It had taken more than a few belts of liquid courage before Raoul felt ready to face the party. He had tried to wheedle his way out of the large and formal event, but Jon was implacable. "The most influential conservatives will be there", Jon had growled warningly the last time Raoul broached the topic, "I need them to see all of my advisers standing strong behind me. Now, not another word about it". Raoul had conceded the point, but it didn't make him any less apprehensive about being forced to mingle with a large group of people whose only use for him was as a very eligible moron they could potentially marry to their lesser daughters.

Several drinks later Raoul finally arrived, only to find that the party had gone on without him, and for quite some time too. Raoul was delighted to find a tray of pastries being offered to him right away, and began to chow down as he unsteadily scanned the vast room for familiar faces. Unnoticed by Raoul was Gary, hurriedly whispering to a servant in a nearby corner, "Make sure he eats! Anything filling, whatever you can do to soak up the drink before His Majesty sees him. Follow him and shove it down his throat if you must!" Fortunately for Raoul, Jon was deep in conversation with an ambassador and did not appear to register his errant Knight Commander's late entrance. Even better luck: the majority of the conservatives Raoul so dreaded speaking with all appeared to be busy in conversations with each other, abuzz over some salacious gossip, if he was reading the maliciously gleeful expressions correctly.

For a moment Raoul feared it was him they were comparing notes on, but then he recalled with relief that he hadn't done anything even remotely interesting. His relief was short-lived as he stepped further into the room, and finally heard what exactly everyone was talking about.

"Was it him? Are you sure?"

"Of course it was him! No real noble would be seen in a place like that!"

"I can't believe it, and while his wife is carrying his child! For shame!"

"Well look how long she made him wait, no wonder he's been seeing flower seller girls on the side. Poor man, just wants the touch of someone feminine for once I'm sure."

"He always acts like he's so in love with her though."

"In love with her money more like!"

Raoul didn't need to hear a name to know who they meant. His gut clenched and he could feel his face burn. From across the room he saw a familiar flash of copper and violet. He headed in that direction, his heart pounding as he shoved through the crowd.

He found Alanna in deep conversation with what appeared to be a mage, judging by his yellow robes. She was looking refined in a beautiful violet gown, the cut of which was clearly trying (and failing) to obscure her large pregnant belly. Alanna was talking animatedly, waving her hands around as she craned upward to face her tall companion. Raoul smiled. When Jon was busy their circle of friends offered very few opportunities for Alanna to discuss magic, and Raoul was impressed at her ability to find, and become friendly with, one of the few truly interesting guests at this political nightmare.

"Hey there," he said as he approached her, reaching out a hand to squeeze her shoulder.

"Oh good, you're finally here," she said brightly. She turned quickly to the mage. "I'm so sorry Peter, will you excuse me? Lord Raoul and I have something we need to discuss." Raoul's stomach flipped. Surely she had heard the rumors, she must want to talk about that, he thought in a panic. What do you even say in this kind of a situation?

"Of course milady," the mage bowed deeply, then turned and intercepted a servant headed their way bearing a tray of appetizers.

"Well?" Raoul asked nervously.

Alanna's face darkened. "Let's try to find someplace a little more private first," she replied ominously. "The balcony is over there, I'm sure we can find an empty corner."

Before they could move move than a few steps they were accosted by an older noble. Raoul's still tipsy mind failed to recall anything about her, other than she was both extremely rich and extremely conservative, and he was pretty certain he didn't like her. The woman placed herself directly in their path, her expansive gown blocking them from moving forward.

Alanna drew breath. "Lady Dimia, what a pleasure. I would love to chat but we're just-" The lady interrupted before Alanna could finish her polite dismissal.

"I just came over here to offer you my deepest condolences," the woman began. Her voice was booming, halting all nearby conversations and causing heads to turn. "I heard about the trouble with your husband and I must say my dear, infidelity is such a hardship." She had a way of throwing certain words that made Raoul suspect her very public, attention-drawing display was no accident.

Alanna's mouth dropped open in shock. "I'm not-" she squawked, but Lady Dimia wasn't ready to cede the spotlight just yet.

"Of course what can you expect from a man from the lower city? Those common folk are like animals, they'll rut with anything that moves. Personally I think we should just dam up the river and drown the lot of them! Would save our city watch quite a bit of trouble if we got rid of that quarter, I dare say! Well, that quarter and their seed," she said, eying Alanna's stomach.

Silence stretched across the room. Raoul hadn't realized he was preparing for Alanna to strike the woman until he felt her shake his hand off her arm.

Through gritted teeth Alanna replied, "You are mistaken, there is no such 'trouble' with my husband. Please do yourself the favor of declining to speak to or about him ever, ever again."

She turned and stalked off, disappearing out the balcony door before anyone could react.

"Well I never," Lady Dimia huffed, and what she would never Raoul didn't bother to stay and find out.

He jogged out to the balcony, wincing as the drink sloshed around in his mostly empty stomach. "Alanna!" he called, but got no response. He looked around wildly.

It was a large balcony, but she was easy to spot. She had hoisted herself onto the lip of the railing and was staring pensively out into the darkness.

"Hey," Raoul called softly as he approached her. A quick flick of her eyes was the only thing that let him know she noticed his presence. An uncomfortable silence stretched out between them, until Raoul could bear it no longer.

"You know," he whispered, his lips dry from nerves, "You know George would never, uh," he faltered, uncertain how to continue.

Alanna saved him with a snort. "Of course not!" She twisted to look at Raoul, giving him a scathing look. "Do you really think I doubt George?"

Raoul blinked. This wasn't the reaction he was expecting.

Alanna shook her head. "I trust him. He took a vow to be true to me, just as I vowed to be true to him. His word is the only one that matters, and I believe in his word."

Raoul leaned back against the railing. He didn't trust his coordination to sit on it as Alanna did. Tension drained out of his body now that he knew he wasn't about to be confronted with an emotional meltdown. "Oh. So, why are you out here then?"

Alanna sighed. "Trying to reign in my temper. If that…woman made one more horrid remark about George, or the lower city, or anything, I was going to kill her."

Raoul chuckled. "You should have. I'd back you up. Plus you could definitely say it was self-defense, I'm fairly certain she was threatening your baby at one point in there. Completely valid reason to run her through with a sword if you ask me."

"Gods I wish," Alanna grumbled. "But I can't anymore. No yelling, no fighting" Raoul looked at her questioningly and she sighed again. "Whenever I get really angry now the baby gets all agitated and starts kicking me. I think he doesn't like it when I'm upset. You should have been at the practice courts yesterday, Douglas called me lazy and by the time I was done with him I thought I was going into early labor." She put a hand protectively over her belly, and in the darkness Raoul smiled.

"He doesn't like yelling? Wait, are you sure that child is really yours?" Raoul quipped, his shoulder already tensed for the inevitable punch that followed. "Oof," he said rubbing his arm after Alanna had her say.

Raoul leaned sideways, nudging Alanna gently. "All kidding aside, I'm glad you're all right. And I'm glad now we both have an excuse to hide out here for a while."

Alanna nodded, but she continued to stare pensively at the deep shadows that loomed beyond their terrace.

"I keep faith in him, Raoul" Alanna said softly after a moment. "He always keeps faith in me, even when rumors have me in bed with half the army behind his back. I believe in him, and he believes in me." She turned to look at Raoul and smiled, her eyes luminous in the pale moonlight. "It's not much, but it's what we have. It's what marriage is."

There in the dark Raoul shivered, and pressed against Alanna, wishing for both her warmth and her certainty.

Author's Note:

In case you were curious, George was gettin' cozy with a prostitute, yes, but only as a cover for extracting some very interesting info from her. Alanna knows these sorts of things are part of his job, and like she told Raoul, she trusts him. She does tell him later on that he was the hot topic of the night, not because she's angry so much as she wants him to know if he was trying to be discrete he failed (she doesn't want him to get killed!).

She also stays out on the balcony with Raoul devising an escape plan wherein he tells Jon she's a hormonal mess after being publicly humiliated and needs to be walked back to her rooms immediately. Then Raoul and Alanna high five a lot as they walk away from the party towards freeeeedom.

Also, the reason Alanna wanted to talk to Raoul alone was she was going to tell him he smelled like liquor and she was worried about him.

And to be clear, in case you're concerned, Douglas wasn't really calling her lazy, he was just teasing (and Alanna knows it). I like to imagine this fic would take place just a day or two before The Report, so I think Alanna has been coming to practice and correcting from the sidelines for a few days now. The guys tease her every day, a little bit because its annoying to be have a backseat-swordswoman, but mostly because they miss having her there and it's the dude version of a hug. At least it is for the dudes I know.

And I know it's kind of OOC for Alanna to be warm while another character is cold, but I'm trying to do a writing metaphor thing here, ok, so can we just say pregnancy messes with her body temp regulation and call it an explanation? Pretty please?