The hazy June sun beat down on Alanna as she cursed herself, yet again, for her unfortunate timing. Conception wasn't always a speedy process, and when she and George had decided it was time to begin their family back in November she had just assumed that it wouldn't happen right away. Her goal was to time her pregnancy so she was most incapacitated during the long winter months when they were all cooped up inside anyways. Her body had other ideas, as it always seemed to, and now here she was, seven and a half months pregnant ahead of schedule. As uncomfortable and bored as she was now, she was not looking forward to spending the hottest months watching her friends go off to defend the realm while she waddled around uselessly at home. Which is why she had asked Jon to come up with new duties to keep her busy, something she very much regretted now.
Who makes a pregnant woman go on a walking tour? Tyrians, I suppose, she thought. Being a representative of the king on a visit to Tyra had sounded like an exciting change of pace when Jon proposed it three months ago, but she had seriously underestimated how taxing the next stage of pregnancy would be. Now, walking around the Tyrian palace gardens, feigning excitement while internally calculating how long it would be until her next opportunity to take a nap, she couldn't help but feel resentful of her past self's blithe enthusiasm.
It's the traveling, she decided, At home I have George, here I'm alone. She reconsidered, Well, that isn't strictly true. Gary had been very considerate of her, helping her in and out of chairs, holding things for her, eying her thoughtfully while suggesting the group take a break. Alanna supposed having two small children of his own had given Gary some insight into the needs of pregnant women.
Unfortunately for her, Gary was now way up ahead, probably politely chatting with the Tyrians about the beauty of their gardens or something equally banal while she trailed behind the main group. Sweat dripped down her back, and her feet throbbed. Carrying an additional 20 pounds shouldn't be so taxing! Certainly I'm used to it from my armor, she thought frustratedly. Then again the weight of my armor isn't all contained in one small area on my front…
A small cough startled her out of her griping. She turned to see Duke Gareth sitting on a bench shaded from the sun by a large ivy-covered trellis in a little alcove to her left.
"Come sit with me, my dear," he called to her. "Let me pretend I'm only here chivalrously keeping you company, so I don't have admit I'm an old man who needs a break." He winked at her and Alanna smiled broadly back, grateful for his save. She walked over and carefully settled herself next to her old teacher.
He gave her a serious look. "How are you feeling?"
"Oh, fine," Alanna replied, as brightly as she could muster. Duke Gareth raised an eyebrow at her, and she sighed.
"Tired," she admitted, and he laughed.
"When are you due?" he asked kindly.
She shrugged, "Mid-August? Sometime around there."
Both of his eyebrows went up this time, "That's so soon!"
Alanna shrugged again, "I suppose so." She rested a hand on her belly, feeling the babe stir. "It feels like a long way away though." Alanna knew rationally that it was a very short span of time, but it felt like eons. Every moment she spent unable to practice made her palms itch.
"The time will go by faster than you think," Duke Gareth replied heavily. He glanced off in the direction his son had wandered, and sighed. "Yes, time goes by quite quickly." Alanna was touched by the rare opportunity to see the fatherly side of her old mentor.
She nodded, and before she could stop herself she said, "I know, it's just… I feel so useless, like I'm shirking my duty."
Duke Gareth gave her a perplexed look, "How so? Are you not here right now, serving the King?"
"Well, yes, but-" Alanna chewed her lip for a moment, uncertain as to how to continue. "I mean, this trip is just something to do in the meantime. Most of the duties I swore to Jon I'd do for him I can't now, and I won't be able to for months. There's being pregnant, recovering from being pregnant, time to train, and then even after all that I'll be unable to travel much until the baby's weaned." Saying it all out loud at once only made the time seem even larger, and Alanna felt her stomach flip over.
"Yes, and?" Duke Gareth asked severely.
"What do you mean? That's the problem! I can't leave off being King's Champion for that much time, I swore an oath!" Alanna said, somewhat more huffily than she intended. It was so odd to be having this conversation at all, and she wondered if Duke Gareth felt the same way. I doubt he ever envisioned he'd wind up discussing the difficulties of pregnancy leave with one of his knights when he first began teaching, she thought wryly.
The duke shook his head. "Do you know the story of Hadrian of Nicoline?"
"Of course, " Alanna smiled. "King Roger made him Champion because he was the best knight in the realm, but they hated each other so much Hadrian refused to come to court or do anything besides dueling." It was an infamous story, for only someone as talented as Hadrian was said to be could dare to publicly defy a king.
"And Leofrick of Linden?" Duke Gareth asked sternly.
"Yes, but I can't quite-" Alanna thought hard for a moment. "Oh, I know! He was the Champion who took seven years off to 'recover' from a knee injury. He spent every minute of the time in the best taverns in Corus, whining to the flower-sellers about his trick knee, or so the story goes. He never actually returned to his post, he died mysteriously in a disreputable inn." People liked to say that King Jonathan II had had poor Leofrick assassinated, for being an embarrassment to the crown, but Alanna had spent enough time in disreputable inns herself to guess that Leofrick had probably been killed by a prostitute during a robbery.
Duke Gareth nodded slowly, evidently pleased by her knowledge of history. "Cedric of Genlith?"
Alanna grinned. "That's easy, the Champion before you. He was regarded as the best, come to find out he had been paying all his opponents off, promising them their weight in gold if they let him draw first blood. He bribed everyone, for everything." Cedric was widely considered one of the stupider Champions. It only took accidentally severely maiming one opponent for the rest of them to decide the gold wasn't worth it, and he was killed in a duel before long. It was only after his death that the entire idiotic scheme came to light.
"And then there's me. I had to take a year and a half off to recover from wounds after the war. Do you think I shirked my duties?" Duke Gareth asked quietly.
"No! Of course not, " Alanna spluttered, horrified.
"Champions have taken time away from their duties for all kinds of reasons, dishonorable and honorable both. They were still Champions," he said reasonably.
Alanna shook her head stubbornly, "This is different."
"Oh?" Duke Gareth said archly. "And why is that?"
"It just is," Alanna replied.
"Because you're a woman, and you feel you still have something to prove?" Duke Gareth appraised her, his eyes serious and his voice low.
She reddened under his scrutiny, and said in a quiet voice. "Yes."
The duke closed his eyes in exasperation. "My dear, you are a clever girl, but sometimes…" He shook his head again. "After all that you've done, and all that you can do, don't you see that the only ones you have to prove anything to aren't worth the time?"
Alanna stared at him open-mouthed, startled into silence.
The duke reached out to squeeze her knee, and said softly, "Have all the children you want. You can make them wait for you, you've earned it."
She wasn't sure if it was the exhaustion, the heat, the baby, or the lavish praise from a man she idolized, but to her intense embarrassment the only response she could muster was to burst into tears.
Duke Gareth looked politely away, allowing Alanna a few moments to compose herself again. When she had finally dried her eyes, he turned back, and smiled.
"Do you know what you're having?" he asked interestedly, as though he hadn't noticed her emotional outburst.
"Yes it's-" Alanna coughed, trying to clear her tight throat. "It's a boy. I'm having a boy," she said, still amazed that such a thing was possible.
The duke grinned. "Congratulations! Do you have a name picked out?"
Before she could reply, Gary came bustling up. "There you two are! I was starting to worry we'd lost you." He leaned in conspiratorially, "Gods this is boring. If I have to pretend to be utterly amazed by yet another chrysanthemum I'm going to kill first the ambassador, and then myself."
"Gary," the duke growled warningly, and Alanna smiled.
Gary rolled his eyes, "Oh Father, let's not pretend you don't agree, or you wouldn't be forcing poor Alanna to hide with you over here."
Duke Gareth sighed in a put upon matter and turned to Alanna again. "I retract my previous advice, children are a terrible idea and you've made a huge mistake."
"It's true," Gary said sagely, as though he hadn't just been insulted. He extended a hand to Alanna, hauling her to feet with an audible grunt. "I still don't understand how you could spend so much time with either my children or Jon's and still think it's a good idea to make one of your own." He held a hand out to his father as well, but the elder Gareth refused the offer of help, preferring to struggle into a standing position on his own
Alanna, knowing Gary to be an extremely devoted and affectionate father, laughed.
"Oh Gary, someday someone will overhear you who won't know you're kidding, and then you'll be in trouble," the duke chided.
The sun seemed to have gotten less intense during their rest, or perhaps it was the soft breeze that made it more comfortable. The air smelled of beautifully scented flowers. They ambled slowly back to the guest wings, the soft buzz of cicadas disrupted only by the easy rhythm of father and son's fond bickering. Alanna smiled to herself, finally feeling at ease for the first time in a long while.