Aly faced the large door again for the fourth time in ten minutes

Aly faced the large door again for the fourth time in ten minutes. It wasn't that she was scared, Alianne of Pirate's Swoop wasn't afraid of anything. Rather, she was nervous, anxious. At 16 she should have been returning from the Convent, a fully-trained Lady or Lady-in-Waiting, ready to snag a noble husband. Or she could have been a squire by now, waiting for a Knight to choose her.

But Aly hated long, tight-fitting dresses, like her mother, and she hated bows and arrows, like her father. She could have gone to University, like her older brother Thom, but she had opted not to. She had studied at the Palace with the Princesses, which, although unconventional, her godparents had allowed. She had some lessons on her Gift from her mother, when she was home and numerous lessons from her grandfather Myles. She had even been privileged enough to "shadow" her Uncle Gary, Uncle Jon and even Aunt Thayet as she witnessed what the realm's highest-ranking people did. All of her education had been unconventional and impromptu, even with her grandfather: she learned her realm's history straight from the books, but she demanded other realm's histories, unwritten Tortall history, and little known facts. She was even privileged enough to be one of few people to get her hands on a copy of the Bazhir history that King Jonathan had acquired when he became the Voice.

So at 16, Aly was already forging her own path, choosing not to follow her mother or brothers, and certainly not her father. Although being a spy did have its intrigues…

She took a deep breath and pushed open the door, smiling, "Your Highness," she curtsied deeply.

King Jonathan stood, his sapphire eyes twinkling, "You're late, Lady Alianne."

She grimaced as he took his seat again, gesturing her towards her own, "Must we be so formal?"

"You're the one who called me 'Highness'."

She sighed, "Fine, fine, Uncle Jon. Why did you call me in for such a private meeting? You scared me half to death."

Jon smiled, "How are your lessons going?"

Aly looked at her godfather skeptically, "You wanted a private meeting to discuss my studies?"

"Aly, you're mother is going to start asking you soon what you're going to want to do, we both know that."

"I figured," she grumbled, slouching slightly in her chair, "so you want me to narrow down my studies?"

The King nodded, "Unlike my own daughters, you have a number of options. You can learn more of Healing magic, join the Queen's Riders, anything you want."

Her fingers slipped through her long, strawberry-blonde hair, twirling a few strands, "So what do you suggest?"

"Well," Jon's eyes twinkled, "your mother and I think you should meet with Numair, have him officially examine your Gift, and than maybe you could study with Sir Neal for a while if you want to study healing."

Aly's green-hazel eyes widened, "Can I study with Nealie anyway?"

Jon laughed, "I suppose so, if that's okay with Sir Neal."

"And I can continue with Grandpa?"

"Yes," he paused, "now, I haven't talked to your mother about this, but your father, grandfather and I discussed this a few years ago, but we feel that you'd be an excellent addition to the Royal Spies -" he held up his hand to keep her quiet, "- when you're 18."

"You're serious?"

"Of course."

"And Pops agrees?"

Jon laughed, "Yes, and I think Alanna will eventually too - if she'll allow Alan to be a knight, and if she traveled, your father traveled and she'll allow your brothers to travel, you should be able to travel."

Aly smiled, "I'm sure if you, Uncle Jon, and Pops convince her, maybe Grandpa too, she'll be more okay with it."

Jon's eyes twinkled as he leaned back in his chair, "So in a few months, you'll begin you training with your father and grandfather, but, I think you should train in healing first, since your Gift is so strong."

Aly smiled, "Yes, Highness."

Jon grinned, "All right, all right, enough Alianne, your dismissed," he paused as they both stood, "and if I had heard correctly, I think Alan might have been picked by a knight earlier this morning."

She laughed as she approached the door to leave, "I had thought so."

She made it to the pages' wing within minutes and she was instantly pounding on Alan's door. "Alan! Alan! Open up!"

The door swung open, revealing a tall, muscular, red-headed, young man, grinning. He gave his twin a big bear hug ad ruffled her head, "Guess who got a Knight-master today?" he asked in his deep voice.

"Alan, who?" she whined.

"Guess!"

"Uncle Raoul."

"Nope."

"Just tell me."

"Neal!"

"No!"

"Yes!"

"Nealie picked you!" She jumped up and hugged him again.

"Yes!" he laughed, setting her down, "and I heard you had a meeting with Uncle Jon?"

"Oh, come on, we can talk about that later, you're a squire! Did you tell Mom and Pops yet?"

"They knew before I did - you know Neal asked Mom before, he's still afraid of her."

"So you want to study healing?"

Alan nodded as he folded some shirts into his trunk, "Why not? I have a Healing Gift, and I'll still be learning and practicing my fighting…"

"Although you'll never beat me in daggers…"

"Oh, hush, Lady-I-won't-touch-a-bow."

She stuck her tongue out, "Well, Uncle Jon said I could practice Healing with Nealie," she laughed, "and I guess you too now."

Alan laughed, "I'll never be rid of you!"

She grinned, "Never. Now come on, let me help you pack. We should go visit Thom, tell him all our news," she paused, "and Uncle Jon wants me to meet with Numair."

Alan grinned, "Why?"

She shrugged, "I guess to see how my Gift is, I'm not sure, and," her eyes twinkled, "Jon said I could be a Royal Spy when I turn 18."

Alan spun around his violet eyes wide, "No!"

She grinned, "Yep! I could be a Royal Spy! I could start out in the field like Pops, maybe high up if I'm good enough," she saw Alan's skeptical look, "come on, we know I'd be perfect! I could be a member of the Queen's Riders, be a squire or something, a Player, a commoner, a Bazhir."

Alan sighed and smiled, "You know, you're right. And your hair isn't as red."

"And my eyes aren't violet," she pointed out.

Alan laughed, "You're right. And Mom might actually be proud."

Her eyes got larger as she got more excited, continuing to help Alan pack, "Maybe I could be an Ambassador with the Prince and Princesses or a Knight and be a Spy."

"You'd have to be a lady…"

Aly laughed, "You forget, Squire Alan that I became a Lady with Princesses Lianne and Kalasin."

Alan laughed too, "I did forget, I'm just always so used to you in these clothes, wrestling with the pages, practicing your daggers, which reminds me, you'll need to practice your swordplay."

Aly grimaced, "You know I'll never be as fast as you or Ma…"

Alan smiled, "But you'll be better at wrestling if you keep practicing your Shang."

"Do you know if Lady Knight Keladry came back with Nealie?"

Alan thought, "I think so, why?"

"Well, maybe I could be formally and officially introduced and maybe she'll teach me that glaive, that pig-sticker thing that Ma hates."

The two laughed and continued to pack until some Palace servants came in to move the trunks to Alan's new quarters. It was only mid-afternoon, so the twins decided to go see their older brother.

On the ride over to the University, Aly had time to actually think. She loved her Uncle Numair, but she and Alan had always thought he was a little too intense; not only was he intense with his magic, but with everything. He was a wonderfully talented and loyal man, but he was always too intense for the twins, even with simple tasks. And Aly was skeptical of meeting with him alone to have him examine her Gift and Sight.

Aly and Alan got along with their Aunt Daine too, but they rarely saw her, Numair or their kids. Daine had once attempted to teach Aly how to use the bow and arrow, but Aly never took to that.

She urged her mare, Cinnamon, to a cantor to keep up with Alan and his Duke. They had been given their horses from their parents on their thirteenth birthdays. She smiled at the memory: her parents had never given her or her brothers many actual, tangible gifts aside from the few necessities like clothes, a few formal outfits, weapons and a few books, because their numerous aunts and uncles, Grandpa Myles and Grandma Eleni, Coram, Rispah and Maude, were always spoiling them. Aly had learned to appreciate this, and so their thirteenth birthday was especially exciting.

Unlike what most other nobles believed, Alanna had been a terrific mother and was a wonderful aunt. As the King's Champion, she wasn't always around, and she was sometimes harsh or strict, but Alanna taught her children everything she knew and supported everything they did. When Alan was deciding between University and Knighthood, Alanna supported him. When Aly decided to not be a Knight and decided to become a Lady while still getting various aspects of knight and University educations. Alanna had even suggested that she could join the Queen's Riders or become an Ambassador. Alanna, like George, supported their children, whether or not they did what was expected of them as nobles, as the grandchildren of a wealthy knight, the godchildren of their Highnesses.

And for that, Aly was grateful.

Most people who didn't know the Pirate's Swoop family intimately thought Aly was closest to her father, but Aly was just as close to her mother, making her go dress shopping at Lalasa's store, promise to teach her Shang and promise to take her to the Bazhir.

Aly and Alan gave their horses to the University stable hands and entered the University, walking to the students' wing. To their delight Thom's door was open.

"Hear ye, hear ye."

"The Court presents the dashing Squire Alan -"

"- And radiant Lady Alianne," Alan finished.

"Oh, honestly you two," Thom came to the open door, "just come in, I knew you were here, why do you think the door was open?"

Alan grumbled, "Your Sight makes you no fun."

Thom laughed and punched his younger, yet taller brother's shoulder. "Sorry, little brother," he gave Aly a hug, his hazel eyes twinkling, "and hello, little sister. What brings you two here to the University, and before Mother and Father visit?"

Aly laughed and reached up to ruffle his deep-red hair. "We both have exciting news!"

The three siblings all had different shades of red, which always caught people off-guard when they saw the three Cooper children together. Thom's was darker red, with more brown, which suited him. He had dark hazel eyes and was shorter than Alan, who was the tallest in the family. He looked the most like his father, complete with a crooked nose. Alan had bright red hair with violet eyes, just like their mother. He was tall and lean, yet extremely muscular. He was quick with a sword - nearly as quick as Alanna of herself. His Gift, while strong, was the weakest of the three, which was still stronger than most. His face looked almost exactly like his father as well, except with a stronger jaw than his father and brother. Aly had the lightest hair color of the three: it was strawberry-blonde, but heavy on the strawberry. Her eyes were also hazel, but more green than even her father's. She too had a strong jaw line, but she had her mother's delicate nose. She was thankfully taller than her mother, but not by much. She too had a strong Gift, but not as strong as Thom's. Since she was the smallest and youngest sibling, she had to be the quickest: she was the quickest wrestler of the three, although not the strongest, she was able to maneuver, roll, and wrangle herself out of holds. She was also the quickest with daggers, almost able to best her father.

The three were close; even though Alan and Aly were twins, they were still close with their older brother. Even when they were all busy or in different cities, they always sent detailed letters. Aly and Alan always made sure Thom interacted socially with other so he wouldn't get too involved with his magic. And Alanna and George always made sure he never got too cocky or ambitious, afraid he'd turn out like his late uncle. But Thom, unlike his namesake, cared too much about his family, friends and realm; and he loved to go to feasts and balls, interact with nobles and other mages and flirt with the Court Ladies. And unlike his uncle, he made sure to be apt in wrestling, daggers and a bow.

Thom was extremely excited for his brother's luck in knight-master, especially since he'd be able to learn more about his Gift. "You're Neal's first squire than, yea? You'll have to keep him in check. Make sure he actually teaches you how to heal and use your Gift properly without draining your Gift or straining yourself," Thom laughed, "he'll be so fun though, you'll have so many ridiculous Neal stories."

Aly clapped her hands, "Oh, I love Neal stories!"

Thom looked at his sister, "And what's your exciting news?"

"Well," he green-hazel eyes twinkled and she told Thom all about her meeting with their Uncle Jon.

Thom laughed, "So you'll be studying with Neal too than, eh?"

Aly grinned, "And I'll be continuing with my studies."

"And you'll finally be able to put that fragmented, fractured education to good use, huh? And Uncle Jon really wants you to join the Spies?"

Aly nodded, "After I turn 18 and I train."

Thom though for a moment, "Having a noble, who is a lady, who could pass for a Queen's Rider, a squire, a lady, or really whatever. You'd be more valuable than Pops' Rogue spies and you wouldn't be in too much danger…" he trailed off. "I think it's a perfect match - but I still think you would make a wonderful Ambassador -"

"- Or a Player," Alan joked as he avoided Aly's fist.

The three continued to talk in Thom's room until the early evening, about Thom's studies, Alan's first day with Neal in the morning and Aly's anxiety over her meeting with Numair the next day. When Alan's stomach rumbled, Aly suggested that they head to the Dancing Dove for dinner. It was still light out when they headed down to the city - Alan and Aly were already wearing plain riding clothes and only had to wait briefly for Thom to change and for Alan to put a hat on to hide his hair. They all had daggers hidden on their person, like they normally did.

They hitched their horses outside the pub and walked in, waving to Marek as they sat at an empty table. An attractive young man came to take their orders. Alan and Aly ordered a tankard, much to Thom's dismay. Aly made sure to bat her eyelashes and flip her hair as they ordered. The waiter was tall with blonde hair and brown eyes and Aly could tell he was strong through his shirt. She winked as he walked away and Alan groaned. "You managed to flirt with him just by ordering your food."

Aly shrugged, "It's a gift. And why's it matter, he was cute and I'll probably never see him again after this and it's all a bit of fun."

Alan rolled his eyes and Thom laughed, "Alianne, you need to stop flirting with all these young men, breaking all their hearts."

Aly shrugged and smiled flirtatiously as their waiter brought their food over. The three began to eat when Marek wandered over. "Well, hello my three favorite young people."

"Marek, old chap, how are you?" Thom asked.

He laughed, "I assume your folks don't know you're down here?"

"Do they ever know unless we're with them?"

"What they don't know won't hurt them."

Marek laughed, "The old King himself would be proud if he knew ye's were pulling old tricks like these."

They talked with Marek for a while about what was going on in the city recently, including the planned celebrations for the King's birthday. It was getting dark when the three siblings left the Dancing Dove - Aly brushed past their waiter on their way out when he lightly grabbed her wrist. She immediately tensed up and brought her free hand to her back in case she had to reach for a dagger. She smiled, trying her best to imitate the Players. The young man's voice was deep, "Will I see you again?"

"Maybe," she whispered flirtatiously.

He let go of her wrist, "I'm David." Aly nodded and without saying anything, left the Dancing Dove, catching up to her brothers.

--

Aly woke up early the next morning, wanting to get her meeting with Numair over early so she could pester Neal and Alan before lessons with Myles.

She dressed in another set of casual riding clothes: dark green breeches and a thin, cream-colored tunic. She threw her hair into a horsetail and headed off towards the stables, opting to skip breakfast until after her Gift was examined.

Soon she arrived at the University and went to Numair's office. There, she was greeted by a female mage, "Alianne of Pirate's Swoop?"

"Yes, sorry, I was looking for Numair."

"Yes, I'm one of his apprentices, Melanie. He was called away late last night, so he asked me to examine your Gift."

Aly nodded and smiled at the mage, "So, let's get started!"

--

Aly felt slightly woozy when she got back to the Palace and so decided to take a nap before visiting Neal and her brother.

Soon she was wandering the Palace looking for Neal. She couldn't find him in his rooms, on the practice courts or in Duke Baird's offices. Defeated and annoyed, she decided to go visit her Uncle Raoul who had just returned with the King's Own, Lady Knight Keladry and Sir Neal.

She walked through the King's Own barracks and knocked on Raoul's door. Before she could even look up to see his face, he had picked her up in one of his infamous hugs. "How's my favorite niece?" he growled.

"Glad that her favorite Uncle is home!" She laughed as he set her down and ushered her into his office. "Did you hear that Nealie picked Alan?"

Raoul laughed and poured Aly a drink of water, "Indeed, I had, Kel just told me," he took a sip of water, "actually, she should be back in a moment. Have you two officially met?"

Aly shook her head, "Is she doing those glaive lessons again?"

Raoul laughed, "We'll have to ask her. And I hear you might be studying with Neal too."

Aly grinned, "Won't he be thrilled?"

Raoul laughed, "He'll have a great time with the terrible twins, I'm sure."

"Oh, Raoul, I haven't been terrible since I was eight!"

There was a knock on the door and Lady Knight Keladry walked in with two men behind her. "Ah, Lady Knight Keladry, this is Alianne of Pirate's Swoop."

Aly grinned and shook Kel's hand, "It's Aly, actually, and Uncle Raoul here keeps forgetting I'm a Lady now."

Kel laughed, "And it's Kel. I hear your twin is Neal's squire. He'll be in for a treat."

Aly laughed and Raoul cut in, "Lady Aly will be studying healing with Neal as well, and Kel, are you still holding those glaive sessions?"

Kel smiled, "Right as the sun rises in the practice courts, you're more than welcome to come, Aly!"

"Oh, that's wonderful, thanks!"

"Oh, and Aly, this is Sergeant Domitan of Masbolle, Neal's cousin and Kel's beau."

Aly smiled and stuck out her hand for him to shake. Instead he bowed and kissed her hand, his blue eyes twinkling, "Please, it's Dom. And Aly, I feel for you, having to study with Meathead."

Aly laughed, "Meathead, hm? That's much more original than Nealie."

Dom, Kel and the other man laughed and Dom remembered his manners, "Oh, right, Raoul, this is my nephew and the newest member of my squad as it's just his 18th birthday, James of Irismere."

Raoul shook the man's hand and welcomed him, but Aly barely heard the words because she was too preoccupied staring at James. He was taller than Dom and leaner too; he had dark hair, not as black as Uncle Jon's, but dark and it was cropped short. He had a hard jaw line and almost the exact same nose as Neal and Dom. But it was his deep sea-green eyes that caught her off guard. They were by far the greenest eyes she had ever seen.

James turned towards Aly and shook her hand grinning a gorgeous smile at her, which she returned, "Aly, best of luck with Neal."

She grinned, "And good luck in the Own," she said as Dom and James left to return to their duties.

Raoul tried to hide his knowing smile, "Kel, do you know where Neal is?"

"He just got back, I think, probably in his rooms." She excused herself and left.

Raoul turned to Aly, "You didn't even attempt to flirt with him?"

"Who, Dom? He's dating Kel."

"No, you silly niece! James! You always flirt with the young men, break their hearts."

Aly looked hurt, "I never! And why does everyone keep saying that?"

Raoul shrugged, "Because it's true. He's in the Own and can't get married anyway."

"Oh, honestly Uncle Raoul!" She hesitated for a moment. "So Kel and Dom won't be able to get married." Raoul shook his head. "Does that bother her? Doesn't she want to get married?" Raoul shrugged again and his eyes got wide. "Don't you even think about going to change that silly rule, Alianne Cooper of Pirate's Swoop."

Aly grinned, "Why not? You can get married, can't you? Why can't your men? Now," she walked towards the door, "if you'll excuse me, I have to visit Neal before my lessons with Myles."

--

Aly sauntered into Neal's room and announced in a clear voice, "Oh, Sir Nealie, I have arrived, when shall we commence our studies?"

She tried not to laugh when she heard Neal groan, "Aly, dearest, how many times have I told you to not call me Nealie?" She threw herself at him and gave him a hug.

"Nealie, it's been too long! And thank you for making little Alan your squire! Mithros, we were all so worried he wouldn't get a Knight-master!"

"Hey! I heard that!"

Neal laughed, "Now, Aly, my flower, Alan and I have things to attend to, but we can study tomorrow after breakfast - you have lessons in the afternoon?"

She stood at attention and tried not to laugh, "Sir, yessir, I will see you at the third bell. Here?"

"Yes, here is fine. Farewell, Aly love."

"Farewell, Nealie, twinnie."

"I hate when she calls me that…"

--

Aly sauntered into her grandfather's office, "Sorry I'm late, Grandpa, I had to search forever for Neal and Alan - you heard the news, right?"

Myles smiled at his granddaughter, "I had heard - and did you hear your parents are coming this evening?"

Aly froze, half-way to her seat, "What?"

"Your mother and father are riding up today - Neal has been given an assignment, your mother has been given an assignment too, so they decided to come to the Palace a little earlier."

"Mithros, do you know when they're coming? Is Uncle Jon holding a dinner for them?"

Myles nodded, "No one told you?"

"Oh, Great Mother Goddess, I have to bathe and change and oh no it's going to be a big meal, isn't it?"

Myles chuckled, "Course, especially since Jon knows Alanna hates these big dinners."

Aly ran towards the door, "We'll have an extra-long lesson tomorrow or something, see you at dinner!" She ran to her room to bathe quickly and dress in a decent enough dress. There was the letter with the Royal Seal, signed by Thayet, asking for her presence at dinner. Groaning, she turned the water on, shedding her clothes to hop in to the tub.

She hadn't seen her parents in a few months, since her last short visit to Pirate's Swoop. She was excited to see them, excited to show them just how lady-like she'd become, how graceful. They knew how intelligent she was, but given how un-lady-like Alanna was, the fact that Aly could walk like a lady would be a huge accomplishment.

Aly tried to make her hair dry faster with a towel as she searched through her drawers for a dress. She decided on a pale blue cotton dress that fitted looser than the dresses that all other court ladies wore. As a force of habit she put her daggers in their usual places underneath her dress, in the back of her breastband, in the top of her socks, under the bands she wore on her arms, like her dad. When she realized what she was doing, she sighed. She wouldn't need daggers for a dinner with her extended family, but if she had learned anything from her paranoid parents, it was that you could never be too safe.

Aly decided to meet up with Neal and Alan to go to the feast. Yuki was in Queenscove for the month, getting acquainted with her new family, decorating and organizing while Neal stayed in Corus. She would come back to Corus for a while in a month; once Duke Baird retired in a few years, Neal and Yuki's primary residence would be the Palace.

Aly knocked on Neal's door and Alan answered, wearing Queenscove colors, "Sir Nealan is preoccupied -oh, it's you."

Aly smirked, "Some welcome. Are you two almost ready for the dinner?"

Neal yelled from his bathroom, "In a moment!"

"Do you know who else is coming tonight?"

Aly shrugged, "The usual, I should think, but since Neal's coming tonight too…" she laughed as Neal bounded out from the bathroom.

"Well, come along, kiddies, let's go." The three walked down the halls and ran into Gary and Raoul, who were also heading towards the feast.

"Ah, Squire Alan, congratulations on getting a Knight-master."

"Sorry it had to be Sir Nealan," Raoul said and Alan laughed.

"Thanks Uncle Gary, Uncle Raoul."

A palace herald was stationed at the door. "Oh, Mithros," Raoul muttered, "and Buri had to go to Goldenlake for a visit."

Aly laughed, "Uncle Jon would do this, just to irritate Mother. Well, come on, Sir Nealie, you'll have to escort me since I'm a Lady now," she picked up her skirts with her left hand.

Neal groaned. "Lucky me."

The herald opened the door and announced Neal and Aly, followed by Raoul, Gary and than Alan. Alanna and George were already present in the hall, taking with the King and Queen. Once she was in the room, she curtsied to Neal and delicately flicked her long hair behind her shoulder. She did her best lady-walk down the hall and curtsied to her Aunt and Uncle first before turning to curtsy to her parents. Jon and Thayet tried to hide their smiles behind their hands, but Alanna openly blanched. George was grinning, his hazel eyes twinkling. "Well, lass, you seem to be a proper lady."

She grinned as George kissed both her cheeks, as custom required: he was continuing the formalities Aly had started. She turned to her mother. "You glided. You glided across this floor. My daughter was able to walk like a lady," she laughed and blinked her violet eyes.

Aly smiled and leaned in to whisper, "But I can still fight like a man." Alanna laughed and gave her daughter a hug as Alan came up behind his twin.

"Mom, Pops," he shook George's hand who grinned and Alanna gave him a hug too as Neal cleared his throat. Alanna stood up to her full height, her hands behind her back. "Sir Nealan," she nodded gravely.

Aly noted the fear and respect in his green eyes as he stood to attention, "Sir Alanna, may I present my squire, Alan of Pirate's Swoop. He will be my charge for the next four years and I shall teach him all I know about the art of war and the art of healing, which I learned from my own Knight-master."

Alanna nodded her lips twitching and Aly let out a laugh as George cut in, "Come on love, give the poor lad a break. Look how frightened he is."

"I'm - I'm not -" he stopped when Alanna's eyes landed on him again and he let out a soft yelp.

Alanna smiled, "Oh, Neal, come on, you're not actually afraid of me, come here," she shook his hand and laughed.

Lady Knight Keladry and Sergeant Domitan were the next ones to be announced and they came in to greet their Highnesses, never had the privilege of meeting either. Raoul came over to talk with Alanna and Kel as Neal became the recipient of teases from Dom as Aly laughed. Alan was talking to their father - she'd talk to him after the meal. Dom looked at Aly, "So, I hear Alianne here is calling you Nealie instead of Meathead." Neal grimaced.

"But I think Nealie is almost childish, so during my studies with you, I'll make sure to think of new nicknames."

Thom was the last one to be announced, and soon everyone was being ushered to sit at the large table. Aly looked around at the servers and noticed that they weren't wearing pages' uniforms, but rather uniforms of the King's Own. Dom, who was sitting close to Aly answered her unspoken question. "The pages had already been given the night off, so at the last minute Raoul rounded up the newest recruits and got them to serve."

Aly nodded, reaching for her glass. The chance of her seeing those terribly attractive green eyes suddenly increased dramatically.

She was talking with Princess Lianne who was sitting on her left when James, Dom's nephew, served Alan his first course. She looked up for a moment and met his deep green eyes. Her stomach lurched and she looked away quickly, bringing her attention back to Lianne, who hadn't noticed Aly's eye contact.

It seemed as though James was serving everyone who was sitting across from Aly. And she couldn't look away enough. It wasn't just his eyes that were mesmerizing, but his face, the way he moved; he walked with a gracefulness that most men lacked, even knights. Aly could only imagine the way he must have fought.

Dom watched his nephew, nervous that he would trip in front of all these important nobles. But Dom's worry was unnecessary, since he knew how poised he was both in a fight and apparently serving food. He took a bite of his food and looked up at James again and saw him staring at something. He followed his gaze and was surprised to see Aly staring back at James.

He smiled. This would be interesting.

--

Aly was able to snatch her father away from her Uncle Raoul after the meal as everyone was standing around, talking. "Pops," she grinned as her dad grinned back, his hazel-green eyes twinkling.

"Ah, daughter, let me take a look at you, yes, yes, you are a lady," he reached for her arm and smiled, "but still my child, I see," he said as he felt the dagger on the inside of her arm.

"Force of habit, Pops," she sighed, "so have you heard the news? Not only am I a lady, but I'll be studying healing with Sir Nealie. And," she whispered, leaning in so her dad could here her, "Uncle Jon tells me there's a spot for me amongst your ranks when I'm 18."

George tried to hide his smile, "Aye, I knew he would tell you sooner or later. And yes, but I think with all of your training and education, you'll be a higher-ranked spy."

"Among the Ambassadors?"

He laughed at her eagerness, "We'll see, we'll see, first I think you need to complete your training with Neal first."

Aly sighed, "Yes, yes."

George smiled as Thom came over, "Ah, Thommy my boy, have you seen lady-like your sister is?"

Thom grinned, "Soon, father, we'll have to fend-off knights, mages -"

"- Members of the King's Own," Alan whispered in Aly's ear.

"- who'll want to take our dear sister's hand in marriage," Thom finished, unaware of what Alan had said. Aly scowled at her twin, daring him to say something again.

"Ah, here's our resident squire! Alan, how does it feel to be a squire?"

Alan smiled, "Feels fine, Pops!"

Alanna walked over and put her arm around Aly, "Oh, daughter of mine, I am proud that you can walk and act like a lady," she laughed, "and that you can wrestle and use daggers as well as any man."

Aly grinned, "Not just any man, Ma, I can wrestle better than Alan and use daggers just as well as Pops. And I'll be joining Lady Knight Keladry's morning glaive sessions."

Alanna smiled, brushing her daughter's hair behind her shoulders, "Than I'll see you there," she and George bade their children and everyone goodnight.

Aly turned around and saw James watching her from a dark corner, but as soon as he saw her notice him, he turned away. Aly felt that she should have been apprehensive, but she felt a blush creeping up her cheeks.

Dom walked up beside her, "He's a good kid," he said, smiling. "I know we barely know each other, Lady Alianne," he said dramatically, "but from what I've heard, you seem like a nice enough young lady."

Aly laughed, "Well, thank you, Sergeant Domitan. And from Neal's constant complaining, I feel as though I can trust you, but I don't really know what you're talking about."

Dom nodded, "Of course, Lady Alianne, of course. But I think if you got to know James, you'd like him. And I'm not just saying that because I'm his uncle."

Aly smiled, "How does that work? You're not that much older than he is…"

Dom's blue eyes twinkled, "I knew I liked you. No, I'm the baby of the Masbolle clan, and he's the second brother of my second eldest brother. Out of ten siblings."

Aly nodded, "And I thought my adoptive extended family was difficult to explain."

Dom laughed, "The Masbolles have a lot of children -"

"- And they're all crazy," Neal cut in.

"Just as crazy as the Queenscove clan!"

--

Aly went to sleep quickly that night, trying not to think of James' deep green eyes: it wasn't like she hadn't had crushes before, but she was older now, and she needed to stop having silly, girly feelings like this.

But James was nice to look at.

She woke up early to get down to the practice courts. There were already a few women there, including her mother, Kel, Queen Thayet and Princess Lianne.

She walked back to the Palace with her mother, who had a breakfast meeting with Jon, Gary and the rest of the council. Aly bathed and changed quickly and hurried to the mess hall, to eat with Neal and Alan before practicing Healing.

"Good morning, teach."

Neal groaned into his porridge, "Wonderful, an extra half-bell of teasing."

"Oh, Neal, come, I'm not going to tease you during our lessons. I want to learn how to heal, Neal. I want to be able to learn more about my Gift without having to go to University."

Neal blinked. "Aly, I knew you were serious about your studies, but I had no idea how serious you were about your Gift," he paused as her stirred his porridge, thinking. "The King has assigned me to the Bazhir - specifically the Bloody Hawk tribe since I was made a member when I was your mother's square, and since that school is still there…"

"Oh, Neal please ask if I can come! Technically I'm a member of the tribe and I could learn so much from them! And if you go, my studies will be disrupted and -"

Neal smiled, "I'll try, Aly, I'll ask. I'll see what I can do."

--

Aly walked into Myles' room that afternoon, "Sorry I'm late, Grandpa, Nealie really worked us hard today." She sat down in her usual chair and didn't notice the person sitting next to her until Myles acknowledged him.

"Aly, your father and I wanted to talk to you a little bit about spies and about the training you'll have to go through before and after you turn eighteen."

Aly grinned, "Yes, of course, of course. And before you say anything," her voice turned serious, and both her father and grandfather knew she was putting on another of her infamous Player-worthy performances. "I know that this training will be hard, I know that with this training and my previous and on-going education, I will be a higher-ranking spy, by being anything from a peace envoy to a princess' lady-in-waiting. Yet, I will still be in danger as all other spies, and so must take the Spy Oath in the event that I get discovered and questioned. Even when there are no potential threats to our realm, spies are needed for even the most mundane of jobs."

George laughed, "Aye, sounds good to me. Practicing that one, were ya?"

Aly feigned innocence and sat back, waving her hand, "I don't know what you mean by that comment, father. It came straight from the heart."

Myles laughed too, "Fine, fine, that was all well and good. But yes, you're training will become intensive, and secretive, closer to your 18th birthday. Until than, you are expected to focus your time and energy on studying healing with Sir Nealan, continuing your fighting," he paused.

"And perhaps trying to take up archery again, yea?"

Aly grimaced, "I'd rather just learn to throw swords or javelins or something."

"And you will continue your current studies, since they will be valuable to your life as a spy."

Aly grinned, "Let's the games begin!"

--