Alanna and George returned to the stable half an hour later. They were grooming their horses silently, Alanna thinking about her conversation with the woman. She sighed audibly. George finished and came to lean against the door to Moonlight's stall, waiting for Alanna to voice what was on her mind.
"I spent all these years just trying to be a knight," she said, scratching Moonlight's head, "I never thought that people would pay any attention to me, except to disapprove of me. That little girl thinks I'm a hero," Alanna shook her head at the insanity of such an idea; "I haven't done anything heroic. I got the jewel to prove myself to King Roald and the court as well as to help the country, but it was mainly to benefit myself. I got it for somewhat selfish reasons and because I was restless and looking for adventure. That isn't heroic."
She met George's eyes and, to her surprise, found that they were bright with amusement.
"Lass, she thinks you're a hero because you did things no one thought were possible. Your reasons for doin' them don't matter. To her, you are a real live fairly tale."
Alanna sighed again, not particularly liking the idea of her being a hero. She just wanted to be a knight. That was enough for her. George laughed, guessing what she was thinking.
"Lass, I don't know how you thought this wasn't goin' to happen. The first lady knight in over a century and people were just supposed to ignore you?" He laughed again, making her smile and blush at her own folly. "Being a hero doesn't change who you are or how you need to act. Nor does it change how your friends are goin' to treat you. I'm sure Gary or Raoul would be more than happy to put you in your place if your head ever got too big for your shoulders. We have always expected great things from you." He tousled her hair. "Come on inside, I'm starvin'."
She grinned and followed. He looked down at her with a wicked look in his hazel eyes. "If you want people to stop thinkin' you are so wonderful, maybe you should just make them dinner." Alanna scowled up at him and playfully punched his arm.
They were surprised to find Thom in House Olau. Alanna ran forward and gave her too-hot twin a hug which he returned enthusiastically. "I thought I'd save you the trip to the palace and visit you instead," he explained, releasing her. "Myles was kind enough to invite me to dinner."
As the others arrived, they took their seats around Myles' long dining room table. Thom was in an especially good mood and listened eagerly to Thayet's ideas about a school for the common born. Although Thom had no interest in the welfare of the citizens of the lower city as a whole, he could not resist the chance to discuss learning of any kind. It was his passion and so Alanna watched as he and Thayet talked about what subjects would be the most important and what books they should try to acquire for the school.
"I found a list of books that Father thought were important to Alanna's and my education. I can pass those on to you if you like," he told her.
"That would be wonderful," Thayet exclaimed, "I have found that the hardest thing about these projects is simply starting them. Just to have a list to get things moving would be a help to me. When did you find this list?"
"Oh, I packed up all of Father's notes before coming to the palace. He was an avid scholar himself so they have been helpful in my studies. I have learned a lot about him through those scrolls because, as you already know, he didn't have a lot of time with us."
Thayet nodded and Alanna looked over at her twin. "What kind of things?" she asked.
Thom hesitated slightly; he was now thinking he should have kept his mouth shut. "Just some plans he was making," he answered, hoping she would drop it. But of course, being who she was, that was wishful thinking and he knew it.
"What kind of things?"
Thom sighed, "Well the main one was that he was making plans for your marriage."
Alanna lowered the spoonful of soup that was halfway to her mouth, stunned. "What?" The others looked at her, just as shocked.
"To the Lord of Martis Hill. They had nearly reached an agreement as well but luckily, father died and the plans fell through."
"The Lord of Martis Hill?" Myles asked, stunned. "How could Lord Alan ever give his daughter to a beast of a man like that? He treats his horses better than his family!" Alanna was now staring into space lost in thought, a horrified look on her face.
Thom glanced briefly at his sister before turning to Myles. "Father wrote to him, explaining that she was very spirited and that he hoped that the Lord would be able to tame her. Lord Melot replied that he would enjoy breaking a spirited filly and not to worry, she would be meek and obedient by the time he was through with her."
Liam's eyes had slowly turned the bright emerald they were when he was furious, the glass he was holding in his hand shattered as he squeezed it in his anger. Buri looked positively fierce and started speaking quickly in K'miri to Thayet about the wickedness of nobles. George, on the other hand, just watched Alanna as her eyes stayed wide with shock. He wanted to hold her but he knew that this was neither the time nor the place.
"Lord Melot even had the nerve to approach me after Father passed, asking to continue the "exchange" he called it. He would take Alanna off Father's hands and in return receive her fairly sizable dowry. You know he has gambling problems," he continued, looking at Myles, who nodded. "Well, I, of course, told him that if he ever spoke to Alanna or approached me about the topic again, I would cast a spell on him that would," Thom blushed slightly, "well it would make it difficult for him to have a wedding night."
"Thank the Gods Father died," Alanna whispered, still with the stunned look in her face into which an overwhelming sadness was slowly creeping. Then she realized what she had said. "No, that's an awful thing to say. I just never even thought about what would happen if Father took an interest in what I was doing before I got my shield. I never thought he would care about what happened to me after he sent me to the convent. I should have known he would've been planning my marriage. I just can't believe he picked Lord Melot." She was so bewildered and for some reason, so frightened. It had been so close, she thought. If Lord Alan hadn't have died, he may have ruined her cover. She would never have gotten her shield, never had adventures, never have made love with Jon, or George, or Liam. Thinking back now, it was a great privilege that she got to choose the men she slept with. They were good and kind and cared for her. Lord Melot would never have cherished her or seen her as an equal that should be treated with respect. She raked both her hands through her hair, pulling it back tight from her face as these thoughts flowed through her mind. It wasn't until she felt someone pulling her hands away that she dragged her consciousness out of that dark chasm of possibilities. She found herself looking into Thom's very concerned eyes, recognizing now his sweltering grip.
"Calm down," he ordered in a soft voice, drawing her into a hug and rubbing her back. "Calm down. It didn't happen; it won't happen, I promise."
Alanna squeezed her eyes shut and took deep breaths. She didn't really understand why her reaction to this news was so severe. It was, after all, nothing more than information. It was just that it had given her a very painful glance at what could have been and she shuddered at the thought, Thom hugging her tighter. When she got herself under control, she pushed back and he tucked some hair behind her hair before kissing her forehead and returning to his seat. Thayet, who was sitting next to Alanna, hugged her around the shoulders.
"I know just how you feel, Alanna," she said. "My father was in marriage talks with some less than chivalrous nobles as well. I thank the Gods everyday that you, Liam, and Coram found us."
"I can't believe your own fathers would do something like that to you," Liam said. "How could they be so heartless?"
Thayet was the one to answer him, "In noble houses, Liam, girls are worth no more than the wealth they can bring their family through marriage, as you well know. Alanna and I were taught at an early age, through our fathers' neglect and attitude towards us, that we were worth little to them. Some noble girls are luckier. Cythera of Elden, for example, is doted on by her father who won't force her to marry anyone. Alanna and I were just not one of the lucky ones. It is merely the attitude of the age. In the eyes of the nobility, Alanna's father did not act in a disagreeable way, though his choice of such a cruel man may have been a source of interest for many at court."
During her explanation, George continued to watch Alanna from his place beside her. She wasn't really paying attention, instead twisting the napkin in her lap. He reached out and took her hands softly in his, meeting her anguish filled eyes. "Lass, there's no point worryin' yourself over this. You know that," he said, softly so the others couldn't hear.
"I know, I just keep thinking that I would never," she blushed, "well I would never have gotten to be with you. Ever. And that hurt."
George smiled and rubbed her hands. "What? So you don't believe like should wed like anymore?" It got the desired response: she laughed and the misery flew out of her eyes.
Shaking her head, she said, "George, you knew from the start the only reason I said that was because I was afraid of love. I'm not afraid anymore. And I certainly won't let something as small as my nobility stand in the way if I do get married." She smiled at him, squeezing his hands in return and then withdrawing them. They both turned back to the table and started planning a trip to the catacombs the next morning with Buri.
Thom watched the exchange with interest, noting how George could set Alanna's mind at ease with just a few short words. He watched as she instantly relaxed when he took her hands and that the tension bled away from her, as if she were thawing out. He liked what he saw.