Greetings readers! I'm very sorry about my delay in posting this—I don't have any excuse except for the fact that I was very reluctant to part with these characters and I wanted to be sure I left them in the right place. (I know I've made this claim before and, as Byrn might say, 'it didn't really take last time'; so I'm still not sure whether I'm cured of my tendency to write into my epilogues.) I really do think this story is finished though—and I'm excited about continuing my dogged efforts to write and publish original fiction while pursuing a Ph.D. in the social sciences, but not sure that this will leave me much time for Fanfiction (or sleep). That said, I want to thank the amazingly steadfast reviewers who have inspired me to see this thing through—it's been epic and your encouragement was essential. Finally, this epilogue takes place about eight years (actually more like 7.5, but Neal hasn't been keeping a careful count) after the story last ended. It contains characters and themes belonging to Tamora Pierce and several long italicized flashbacks describing moments in the intervening years. Enjoy!
Neal was in the stables, preparing for an afternoon ride when Penelope's family returned from their summer adventuring. They were in the midst of a lively debate regarding bedtime, which they resumed as soon as all three of them had dismounted to greet him with hugs and handshakes.
"Can I stay up until Aunt Rissa gets in?" Althea began unbuckling her girth as she bargained; she was fiercely independent when it came to the care of her pony. She glanced from one parent to another and then added, "please?"
"No," Penelope said. "She might very well be an entire day late."
"No butts." Penelope tapped her horse's rear, nudging him into a stall.
"Just noses." Dalton reached over to tweak his daughter's nose, which was a miniature replica of Penelope's.
Althea twitched this appendage at her parents. "You're so strict," she protested as she began to brush her pony.
Neal found this rather amusing. Penelope and Dalton were possibly the most lenient parents he knew—they generally encouraged their daughter to pursue whatever inclinations and aspirations she fancied, intervening only when serious injury or exhaustion seemed likely.
"You ought to learn understatement," Neal informed her. "It's far more effective than exaggeration."
She sighed with mock resignation. "Yes, uncle Neal."
"And in any case," Penelope added. "You need to have a few rules. How else will you learn to break them?"
Althea blinked and conceded this logic. "What about Aunt Karyna and Aunt Vina?"
Dalton grinned. These were possibly her favorites as Vina brought the best sweets and Karyna had given her a retired Rider pony. Though Althea had enough favorite relatives to populate a small village—Uncle Jeck was adored for the tiny practice weapons he provided, Aunt Sara baked her gingerbread centaurs, Grania sent clothing in all her favorite colors…
"They'll be here in time for our picnic tomorrow," Penelope assured her.
"Speaking of rules," Neal told them, " your child has a hopelessly muddled understanding of the laws of biological and noble inheritance."
Penelope shrugged. "But she's very clear on the principles of love and loyalty."
Althea turned to Neal. "I know you're not technically my uncle. I could start calling you 'great uncle Neal' if you'd prefer."
"Thank you, I would not," he said. "And she obviously has her mother's cheek."
"And her hair," Althea agreed. "But some people say I look more like my Da—I think that's only 'cause I have green eyes and I'm tall for my age."
This was true, Neal thought. But, at seven, she was still a little, wiry-muscled creature and Neal suspected that she would grow to be small and sturdy like her mother.
"And fortunately you have his ability to tactfully change the subject," Neal muttered, ruffling her hair and winking smugly at Penelope as she collected her gear and Althea's.
Dalton nodded in acknowledgement and scooped up his own bag, gesturing for them to precede him out of the stables.
Neal scowled and waved them off so that he could prepare for his ride in peace. But he couldn't help grinning when Penelope doubled back to hug him once more.
"You'll come with us tomorrow?" she asked.
"Of course. Aside from the possibility that I've missed my impertinent old protégée, I might very well be needed in a medical capacity."
Penelope raised an eyebrow.
Neal grinned. "You'll understand when you see Selena."
"I thought her baby wasn't due for another month."
"Remind her of that, would you?"
Penelope smiled. "She's not going to go into labor in your presence."
"That's the point. It's like bringing along an extra blanket to keep the weather from turning cold."
"Irrational preparation," Penelope intoned, paraphrasing something he'd told her years before, "is often our only defense against absolute chaos."
"Exactly," Neal agreed, nudging her off to follow her family.
They reached the practice courts just in time to watch Tortall's youngest lady knight defeat the training master and then help her up.
"I can't believe she's earned her shield already," Dalton muttered.
Penelope nodded. "It seems like she was six just yesterday and now she looks exactly like her mother."
Their daughter was completely uninterested in such musings. She yelled Fira's name and then darted across the courts towards her.
"Thea!" Kefira grinned and scooped the girl up, spinning her around.
Kel followed her daughter at a more dignified pace. "I did beat her at round one," she said good-naturedly. She shook her head. "Just you wait until yours starts surpassing you."
Penelope smiled. "She already does at sewing." Althea had broken her leg while attempting to climb a tree the previous summer and Grania had taught her to sew in a desperate attempt to keep her quietly occupied during her recovery. To her parents' utter bemusement, Althea had taken to needlework with the same talent and enthusiasm she already demonstrated at swordwork. (Neal had remarked that this skill was probably born of sheer necessity, "just like Jason learned to cook because his mother couldn't".)
"So she's mastering weapons in a range of sizes," Kel observed.
"And some of the purely intellectual variety," Dalton added, trying not think of what George might have taught her during their last visit to the Swoop. Not that she was demonstrating such knowledge at the moment, given that she was laughing with absolute delight as Kefira set her down and pretended to collapse with dizziness.
Kel smiled at the two girls. "And dare I ask if she'll be joining…"
"If that's what she wants in three years," Penelope said, surprised by how bittersweet the prospect seemed. She'd never been away from Althea for more than a week's time—she and Dalton had decided not to have any more children in order to keep their family 'small and highly mobile' so that Althea could travel with them whenever it was safe for her to do so. And she had journeyed extensively from a very young age, taking naturally to the lifestyle of a knight errant.
"It probably will be," Dalton said, briefly running comforting fingers over Penelope's shoulder, "so long as her refusal to learn any musical instruments keeps her from running off with a troop of traveling players."
"Good. Hopefully there'll be one or two things left for me to teach her." Kel smiled and then hesitated a moment. "I know you've just gotten in and you'll want to get unpacking," she said, "but I've been doing some long term planning this week and I'd like a word with one of you at some point."
"Certainly," Penelope said, passing her bags to Dalton.
"Come on, Althea," Dalton called, offering her his hand as she skipped away from Kel's daughter, "let's go find Wyldon and see if he'll let us have Bandit back."
Dalton had thought that his world had permanently changed the night he found Penelope vomiting behind the battlefield and heard her whisper that she might be pregnant. He'd thought so again when she caught his eyes across the practice courts and mouthed, I am. And again when she'd dropped her scone in surprise the first time the baby kicked.
By the time Penelope shook him awake, hissing instructions to fetch Neal and shove some really strong tea down his throat, he'd realized that his daughter wasn't ever going to stop changing his life. This realization had been confirmed when Neal, muttering about 'accursedly robust lungs', deposited a just-cleaned-and-loudly-squalling-in-protest infant in his arms before turning around to tend to Penelope.
Dalton blinked into her already familiar eyes, kissed her tiny red forehead, and murmured shushing sounds until she blinked back at him in a puzzled way. Then he smiled at Penelope, who was exhausted and sweat-soaked but grinning back at him, and settled gently beside her on the bed so that the three of them were nestled together.
"Good," Neal murmured. "Don't jostle her and don't let her even think about moving—there's still a slight risk of bleeding. I'm going to get some food and send word to Alanna, but I'll be back to fix your fingers in a few minutes."
"The ones she broke squeezing your hand during that last contraction."
"Oh," Dalton muttered unconcernedly, shooing Neal away.
Penelope quirked her lips sheepishly at him.
Dalton shook his head and bent carefully around their daughter to kiss Penelope's nose. "She's beautiful."
"That's because she takes after you."
"I'll assume that was a compliment of the not entirely accurate or coherent variety." Dalton tucked a bit of hair behind Penelope's ear and ran his thumb over his daughter's cheek. "How are you feeling?"
"Do you remember when I was crushed by a Hurrock around my seventeenth birthday?"
"I've decided that wasn't so bad really."
"But she's so amazing I don't really care."
"She is amazing—you're amazing." He brushed his nose over both their faces. "What do you want to call her?"
"Don't make me think right now," she whispered, her eyes fixed on the baby's face. "I'm fine with any of the names we picked earlier."
"Alright," he murmured. "I like 'Althea' best—it's pretty and practical."
Penelope smiled. "And since it means 'healing herb' it sort of honors Neal without sounding sentimental about it."
"Exactly." Dalton ran an awed finger over the tiny nose. "Althea it is."
'Da' had been her first word (which was normal, Neal had explained, since it was an easier sound to make that 'Ma') and Dalton had suddenly thought it was the most beautiful sound in the world.
And then, after many more (mostly) pleasant surprises, there had been the afternoon he'd learned to braid hair. Althea had been five by the time Penelope had been willing to risk a mission away from the palace and her daughter; she'd plunged eagerly back into the duties of command, leaving Dalton with a somewhat bewildered child and her unruly tangles.
"I miss Ma," Althea said, not quite whining, as she tiptoed over to join him beside the window.
"Me too," he admitted, swallowing down a brief flash of worry as he lifted her to the ledge so that she could see better. "What shall we do with ourselves today?"
Althea was still frowning as she watched birds gather and fight over breadcrumbs in the courtyard. "She forgot to braid my hair this morning."
"Oh." Dalton scanned her hair as though it were the map of an enemy territory. "Right. I suppose we'd better see what we can do." He frowned. "How does she usually do it?"
Althea blinked, on the verge of bewildered tears. "She just does."
Dalton nodded and turned to offer her a piggyback ride. "Let's go find an expert then."
Vina and Selena had accompanied Penelope, but Sara was in the smithy and she made a valiant attempt at explanation before Dalton's perplexed expression made her collapse in a giggling heap. Karyna put forth a similarly failed effort when Dalton brought Althea to the Rider barracks.
Eventually, Dom spotted Dalton carting an increasingly bedraggled Althea across the courtyard and quietly suggested that he visit Wyldon.
Wyldon raised one eyebrow at Dalton as he ushered then into his quarters but otherwise refrained from expressing any amusement. "It isn't so different from cross-stepping," he assured Dalton. Then he turned to Althea and said, "sit at attention please."
Althea nodded and settled herself on Wyldon's footstool, remaining perfectly still (to Dalton's astonishment) as he combed her hair and sorted it into three groups.
"Now." Wyldon beckoned Dalton. "Watch carefully."
Dalton did. And by the time Penelope returned, he was almost as good as Wyldon as braiding hair.
"Bandit," Althea called, pulling Dalton back to the present.
The old dog lifted his head off of Wyldon's lap and leapt off the bench, bounding towards her like a puppy. Althea laughed as Bandit licked her face and then knelt to rub his belly. Remembering herself, she jumped up once to kiss Wyldon's cheek and then darted back to her dog.
Dalton scratched Bandit's ears on his way to thank Wyldon, who calmly waved his gratitude away.
"It wasn't any work," Wyldon murmured, smiling as he watched Althea and Bandit tussle. "We're both about the same age by now and what we want is to sit in the sun and watch out for young ones running by."
Dalton smiled back. "You haven't learned to doze yet?"
"I'm afraid I've demonstrated a profound lack of aptitude," Wyldon admitted, allowing something like a twinkle to appear in his alert expression. "But Queenscove remains hopeful and often assures me that it isn't difficult."
"Well," said Dalton, "you know what they say about old dogs and new tricks." He took Althea's hand again and grinned at Wyldon. "It's a wildly inaccurate generalization."
"I thought I might take this opportunity to secure the promise of a future favor," Kel said slowly.
"Anything," Penelope said easily.
"Are you sure about that?"
"Well, don't tell Neal—he'd get entirely too much pleasure out of critiquing my idiocy—but sure, within reason."
"Well, do you think you and Dalton might take another pair of squires in three years or so?"
Penelope nodded. So this was why she'd been asking about Althea's plans. "I think we very well might."
"And would you be willing to consider another set of twins?"
Penelope swallowed. There was only one set of twins among the current pages and they were Kel's. (They were also, Neal had once remarked, possibly the only children whose parents had been glad to see them reach puberty as this made it easier to tell them apart.)
"I believe the last set turned out reasonably well," Penelope said finally. "And, I'll need to discuss the matter with Dalton, but I think we'd both be honored to have an opportunity to repeat the experiment."
Kel nodded. "And it's an honor to have a former student trust me with her own daughter's education." Then she smiled. "But let's not get all weepy and demonstrative about it," she added, belying her words by pulling Penelope into a hug. "Now, I imagine yours needs a bath."
Penelope grinned and gave a mock salute before hurrying away.
Althea woke the next morning to find Bandit curled beside her and a very familiar note on her pillow. Many variations of it had been left for her every morning since the day she'd learned to read.
Good morning Brightness,
We're on the practice courts. Bring Bandit out when you are ready for breakfast. Or grab your sword and some biscuits and come join us.
The handwriting was her mother's, but this time her father had left a postscript.
Aunt Rissa is with us and we have a bet going with (Great) Uncle Neal about whether or not she'll still be able to lift you without grunting—so please run right up and throw your arms around her and squeeze hard.
"Is there anything else to do?" Ben called.
Vina glanced over to be sure his ponies had been cared for. "Get out of here and get yourself something cold to drink."
Ben grinned cheekily. He was new to the Riders and had spent the summer adjusting to life in Tortall's most unconventional force. "You can't order us around just because you sleep with our Captain." This was mostly a joke, but there was still an edge to it and at the beginning of the summer he might actually have meant it.
"Actually," Alec—one of Karyna's most experienced Riders—cut in, "she's our accompanying knight commander—so she technically outranks our Captain during emergencies. And the rest of the time she's an honorary Rider—which has nothing to do with where she sleeps and everything to do with the number of pranks she's survived—"
"And planned," Jess, who'd joined the Tricksters and mostly given up thievery (with exceptions for adversaries who deserved it), added.
"and planned," Alec agreed. "So I would suggest that you follow her suggestions."
Ben grinned sheepishly. "Very well, Vina." He raised his hand in mock salute.
Vina saluted back—it was the first time he'd called her by name instead of using 'lady knight' as though it were an insult—and smiled when she saw him leaving to follow her instructions. Karyna winked at her and Vina nodded.
She was glad that they could finally laugh over the issue that had nearly driven them apart seven years before when Vina's deference to older knights (even when she knew more about the way the Riders worked) and her fear of stepping on Rider toes combined with Karyna's reluctance to cede responsibility for her Riders to anyone else had resulted in a leadership gap that had gotten several Riders and Vina's commander killed. Fueled by their own guilt and sparked by the snide remarks of a few older soldiers, they'd held a nasty shouting match in the stables as soon as they arrived home. Afterwards, Vina had fled to her former knight masters and found herself sobbing alongside a very colicky Althea.
Althea had stopped wailing by the time Vina had finished explaining. This had nothing to do with her voice—it was because Penelope had finally found just the right swaying motion to soothe her.
"There's a reason Riders and knights are sent together," Dalton murmured finally. "The two groups are supposed to integrate and use their different skills as a team. But they can't do that without communicating—and that goes both ways—and putting someone in control. And I'm sorry that Sir Locksley didn't do a better job, but you could have spoken up on the Riders' behalf or ordered them to close ranks faster once the battle got dicey.
"I know." Vina swallowed. "I just froze up and said nothing. But it's hard when you're stuck between someone who's supposed to be in command and someone you love."
"Of course it is," Penelope agreed, gesturing for Dalton to check and see if Althea's eyes were still open. "But the solution is also simple. You just have to realize that there are rare occasions—emergencies, formal events, etcetera --when rank and rules really matter."
"But they're not the basis for your relationship," Dalton added, stepping up beside Penelope, kissing her cheek, and shifting Althea into his arms so that Penelope could rest while he paced with the baby.
"And the rest of the time," Penelope said, sitting beside Vina and offering her a handkerchief, "you relax and run on your own rules. And that means you argue occasionally and then apologize."
"And Vina," Dalton whispered because Althea was asleep at last, "don't be afraid to speak up out there. You and Karyna know what you're doing and you don't tend to take unnecessary risks."
"It might actually be easier once you're in command of missions and not just a middleman," Penelope agreed.
Vina nodded gratefully.
"And just ignore the gossip," Dalton told her, "because if you can't, I'll have to kiss Karyna to give them all something else to talk about."
Vina snorted, threatened to run away with Penelope if he did so, and waved goodnight. Then she walked sheepishly back to her own room and found Karyna sitting sheepishly beside her door.
"Jeck said something fairly similar about rank," she admitted once they'd both apologized and discussed the situation more civilly over tea, "and Selena nodded vaguely between trips to the chamberpot—apparently she has midnight morning sickness—but Jason gave me love advice for the ages this evening."
"Really?" Vina pressed a tentative kiss to Karyna's forehead.
"He stuck his head out of Sara's room—that still startles Jeck a little—and whispered 'just don't be an idiot'." Karyna smiled and stood to help Vina clear the tea things. "Really, he's far wiser than the rest of us give him credit for."
Vina grinned. "Well, we'll just have to work on avoiding idiocy then."
They had come a long way since then, of course. Karyna had risen through the Rider ranks and Vina was frequently put in command of groups of knights. This meant that they were sometimes separated for long stretches, but they had plenty of joint missions and they'd generally managed to cobble together a shared life for themselves. Karyna was frequently teased for having sidestepped the rule against married Riders and the queen occasionally remarked that similar arrangements might be the key to smoothing relations between the Own and Riders.
"Hey," Karyna murmured, nudging Vina out of her reverie.
Vina grinned. "I just want to drop him—"she grabbed her horse by the halter—"in the knights' pasture and then we can meet everyone for lunch." She settled into a walk with her elbow just brushing Karyna's.
Then she came to a full and sudden stop just outside the pasture where she meant to release her horse. "That bay," she said, lifting a hand to point, "is he—"
"Byrn's," Karyna agreed, nudging Vina's horse into the pasture. "Definitely. Odd that he didn't write ahead to let anyone know he was coming."
"He's been a little odd since the spring," Vina said. She paused to check that the pasture gate was properly latched. "He kind of kissed me at his wife's funeral."
"He kind of kissed you?" Karyna repeated, gently elbowing Vina. "Like you're kind of adorable when you're worried I might be jealous?"
Vina shrugged, tucking herself neatly under Karyna's arm. "He was also kind of drunk." She swallowed. "But he still really misses her." She didn't mean his wife.
Kayrna nodded. "Well, it's been almost eight years." Years during which they'd often visited Byrn and his sons at Briarwood, but never with Rissa, who spent months on end in the desert.
"Rissa really misses him and she's just as responsible for avoiding him," Vina said. "They write each other with their whereabouts and then deliberately avoid each other. It's been a mutual thing."
"Of course. And they're both being idiots. Or maybe cowards." She squeezed Vina's shoulder. "Any chance he'll have the sense to show up at the picnic?"
Vina shook her head. "I'd guess he's at the palace on an errand for Briarwood. He won't go anywhere he isn't explicitly invited, which might be awkward for me to do since I'm not sure how much he remembers about the last time we…"
"I'll do it," Karyna offered.
"The more he remembers, the easier it will be to bully him into it." She grinned rather wickedly. "Otherwise I'll have to rely on persuasive logic. It shouldn't take too long either way." She kissed Vina's cheek. "Just go distract your sister."
"Wyl!" Althea yelled, catapulting herself off of Rissa's shoulders so that she could run to her best friend and his family, who were already laying out food for their picnic.
Wyldon's namesake was not even an entire year younger than Althea. In fact, Penelope remembered learning of his existence after rushing a three-week-old Althea to the infirmary so Neal could examine the red marks on her face.
"It's a rash," Neal said immediately.
"I know that," Penelope said, holding Althea out to him. "That's why we're here."
Neal sighed and took the baby, grinning as her eyelids fluttered. "Of the common, garden variety—as far as monsters go, it's the equivalent of a squirrel."
The worry eased from Penelope's face as she watched Neal with Althea, but she couldn't resist the opportunity to argue. "Squirrels skitter around staring at things with shiny, shiny eyes," she protested.
Neal rolled his eyes. "And they can carry rabies," she added.
"Point taken," he approved, kissing Althea's cheek. "But this really is an ordinary rash. Babies get them and we can't do much about them." He smiled at a noise Althea made in her sleep. "And," he added firmly, "it doesn't mean you've done anything wrong."
Penelope blinked somewhat skeptically at this last statement.
"Really," Neal said, handing Althea back to her, "you're doing beautifully with her."
"I just…" Penelope trailed off.
"If she's fussing," Neal added, "it's probably because she feels that you're worried about Dalton."
Penelope swallowed. "He's only been gone a few days." Not that it had been easy having him leave—she felt far less safe than she'd ever felt when she was out in actual danger with him. "He's due back this afternoon, but—"
"Why don't you wait here until he gets back?"
"Could I?" she said, brightening.
"Could you not ask again?" Neal ushered her to the cot nearest the window. "Sit. Stay. Doze." Bandit promptly jumped up on the cot to obey these commands beside Penelope. "And try to control your dog."
"Who says I'm not?" Penelope murmured, draping her legs over Bandit and propping herself up on a pillow so that Althea could sleep froglike across her chest.
"And Neal," she added a while later, "thanks."
Then she drifted off, lost in the quiet rhythm of her daughter's breathing, and woke to the sound of the infirmary door opening and Dalton's voice.
"Do you want me to get Jeck?"
"No," Selena said, sitting hastily on the end of a cot and dropping her head between her knees, "it isn't as if it's an emergency." She lifted her head, shaking it slightly. "And it would terrify him if you showed up and told him I was in the infirmary. I can tell him later if—"
"What are you doing here?" Dalton asked, rushing towards Penelope as he spotted her.
"I'm scared of squirrels, according to Neal." Penelope scanned his face. "And you're here with her," she decided, satisfied that he wasn't concealing any pain.
He nodded distractedly, his eyes fixed on Althea. "Can I—"
Penelope smiled and sat up so that he could scoop the baby off of her. He paused to kiss her as he did so.
"And she's…" Penelope studied Selena's absence of broken bones and bleeding (her only sign of injury appeared to be an old bandage on her left hand) and her exhausted posture. But it was the hopeful way she was watching Dalton and Althea that gave her away.
"Possibly pregnant," Selena muttered, a smile ghosting across her lips.
"If Dalton noticed," Penelope informed her, "it's more like probably."
"I wasn't the only new father on the mission," Dalton said, "and we all came to a consensus—as did all the Rider women with us."
"Shhh!" Neal hissed. "You're starting to make me sound superfluous."
"Everyone's so sure," Dalton continued, bouncing Althea lightly as she woke and made restless noises, "that there wasn't actually any betting about it."
"Yes," Neal confirmed, "majority opinion is occasionally correct."
"I suppose dashing out to be sick in the middle of planning a battle isn't exactly subtle," Selena mused.
"Don't repeat the episode in here," Neal ordered. "Sit still while I brew you some tea for that."
Dalton came to sit beside Penelope on the cot. "There was some betting about who the father is."
Penelope raised an amused eyebrow. "And I suppose some of them were stupid enough to think you'd had the time and inclination—between sitting up with me and Althea for the past few months—to dash out and—she's drooling on your shirt, by the way."
Dalton grinned at the patch of spit. "I don't care"—he squeezed Penelope's hand—"if you don't."
"Of course, Dalton's rushing me home a few hours ahead and escorting me straight to the infirmary won't help matters," Selena mused.
Penelope shrugged and reached over to wipe a bit of drool from her daughters' chin. "Well," she murmured, "aren't you lucky? It's almost as if you already have a half sibling in the works?"
And Wyl had been like a brother to Althea from the day the two of them were old enough to toddle into trouble together. Penelope had long since learned to check the smithy when she could not find Althea; then, if she didn't find both children endearingly underfoot (they had a knack for simultaneously begging Sara for sweets and poking about for interestingly-shaped scrap metal) Penelope and Selena knew it was time to begin a serious and thorough search for their children. They were inseparable (except when Althea left the palace) and learned most things—from swimming to riding and fighting—together. Penelope worried occasionally what Althea would make of the fact that Wyl couldn't become a page alongside her.
"Hey." Selena pulled Penelope into the best approximation of a hug that she could manage. "Do me a favor and don't ask how I am."
Penelope glanced back to appraise Neal's calculating stare and then grinned. "Done." She squeezed Jeck's shoulder and waved at Sara and Jason before turning her gaze to where Althea and Wyl were lifting Wyl's four-year-old brother, Jack, and swinging him by his arms and legs as he shrieked in delight. "I see your boys are still full of energy and where's—"
"Hello Da." The creature in question—a five-year-old girl with dusty brown curls and bright blue eyes—appeared at Dalton's side, tugging at his hand.
"And hello to you, Small Sara," Dalton said, overlooking her impish smile—she wasn't quite old enough to know just why some adults were disconcerted by her tendency to call Dalton (and Jeck and Jason) 'Da', but she liked the effect—and scooping her up onto his right hip.
"Goodness—look how you've grown," Penelope said, kissing Sara's cheek and then wiping a smudge of dirt from it.
Dalton smiled in agreement as he recalled the first time he'd lifted her.
"Dalton," Karyna called, emerging from the smoking wreckage of the tiny village they'd been too late to save from rampaging bandits and disrupting the headcount he was making of his men. And reminding him how long it had been since he'd seen Vina
He gritted his teeth against the sinking sensation in his stomach and started towards her. "Are all your Riders accounted for?"
"No, I mean, I know, but this one's…"
Dalton followed her gaze to the basket in her arms and realized it contained a baby making soft about-to-be-unhappy noises. "Oh," he said. There hadn't been any other survivors, which meant that…
Karyna gasped and thrust the basket at him before darting away. Dalton absently offered the baby, who smiled in a hopeful, timid way before wailing once, a finger to grab and watched with relief as the Rider reached Vina and clapped a field bandage to the profuse bleeding on her right arm.
"Did that" Dalton began, " hit her old—"
Karyna nodded grimly from behind Vina's back.
"It's wide and shallow," Vina snapped. "It won't kill me." She bit her lip repentantly as the baby burst into loud and miserable tears. "Where'd you find the little one?" she asked, taking over applying pressure to her own wound.
"Under a clothes line." Karyna swallowed hard. "Beside the mother's body—she must have thrown a blanket over the basket to hide…" She turned away to be sick.
"Sir," another knight called, hurrying towards Dalton, "we're only missing—'He stopped dead when he saw the squalling baby—"Mithros! What are you doing to do with it?"
"Well," Karyna said, wiping her face on a sleeve, "we can't very well leave it"—she put a slight ironic emphasis on the word—"here".
"So I suppose we'll have to take it home with us," Vina continued.
"But we don't even know who it is," the newcomer protested.
"She"—Dalton put in with authority, having determined that soiled clothes were partly responsible for the current upset and decided a fresh blanket was required —"is an orphan, born in Tortall, aged approximately—"he lifted her gently to gauge her weight—"seven months, and currently under our escort and protection."
"And a most charming little mascot," Jess put in, coming up to offer her a clean bandage to chew on. Several riders whistled in agreement and the baby was passed through at least a dozen arms during her journey, drawing smiles from hardened veterans and tough-talking rookies alike.
Dalton and Vina and Karyna had, for lack of any better solution, taken the baby with them to the smithy (where they suspected Penelope and Althea would be waiting up with Selena and baby Jack) upon their late arrival at the palace.
"How…what?" Penelope murmured, gently unwrapping Dalton's arms from around her waist as noticed the baby in Vina's arms.
"Hmmm," Jeck agreed.
"I would have thought Rissa would be more likely to show up at the doorstep with an unexplained baby," Jason muttered.
Too tired to produce a witty reply, Vina shrugged, and passed the baby into Sara's arms so that she could lie down beside the hearth.
"We found her in basket," Dalton explained. "Orphaned." He reached for Penelope's hand and ran his thumb over her knuckles. "And there weren't any relatives to take her in, so…"he shrugged, still not entirely sure what to do with the child now that they'd gotten her to safety. "She doesn't have any mysterious birthmarks," he added, "so I doubt she's the illegitimate daughter of a foreign prince who'll come claim her later."
"Good to know," Jeck murmured, lifting a hand to stroke the baby's cheek.
"Unless her tell-tale birthmark's been hidden by an enchantment," Jason speculated, wrapping a hand over Sara's shoulder as he studied the baby's face.
"I'm not sure this one has fairy guardians looking after her," Karyna put in darkly.
"I think she might," Penelope said quietly, glancing at Dalton.
"She's healthy enough," Dalton said. "And we got some goat's milk for her on the road, but she'll still need—"
"Right," Selena said calmly. She glanced once at Jeck, who nodded thoughtfully and came to take Jack from her. "Sara," she beckoned.
Both the baby and Sara turned their heads.
"Well," Jeck said, watching Sara hand the baby over, "I guess that's what we'll call her then."
"Are you sure?" Dalton asked.
"We'll add a 'small' to avoid confusion." Jeck grinned, glancing from one Sara to the other.
"What's one more?" Selena murmured without taking her eyes from the baby.
"And between the four of us here at the smithy," Sara added, "and all of the visits you make, she won't be much trouble."
"Of course not," Jason added as he walked back towards the stove. "Who wants some stew?"
Penelope lingered with Selena as the others stepped to the table and Dalton heard her say, "if you need anything—"
"Althea's old clothes," Selena replied immediately. "And a little advice about what to tell her."
And so Sara was being raised in the smithy as Selena and Jeck's daughter but Dalton sometimes thought it might be more accurate to add that she'd been adopted by an entire Rider group (members of which stopped by to play with her and left behind toys and clothing) and a large number of assorted knights (one of whom had willed her a rather substantial sum of money to be put 'towards a dowry or an apprenticeship—as the case might be) and enjoyed visits from the Wildmage and Numair (who had become attached for sentimental reasons).
He'd decided he didn't object when she called him 'Da'—she was only following Althea's example, he reasoned, and it had proven once and for all that Wyldon was capable of ironic eyebrow raising. But certain inveterate gossipers liked to speculate about her origins whenever fresh news ran dry.
"I'm going to have a sister," Sara informed him.
"Are you now?" Dalton grinned and glanced at Selena.
"According to Alanna, anyway, and we all know she's never been wrong." Selena smiled. "And then we're stopping while the scales are balanced and we can still fit them all in the smithy."
"She didn't tell us that," Jeck added cajolingly, wrapping a hand over Selena's arm as she sat beside him in the grass.
"Yes, well, perhaps I've had enough children to develop a little common sense."
"It's almost a shame," Neal put in, "you're so much easier than most expectant mothers. And your last two came at such convenient hours."
"See," Jeck said, "even he—"
"A sister," Rissa said to Sara, loudly enough to change the subject. "You're very lucky then. Sisters always know what to say—even if they're only teasing—and how to make you feel better—even—"Rissa drew a breath and glanced over her shoulder at Vina, who was rushing happily towards them.
"Especially," Vina corrected, throwing her arms around Rissa, "when they're teasing." She knocked Rissa to the ground, both of them giggling madly.
Vina felt just a hitch of doubt as Rissa helped her to her feet. Her twin was so happy and at ease and it had taken her a few years to make this peace with herself. What if encountering Byrn only undid all of that? What if Rissa's moving on had made it painful or impossible for her to look back?
It's also for his sake, Vina reminded herself, tugging Rissa close for another hug. And after all those letters…
Sara was the second person Vina hugged after she and Rissa had disentangled themselves. (Bandit and Shadow having already taken advantage of her low altitude to lick her face.) Then she found herself making a large circuit to greet all of her old friends.
"So," Jason asked, grinning impudently, "where's your other prettier half?"
"Blackmailing a married man," Vina said, so lightly that everyone assumed Karyna was simply finishing up some Rider business. "She'll be here in a bit, but she said to go ahead and start eating if the kids are hungry."
"Good," Neal said, lunging for a basket. Sara had run off to join the other children and all four of them were playing contentedly.
"Quite," Selena said, tossing a loaf of bread to Penelope for cutting as she startled to slice a slab of cheese. Dalton meanwhile passed around the meat pies and bit thoughtfully into one. Sara and Jason had done a very thorough job—perhaps he ought to start having them plan food for knights' expeditions…
"How have you been Rissa?" Penelope asked, passing a plum to Dalton before collecting one for herself. The children had already rushed in to eat and then rushed off to play again.
"I've been wondering how you always manage to make that sound like 'why aren't you married yet?"
"We just don't like seeing you alone," Jason said. He was stretched out across the grass with his head in Sara's lap.
"I'm not lonely."
"They worry," Neal said, as though he were to dignified to share in this pursuit. "And there haven't been any interesting rumors in the last few years."
Rissa shrugged. "I don't sleep with braggarts or married men."
"Really?" Penelope said, putting aside her plate and settling back against Dalton's chest. "That probably eliminates most of the population. Who is left?"
"Tobe said he saw her with Keith's cousin—Kyle was it?—last spring," Neal remarked.
"Kevin," Karyna corrected, catching Vina's eyes just long enough to blink affirmatively upon her arrival. She grinned as Jeck pulled her into a bear hug and offered her a plate of food and then sat cross-legged beside Vina to eat.
"Kevin." Rissa nodded; she knew better than to attempt to change the subject. "We're friends and we were the only knights under forty at the border. Also we're evenly matched at chess. So we spent most evenings together." She shrugged. "I imagine he'll be announcing an engagement in a year or two."
"Rissa," Vina put in, "if you want—"
"I had a brief fling with Alec a few years back," Rissa reminded her.
"Right," Karyna muttered, "that was when Luke knocked on my office door to ask if I knew that Vina was dragging one of my Riders into the woods."
"Oh," Rissa said. "I'm sorry—I didn't think of—I hope I didn't—"
"No harm done," Vina assured her.
"Though," Karyna put in, "it might have taken a few years off his life when Vina pulled her head out of the trunk she was organizing to thank him for his concern."
"Vina!" Penelope admonished.
She blinked unrepentantly. "It seemed only polite."
"And it's is easier to tell them apart now," Dalton muttered, exchanging a dark look with Karyna as they both remembered the morning when they'd been almost too late to rescue Vina from the bandits who'd briefly taken her hostage at knifepoint.
"Oh this," Vina said lightly, fingering the scar on her neck. "It just impresses all the pretty girls."
"With your reckless stupidity and—" Karyna began.
"One way or another," Vina added smugly, ending the Rider's diatribe with a brief kiss.
"Someone's coming," Wyl called.
Penelope lifted her head lazily from Dalton's shoulder in time to see her daughter dash towards the approaching figure.
"It's Byrn," Althea called.
Rissa straightened in alarm, eyeing the nearest trees as though she were considering a dash for the woods and then fixing Penelope with a betrayed gaze.
"We've visited," Penelope said quietly. "But I didn't even know he was here. Briarwood is near Proudcreek and his children are almost Althea's age."
Rissa nodded. "I heard she convinced them all to sneak out into the orchard last time you were there." That had been in Byrn's second-to-last letter. The last had come after his wife's death and she'd had to burn it because she couldn't bear seeing how much he'd loved his wife or how much pain her death had caused him. She'd also burned the letter announcing his marriage. But she'd kept the rest. Not that either of them had sent any letters since the spring.
"They were easily persuaded accomplices," Penelope said, squeezing Rissa's shoulder. Rissa wasn't sure whether this was to comfort her or to keep her from running off.
Rissa forced a smile as she watched Byrn squat to shake Althea's hand and allow her to introduce Wyl. "I would never accuse your daughter of instigating."
Dalton shook his head. "Somebody should."
"That's what I'm here for," Neal said in a long-suffering way, "bestowing blame and cleaning up afterwards."
But Rissa wasn't listening to him. She was too busy watching Byrn while convincing herself that she just happened to be gazing in his general direction.
Byrn passed through a flurry of handshakes and hellos that landed him before Vina.
Sara had the sympathetic good sense to summon the children (not to mention the rest of them) for distracting biscuits when it became clear that theirs wouldn't be a simple handshake.
"Erm," he murmured, studying Vina's face. Aside from the faint scar, she looked exactly as Rissa had eight years before. The resemblance had driven him to kiss her months before and it was still unnerving him now. "I—"he tried to explain, wishing Vina's eyes could tell him how Rissa felt.
"I know." Vina pressed her lips very briefly to his cheek.
"Am I forgiven then?" he asked, braving a quick glance at Karyna, who was working so hard to stifle a laugh that she was in danger of choking on her biscuit.
"We're good," Vina whispered. "But you'll have to ask her."
Byrn nodded and walked slowly towards Rissa. Her skin was slightly darker than he remembered, having been tanned in the desert, and her hair was dark and bright in the sun. He stopped a few steps away and drew a long breath before speaking.
"I wasn't ignoring you, I just didn't know what to say."
She nodded, offering him her hand. She could think of several things to say, but had no idea which needed to come first. It seemed that they'd already written everything important.
He lifted her fingers and kissed them cautiously.
"Byrn," she snapped. "I'm not breakable."
He tilted his head, sizing her up. "Right," he murmured, "where were we?" Then, without giving her time to answer, he pulled her close and kissed her.
Althea tugged on Vina's wrist several minutes later.
"Byrn's still kissing Aunt Rissa. What does that mean?"
"It means you should go help Selena count out the coins she owes your Da."
Karyna smirked. "There's interest on that bet. It'll be quite the introduction to higher level math."
"Dalton," Selena said pleadingly, "I have children to feed."
"Discuss that with Jeck, since the palace seems to have finally conceded that they are his progeny and not mine." This dawn of reason had been aided considerably by the fact that both of Selena's boys had Jeck's blue eyes and powerful build. "And in any case," Dalton added, "I have godschildren to spoil."
Penelope glanced back to see that Rissa and Byrn were still kissing, though their hands had migrated from shoulders to waists.
"Those must have been some letters," she remarked.
"Come with me," Byrn said, taking Rissa's hand.
"Byrn, it's been—"
"Eight years. I can count." He grinned as she shrugged and fell into step beside him. "And by my count, we're about even on apologies and such. So…"
Rissa smiled and turned tilted her face to be kissed even though she wasn't sure he'd made a full argument for picking up where they'd left off. It simply wouldn't be possible. Too much had happened to both of them since…
"Um," she said. "I haven't told you yet how sorry I am for your loss." She squeezed his fingers. "I know this spring was difficult for you."
"I loved her," he said in a rush. "In the beginning, I told myself I couldn't possibly…but we got used to one another—I got used to missing you—we had children together, and then she was gone and I had this gaping hole." He swallowed. "Right across from the one you'd left."
Rissa stayed silent, unable to think of anything useful to say. Byrn stopped suddenly to study her face.
"Sorry," he said. "I shouldn't have—I didn't mean to make you feel guilty or replaced."
"No," Rissa said. "It's alright. I mean it isn't alright for either of us, but it's okay that it isn't." She shook her head. "I never stopped missing you, but I shared a tent with a tribesman for a few seasons."
Byrn didn't seem surprised. "It was that 'he's also a twin, and rather handsome' fellow you wrote me about, wasn't it?" he said, beginning to walk again.
"Well, why aren't you still in the desert?"
"We—neither of us handled it well when his twin was killed. And—"she swallowed—"he wasn't you."
Byrn nodded and let her wipe her face on his sleeve. Then they walked in silence for a stretch. He raised an eyebrow when they reached the creek and they both knelt to take off their boots and roll up their trousers before wading in up to their knees.
"Byrn?" She murmured his name and touched his shoulder just to prove to herself that he was actually there. She carried his image in her heart for so long, writing him letters and imagining the sound of his voice, that it was hard to trust that he wasn't a dream.
"Rissa." He laced his fingers through hers.
"I'm glad you showed up today."
"You owe Vina one then." Byrn frowned as he studied her face. "But what?"
"But what are we going to do now?"
"Walk a little ways and then turn around and go back for biscuits," Byrn said easily.
Rissa splashed him in exasperation. "I mean about us."
"Is there an us then?" He wiped his wet arm on the back of her shirt.
"There always has been."
The children's playful noise faded happily into the distance and Selena, who hadn't had a full night's rest in months, was the first to fall asleep. Jeck, who had found himself commandeered as her pillow, quickly followed suit. Neal, who prided himself on his expertise in afternoon naps, expressed the opinion that it would be criminal to disturb their rest and heroically joined them, his snores harmonizing pleasantly with Bandit's and Shadow's.
Jason and Sara were not quite asleep, but they lay on their sides, facing one another and conversing seriously about the future of the smithy or possibly what they ought to cook for breakfast the next morning. Their indistinct murmuring, Neal's example, and the afternoon sunlight all affected Penelope. She nudged Dalton further back against the tree and settled her head on his chest, closing her eyes, but not to sleep. She knew better than to miss an opportunity to appreciate being safe and warm and at peace. Still, she couldn't help wondering dimly what Rissa and Byrn were up to.
Karyna muttered that she'd negotiated a peaceful surrender to her full stomach and stretched out with her head in Vina's lap. She was one of those fortunate individuals with the ability to fall asleep almost instantaneously and under any circumstances.
Vina settled her own head against the back of the tree behind her and ran her fingers through Karyna's hair. She looked up to find Dalton that Dalton had draped one hand thoughtfully over Penelope's elbow and was watching her with a suspicious expression. He raised one eyebrow and tilted his head in the direction Rissa and Byrn had gone.
"It wasn't all my doing," she admitted, "but I'm willing to accept full responsibility for the consequences." She frowned. "Even if we've made a mistake and it doesn't end well."
"You, lady knight, seem to have grown into a shrewd, conniving romantic with a big, wise heart and an incurable tendency to interfere."
"Well, sir, I learned from the best." She inclined her head towards him. "Or the worst. As the case may be."
Penelope snorted softly and brushed her nose against Dalton's ribs.
"I just hope they can—"Vina began worriedly.
"Don't worry," Dalton said.
"He's banking on it," Penelope added smugly, wondering just when she'd taken on this wise old matriarch role.
"I know." Byrn swallowed. "And I have absolutely no idea. We can't exactly start from scratch."
Rissa nodded. "On the bright side, I've had time—a whole eight years of it—and you have your heirs now."
"I'm a widower with children," Byrn muttered, as though just realizing these facts for himself. "And you're a warrior nomad. When was the last time you stayed in the same place for more than a month?"
Rissa gave a not-quite-guilty shrug. "If moving tents don't count, then three years ago." She shook her head, smiling in spite of herself. "I think. The palace is the place I come back to whenever... I haven't been home since Vina told our parents why she wasn't marrying—"
"I heard that was a festive occasion."
Rissa grimaced. "And then mother looked pointedly at me and said that at least Vina had a good reason and what was my excuse."
Byrn nodded sagely. "There's this innate urge to oversee the production of grandchildren. They really can't help themselves."
"I suppose not," Rissa said sadly. "Where were we?"
Byrn shrugged. "It doesn't matter. We can't exactly pick up where we left off either."
"At goodbye and good luck?" Rissa grinned. "I should think not."
"I don't know," he said mischievously. "It took pretty well last time."
"All the more reason to try something different now—we don't want to make things too easy for ourselves."
"I've missed this," Byrn said, meaning their old, easy banter. "I've missed you." He pulled her suddenly close and buried his nose in her hair.
"Me too," Rissa said thickly, hugging him back.
"Right," Byrn said bluntly, "we still love one another even if we are different people now. We just have to take things as they come from here. We're old and wise enough now not to rush into anything." He followed this statement with a kiss that completely belied it.
"Right," Rissa murmured, grinning as they pulled apart. "Worth a try anyway." Then she bent and splashed a little water on her face. "Tell me about your sons. I want to hear…happiness in your voice."
"Are you sure you don't mind hearing about what you haven't had?"
"Byrn." She tucked her hand through his elbow. "I can love them for your sake because they didn't keep me from my own life. I don't have regrets."
Byrn flinched, but nodded.
Rissa swallowed, realizing that what she'd said sounded harsh and it wasn't quite true. She wanted him to know that she didn't blame him for any of what had happened between them. "I mean, I've often looked back and thought what if, but… I've been free. It was difficult, missing you, but I would do it all over again. And I'd be horrified if you didn't adore your children and terribly sad for you if you hadn't loved their mother." She bit back a small current of jealousy, distracting herself by kissing Byrn's chin. "And we haven't written each other in months so I want to hear about your latest adventures."
Byrn nodded, tugging her a little closer. "They're six and four and so full of energy…" The quiet pride in his words help carry his voice over the running water and Rissa lowered his head companionably to his shoulder as she listened to him recount their first horseback riding lesson and latest least favorite vegetables. "And I imagine my mother is spoiling them silly back at Briarwood," he said eventually.
"They must remind her of you."
Byrn grinned. "Enough that she used to complain bitterly about the lack of granddaughters." His voice tightened on the last word and Rissa squeezed his arm comfortingly. "Though she hasn't given up hope entirely," he added.
Nor should you. The words Rissa thought she might want to say were frozen in her throat, but Byrn seemed to hear them in the catch of her breath and wrapped both arms around her for a long while.
"We should probably go retrieve our boots," he said, clearly wanting to make her comfortable again.
"Right," Rissa said, and they spun together to wade back up the creek. "What do you want to hear from me?"
Byrn thought a moment. "Tell me what you learned in the desert that's left you feeling even stronger than the last time I held you."
Rissa laughed and started cataloging the training exercises she'd picked up during her travels. He listened attentively, but occasionally kissed her when she stepped close to demonstrate.
They had to declare a truce in order to tie their shoes and then noticed that they had an audience in the form of Althea, Wyl, Jack, and Sara.
"Are you going to kiss again?" Jack asked, preparing to cover his eyes.
"No, not just presently," Byrn said easily. Then his parental instincts were triggered when he noticed that they were all carrying buckets. "What are you doing out here?"
Sara and Jack shuffled nervously behind Wyl, but Althea (who knew very well when it would be useless to exercise the sense of discretion she'd inherited from her father and best to follow her mother's audacious example) stepped forward with an honest answer.
"We're getting ice cold creek water to attack our parents with and wake them up."
"Want to help us?" Wyl added appealingly.
Byrn surveyed the buckets and the grinning children who held them and then glanced back at Rissa. "I'm game if you are."
"Of course." Rissa grabbed a bucket from Wyl and stooped to fill it. "I couldn't pass up the opportunity to offer my old knight masters a little cold wet revenge."
"Entirely undeserved on their part I'm sure," Byrn muttered, filling the smallest bucket halfway and handing this manageable weight to Jack. "It'll be just like old times."
"Only we won't have to offer an account of our actions to Wyldon and Mindelan afterwards." Rissa filled two buckets for herself and started following the children. Then she remembered something Penelope had once told her about cold water and forced herself to speak before she lost her nerve. "And Byrn, I know we weren't going to rush—"
He shot her a don't-beat-around-the-bush smirk.
"What would you think if I were considering wintering at Briarwood?"
The full buckets in Byrn's hands kept him from making an expansive gesture. "You've always been welcome. You know that. Your sister comes often enough."
"It would have been awkward for your wife," Rissa pointed out.
"I know." Byrn sighed. "Even if—it wouldn't have been fair. I wouldn't have wanted to be responsible for hurting her."
"Nor I," Rissa agreed, pleasantly surprised to find that her voice held no trace of regret. "And then your sons and your mother wouldn't want—"
"Actually, she still rather approves of you."
"She told me so in no uncertain terms right after Maria's funeral when she caught me kissing Vina."
"Caught you what? Vina?" Rissa nearly spilled both buckets in surprise as she glanced back at Byrn. "And are you blushing?"
"Shit," he croaked. "You really don't tell each other everything. And it wasn't her idea."
"Language," Sara chided, her tone an exact replica of the one Selena used to scold Jeck and Jason.
"Don't make so much noise," Althea ordered all of them as they neared the edge of the trees. "You'll give us away."
"Sorry," Byrn whispered, shooting Rissa an I'll-atone-and-explain-and-allow-you-mock-me-later look that had her doubling over in silent laughter.
Their attack began as the sudden success that Althea had envisioned. Every adult got a good splashing and uncle Neal made very satisfyingly indignant sputtering sounds. Unfortunately she'd forgotten to factor in the battle training (not to mention experience in parenting, teaching, or healing) of her intended victims. They quickly leapt to their feet and turned the tables, tickling their erstwhile attackers as they carted them back to the creek's swimming hole.
Althea's mother carried her straight into the water for a gentle dunking. Aunt Rissa (who had traitorously switched sides) tossed Wyl in and then jumped in after him to be sure he didn't drown. Aunt Vina followed her and then gamely allowed all four children to gang up and dunk her. By the time they'd managed it, everyone was in the water, even uncle Neal—Byrn hadn't switched sides and was responsible for this last addition.
It was sunset by the time they left the creek; they children warmed up by running back to the picnic blankets, but there parents followed at a more dignified pace and Penelope shivered slightly in her wet clothes.
Dalton shook his head fondly and wrapped an arm over her shoulders. "You just can't resist can you?"
"What?" Penelope turned and poked his neck with her wet nose, her eyes maintaining an expression of perfect innocence. "Water?" She slowed their pace so that they fell behind the others. "Opportunities to be impulsive—"
"and cold"—he kissed her temple—"and wet"—he kissed her cheek and wrapped his other arm around her.
"Why shouldn't I be?" she asked, turning to face him fully. "I have you to warm me up." Her last words were muffled by his kiss. "See?"
"And incorrigible," he added tenderly, tracing her cheek with his thumb.
She nodded and took his hand, both of them trotting to catch the others.
Jeck lifted one tired son in each arm for the long walk to the smithy and Karyna tossed small Sara onto her back.
"I'm still far lighter than armor," Althea reminded Dalton, who grinned and reached for her.
Penelope caught Rissa's arm in an almost casual grip as they were packing up the baskets. "Already looking forward to your next adventure?"
"Very much so," Rissa murmured without taking her eyes off Byrn. "And you?"
Penelope smiled at Dalton as he lifted Althea onto his shoulders. "Always."