her ears. Warm, fizzing panic bubbled up from her chest. "No, Raoul," she heard herself say. "What happened? Who killed… killed… killed Jonathan?"

Raoul only nodded.

This couldn't be true; it couldn't. There must be a mistake. Thom would never involve himself in treachery. He was too busy even to answer her letters. "I can't … he can't … No!" The room was spinning slightly, now, too. Or was it that she was dizzy? Raoul took her arm.

"Sit down, Alanna. Here." He tried to assist her to a low bench. "I know that the shock must be terrible. It's been a shock for us all. Everything. It's been …"

Was this how Hamnet and Eleanor of Tirragen had felt when the news had reached them of their son's treason? She broke out of his hold and stood up, albeit unsteadily. "I'm not a fragile grandmother, yet, Raoul! I'm not a weak woman who must be protected! I'm a knight - a soldier - and I'm younger than you are!"

He hastily attempted to mollify her. "Of course you aren't weak. But you've just heard the worst news anyone can hear; it isn't weakness to be thrown off balance."

"And you say that my son is a regicide?" She was angry, now. "He is a scholar and a mage, Raoul - not a criminal!" She turned her back on him.

"Your brother, too, was a 'scholar and a mage.'"

That stunned her. No. Thom couldn't have … he wouldn't have … it simply wasn't possible! "He didn't …" She slowly pivoted to face her visitor again. "He couldn't have brought him back."

"Not in the flesh, but in the spirit. Your son shares his body with Roger of Conté, it seems. Their spirits are somehow fused together, and their combined power is magnified. I am no mage. Numair Salmalín can tell you more of it than can I." Raoul's tone was brusque and harsh. He added, more gently, "truly, Alanna, I am sorry." He seemed to be about to say more, but something stilled his words.

Alanna began to swear. Intermixed between her strings of obscenities were appeals to the Goddess and to Mithros, curses upon Roger and Numair Salmalín, even upon her son. Raoul did not stop her. Suddenly she broke off.

"Why not contact me immediately? Why not use magic to tell me?"

"The great mages are … otherwise occupied in containing this … thing … until it can be … fixed." His tone indicated that he did fully realize how inadequate this explanation would be to a magical adept. "It is more than a match for any of our mages alone. Even combined, they had not yet succeeded, when I left, in subduing it in any way that did not require their constant concentration. Also, R- the king thought it would be softer if you heard it from a friend and in person. And after all," he added bitterly, "I have born such messages to you before."

REVISED 12-4-05: added background on Aly.