Aly bolted upright, jerking herself out of her mother's grasp. "Do you really mean it? To the prison?" The anxious ball in her stomach was quickly replaced with the fluttering of excitement. She had never been to someplace nearly as exciting or dangerous as a prison before.
The king gave her a long look that was part amusement, and part something darker that Aly didn't understand. "Yes. To the prison. We have to head out as soon as possible, so I need your answer."
Now it became clear why Aly was being asked instead of her father. George had been called "off" to the north, at least a week's ride away. Aly missed her father horribly when he was gone, but in this instant she was thrilled. To the prison! An adventure to a new and mysterious place, and they needed her to come along!
Something suddenly occurred to Aly. "Can Alan come too?"
"No sweetie, Alan and Thom are going to stay here with Grandda and Grandma," Alanna replied. Aly's lip jutted out in a pout at the thought of adventuring without her twin.
"It'll just be a quick trip. You'll be back in time to tell your brothers all about it before breakfast, I promise," the king cut in, the corners of his eyes crinkling as he smiled. Again, unseen by Aly, Alanna gave her king an unhappy look.
Jon ignored Alanna's frustration. "So will you come, and help us out, my little bean?" It was his nickname for Aly and Alan both. Uncle Jon used to call them his little peas-in-a-pod, until one day Alan had gotten annoyed and told him they couldn't possibly be peas because they weren't green. Uncle Jon decided that was true, they were in fact more of a red color, like kidney beans, and the twins had decided they would agree to be beans. The nickname did what Jonathan wanted; Aly's small face brightened immediately.
"Yes! I'll help I promise! Let's go!" Aly leapt off her mother's lap to dance happily on the rug. Jon laughed, and the older man, who had watched this discussion silently until now, chuckled as well.
"Hold on, we need to get you dressed before we do anything else. It's still cold outside," Alanna said as she stood.
"Okay!" Aly called as she dashed out the door and headed down the corridor towards her room.
"Stop!" Alanna hissed, grabbing Aly by the arm. "I don't want you waking your brothers up, let me get your clothes. Wait for me in my bedroom."
Aly obeyed, sprinting happily in the other direction.
The room George and Alanna used when they stayed in Corus was brightly lit, with a banked fire warming the air. Aly sprinted to the large bed standing in the middle of the room, her frozen bare feet longing for the pile of blankets she knew her mother slept under when George wasn't there to keep the bed warm. The covers on Alanna's side were thrown back and her trunk had clothes tumbling out in unusual disarray, as though Alanna had got out of bed and dressed in a hurry. Aly bounced happily under the blankets, eagerly eyeing the stack of books on the nightstand next to the bed. Aly was just learning to read, and couldn't wait until she was able to make sense of the complicated grownup stories her parents so enjoyed.
Alanna returned with an armful of clothing to find Aly huddled under her pile of blankets, stubbornly attempting to read the first page of Between Sand and Sea: A Geographical History of the Bazhir. She smiled at her daughter. "Alright, let's get you ready. Skirt or pants this evening?"
Aly dumped the book to the side and frowned thoughtfully for a moment before proclaiming, "Skirt!" just a touch too loud.
"Shh! How many times do I have to tell you? You need to be quiet, your brothers are sleeping," Alanna scolded.
"Skirt," Aly whispered. She reached for the warm woolen skirt and accompanying chemise.
"Aly, let me do it, we're in a hurry," Alanna replied.
"But I want to do it!" Aly whined. She could feel a wave of frustration swelling inside of her chest. She had only recently been deemed old enough to choose her own clothes and dress herself, an activity she still relished.
"Alianne Cooper," Alanna started with a dangerous edge to her voice. Luckily for Aly there was, just at that moment, a soft knock upon the door.
Jon poked his head around the corner. "My Lord Provost went to get our carriage ready. We'll take that to the river, then take the ferry to the prison." Alanna didn't ask how they would find an awake and available ferryman; when you were king you had only to tell a messenger and you could have a whole army of sleepy-eyed sailors standing by at the docks.
"How long will we be gone?" Alanna asked as she tugged Aly's nightdress over her head carefully. Aly knew better than to make a fuss in front of the king. She obediently put her arms up, the scowl on her face the only sign she wasn't pleased with the proceedings, as she allowed Alanna to pull on her chemise.
Jon smiled at the little girl's mulish expression, so like her mother's, then turned to Alanna "At this time of night there shouldn't be too many others on the roads, so…" Jon screwed up his face in thought while Alanna settled Aly on her lap and began tugging on the tiny girl-sized stockings. "I'd say perhaps a half hour to get there, an hour or two for the interrogation, then the half hour back? Just in time for breakfast, like I promised." Jon winked at Aly, who was still scowling as Alanna lifted Aly to the bed to put her in a skirt.
Alanna snorted and shook her head. "You're very optimistic about how quickly this "interrogation" will be, sire."
"And you're too pessimistic Alanna. This man has nothing to gain from lying now, we simply state his options and ask him a few questions. There is no reason to assume he wouldn't cooperate at this point. Here, let me do that. You still need to ready yourself," Jon said as he grabbed Aly's shoes from Alanna. She shrugged, but handed them over and disappeared into her dressing room.
Alanna continued their conversation from her dressing room, her voice calling back in a stage whisper as Jon gently but firmly tugged the boots over Aly's feet and began to lace them.
"And I say that this is Falk Drover we're speaking of, a man who committed unspeakable crimes for no other reason than because he felt like it, and so the word 'reason' means very little when applied to what he could or would do at any given time." Alanna reappeared from the other room looking much more prepared for a journey, save for her stocking feet. She began to search her trunk for her boots, while Jon began braiding Aly's long red-gold hair.
"Well what does he have to lose? He hangs at dawn either way, so why not tell us?" Aly's mind snapped to attention. A hanging! Maybe they would even stay long enough for her to see it! Aly had never been permitted to attend a hanging before. Gavin, the goat herder's son, claimed to have seen at least ten, but she didn't believe him. He had told her that hanged men's tongues lolled out, and sometimes they soiled themselves before the noose tightened. Aly had always imagined the kind of men who were hanged as hardened criminals, too tough and cruel-hearted to feel such human emotions as fear and pain. Thom and Alan will be beside themselves if I get to see a hanging without them! she thought gleefully.
Alanna sat on the ground, lacing her boots. "Exactly, he hangs at dawn, so what incentive does he have? You can't offer him a stay of execution, not with the way he terrorized the city for so long before he was caught. If there is even a hint of a chance Drover isn't getting his fair due folk'll riot, he must know that. There is no point in offering him a better cell, or really any comfort, not when he has so little time to enjoy it. So why would he cooperate with us with nothing to gain?"
"Ouch!" Aly yelped, her daydreaming interrupted by Uncle Jon's too-hard tug on a strand of her hair.
"Sorry bean." Jon wrapped a hair tie at the end of her plait, then quickly kissed her cheek. Aly wrinkled her nose at the scratchiness of his beard, making Jon laugh again.
"I'm sorry, my girls hate my beard too. Well, most of my girls," he added with a wink at Alanna, who rolled her eyes. Thayet liked a man with a beard, a preference Alanna could never understand.
Jon picked up Aly's overcoat off he bed, then started the arduous process of tugging it on and buttoning her in. "And as I have said before, many times before, we have nothing to lose and quite a lot to gain by trying, and so we will." Jon tone bordered on anger, and Aly shifted uncomfortably. The only indication that Alanna had acknowledged her near-reprimand were her pursed lips as returned to the dressing room.
Jon smiled down at Aly, his cheerful face betraying no hint of his previous displeasure. Aly felt the knots return to her stomach.
"There, finished. Are you warm enough, little bean?" Jon tugged on her coat teasingly as he spoke.
She nodded exaggeratedly; her cheeks now pink from too many layers in too warm a room. "Are we going to leave now?"
"Yes baby, we can go," Alanna had reappeared from her dressing room look nearly as overheated as her daughter. Aly noticed that her mother's sword, usually by Alanna's side in any excursion, had been replaced by a long slender dagger. Alanna tugged on her gloves as she strode to the door and herded Aly out, handing the little girl a hat as she shuffled by.
"Fine Jon, I won't speak on it again," Aly heard her mother say softly. The girl skipped downstairs and out of sight, too excited to eavesdrop.
As soon as Alanna was sure Aly couldn't hear she continued, "But just keep this in mind. Drover kidnapped and tortured countless girls. He enjoyed seeing them twisted in pain, in every meaning of the word. He did vile things, things most people couldn't dream of, and he enjoyed every minute of it. You're bringing a little girl, only partially trained in her powers, to him and leaving her mind exposed to his perversity. You say you know best, and I believe that you have good intentions, but just know," Alanna narrowed her eyes and her voice got lower. "If something happens to my daughter, in any way, I will never forgive you." She clapped her hands, dousing the fire and the candles at once, and stalked out of the room. Jonathan blinked in surprise, then with a heavy sigh he too left the now dark and cold room.
Sorry this is kind of filler-y. This chapter serves two purposes, both boring from a reader standpoint sadly (one, to add exposition/tension, and two, I wanted Aly to already feel like a burden on the adventure because she's a child and shouldn't really be there. Thus they cannot just take off and start the excitement like they would if it was just Alanna and Jon, they have to ready a little girl first. I want the inclusion of Aly to feel like an out of place element).