Meeting Aly's mother had been a nice surprise, Dove thought, watching from a window as her spymistress left to meet up with the Tortallan delegation again. Of course, she had already met Aly's father, and it wasn't that much of a surprise to learn he was the real spymaster of Tortall. How else would Aly have learned what she had?
But meeting the famed Lioness was a different story. True, the Lioness wasn't as famous in the Isles - more infamous, really, especially among the luarin nobility - but Aly had spun plenty of stories about her, and Dove was interested to see how the stories matched the reality.
Sir Alanna was shorter than Dove had thought, but nice enough. Very much like her daughter, too, though both mother and daughter turned red when she brought that up.
The delegation had been in the Isles since late October, and Dove idly wondered how long they planned to stay. Not that she had a problem with entertaining foreign delegations - after all, once this one left, more formal ambassadorial delegations were sure to follow - but she was a bit surprised that the Tortallan king had let such important people out of his country for months on end.
It didn't really matter, Dove thought, watching Aly. Aly was happy, really happy and content for the first time since Dove had met her. The presence of her parents would undoubtedly start grating soon enough, and until then, what harm did it cause to have them here?
But there was one person who hadn't come to see Aly. Two, really; neither of her brothers had been part of the delegation. Aly, Dove knew, was more hurt by that than she let on; the older girl had told her through a bright, brittle smile that Thom rarely left the university, and that her twin was a squire now, and couldn't exactly get time off just to visit his sister.
Dove sighed. Aly was fooling no one. She had pushed back her wedding twice, on flimsy excuses, and if she kept it up much longer no one from Tortall would be here for it.
Dove turned from the window and went back inside, only to find Winna and a footman waiting for her.
"Your Majesty," the man said, bowing to her. Dove motioned for him to continue. "Another delegation has arrived from Tortall, bearing a message for the main delegation."
Dove raised an eyebrow and looked at her stepmother. Winna outright grinned, and Dove's other eyebrow went up.
"Then I shall go greet them," Dove said, motioning for the footman to lead the way and reaching up to subtly straighten her crown when his back was turned.
This new group consisted only of two people: a tall, lanky redhead trying his damndest to blend into a column, and a short blond man who bore a striking resemblance to Aly.
So, Dove thought. She had been right in her guess. She came to a halt before Aly's twin, who bowed to her and yanked his brother around. The older man, startled, bowed as well.
"You must be Alan of Pirate's Swoop," Dove said, looking into hazel eyes every bit as wicked as Aly's.
Alan grinned. "I am, Your Majesty, and this is my brother Thom." Alan, Dove noticed with amusement, had a firm grip on his older brother's elbow, keeping him from slipping away into the background.
"Welcome to the Copper Isles. You just missed your sister."
Alan's grin slipped into an evil smirk. "Oh, I know. Your Majesty," he added belatedly, a habit that seemed endemic to the Tortallans.
Dove let herself smile. "Well, then, let's go surprise her. You come bearing a message for the delegation?" she asked as she led them across the courtyard.
Alan nodded, falling into step beside and a bit behind her, towing a reluctant Thom along. "King Jonathan requests that the delegation wrap up its business here and return home as soon as is practicable."
"I assume," Dove said, "that you will at least stay long enough for your sister's wedding?"
Alan shot another wicked grin at Dove. "Of course, Your Majesty. Why else do you think they let me come?" He shot an amused glance at his silent sibling. "It's the only reason I was able to pry Thom out of the university, anyway."
Dove smiled. "I'd forgotten Aly said you are a squire now. Being here won't set back your training too much, I hope?"
Alan shook his head. "If there'd been a real problem, Sir Raoul would've just refused to let me go. Besides," he added, slowing to a halt as Dove did, "it's not uncommon for squires to take such breaks."
Dove nodded, peering out over the balcony she'd led them to at the view of the city. "We'll wait here for your sister, I think. She should be back shortly."
Alan grinned again, and bowed. "Thank you for your assistance, Your Majesty."
"Call me Dove," Dove said, then stopped, startled. Thom was staring at her over his brother's head, one eyebrow quirked up.
Alan simply smirked again, as wickedly as Aly, and murmured, "Dove, then," and kissed her hand.
Somewhere behind Dove, Winna smothered a laugh.
Aly had returned to the palace only a couple of hours later. She'd gone straight to her office, where Winna had intercepted her and sent her up to the balcony…
…Where she, to Dove's eternal amusement, promptly shrieked and threw herself at her twin, wrapping him in a tight hug.
Alan, Dove noticed, stiffened slightly before deliberately relaxing into his sister's grip and returning the hug. Thom - who, in the two hours they'd waited there, still hadn't said a word - watched Aly almost warily, and looked like he was about to pull her back.
It occurred to Dove, all of a sudden, that Aly's disappearance must've hurt her family terribly. And while her parents and grandparents and honorary aunt and uncle seemed perfectly fine with Aly's choice to remain in the Isles, Dove was starting to suspect her siblings weren't so happy about it.
Thom, in fact, was looking downright angry.
But Dove knew when she needed not to interfere, so she sat back on the padded bench and watched the reunion.
And Aly, Dove knew well, was no fool. She released her twin almost hesitantly, and stepped back, a cocky grin on her face and nervousness in her eyes.
Alan was a touch too pale, and his smile was a touch too fixed. Aly shot a glance at her older brother, and Dove could see her fight not to flinch at the look on his face.
Slowly, the smile melted off of Aly's face, and she backed up another step towards Dove.
"So," Alan said, his voice, even quiet and brittle-bright as it was, seeming loud in the tense silence, "I'm supposed to tell Ma and everyone that it's time to come home."
Aly froze. "You're not staying for my wedding?" she said, then glared at the plaintiveness in her own voice.
Dove almost flinched. Now Aly would be more aggressive, to cover that emotional slip, and even Dove could see that wouldn't go over well.
And clearly, Aly wasn't the only member of her family with a temper.
"Well," drawled Thom, drawing startled glances from everyone, "I wasn't planning on showing up at all, but Alan wouldn't stop pestering me about it."
"You're here anyway," Aly snapped back. "I've delayed twice waiting for you, since Da kept saying you'd come. You could-"
Dove could see Thom's temper snap.
"Do you ever think about anything other than yourself?" he snarled, and Dove could tell, from the look on Aly's face, that this was entirely unexpected, that she'd never anticipated her older brother losing his temper.
Thom took a step forward, but a hand on his arm brought him up short.
"Let it go, Thom," Alan said quietly, watching his sister. "It's not worth it."
He turned to Dove and bowed. "I'm sorry about this, Your Majesty. Could you have someone please direct me to where the delegation is housed? I need to deliver that message."
Dove nodded and rose, tactfully ignoring the broken look in his eyes. "I can show you myself."
Alan bowed again, and tugged his silent-again brother along. Aly made a move to follow, but stilled and glared at Thom's vicious look.
"Aly," Dove said softly. "I believe you have wedding preparations to get started on." At the older girl's mulish look, Dove added, "I will talk to you later."
Aly, reluctantly, subsided, and watched them leave.
They were silent for a long time as Dove led the two brothers through the sprawling palace towards the guest wing where the other Tortallans were housed. Finally, Alan broke the silence.
"I'm sorry about that, Your Majesty," he said softly, fidgeting with his sleeves. He didn't meet her eyes.
Dove stopped in an empty hallway. "It's forgiven. Look at me," she ordered.
Alan, startled, did.
"You're allowed to be angry at your sister. You're allowed to be hurt. I had never really thought about it before," Dove said, putting all her sincerity into her words, "but I suppose Aly has abandoned all of you, by choosing to stay. I am not sorry I asked her to stay…"
Alan looked away. Dove, acting on impulse, caught his chin in her fingers and turned his face back to her.
"I am not sorry I asked her to stay," she said, eyes intent on Alan's. "But I am sorry it hurt you."
Alan was silent.
"It's not your fault, Your Majesty," Thom said from where he was watching by the far wall. Dove turned to look at him. "It was Aly's choice."
"Yes," Dove said gently, meeting those angry greenish eyes. "It was."
Dove was really starting to wonder about Aly's family. She'd always talked about them as if they were all close, but everyone was so startled to see Thom that Dove was sure Aly had left something out.
Or Aly hadn't realized it herself, Dove mused, walking back to her rooms alone. Aly had been started herself, though for different reasons; she'd been startled at her twin's hurt, and at her older brother's temper.
Thom was right, in a way, Dove realized. Aly really hadn't given a thought to her family, had seen her family only as a problem she had to address before staying on as spymistress.
Dove wondered why that thought made her heart ache a little.
Around noon the next day, when her ministers finally broke for lunch, Dove sat back with a sigh.
Ruling a nation was such a headache, especially one as cantankerous as the Isles.
"Your Majesty?" That was Aly, who, like always, was lingering. Today, she looked a little brittle, Dove thought.
Aly smiled. "Are you taking lunch in the council room today, then?" the older girl teased.
Dove got to her feet, a sudden impulse overtaking her. "No," she said, "I am going for a stroll around the palace."
Aly looked almost ready to protest, or to volunteer to come along. Dove raised a forestalling hand.
"Alone again?" Aly asked wryly.
Dove smiled. "Of course."
Aly grinned, then bowed, laughing as Dove shooed her out.
It wasn't until Dove saw Alan sitting by himself on one of the many benches placed discreetly all over the gardens that she realized she was walking by the guest wing. On impulse, she went over to him.
"Hello," she said, smiling as he startled.
"Your Majesty!" he said, rising and bowing.
Dove put her hands on her hips. "I thought I told you to call me Dove," she said, mock angry, grinning as he grinned. She waved him back to his seat, and sat beside him.
"How long are you staying?" she asked after a moment.
Alan chuckled. "We're overstaying our welcome, aren't we?"
Dove blushed. "No. I'm just curious."
"Ma and Da want to stay for Aly's wedding, and everyone else agreed."
"Everyone?" Dove murmured.
Alan flushed. "Thom isn't happy about that," he admitted.
Dove was silent for a long moment. "He is angry at her for staying."
Alan shook his head. "Not … exactly," he said, twisting his hands in his lap. "He's angry at her for leaving in the first place. He'd be more than happy if she stayed and he never had to see her again. I had to get Prince Roald to come down to the university and flat-out order him to go, to get him to leave. Roald's the only one he really listens to," Alan added at Dove's raised eyebrow. "Thom wasn't … pleased."
"I got that impression," Dove said softly. "And you? Are you angry at Aly?"
The distant, broken look was back in Alan's eyes. "No," he said softly, looking at his hands. "But I'm not sure I can stand seeing her again."
Tentatively, Dove placed a hand on Alan's arm, sitting quietly until he'd recovered his composure.
A few days later, Dove was again walking through the gardens by the guest quarters, most assuredly not looking for Alan, she told herself. She was just walking by. Again. For the fourth time.
And someone was having a very sharp, quiet argument over by the wall.
"-alone, Aly," Dove heard as she slipped closer. "He doesn't want to talk to you."
"Damn you, Thom," Aly hissed. "Let me see him."
"No," Thom hissed back, just as angry. "Don't you think you've broken him enough?"
Dove was close enough now to see Aly jerk back. "What are you talking about?" she snapped.
Thom sighed, pinching the bridge of his nose. "He went mad when you vanished, Aly. I spent the whole time, until Da came back with word of you, trying to keep him from falling apart completely. I finally had to go into his mind and fix it with magic," he snarled, getting right into his sister's face.
Aly glared back. "That's not my fault! I was kidnapped by slavers, in case you'd forgotten!"
They weren't being very quiet now.
"Because you pulled one of your usual stupid, selfish stunts, and decided to go haring off on your own!"
"Like you're any better at putting up with Ma," Aly snapped. "I suppose I should've followed your wonderful example, and locked myself in my room for weeks until she left? I'm shocked Alan did get you out, much less out of the country," Aly said, sweetly poisonous, ignoring the frozen anger in her brother's face. "What did he do, nag the prince into giving you a royal command?"
Thom was quiet for a very long moment. He leaned forward to whisper viciously, "I hope you're happy, Aly, I really do. Because you've made your choices, and one of those was to toss us away. Don't be so surprised when we don't want you back."
He spun and started to walk away, then spun back at Aly's outraged splutter. "No. Alan has finally gotten used to living without you, out from under your shadow for the first time in his life. If you think I will let you ruin that on a selfish whim, you have another thought coming." Thom stalked off.
Dove waited until he was back inside the guest wing before moving forward.
Aly was crying. "How much did you hear?" she asked sharply.
Dove rolled her eyes. "Aly, you two were loud enough for anyone in the gardens to hear." Aly was silent. "And I think we need to discuss you eavesdropping on my conversations again," Dove added.
Aly didn't blush. "I am your spymistress, Your Majesty."
"And I thought you weren't the kind of person to throw such information back at someone just to score a hit in an argument," Dove retorted.
"And I never thought you were the kind of girl to go running off to flirt with a boy," Aly snapped.
Dove stared. "I wasn't flirting."
"You spent a lot of time talking with Alan, for someone who's not flirting," Aly retorted. "And for someone not flirting, you're spending a lot of time arranging convenient 'accidental' meetings with him."
"I can see you're in the mood to be vicious," Dove said, keeping her voice low and controlled. "Do us all a favor, and stay away from work until you've got this under control. Go see Nawat," she suggested, softening her voice. "Go relax, finish your wedding plans. They're here until the start of April. It's not even March yet."
Dove turned and left without waiting for a reply.
Nawat had left most of the wedding planning to Aly, and had watched her plan with much amusement. He had, however, insisted on one thing - that the wedding, now that her whole family was here, be held soon.
Three weeks after the argument in the garden, nearly three weeks into March, Nawat Crow married Alianne of Pirate's Swoop in a small ceremony that was a strange hybrid of Tortallan customs and Kyprish decoration - and the occasional random gaudy string of beads, snuck into the decorations when the bride wasn't looking - with Dove herself presiding.
It wasn't like there was anyone else to stand as Kyprioth's priestess.
Later, as the newlyweds mingled in the bright garden, Dove spotted Alan sitting on a hidden bench. After a moment, she set her jaw and went over, pointedly not looking back to see if Aly was watching.
She'd spent the last three weeks throwing herself into her work, and there was always more work to do. It hadn't been hard to avoid any of the Tortallans, even Aly, who had holed up with her own work.
But seeing Alan now, Dove didn't want to avoid him.
Maybe she was flirting, at that.
He looked up when she approached, smiling tentatively. "Good evening, Your Majesty," he said.
Dove rolled her eyes and dropped onto the bench next to him. "I told you, call me Dove," she huffed. Feeling bold, she slipped her hand in his, meeting his eyes directly.
"Dove," he said, and twined his fingers through hers.