Rating: PG

Summary: Six years after Jon dies of the sweating sickness, King Roger rules Tortall. A disguised Alanna and her knightmaster Gary find themselves unwittingly thrust in the middle of Court intrigue, polical instability and a plot to overthrow the King.

AN: Thanks to Rosie for betaing, and Isha for her help and encouragement! Don't forget to check out fiefgoldenlake dot proboards dot com!!

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"I refuse to marry her!" Gary yelled. "This is insane."

Duke Gareth watched his son's outburst with level eyes. "Gary, you will do your duty by your family and your country. The King has shown us considerable favour by arranging your marriage-"

"If it is a favour why did Roger not marry her himself?" Gary interrupted. "Surely you've heard what they say about her, Father. That she is inbred! That she is crazy! That they're sending her over here so she won't cause any more embarrassment to their King!"

The Duke remained calm. "A Princess of the Copper Isles is a considerable match, even for the heir of a dukedom. We should consider ourselves blessed that King Roger sought such a prominent bride for Naxen."

"Not for Naxen," Gary replied bitterly. "For me." He glared at his father. "You know this is a bad match. I know this is a bad match. Hell, even Alan knows this is a bad match!" The young knight gestured to his squire.

Until this point, Alanna had been standing quietly in the corner of the room, pretending to be invisible. At the mention of her name though, she glanced towards the arguing Naxen men. As soon as she'd met their eyes though, she immediately wished she left the room when she'd had a chance.

"I'm sure Alan would be smart enough to recognise a beneficial marriage when he saw one. I'm sure Alan would do the right thing by his King and country." The Duke's voice became more strained as his temper rose. "I'm sure if Alan's father asked him to make a small sacrifice on his own part for the good of many others, he would do it."

Alanna got the distinct impression they weren't talking about her anymore. Her father had been dead for more than two years.

"So you want me to be Roger's pawn, Father? Trade my choice in for a slight political gain?" Gary yelled at his father.

"You were mistaken in ever believing you had a choice. It is our King's wish, and you will do well to abide them. You know what will happen if you do not." Gareth stared his son down until Gary looked away. "You will marry Josiane, you will beget heirs with her, and that will be the end of it." With that, the Duke stormed out of Gary's bedroom, slamming the door behind him.

Alanna could hear scurrying outside as the servants who had been eavesdropping attempted to look busy for the Duke. Her attention, though, was focused on her knight-master as he slumped into a chair, defeated. Silently, she went to his cupboard, fetched him the strongest brandy he owned, and poured him a cup.

He looked up as she placed the cup in front of him. Examining it, he snorted derisively. "I was going to save this for celebrating." He picked it up and took a sip. After a moment he quietly added to himself, "I don't have anything to celebrate. My life is over."

Alanna, stricken by her knight-master's depression, attempted to cheer him up. "The wedding is still a year away, Gary. And I'm sure she won't be that bad, you know how Court gossip goes. The rumour is always ten times worse than the fact."

Gary stared at her. "The Copper Isles ambassador himself warned me against the marriage," he said. "If that's not an omen, what is?"

"Crop failure. Plague. The sky falling." Suggested Alanna helpfully. "The Gods themselves haven't come out and smote anyone over the proposed marriage, so it can't be as bad as you think." She knew she would have sounded more convincing if her voice wasn't so overly-cheery, but Gary seemed to perk up a tiny bit.

"I supposed," conceded Gary. "The marriage is still a while away."

"Exactly," Alanna supplied. "And if she arrives, and turns out to be as horrid as they say, I will help you elope with Lady Roxanne. Or someone of the sort."

Gary wrinkled his nose. "Perhaps not Lady Roxanne," he replied, a slow smile spreading across his face, despite his gloom. "I'm not certain she'd be a better option."

- - -

"Your majesty. Your majesty!" Cythera looked up from her needlework with a start. Lady Delia of Eldorne, having called for Cythera's attention a number of times, was openly smirking at her. Her other ladies-in-waiting were more experienced in Courtly ways, and subsequently much better at masking their contempt for the young Queen than Delia was.

"Yes Delia?" Cythera asked tiredly. Though she was only nineteen, a year as Roger's Queen had made her feel both world-weary and twice her age.

"I was just remarking on what a lovely day it was. Perhaps you could take us riding?" Delia enquired.

Cythera gritted her teeth. It was most certainly not a lovely day, and no matter how she answered the request, she was sure to lose. If she gave in and took her ladies riding, there would most certainly be complaints about her unreasonable request, given the weather. If she denied the request, Delia would moan loudly for the next week that she was too strict with her ladies. Delia must have known that when she asked the question; her triumphant smile more than confirmed it.

"Oh dear, Delia. I had other plans for our afternoon. But if you insist on riding..." Cythera smiled sweetly.

"I think other plans would be wise," interjected Lady Felicity of Panora Peak, ignoring the venomous glare sent her way by Delia.

"Wonderful." Cythera beckoned to Delia. "Delia, I wish for you to take a note to Lord Alexander of Tirragen on my behalf."

Delia looked like she had sucked on a lemon. "Your Majesty, surely there are servants better suited to the task?" she whined.

Cythera scribbled a quick note, folded it and passed it to Delia. "That would be terribly impersonal though." She smiled brightly at Delia, and bade her on her way.

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"My liege," Alexander stepped into the ornate study and bowed.

Roger looked up from the papers he had been going over. "Ah, Alex. You've come, at last." Alex didn't miss the subtle rebuke in the King's words. Instead of responding though, he chose to remain silent. Roger looked him over for a moment, before continuing. "My Champion, I realise you are only just returned from Port Legann, however your services are required elsewhere." He motioned to the documents on his desk. "I have heard a most disturbing report regarding the Lord of Jesslaw. I wish for you to go and investigate the claims. Ascertain for yourself his level of loyalty. If you find it lacking... well, you know the appropriate course of action."

Alex stiffened slightly. His cousin had married the younger brother of the Lord of Jesslaw not more than three years back. He wondered if Roger was aware of the familial connection.

The King was. "I realise that you may wish to keep this quiet. Resolve it quickly, and no more shall be heard of it." Roger tapped the paper on his desk, thinking. "Take only a squadron of the King's Own with you. The less attention drawn to this unsavoury matter, the better."

Alex bowed, grateful. "Thank-you, Your Majesty."

Roger smiled indulgently. "You are an old friend and a true servant, Alex. I do not wish to see you brought down by forces you can hardly control." He held Alex's gaze for a moment, then returned to his paperwork.

Alex knew a dismissal when he saw one. It was hard to make his legs move, though, when a sudden flush of apprehension had immobilised his body.

- - -

As Alex left Roger's study, he came across the Lady Delia loitering outside the King's suite of offices. He struggled to contain the instinctive roll of his eyes when she spotted him and flounced across the wide room.

"Lord Alex! Oh, Lord Alex!" She cried, falling into a curtsey before him.

"Lady Delia." He bowed politely, calculating the best route of escape. "To what do I owe such a great pleasure?"

She beamed at him. "I brought you a message from the Queen herself," she replied. She held the note out to him, then quickly clutched it back to her bosom. "Would you like me to read it to you?"

"No thank-you, Lady Delia," Alex answered stiffly. "I am more than capable of reading it myself." He held his hand out for the note.

Pouting, Delia passed it over to him. "Will you be with us in Corus for long, Lord Alex?" she enquired.

He played with the note for a moment. "I'm afraid not. Please pass my courtesies on to Her Majesty." Alex slipped the note in his pocket.

Delia waited expectantly. "Aren't you going to read it and send a reply back with me?"

Alex stared at her. "I am sure that I am more than capable of responding to the Queen in person. Good day, Lady Delia." He turned and walked away.

Delia sneered at his retreating form. The Lord of Tirragen, despite being the King's Champion and a trusted advisor, was a pig. She could do much better.

With that, she returned to waiting outside the King's chambers.

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