Hello, guys! I'm really, really, really, many times over sorry about how long it's been since I've updated! I don't really have an excuse, aside from the fact that I've been very busy and have suffered from severe writer's block recently. I really hope this extra-long update helps, even if it is the last.
Thank you to everyone who's reviewed this story. I'm sad to see it go, because it was so fun to look at the world through young Aly's eyes. And an extra special thank you to Ally-Marty for nominating 'Cubs' in the Knighthood of Ficship competition. I was very surprised to hear that I'd been nominated, and thrilled beyond measure that people actually voted for it! So, thank you! This one's dedicated to you! :)
Aly sat in her father's study, staring intently down at a piece of paper, slowly but surely deciphering the jumble of symbols that were scrawled across it. George watched her, a pile of his own codes before him. The seven-year-old worked with a focus that was impressive for a girl of her age. All of her attention was fixed on the sheet as she bit her lip in concentration, stuck on the last—and most difficult—symbol. Finally, with a small gasp of recognition, she scribbled the final translation at the bottom of her page and looked up at her father, her face lit up in triumph.
"I've got it," she cried, waving the solved practice code in the air. George chuckled and took it, double checking to make sure it was right. It was.
"Do that any faster, darlin', and I'll be out of a job," he joked, putting the message back in front of his daughter, who beamed with pride.
"Can I do another one, Da?" she asked, looking excitedly at the large pile of paper on George's desk. The baron laughed again, shaking his head.
"Not today," he said. He reached over and ruffled his daughter's hair. "Why don't you go find your brother?" Aly sighed, but nodded. "There's a good lass." George glanced outside. "Be back in time for dinner. I don't want to have to face your ma if you're late."
Aly nodded and slid out of her chair. She ran from the room, humming a tune under her breath. She knew Alan would be outside, terrorizing someone in the village. His latest victim was Ayesha, the resident midwife of Pirate's Swoop. Aly's somewhat flighty twin had gotten it into his head that he wanted to be a healer, and had spent all week trailing after poor Ayesha, who took it all in stride, knowing her young shadow would lose interest in a few days. He always did.
Still humming cheerfully, Aly strolled into the courtyard, turning her face up to to catch the sunlight. She could feel a hint of fall beneath the warmth, but for now, Pirate's Swoop was awash with summer health. Aly paused, wondering where she would find Ayesha and Alan at this time of day. After a moment, she shrugged and headed in the direction of the midwife's home, thinking she'd find them sooner or later.
Several people waved to the young girl as she wandered through the Swoop. Aly returned their greetings, sometimes stopping to chat. She enjoyed talking to the villagers: they were all full of interesting stories, and sometimes even gave her food. She was just turning away from a grandmotherly old woman that sold embroidery, a roll clutched in her hand, when a tall figure rounded the corner. Aly smiled, recognizing the lanky silhouette of her Uncle Numy. He and Daine had been at the Swoop for a few days now, though Daine had spent most of that time in the stables, spending time with her pony Cloud and the other horses. Even Uncle Numy had been spending more time than he usually did in the stables, returning to the Swoop's tower with a distracted look on his face. It was their first visit after the Immortal's war, and, though Aly was dying to ask her uncle and friend what was on their minds, George and Alanna had forbidden her and her brothers from pestering the mages.
Aly watched her uncle walk to the stable, slipping inside without so much as looking her way. Curiosity stirred in her belly. She wanted to know what Numair and Daine hiding. She took a step towards the innocent-looking stables, then stopped. Her mother would screech if she knew she was spying…but it would only be for a minute.
Making up her mind, Aly walked casually to the stables, careful not to draw attention to herself. She hesitated briefly at the door, but slipped quietly inside, keeping an eye out for Daine and Uncle Numy. Soft voices drifted over to her from the end of the aisle. Aly crept forward, keeping close to the stall doors to stay out of sight. Soon, the indistinct murmurs became clearer, until she could understand them completely.
"…don't have to do it yet," the voice of Uncle Numy was saying, drifting forth from one of the stalls. "We can wait, magelet."
Something that sounded like a sigh greeted the mage's words. "No, Numair," Daine's voice replied. "No more hiding. It isn't fair to anyone to keep this a secret."
Aly inched towards them, trying to hear Uncle Numy's muttered response.
"What was that?" Daine's voice asked, sounding vaguely amused. Aly froze as a rustling of straw preceded her uncle as he stepped out into the open. She ducked into the nearest stall, thanking Mithros is was empty. Cautiously, she poked her head out, watching Numair carefully. The black robe looked troubled as he walked across the aisle, his dark eyes fixed on the stall across from him.
"I can't guarantee that they'll react well, magelet," he said softly, resting a hand on the frame of the stall door. "It would be different if…" He stopped, cleared his throat, and tried again. "It would be different if I wasn't your teacher. Or if I was younger."
A soft snort drifted from the stall. Aly pressed against the wood of her stall door, eager to hear everything. She'd seen the way Uncle Numy's eyes drifted towards the Wildmage the last few times the pair had been to the Swoop, especially after they'd returned from Carthak, but no one else has seemed to, least of all Daine. Aly hadn't seen the Wildmage acting any differently this visit, but it had been months since she'd been here last. Plenty of time for Daine and Numair to finally see what Aly had seen nearly three years ago.
The rusting sound of feet on straw told Aly that Daine was moving. A second later, the girl appeared, her long hair pulled back in a horsetail, stray bits of hay sticking to her tunic. She stepped over to Numair and took his hand, smiling easily.
"I don't care about any of that." She lifted her free hand and gently brushed a strand of hair out of Numair's eyes. "If anyone has something to say about us, they can come to me," she said, grinning. Numair chuckled.
"I suppose you're right," he sighed, taking Daine's other hand as if fell away from his face. He brought it to his lips, brushing a light kiss over her knuckles. Aly nearly fell out of her stall in surprise. Daine smiled up at Numair.
"Of course I am," she said smugly. Aly watched with wide-eyed interest as her uncle chuckled. He took his hand from Daine's and slipped it behind her back, drawing the Wildmage closer to him. Daine smiled cheekily up at him, sliding her own arm around his waist. Numair groaned.
"Are you trying to kill me?" he asked, gazing down at Daine. The Wildmage laughed.
"If I'd been trying to do that, you'd have been dead a long time ago," she promised, still laughing. Numair shook his head.
"Good to know," he said. Daine smiled in response and rose to her toes, closing the space between their lips. Aly squeaked in excited surprise, then clapped a hand over her mouth. Thankfully, a horse snorted at the exact same time, saving Aly from being discovered. She watched silently as Daine and Numair parted, then returned, the black robe whispering something that made his student laugh. A victorious sense of triumph settled over Aly. She'd known there was something between the two mages. A smug smile tugged at her lips. She couldn't wait to see her parents' faces when Daine and Uncle Numy finally announced their relationship.
Down at the end of the aisle, Numair pulled away from Daine, untangling his fingers from her hair. He smiled at Daine's moue of protest, but shook his head.
"If we keep carrying on like that, magelet, we'll be late for dinner," he said, plucking a piece of straw out of Daine's hair. "Alanna might not take the news as well if she comes to look for us and finds us here." Daine winced.
"No, I don't think she'd appreciate that," she agreed. She looked down at herself with a sigh. "I'll have to change before dinner."
Numair chuckled and brushed a brief kiss across Daine's forehead. "I'll go up to the tower first. Wait five minutes?"
Daine nodded, looking irritated. "I'll be glad when we don't have to hide anymore," she grumbled, turning to slide back into the stall. Numair grimaced.
"Me, too, sweet," he replied fervently as he turned away. Aly hurriedly withdrew her head back into the stall before her uncle could see her. She sat quietly until the sounds of his footsteps had died away, then waited for Daine to follow. She could hear the older girl's voice as she spoke quietly to her pony for a few minutes before she, too, turned and left.
Aly sighed in relief. She hadn't been caught. That was good. Even better, Uncle Numy and Daine finally realized they liked each other. Aly smiled. She had recognized the look on both Numair's and Daine's faces: it was the same look that Alanna and George wore when they were together, and Uncle Jon and Aunt Thayet when they were out of the public eye.
A crow's squawk startled Aly. She blinked, then gasped, remembering her father's warnings against being late. She stumbled out of the stall and hurried down the aisle, brushing stray bits of straw off of her clothes, rushing towards the tower after Daine and Numair.
Aly sat on the floor in her father's study, watching Daine and Numair closely from under her eyelashes. The two mages were sitting in adjoining chairs, keeping a careful distance between themselves without being too far apart. Both of them were being suspiciously quiet, choosing to listen rather than speak. Aly didn't think any of the others saw this, especially her parents. George was chatting good-naturedly about the latest case he'd solved, while Alanna listened. Even Thom, who hero-worshipped Numair and had hardly taken his eyes off of the mage all evening, didn't seem to see the glances Daine and Numair shared from time to time. It had been this way all though dinner. Aly didn't know how much longer she could keep quiet: she was far too eager for Uncle Numy and Daine to make their announcement.
Alan flopped down onto the ground beside his twin. Aly glanced at him briefly before returning to watching Daine and Numair.
"What?" she said, noting the look of gloom on his face. Alan sighed.
"Ma took away my toy sword," he grumbled, crossing his arms grumpily. Aly quirked her eyebrow. The one thing that had managed to keep Alan's interest for longer than a few days was his battered, precious toy sword.
A faint grin tugged at the corner of Alan's mouth. "I let one of Alveric's goats loose," he sniggered. Aly started and whipped around to look at her brother. Alveric was an old goat herder who had lived in the Swoop since before the twins were born, and who had very little patience with mischievous seven-year-olds.
"I thought you were with Ayesha?" Aly said. Alan wrinkled his nose.
"She had to go deliver a baby," he replied, sounding remarkably disgusted for a seven-year-old. Aly rolled her eyes, not taking them off of her uncle and friend, but didn't respond further. Alan cocked his head like a curious puppy.
"What are you doing?" he asked.
"Uncle Numy and Daine."
Aly sighed and looked at her brother. "Because. I think they know," she explained, eyes widening significantly at the word 'know'. Alan, however, didn't take the hint.
"Know what?" he inquired. Aly scowled and nodded her head pointedly towards the couple, raising her eyebrows. Alan frowned and looked at them. After a moment, Numair bent down and whispered something in Daine's ear, a private smile on both of their faces. Alan's eyebrows shot up and he sucked in a breath.
"Ooh," he breathed.
Satisfied that her twin understood, Aly went back to watching her uncle. She was quickly growing frustrated at his and Daine's silence. How long were they going to keep her waiting? Every time one of them opened their mouth, Aly leaned forward expectantly, only to sit back in disappointment when they spoke of something else. Sometimes, Daine or Numair would make to say something, then change their mind and close their mouth, carefully avoiding George and Alanna's gazes. Other times, they would get one of the Cooper's attention, then hesitate for a moment before changing the subject. It was enough to drive Aly mad with anticipation.
Alan fidgeted. "I'm bored," he whined. "They're not doing anything." Aly sighed.
"Da says this is what spies do," she informed her brother, who scowled.
"I'm not a spy," he retorted. Aly put her hands on her hips and faced her brother.
"No one asked you to join me, Alan!"
"But I was b—"
Aly made shushing motions towards her brother and whipped around to face the adults. Daine and Numair were both looking at Alanna and George, their faces set. Uncle Numy stood behind Daine's chair, his hand resting on its back. Daine herself was toying with the claw dangling from her neck, looking faintly green.
"Alanna?" Daine tried again. This time, the Lioness heard and looked questioningly at her young friend.
"Something wrong, Daine?" Alanna asked, sounding concerned, but the Wildmage shook her head.
"No, nothing's wrong," she replied. "I actually…er—well, I ha-have a sort of announcement."
Aly and Alan, his boredom forgotten, exchanged excited glances. This was it!
"An announcement?" George prompted gently, when neither Daine nor Numair moved to continue. Blushing, Daine nodded.
"Y-Yes," she stammered. "I mean, it's not just mine. It's Numair's, too."
Aly thought she saw her mother's eyes flick from Daine to Numair to George and back again. A small frown hovered at the corners of her lips. George, however, kept his face impassive, his hazel gaze resting on Numair. The black robe looked exceptionally pale, and the hand on the back of Daine's chair convulsed involuntarily. He cleared his throat.
"We did some…thinking while we were in the Divine Realms," he said. Aly saw his arm shaking. "I was ready for a change, but I didn't want to admit it to myself. And after Daine fell off the cliff, we, ah…talked about it, and she agreed. We've got Jon's blessing already, we just—well—"
"Are you trying to tell us you're retiring?" Alanna interrupted, raising an eyebrow. The mages blinked.
"No, of course not!" Daine said, while Numair shook his head vehemently.
"Then what's all this about?" the Lioness asked, spearing her two friends with her violet eyes. Aly and Alan looked at each other again, smirking, as the Wildmage shifted. Her shoulders brushed against Numair's fingers on her chair.
"Numair and I," Daine began slowly, turning her head to look up at Uncle Numy, "are…"
Numair looked back at her, a small, nervous smile on his face. Then he shrugged, as if to say, No going back now.
"—are together," he finished, with such ease you could almost ignore his trembling hand.
Silence fell in the study. Victory made Aly's heart soar. Finally! After years of her knowing, the adults finally knew it, too! Alanna and George blinked at Daine and Numair. Alanna's mouth opened and closed several times, though no sound came out, and George's hazel eyes were wide in surprise. Even young Thom was standing, open-mouthed, beside his mother, a book clutched at his side. Daine and Numair stood very still, watching everyone warily, as though afraid they might attack.
Finally, the Lioness found her voice. "What did you say?" she rasped, looking between Daine and Numair.
Daine answered, "Numair and I are sweethearts now," she said, very quickly and in one breath, going pink.
Alanna cursed softly. For once, none of her children said anything about it. Thom continued to look at his hero in complete shock, and Alan was watching his father, waiting for him to blink. Aly couldn't hold it in anymore. She clambered to her feet and skipped gleefully over to her father. She put a hand on his knee, beaming proudly up at him as he turned his gaze to her.
"Told you so," she crowed smugly.
Later, Aly was lying in her room, staring at her ceiling. Her mind was buzzing from the events of her day. Daine and Numair had been the first to recover from her proud declaration, both of them doubling up in relieved laughter as Aly's parents slowly recovered and started laughing, too. They hadn't stopped for several minutes, and when they had, Daine and Numair both had silly little grins stamped across their faces. The Lioness had grilled them with questions ("When did this happen? Why didn't you say something?"), before relenting and offering her congratulations. George, meanwhile, had chuckled and clapped Uncle Numy on the shoulder, saying he always knew the mage would settle down eventually, making both mages blush.
Aly rolled over and smiled at the starry sky. Daine had seemed so happy to finally have announced her secret; and Uncle Numy had hardly left her side all night, holding her small hand in his large one. Aly even caught them exchanging quick, fleeting kisses once or twice, when Alanna had her back turned. There was no denying it: Daine and Numair were in love.
The door to Aly's room opened quietly. Aly closed her eyes, pretending to sleep. After a moment, the door creaked shut again. A soft voice drifted through it.
"Sound asleep," the Lioness said.
"I still don't know how she saw through us," Uncle Numy's voice mumbled. Someone laughed quietly.
"She's got the eyes of innocence," George replied. "She sees things us grown-ups can't."
"Remind me to listen to her next time," Uncle Numy said mildly. Aly smiled in satisfaction as her parents laughed again.
"We could all stand to remember that," Daine's voice chimed in. Three sounds of assent followed.
"The gods were in a good humor when they sent us such an observant child," George chuckled.
"Speaking of gods," the Lioness's voice said suddenly, covering up Aly's indignant squeak, "have you spoken to Daine's parents yet, Numair?"
"At length," Uncle Numy replied dryly as Daine giggled. "If I hadn't, I wouldn't be right now, would I?"
"He nearly wet himself when Da walked into the room," Daine giggled. Numair groaned.
"They'll never let me forget that now," he muttered over Alanna and George's laughter. Daine laughed, as well.
"That was the point," she said. The adults' voices began to fade, as though they were walking away. Aly listened until she couldn't hear any more, gazing thoughtfully out of her window. Something her father had said repeated itself in her mind: "She has the eyes of innocence. She sees things us grown-ups can't."
What does that mean?, Aly wondered, yawning. Am I going to think like them one day?
Aly hoped not. She didn't want to think like an adult, even when she was one.
I'll never be like that, she decided sleepily, her eyes drifting shut. I'll—
She was asleep before she could finish the thought. Outside, a crow flitted past her window, a black shadow in the moonlight.
9 years later, the Copper Isles
George watched the shores of Lombyn Island drift away, a pang in his chest. He didn't like leaving his daughter here alone, but he knew he had no choice. Aly could be as stubborn as Alanna when she wanted to be. The baron of Pirate's Swoop sighed. His daughter was grown up. She was here, making her own history, away from her family. As much as he didn't want to admit it, the little girl he had raised was a young woman now. She had found good people in the Balitangs, and he knew she wouldn't rest until they were out of danger.
A reluctant smile tugged the corners of George's mouth up. The Balitangs weren't the only people his daughter had found. George had seen the protective gleam in Nawat's eyes when he'd found him with Aly that first day, and the happy look on Aly's face whenever she spoke with the crow-man. He doubted Aly knew the depth of her feelings for the mysterious Nawat yet, but he saw it: Alanna had acted much the same way before she had relented to her feelings for him all those years ago.
George tilted his face upward, feeling the Kyprish sun warm his skin. A single crow drifted above him.
Take care of my girl for me, he silently asked it without thinking, not caring if it was Nawat or not. Keep her safe.
As if in answer, the bird suddenly wheeled around, gliding in a sharp arc until it faced the opposite direction, and flew back toward the island, its black plumage gleaming in the sun. George watched it go, smiling softly.
His little girl was in good hands.
Another thank you to everyone who has reviewed this and to those who returned to read this last installment. Every last word on here was written with blood, sweat, and tears. I sincerely hope I didn't disappoint you with it.
In other news, any Harry Potter fans out there with mugglespaces should find me! The link to my profile is on my bio page here. And to anyone who doesn't have one, make one! Just go to mugglespace (dot) com and make your profile! It's tons of fun and you meet really great people. :D You can also follow me on Twitter (link on my bio page!), if you have one. haha.
Thanks again guys! You're all awesome and deserve tons and tons of e-chocolate!