Despite the summary, this is not Jon-bashing. It's really more along the lines of affectionate ribbing, because past events had to come back to haunt him at some point. This is merely an exploration of a scene that just may have happened somewhere in the background of Tamora Pierce's Protector of the Small quartet, based on events from the Song of the Lioness books. There are spoilers for the vast majority of the Tortall books, including a couple from the Trickster's duet.

The timeline is extremely murky. This happens before Buri and Raoul went to the Midwinter party together, and after Lalasa is established as a dressmaker, so it's probably somewhere in Keladry's third year as a squire. I don't know precisely when Sarge and Onua got together, but Aly saw hints about an established relationship.

Rating for frank mentions of sex; spoilers for most of the Tortall series.

Alanna hated paperwork. She hated it with a passion, and not only because she did all things with a passion. She despised the tedious business of sorting through all the garbage of regular standardized reports and signing in pre-assigned places when she could have just talked to the representatives. That, of course, would involve planning and wouldn't allow for the chance of procrastination, and there wouldn't be a paper trail that filled two (carefully guarded, another waste of time) outbuildings with scrolls and documents and account-books.

There were reasons that she had said no to Jon's marriage proposal, after all, and prominent among them was avoiding the business of being royal. There was the additional matter that two explosive tempers in close proximity would have been even less royal, and the country still expected the lady to bend first and to bend gracefully.

Alanna was far from the nation's idea of the proper lady, and was much better suited to her current job. Champions could simply smack things with a sword until all was well. Alanna wasn't queen material, but she was the best possible champion of their group of pages. Raoul loved his place with the King's Own, and she had always known that Gary was a bit touched in the head. The man enjoyed going on quests through paperwork as the Prime Minister Triumphant, and the Goddess alone knew why.

She would even be content to heal, teach others to heal, work with the advanced pages on swordplay, roust immortals and/or invading military forces from her country, badger her squire into competency, and then ride home to spend quality time with her husband and children. She had suffered through months without a single sight of her family that wasn't through a scrying mirror, on multiple occasions, and without (much) complaining. When she was hitting things with a sword on the Scanran border, or chasing entire herds of flesh-eating unicorn into a trap, then she was accomplishing something.

She wasn't sitting in the capital, dressed nicely and with her sword leaning against her chair, helping Jon with his thrice-cursed paperwork. She would have left that morning to head home for a couple days with all children occupied and her husband all to herself. The servants knew perfectly well what would be happening, and were sweet enough to run the manor and to leave trays of food at the door with a loud knock. She and George were only interrupted for vitally important matters, and even those often had to wait a bit because there was no use stopping in the middle so Jon could coax her to go squish a few Spidrens.

George was never all that surprised by his work, but he made it his business to know things before anybody else, and his designated second was devastatingly competent. Alanna had always loved her adopted father, but she appreciated him more and more for his work as the publicly known spymaster. Myles would never call unless it was urgent, and on the few occasions he called and asked to speak to George immediately they had been known to rush the ending specifically so George could speak with him. They weren't sure if Myles knew of that rare honor, but had long ago decided that he wouldn't care to be told. (The fact that he might retaliate with similar stories about Eleni kept George completely silent on the matter.)

She would have explained this in great detail to Jon, but she doubted he could sit through the entire monologue. He blushed like a first-year page when she detailed exactly why she was going home to her husband, for all that he and Thayet couldn't go a week without intentionally skipping a meeting to take care of matters. Alanna had slept with Jon, and the man still blushed when she mentioned that she missed her husband and having sex and can she brief him later because her husband rode all the way to Corus to see her. She had really thought that Jon was the mature one, in their relationship, but perhaps diplomacy was overrated. Jon still couldn't tolerate straight talk, and she had still managed to solve most of her problems with the correct applications of threatened and actual violence.

George, however, had sent her a message. He had asked one of their Gifted servants to scry a message to the capital, and he only went through the trouble if it was urgent. He had asked her to stay for the day, and swore that it would be worth her while. George had the annoying habit of being right in nearly all cases, so she had agreed, albeit grudgingly. She had been away for two months, she knew from a letter the children were all busy, and he had still thought that it was important for her to wait.

Staying in the capital for the day, however, involved paperwork more useful if set on fire. She had given her report in the morning and mentioned that she was staying for the day as a favor to George.

Jon hadn't asked any questions, which should have been her first warning. The second was that he turned the conversation to what she would be doing that day, and that they had a real talk about things that weren't work for a few minutes. It wasn't even punctuated by Jon's compunction to clear the paperwork from his desk faster than one of the clerks could bring in a new pile. The third sign, however, was that he asked for her help with a very important task, and his wording had been twisted enough that she agreed before asking why he needed her help. He knew she despised paperwork, and she swore that he occasionally took a decidedly non-regal glee in getting her to help.

They had stopped briefly for lunch, and for a few minutes Alanna had allowed herself to hope. The short respite, however, ended when the clerks came darting in with the next set of reports to look through and requisitions to sign and strategy briefings from the various posted commanders. Alanna never sat in chairs for this long, even if they did have a little padding. The most sitting she ever did these days was on Darkmoon, and George had found her a lovely courier's saddle meant for long rides for her last birthday and coaxed somebody into changing out the trim so it matched her favorite armor. She did love that man, even if she currently was considering the relative merits of staying an additional day solely to spite him. She could go see Buri and Onua and the Riders, as she was continuing to avoid Wyldon and the pages in protest of Keladry's probationary year. (She'd go back to frighten them into practicing swordwork properly the very week Keladry was knighted.)

She'd be stabbing herself in the foot staying another day, as she wanted bedroom time just as much as George did, but she was vehemently unhappy to be sorting paperwork when she would have been home by now. Dark thoughts about the relative merits about each course of action ran through her head until one of Myles's best messengers interrupted her, with a note from George.

Jon didn't even look up, so Alanna read her message in peace.

Don't lose all faith in me, lass. Tell Jon this is a love-note if he asks; the messenger has orders to make sure this ends up only in your hand. The entertainment is on its way. Stay in Jon's office, and make sure you visit with old friends.

Alanna frowned at the cryptic message. It was in George's favorite coding system, and on top of that he had been extremely vague. She tipped the courier two silver nobles for his trouble in delivering one of George's messages, and tucked the small square of parchment into her pocket. There was one thing for Jon's court, at least. Alanna wore trousers when she was in the capital on working business, and every last courtier was smart enough to keep his or her mouth firmly shut. They didn't know that Jon wouldn't let her duel anybody on personal grounds anymore, and didn't need to know.


"George sent me a love-note, as he won't be seeing me today. Spy business, I think, but he does like to keep the entire story for the end when it's all neat and tidy." Alanna bent back over the latest paper, some treatise of agricultural output for the fields directly supplying Corus. "Jon, why do I suddenly know the price of peas in Persopolis? The farmers are unhappy that crops there yield much better prices than they earn in Corus, and they haven't bothered to understand the difficulty in transporting fresh produce through a desert."

"Kings are meant to know a little of everything, I think. I generally manage by only talking about things I do know, and sometimes tidbits like that keep me talking with the foreign dignitaries using the same strategy."

Alanna pulled a face and shoved a few similar reports in his direction. "If someone discusses rutabaga with me at a state dinner, I will trade seats and ruin the entire diplomacy of the evening."

"You're with George nine times in ten, anyway. It shouldn't be that much of a difficulty."

Alanna might have protested (she had not become the King's Champion and therefore a highly-ranked diplomatic figure to discuss vegetables), but a very young herald was at the door. She glared at her liege, to promise that she would finish that conversation later, before schooling her expression into something more suitable. She needn't have bothered.

"Presenting Lord Sir Raoul of Goldenlake and Malorie's Peak, commander of the King's Own," the herald said in a high voice.

"Thank you, Alec," Jon said. "Close the door behind Raoul, please."

Raoul waited until the door was closed. "Mithros, I swear the boys keep getting younger. His voice hasn't even gone, Jon, and just imagine if it goes when the poor lad's trying to introduce someone or other."

"The palace staff took him in. Alec's a street-foundling that the current Rogue recommended highly, as the poor lad's not remotely given to thieving or conning. The boy was thinking of joining the army or the Riders, but Upton took an interest when the poor lad mended a tricky situation in the receiving line without prompting."

"Oakbridge?" Raoul looked horrified. "He's training his protégés young. Just imagine, Alanna. A Master of Ceremonies that knows all the palace secrets before he even starts."


"You know how I feel about state occasions, Jon," the big knight said unrepentantly. "Alanna, good to see you. What were you chasing after this time?"

"Ogres, again. I was hoping for a giant or two so we could call in expert help and I'd have some company. I swear, Jon, you gave me the greenest knights we have."

Jon couldn't deny that accusation. "Well, what did you do as a green knight?"

"Joined the Bazhir until I lost the green," Alanna said promptly.

Raoul chuckled. "Then came back home with the Dominion Jewel, just in the nick of time. You can't go comparing the fresh fodder to just anybody, Jon. Now Kel…" He smiled proudly. "I can't wait until you get to meet her properly, Alanna, she lost the green early. She led fellow pages against bandits and won, led my spidren hunt while still on that gods-cursed probation year. You'll adore her. People get the idea she doesn't feel anything, but her public face is nothing like her. Dry sense of humor, best tactician in years, commander material all through, and your knack for strange causes. She even had the tetchiest pony in the lot for her first ride out."

Alanna resumed her earlier glare at Jonathan, this time with interest, even as she spoke to Raoul. "I'm sure that that meeting will be something fascinating. Does she have any hints about identities, yet?"

"Not a one. You've been too careful, and she idolizes you a fair bit. She'll be thrilled to know that you approve and that you've looked after her as best you can, given Jon and Wyldon being pig-headed and overly cautious. It's just left Kel a bit nervous that you might not approve of her, with the public silence. She doesn't want to be a stain on the record of lady knights. Of course, she got Wyldon to let her finish training, so she's something else, but…" Raoul flicked his eyes to Jon, who had determinedly bent over papers. "I'm actually here to discuss a quirky detail about having a lady squire along for the ride. I thought you'd know better than anybody, Jon, but it's all for the better if I can get Alanna to help out a touch."

"I swear, Raoul, if you dragged yourself into Corus because you can't figure out how to give the knightmaster's talk to a squire because she's female…" Alanna smiled as she said it. She couldn't imagine Raoul would let himself be too much bothered on that issue, when he'd been the one to talk with her about girls when she was a squirming teenager.

"She's far too straightforward for that to be the issue. No, it's the rest of the world that's the problem. She's…" Raoul had the very familiar smile of a proud knightmaster. "I knew from the start, but it's amazing. Second one in the eye for the conservatives, and little girls just look at her and daydream about armor. The problem is that half the gossips in the country are spreading rumors around that I'm sleeping with her."

"I thought you were sleeping with men," Alanna said dryly. Had George sent her a note just so she'd talk to Raoul? It was nice, but it was hardly worth a secret campaign.

Raoul usually laughed, but this time he only scowled. "I wish that was the way rumor was still heading, actually, even if I had to chat up Gary at a state function to make it that way. People say that I only chose her for my squire so that I'd sleep with her, and they wonder why I'd pick her when women fair throw their richer and prettier daughters at me. A few still insist I only took her up as a favor to that lady knight that has me bewitched, a couple others say Kel's out to seduce me, and the rest just say things that make me want to take to the lists. If they'd said half those things about a male squire, I'd've been able to beat them half past next week."

Jon set down his quill. "I don't know what I can do to help you, Raoul."

"I thought you might have a bit in the way of practical experience."

"I didn't have a lady squire."

Alanna and Raoul pointedly looked at each other, then at Jon.

The king scowled. "No one knew my squire was a lady, and later nobody could say much against my choice. Squire Alan was the absolute best at swordplay and we'd destroyed the Ysandir together just before I announced my choice."

"After the reveal, Jon," Raoul prompted. "Alanna, you've always had the cat's own luck in big situations. Everybody knew you were a lady, and then you were off to the desert and Jon looked in a mood to hit something for ages. I had to deal with him, and I still didn't hear any rumors about the pair of you. Is that royal privilege, or can I do something to shut the main sources up? I don't want my squire's reputation gone before she has her shield on her arm to bash the idiots with."

Jon frowned. "There never were that many rumors, even after I'd made it clear that I knew from the start. I suppose people were too busy thinking of Squire Alan instead of Sir Alanna."

"None?" Raoul looked almost disappointed. "I had thought there would've been some statement or other, it's entirely inappropriate to sleep with your squire."

Alanna suddenly knew precisely why George had set them both back a day. Her expression remained perfectly natural, thanks to many lessons with her darling husband, and she was only curious and attentive as she looked to Jon. It seemed that he really hadn't said a thing about the pair of them.

"I've never felt the need to make that a proclamation."

Alanna's mouth remained firmly shut, but she did unbend enough to smile sweetly at her liege while Raoul scowled. She was going to enjoy entertainment that George had promised her.

Raoul hadn't noticed her expression. He was too busy gaping at the king. "You don't think it would be useful about now? Knights don't tend to take squires that quickly, now that it's turned so expensive to arm and equip them. It's generally older men taking squires, and I'm predicting a small influx of ladies when you get rid of your unfair policy regarding probationary years and Kel has her shiny new shield. If there are enough lady squires that the good folks can't pick all of them up for their four years, you might get a rotten knight. Just one case where a manipulative older knight works a young girl into feeling like he loves her, or where the rare deadbeat to pass the Ordeal gets his hands on someone that won't speak up, and all future lady pages will suddenly need lady knight sponsors or their families simply won't let them join. You don't want some kind of immediately-effective law or proclamation?"

Raoul looked furious. Jon looked frozen. Alanna was sure that her polite mask hadn't slipped, but inside she was laughing so hard that she was straining her metaphorical abdominal muscles.

Jon hesitated. That was his first mistake.

"I would think you'd want it retroactive," Alanna supplied helpfully. "You want to stop any rumors that you slept with Squire Keladry before this comes in effect, after all."

Raoul smiled. Now that he had an ally, Alanna knew Raoul would be cheerful and generally impossible to dissuade. She wasn't sure what end result she wanted, but she decided that watching the amazing contortions of Jon's face along the way was reward enough for entirely too many days of paperwork.

"Right! Probably with some kind of punishment clause to show that the crown means business on this one, and that the virtue of all squires is safe from their knightmasters."

Alanna nodded thoughtfully. "I certainly haven't heard any rumors while I cart Nealan around with me, but it would help when we have more female knightmasters and someone decides to start that line of slander." She had barely thought about her squire all day, but that was the advantage of taking on someone that needed a little extra work with healing. She'd given him to his father for the day, and when she and George were otherwise occupied she handed him over to Maude for healing work and the captain of the guard for a round workout. It was good practice for when Alanna showed Nealan how to fall over during their bouts of swordplay. Recently, Nealan could even heal his own injuries without tiring.

"Revocation of their shield?" Raoul asked. "It's enough to keep knights honest without taking their life, and in any case sleeping with your squire is hardly an act of chivalry."

"I don't think it would be that much of a problem."

"Knights sleeping with their squires, or the future potential of knights sleeping with their squires?" Alanna asked helpfully.


"I thought it was a fair question," Raoul said. "No need to use the royalty-glare on her, Jon, she's right."

"The second. I trust that our knights would do no such thing."

"Then we won't remove any shields, and the rest of the country can stop running their mouths about my squire," Raoul said stubbornly.

Alanna's expression was entirely neutral. "Hm. How long would any affected squires have to come forward?"

"No limit." Raoul really was a wonder to watch when he was fully resolute. No wonder the Own loved him. He killed giants with a giant pointy bit of wood, sometimes while mounted on a horse, and he could give motivational speeches on cue. "There won't be some set date where he or she has to come forward with the truth."

Alanna had been reading through policy implications all day, and Jon was still faintly stunned. It really was a strange occurrence for him to be speechless for so long, but so far Alanna knew why and Raoul didn't. "Wouldn't it be suspicious, though? The law's out, and then any time a knight with a squire lost his shield there would be possible repercussions for the squire. It would be publicized pretty widely, and there would be a new assumption that knights losing their shields did sleep with their squire."

"I suppose, but Gary's a genius with this sort of thing. He could hammer it out inside a week, the court would shove it through out of current worry that something might happen, and there you have it," Raoul said proudly. "He'd be done inside an hour, and I can get the tilting field all set before Kel's back from her errands. One of them was visiting Lalasa, while we're in the capital and not on the pox-ridden Progress. She set her maid up with her own dress shop, and Miss Lalasa's been taking on orders from Thayet."

"Thayet conscripted me to go along on her next fitting, for an opinion about relative adaptability of the dress. She'd rather not repeat the pink tissue dress, I can point out a few tricks my tailor swears by." Alanna wasn't about to talk about dresses for long, but she could make a point of cementing Lalasa's business. Thayet loved the girl's work, and had convinced Alanna to put in a commission for a dress George wouldn't be able to describe two weeks before it was done. They were almost sure that George didn't have an informant in Lalasa's shop yet. Alanna would have gone along anyway, because it was nice to spend time with Thayet outside of the palace, but it didn't hurt at all that Alanna would be helping out a friend of Keladry's. "I've heard that Kel's something to see when she's tilting."

"She'd unhorse me, if I didn't have a high saddle besides nearly a hundred pounds and quite a few years of practice on her," Raoul admitted. "I haven't told her that one yet, because I'm still getting her to learn a few more tricks and she works harder when she thinks she's not close to being there. The day she knocks me off my horse, then I point her straight toward Wyldon and sit in the front row."

Alanna almost giggled at the look of relief on Jon's face, when the conversation had turned to something he actually could talk about. "I hadn't realized she was at that level," Jon said.

"She's no slouch, and she trained up that horse of hers like anything. Perfect jousting mount, and those don't come easy. Daine said that Peachblossom was attached to Kel before there was ever any direct wild magic involved. Remember that horse you had your first go around as a page, Alanna?"

Alanna let her dark look be her answer. The blasted animal had earned her completely undeserved punishment work, and there was no call for bringing it up twice in one day. It was better left unmentioned.

Raoul didn't look all that apologetic, but he at least softened his tone a touch to make up for mentioning the beast. "Peachblossom was worse. Somebody mistreated him enough to leave marks, he had a mouth made out of granite, and she kept hold on him to save him from the sausage market. Kel's all about impossible causes, like being the first openly female page and trying to get through squire years without too much malicious gossip."

Jon's face was something to see. He was trapped, but he couldn't admit he was trapped. Alanna wished that she had a good hand for sketching, because George deserved some vicarious amusement. "I'll ask Gary to look into it," he finally said.

"What's that?"

It was completely natural for Alanna to turn and grin when her friend walked in. Prime ministers didn't have time to knock, after all, and anything Jon said Gary probably knew the day before. "Gary, it's a big reunion in here," Alanna said. "Who do I have to harass to get some knights that actually shave, since Raoul's grooming Keladry for leading instead of trailing me about to point her sword at stray immortals?"

"Jon, probably, but Wyldon inadvertently paid you a compliment by saying that the freshest knights should head out with you. They come back in one piece, they come back with experience, and they come back listening to their instructors very prettily. It's a marvel to behold." Gary took the only remaining chair in the room, the chair on Jon's side of the desk generally left for Thayet. "So. What am I looking into?"

"Raoul wants a proclamation or a law, he hasn't specified, that any knight to have sex with their squire will be stripped of a shield. Retroactive, no time limits on disclosure, and some kind of legal turnaround so that knights can lose their shields without this necessarily reflecting on the sexual misconduct," Jon summarized curtly, before Alanna could help. She was only a little disappointed.

"Hm." Gary tended to look around as he thought, so it wasn't entirely out of character for him to start noticing expressions. Alanna watched as he took in Jon's discomfort, Raoul's easy-going earnestness, and Alanna's carefully hidden glee. Unfortunately, Gary had been smart enough to ask George for lessons on masking and finding emotions. Raoul and Jon might have no idea, but Gary knew she was enjoying this. The paper-pushing annoyance wouldn't let go of a puzzle until he solved it, so now he wanted to know why. This was exactly the kind of law she should be shoving forward until it was shouted from the rooftops.

Gary was brilliant, but sometimes he reached the same result as the rest of the world by taking an entirely different path. Alanna loved watching him work, most days, but today he was detracting from her honest enjoyment of Jon in an uncomfortable situation. She didn't want to sit around and watch her friends figure out exactly why Jon was acting strangely, she was supposed to have made a clean escape with fresh blackmail behavior to ensure Jon's future good behavior. She could have gotten out of sorting papers at least twice with earlier events alone.

"How would it be proven?" he asked.

"Truth-spells, with the standard tests?" Raoul suggested.

Gary tilted his head as he thought. "Perhaps, but if there's no limit on the elapsed time, memories do have the potential to become fuzzy. Jon, how many different women did you sleep with while you had a squire?"

"I do not see how that is relevant."

Gary managed to make rolling his eyes the natural act of a statesman. Alanna was begrudgingly amused. If Gary was going to ruin her other fun, he could at least be interesting. "Come off it, Jon, we all knew. Delia, and then there was that pretty lady on the side that you introduced to us."

"I never…"

"Told me, told Raoul, or told anyone but Alan probably because she was in the room next door and wouldn't that be a fascinating situation," Gary interrupted. "You were happy, you had that soppy look on your face, and you had no idea that Delia was trying to get you to chase her again. You met someone, you slept with her on multiple occasions, and for some reason decided your friends were so uncouth that they weren't worthy of a hello."

Raoul grimaced. "I can't imagine… remind me not to take somebody home when Kel's around. That couldn't end well."

"As if you've even been interested the last while," Gary refuted, but his tone was gentle. "When you meet the right person, you know, and if it's getting to the bedroom then you can just be quiet for a bit and hope for the best. Kel doesn't ruffle easily, Raoul, and even Wyldon would admit to that."

"I fail to see how this has any relevance," Jon said stiffly.

"Really, Jon, you practically boasted when you were with Delia, if only because the rest of us were all looking the same way," Gary said. "Suddenly, nothing, but you were involved with some lady that Raoul saw once. Pretty black-haired lady with…"

Alanna knew exactly as Gary did. She knew how that sentence ended, because Raoul had described the woman to her when she was still a squire. Jonathan had been talking to a pretty black-haired woman with violet eyes. Raoul mentioned it because he hadn't thought anybody else out there had the eyes besides her brother.

As always, Gary hid the trailing sentence by changing the subject. "I've got it, Jon, but I'm not sure if I can have it airtight going back forever. You might just have to put a cap on it, because it'd have to start from the beginning of your reign for it to be a proclamation of King Jonathan IV of Conté, Voice of the Tribes, et cetera. Let's start it at your coronation, there will be some wording or other to clarify that relations after the squire's shield have been earned aren't banned by the law"

"Raoul?" Jon asked.

"That'll cover Kel and everybody to come after her, and quite a few before. I miss having everybody in the same room, things happen faster. The funny bit is that it works just opposite inside the Own, when you get big figures together to talk about a problem. They dither on for days."

Raoul was happy, but Gary was thrilled. He finally had the last piece of the puzzle, and he had been applying it with a vengeance. Alanna could almost see Gary filling in all the tiny little things that had bothered him. Why had Jon stopped sleeping with Delia, why had visiting Alanna with the Bazhir sent him back to capital in a fury to start courting Josiane, and just what had been so odd between Alanna and Jon and Thayet—

Alanna glared at Jon, not that it helped matters. Jon hadn't been watching Gary, and probably had no idea that the man knew. He was brilliant, but he wasn't a mind reader.

Jon didn't know what had happened that she was glaring. Raoul looked puzzled. Gary began to smile. He hadn't needed confirmation of his suspicions, but he had it.

So much for Alanna blackmailing Jon, Gary was better at it. If she was lucky, he'd wait for her to leave. If she was really lucky, he would tell her all about it the next time she was in Corus. Alanna reminded herself to tell George that this was all his fault, and to have a sparring match with Nealan. She had told him to watch the weak follow-through on the Crescent Moon drill he admired; she'd see how much progress he had made.

"Alanna." Gary's smile would have earned him a smack on the arm, had Alanna been on the same side of the desk. "Same question."

"For what era?" Alanna asked, refusing to back down. "I could hardly go around telling people I was really a girl until I had my shield, excepting present company, so you'd do just as well to ask for a lifetime count. You know the count while I've had Nealan about, and it's George. In any case, I'm quite definite on the lifetime count."

Raoul snorted. "One's not a hard number, Alanna."

If she was going to shatter expectations, then she was going to do it with aplomb. "Neither is three."

Gary's entire face changed as he analyzed this new piece of information. Raoul looked shocked. Jon looked surprised, and there was something that Alanna hadn't expected. She could have sworn that he had known about Liam, the way that she was that upset when he died, but maybe he had been too busy holding the nation together to notice. He was just as likely to have thought it was for Faithful, anyway.

Alanna rolled her eyes. Unlike Gary, she did not make the movement the very image of aristocratic disdain. She spent more time with her common-born husband, and his like of (mostly) honest dealing had always resonated with her. "Gary, five. Jon, four. Raoul, seven, only two of them serious."

"How do you know that?" Raoul asked, shocked.

"Raoul, I know yours down to the one-night stand where… you know. Gary, before you ask, you were just as obvious as Jon when you'd met someone. I could actually pay enough attention during parties to figure out who was doing what where. It was pretty easy to tell when affairs started, as they'd usually stop flirting with me for the duration of the relationship. Some jerk named Gareth the Younger thought it would be cute to tell all the ladies that I was shy and they just had to be patient, when he knew I wasn't interested."

Gary shook his head. "I'm not curious about my count, all of that was when you were a squire and I hadn't met Cythera yet."

"Your precious ladies you pointed my way loved to gossip to see if they could make me blush, and I picked up more than I ever wanted to know during the interminable dances. The entire court knew about Josiane, which I rather thought was the point," Alanna said. "If the rumor can reach the Bazhir tribes…" Jon did have the grace to look embarrassed about having an affair with a Rittevon, at least.

"That was an excellent example of a poor decision," Gary agreed cheerfully. "Did lovely lady number two dump you something spectacular, Jon? She must've caught you on the way back to Corus, because you came back from the desert and systematically picked out the most obnoxious woman in the court. One might think you were looking for the second lady's opposite."

Jon stared at his cousin in horror, then looked to Alanna.

Alanna nodded.

Gary beamed. "I've always wanted to know that story."

Raoul looked at each of them in turn. No expression clarified what had to be happening. "Why do I feel like I'm missing something?"

Gary really was obnoxious with the way he could seize onto an idea and thoroughly enjoy it for minutes at a time. "Because you are, my dear man. She's far more restrained than you were, in any case, but you simply didn't want to picture your Alan all grown up and meeting boys."

Alanna smiled at the look that produced. It was a little cruel of Gary, as Raoul had a very visual imagination and tended to picture whatever someone described. "Alan" was forever going to be a tiny eleven-year-old in a too-big uniform, getting bullied by Ralon in her first few minutes as one of the pages. Alanna was his friend, who had started her long tenure as a knight when she very publicly beat a larger boy in a fight using moves no one else in the palace knew. (She'd already thanked George for that several times. Those lessons had been extraordinarily useful.)

"Story?" Gary prompted hopefully.

Alanna directed her sweetest smile across the desk. "I've heard it, which shouldn't be surprising given that I'm the only one to pay attention properly."

"I could tell this one," Jon said quickly. "I…"

Too slow. Alanna knew the story just as well as Jon did, and wasn't worried about saving his pride. "Proposed to the lady in question, and didn't get a positive answer?"

Jon glared at her. Alanna's smile didn't waver one bit. When Jon spoke, the words were clipped. "She said she needed time, a week later I thought the answer would be yes, she turned me down, and I was mad enough to go back to the capital and decide that Josiane was completely unlike her in every way."

"Huh. Why didn't you introduce us, then, if you were going to marry her and she was a full opposite from Josiane?" Raoul asked.

"You didn't tell me about everyone—why are we even having this conversation? Gary could go write your law, you could go tilt at your squire, and Alanna could go harass her husband and remove her squire from his father's tender care."

"Gary. You know?"

"Only in the last few minutes," Alanna's very annoying friend admitted. "I hadn't even thought of it as a potential, no offense to the lady in question, but I agree completely with Raoul." Gary only beamed when Jon started glaring at him, too. "It's just a bit odd, and I'll be very pleased to draw up the proclamation to help out Squire Kelady's reputation, and to assure a little more goodwill for all of the future lady knights that take this risk and perhaps the probationary period that has yet to be repealed. Bad precedent, Jon, I've said before this is going to be a hiccup on your otherwise excellent record. There are a few subjects where you just cannot listen to the conservatives. People will be annoyed enough when it comes out that your little girl wanted to be the second lady knight and you convinced her that it'd be better if she made a diplomatic marriage. It's anecdotal thus far, but both of our lady knights have been impeccably honorable in their fights against bullies. Alanna's was naturally different type of battle, as there were none smaller for her to protect."

Alanna would have fought him on that last point, as references to size still made her want to demonstrate exactly what she could do with a sword against Gary's overly-tall self, but now Raoul had a dawning sense of comprehension lighting his features. Now, she would just have two swords in case the first one broke. She was going to find some pretense to get Gary on the practice court, and she would even let Nealan see precisely how one embarrassed a deserving victim. It would be a good object lesson for her squire.

Raoul, however, was not so limited in his information. "If we hadn't been friends for this long, and with you starting out as a boy, then I wouldn't say this at all." He turned to Alanna, and there was entirely too much amusement in his features. In Raoul's case, however, it was tempered with obvious affection. He never got so distracted with a new idea that he lost track of people. "I'd rather not think much on it, but I can't fault your choices, Alanna."

She couldn't hold much against Raoul. "Thanks," she said. "I thought that you and your sixth lady had a chance, and a really good one."

Now Gary looked frustrated, and Jon just looked puzzled. Raoul sighed. "I bungled that one up, and badly. Probably better to leave it as friends." He stood. "Thanks for making time, Jon. Gary, I'll sort through books with you if you need the help, this means a lot to me. Alanna, always nice to see you when we're not in the middle of a crisis. If I ever have time off again, I'll come over to visit you and George. I don't expect that to happen until Kel's shield has taken the first few dents, but we'll see."

Alanna hopped up to hug him. He had that look he always got, when he was remembering the few years lost to alcohol, and the time that he and Buri had almost been in love. "Go tilt with your crazy squire. You don't know a thing about it, of course, but I just found her swordsmith and slid into the waiting list at the armory. It'll be ready two months before her Ordeal, and I'll give it to her the very day she's knighted."

Raoul grinned, and just about picked her up when he hugged her a second time. "She'll love it. You're the pickiest about swords, and you're going to surprise her when she knows just who helped out—and no, Jon, this isn't public. Kel herself has no idea." Raoul set Alanna down again. "It's hard luck being different than the rest of the pages, but Kel's come through it well. Having a mysterious benefactor on her side has helped, I think."

"A benefactor with good taste, no less," Gary said.

Alanna wasn't surprised. If it happened in the palace, then Gary had three separate reports about it. "Thanks, Gary. I know that if you approve, then anyone else would have to be pleased."

Gary had his retort ready, Raoul was opening the door to leave them to it, and a fifth member for their little conference walked in.

"Thank you, Raoul, I was just about to knock," Thayet said. "Well, if you'd look at this… Jon, you should have sent a messenger out to tell me that it's a party in here." She was undaunted by the sudden shortage of chairs. Raoul sat back down in the larger of the chairs for visitors, and Thayet sat on her husband's lap. "Alanna, will you be in town for the night? I just made an evening appointment with Lalasa, and Onua and Buri's schedules lined up with mine for once."

"Girls' night out?" Alanna asked, interested. "What's the occasion?"

"Buri's planning her imminent emancipation as head of the Riders. She's grooming Larse for the job, not that the poor fool has any notion—Evin Larse, that Player your husband found for us the year Onua snagged Daine as her assistant. It'll be a few years yet before Buri hands him the reins, but she's very sure that he'll manage quite well."

"I haven't seen Onua in ages. Any news?"

Thayet beamed, and somehow the expression that had infuriated her on Gareth made Alanna smile in return when it was the queen. "Quite a bit of news. She's been worried about making a move, of course, but… well, she'll want to tell you the details herself, but we were right."

"Of course we were right." Alanna's expression was too honestly thrilled for her smirk to seem particularly smug. "I'm happy for her, and I definitely won't miss letting her tell me all about it. When did this start?"

"When did what start?" Jon asked, but Thayet ignored him.

"Just this week! I found out this afternoon, but of course George knew yesterday. I swear he puts half of our trainees on the payroll just to see if he can." Thayet sounded more amused than irritated, which was how most of her friends reacted to George.

"So that's why… George told me to stay around, today, but he didn't tell me just why. I thought he wanted me to stay so he'd be sure I overheard Raoul's pet proclamation. Effective as of Jon's coronation, it's a high crime for a knightmaster to sleep with his or her squire."

Thayet laughed. "Oh, I know Raoul didn't set the date."

Gary, just two feet to Thayet's left, raised a hand demurely. "That would be me. I had no idea until today just why that would be important, but I bow to your superior information-gathering techniques."

Thayet blew him a kiss. "It's called conversation, dear, and I've known since before Jon and I were married." She turned around when Jon blanched. "I could have sworn that you knew, I teased you about having a halfway decent record when it came to women. Delia and Josiane emphatically do not count, and you were a bit mad to think that you could have had a sweet, obedient little queen with Alanna."

Jon was smart enough to keep his mouth shut, but Gary stepped up for him. "Thayet?"

Raoul was still looking between Jon and Alanna as if one of them was going to say that he had heard incorrectly.

Thayet smirked. "The difference is that people think I'm a sweet obedient little thing with no say in running the country. I'll be back late tonight, Jon." She hopped up, and Alanna knew there was absolutely no need to adjust the skirts of her perfectly tailored dress. If that was Lalasa's work, Alanna would definitely look into getting a new gown. She and George had a long-running game of making presents and new outfits a surprise. Thayet was rustling the skirts solely to give her husband an eyeful, probably because Jon had thought he could keep something like a list of past lovers quiet when he'd lived in a palace.

Gary cleared his throat when Thayet had sauntered around the desk, with the clear intent of grabbing Alanna's hand and starting their girls' night in the middle of the afternoon. "Message for you, Alanna," Gary began. "The pages will be back from their trip early, and Wyldon already excused Page Alan for all of tomorrow. Adept Thom has tomorrow off, and George and Aly will be here by the time you get back tonight."

"And you didn't mention this before because…" Alanna said, her voice dangerously pleasant.

Gary grinned. "We were talking, and the conversation was too interesting to interrupt. George also asked you to pass on his best wishes to Onua, and to tell the lucky man that it's about time."

Alanna looked over the room as she stood. Raoul looked like he was still trying to reconcile "Squire Alan" with "Mystery Woman," Jon looked bewildered, and Gary looked ready to continue the teasing long after she had left the paperwork behind her. "If you see my squire, tell him that I'll collect him tomorrow afternoon and he can answer to Wyldon when his father tires of him."

"Oh, you are mean," Thayet said approvingly, linking her arm through Alanna's. "Wyldon hasn't had anyone around to properly challenge him for months, and he's probably all out of shape."

"We can't have that," Alanna said, grabbing her sheathed sword by the hilt. Thayet had her left arm, so Alanna propped the sword against her right much as a proper lady might carry a parasol. "Always nice to see you, gentlemen."

They were halfway down the hall before Alanna let herself smirk. That little scene would likely end with Jon taking out his irritation on Raoul, the poor dear man, because Jon was left with an office of paperwork and a very slippery prime minister with fresh blackmail material. She'd see her children again (finally) and they were old enough to want their own rooms at the palace. That left her and George with several uninterrupted hours and a very large bed. And while she was waiting on her family, she would get to see Thayet, Buri, and Onua, and meet someone that was important to the second lady knight.

If that was the kind of results that paperwork could provide, next time she'd volunteer her squire from the start.