A frost lay close to the ground, slicking castle walls and setting the world to shimmer darkly under the cold moonlight. The general's rooms were pleasantly warm with the fire that he had set alight, but his open window let in a damp breeze that flickered the warm light. He paced, booted feet silent on the rich carpets.

Heavy cream vellum was clutched in one of his bare hands, crumpled from over-handling, the wax seal barely clinging to it anymore. The elaborate HK was a smirk on the page, glaring up at him every time he glanced down at it.

The serving girl didn't know what it meant, only that her prince was unhappy. Deeply, deeply unhappy. She stood quietly in the corner, eyes glazed, a flagon of wine in her hands. He often forgot the time, forgot to send the servants away. He was often too wrapped up in himself to realise. Her eyes lingered on him with some sympathy, but a level of resentment as her eyes drooped again.

Sudden wind rattled the window-panes in their leaded sockets. It was an unpleasant night, winter here in earnest, and she pitied anyone outside. She may be tired and hungry, but at least she was warm and safe. The prince found himself drawn to the open window, to stare outside, and she found herself idly wandering what royalty dreamed of.

A sigh escaped her lips without her realising, making the prince snap around.

"Laura, I apologise. It's late, you're dismissed."

With a smile that concealed her relief, she left the flagon of wine on his desk as she knew he liked, and backed out of the room with a bow.

The darkness of the castle had always frightened her. She was from the village, where her family all slept in one room. Walking alone in the night felt wrong. She found herself walking quickly, resentment towards the prince growing as her bones began to shiver with cold from being separate from the fire. No sign of life in the barren castle. The whole place held its breath for something they didn't quite know of, the cold stone empty with fear. The number of spies straining at the throne room's door had tripled, everyone knew. Something was happening, the cook has whispered from behind floured hands. Something was happening.

Being a maid of Prince Korin meant that she was questioned often; by maids giggling under eaves, by nobles, by anyone and everyone. She always replied the same thing: the General was busy, dealing with his own tasks as well as Lauron's that he left to fallow. He was increasingly tired, but showed no sign of stopping. Sympathy washed over her again.

A noise, no more than a shuffle.

Laura took one look, before turning and sprinting back to the prince's rooms.

The serving girl appeared two minutes later, closely followed by her monarch. He was shocked, she could see, and her lord was rarely shocked.

In the darkness, the figure of a young boy was lying across the corridor, a child kneeling beside him with desperate fists trying to wake him, a dog urgently nuzzling his neck. From the holes in the collar of the shirt it appeared he had been dragged several paces.

It was only when she narrowed his eyes and let her eyes accustom themselves to the gloom that she saw the blood in the shirt, on the dog's muzzle, streaked across the face.

And it was then, that she saw it wasn't a boy at all. It was the lady Alana, the one who had gone away.

She was sprawled, having apparently collapsed, her too-large shirt torn and bloodied. Her hair covered most of her face, revealing a creamy neck marred with marks. Her hands lay close to her face; she could almost be sleeping, if not for the shallow breaths and the blood. The child; a girl? She was crying silently, apparently too scared to cry out, her small hands patting her cheeks and neck in an attempt to silently wake her. Even as they watched, the lady stirred, wincing as her hand flew to where she had struck her head as she fell.

Her wolf butted her head into her side, equally urgent to get her on her feet. Lady Alana, face white and lips pressed into a thin line, a thin trickle of blood black in the darkness smearing her face from her temple. She crawled forwards, tugging along the child, shaking with exhaustion. With the slightest whimper from the wolf, she shakily got to her feet, using the wall to support her as she woozily put one foot in front of the other, the child's hand tucked firmly in hers. The shirt gaped with a rip that rent it nearly to her waist, hanging off her thin frame almost comically. The prince retreated into an alcove, dragging the serving girl with him, watching carefully.

She passed by them, unseeing. She looked so tired, muscles shaking through her clothes. When she reached her door, she glanced wearily from side to side, before ushering the girl and wolf in before her, clicking the door shut quietly.

The prince turned to Laura, his eyes fierce. She felt a thrill of fear, immediately bobbing into an automatic curtsey.

'Tell no one of this." Her lord whispered fiercely. "Thank you for bringing this to my attention. Back to your rooms."

He draped his own cloak around her shoulders against the chill and sent her on her way. Alarmed, she turned and ran. What was happening in this palace, that one of its ladies could be dragged into it bloodied, by a wolf?

The room was dark, silent. A soothing breeze iced her already frozen limbs, painful through exercise of walking and carrying Eli non-stop for a day and night, tiredness dragging at her eyelids. But there were things to do.

Alana dragged a coverlet off her bed, bundling the huge, feathered blanket into the enormous wardrobe that occupied a corner of her room. It was teak, a huge antique that was made for times when knights gallant needed space for their lances. Eli sat in the middle of her bed, eyes huge and round as she stared around the sumptuous castle room, lingering on the childish stars painted on the ceiling, on the faded coloured walls, on the silver mirror and dressing table.

"Are you a princess?" She whispered reverently, small hands stroking the sheets she sat on. Before Alana could reply, there was a knock on her door.

Quick as thought, Alana grabbed Eli and shoved her into the wardrobe.

"Please be quiet; like a game, like we did coming into the castle?" Eli's big brown eyes were shining with fear and curiosity as she nodded vigorously.

Before she could shut the wardrobe door, her own was sweeping across the floor silently, the sound of booted feet too loud in the enclosed space. She shut it with a click and turned, allowing surprise to bleed into her face. Her expression abruptly snapped into irritation, and fear.

"Of all the bloody people I don't want to see right now, you top the list."

Curiously, her voice broke on the last syllable and her eyes filled with unshed tears. Angrily she turned, letting her hair hide her face as she furiously marched to drop onto the foot of the bed. Her pose was rigid, knees together, hands on her lap. Korin stood silently, still by the door, arms folded across his chest. She was so tired she ached. After being beaten, and carrying Eli for a solid nine hours while hiding and running, still fragile from having her mind peeled open like an egg, all she wanted was bed.

"What happened to you?" His voice was so quiet she could barely hear it. It held no question, but was flat.

"They're dead."

She didn't move. Eyes fixed on the wall, Alana listlessly played with her fingers.

"Dead?"

"All dead."

"How?"

To her horror, her eyes began to overflow. Thin, cold tears slid down her pale cheeks as she felt herself begin to shake, exhaustion and sheer disgust with what had happened taking her over. She used one sleeve to wipe her face, only for it to come away with blood.

"Stop crying and tell me what happened." He sounded almost bored, pacing before her.

"Leave me." Unable to stop herself, she began to sob, "Just go. Just leave me alone. I'll talk to the blasted king tomorrow- just leave."

A hand was under her chin forcing it upwards.

"You are the crown spy coming back from your mission early, covered in blood, saying everyone you were meant to be spying on is dead. I am your general and you will tell me what happened clearly and concisely."

Alana stared into his eyes and saw—nothing.

Not hatred, not irritation. Blankness. Sheer inhuman absence of emotion. And in that moment he terrified her. She flinched, aware that fear was glaring from her expression, but his grip on her chin only tightened.

"I weakened their defences by breaking in and soldiers followed and slaughtered them. It was my fault. My apologies. General."

"Did you gain any information before hand?"

"You wanted them dead, I killed them." She jerked her face away from Korin's hand and crawled away from him on her bed. Images of their faces swam in her mind; the blood, the corpses littering the clearing by the fire they had eaten and warmed from. Eli's mother, mouth gaping, eyes glassy. Saphira, the glint of steel reflecting across her aged face, blue eyes vicious in the dying light as she was surrounded.

"Leave me alone." It was a mere whisper into her pillow, eyes heavy with tiredness and salt. There was a pregnant silence where she thought Korin would push it, that strangeness in him overlooking her obvious distress. He seemed on the verge of saying something when, without another word, he turned and walked out. It was her imagination, no doubt, that had him linger at the wardrobe just a blink too long.

And then he was gone. Alana pulled herself up, and dragged her feet towards the wardrobe. She cracked it open, squinting into the gloom; only to find Eli deeply asleep, breathing heavy and dark rings beneath her childish eyes. Alana tucked the duvet more securely around her tiny shoulders and carefully eased the door so it was all but shut- a hairline crack letting in a little light.

Fetch me Morrigan, please. The breeze danced away from her, out to the world, tasting of her message in a way that was beyond words; the crackle of pepper and the seduction of starlight.

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The throne room held a tension of spirit that was beyond anything it had contained before. Alana sat straight-backed and pale at the head of the table. Her hair was carefully coiled on the back of her head, cold diamonds glinting in her ears. Her gown of ice grey left her arms bare, scooping low enough to show pale breasts that fluttered with her quick, nervous breathing. Her bruises were stark against her pallor.

Rohan was pacing, as he had been for the minutes of silence since the meeting began. No one wanted to utter the first word, no one wanted to admit the obvious defeat they had suffered. The High King's note hung like a noose over them, as they sat: Korin, Lauron, the king and Henri, faces drawn.

"I don't know what I was thinking, sending you." Rohon's voice was dull, without blame. He looked sickened with himself. Lauron sat in an almost absentminded discomfort; aware of the danger, but not fully grasping of it.

"You speak as though it was a mistake." Cool blue eyes turned to her foster-uncle, intonation perfectly clear and without an inflection of unhappiness. If anything she seemed oddly curious. The General watched her from across the table, inscrutable.

"The High King sent a threat, should we fail," Rohan wrung his hands, pale, darting looks around his throne room as though it would be snatched from beneath his feet. Never had Alana seen him so restless; the man of her childhood was solid, square. He was ruddy and summer-time, immovable and powerful; like Lauron. To see him so diminished by fear of an unmet king was enough to send a flutter of fear through her, and one of anger. If he were indeed an interloper magician—she would do everything in her power to bring him down. As futile as that was. As pathetic a vain, spoilt child as she was. Weak. She glowered.

"Whoever said I failed?"

The four men turned and stared at her.

"You turn up in the middle of the night, half conscious and covered in bruises and scratches and we're to believe the magicians didn't find you out?"

"That would be an idiotic conclusion. If they had disliked me I wouldn't have made it back at all."

Henri's pen was rapid on the parchment as he recorded everything said. A crease rested between his brows as he took in his only daughter's discomfort.

"But—what happened-"

"They're all dead."

Alana's voice was even. A condemnation. In it held the screams, the salt of blood, the tears of children. The futility of it, the simple horror.

"They're dead."

"Dead. All of them. Slaughtered in their beds. I led soldiers through their defences." Her eyes were glazed and frighteningly distant. "So, we lack any need for you to concern yourself, uncle. The High King will probably commend you with an earldom."

With that she stood. Her head hurt, brains spilling, dripping about her ears. Blood and dust filled every gap of her, choking the very light from her. She couldn't see.

"Alana—" A hand rested on her arm but she pulled herself free with a shudder.

"I'll be in my chambers." With that, she swept back out of the throne room, hardly aware of the guards pulling open the doors. All her concentration relied on the carefully filled cracks between the stone slabs beneath her feet as they see-sawed beneath her feet. The tears didn't fall this time. But Saphira's eyes burned into her soul.

Days passed and, mercifully, people left her alone. It wasn't like before, with the oppressive crowds fighting for a glimpse of the royal child come home a woman; it was, if anything, worse. Sly, sidelong glances. Dipping, salacious glimpses. Wandering hands and flicking tongues. She was no longer untouchable, no longer the distant story; but a girl, living and breathing in a palace fuelled by drink and leisure. One whom no one cared to actually befriend.

And, beyond everything, she felt sickeningly lonely.

Seeing Morrigan hadn't helped; if anything, it had brought everything back.

"Sara, it's dangerous for you to contact me. This should be incredibly important." Yet beyond the anger of her tone, there was something soft and relieved in her eyes, a certain gentility to her arms and the way she stroked her hair when she hugged her. Alana bit back tears of homesickness.

"Where's Teagan?"

"It was idiotic enough of me to come, let alone drag him into it."

"Good thing I'm idiotic!" A cheerful whisper came from behind her, scented with honey, home baked-bread and tree sap. Morrigan went pale with sudden anger. Alana and Teagan both quailed under her glare but threw themselves at one another none the less. Teagan's hug didn't finish for a very long time, hard body warm and generous and big under her palms the way the pale, stilted court folk were not.

"I miss you so much." He breathed into her ear, lips brushing her lobe, arms squeezing tight enough to take her breath away.

A small, girlish whimper behind her snatched their attention.

"Who's this?" Morrigan's terse voice softened at the sight of the tiny child with her riot of curly brown her, big eyes watering, fear in her every bearing.

"This is Eli. Have you heard what has happened?"

"Of course," Morrigan's voice became sombre and drawn in mourning, "how could we not?"

Alana let the tears that she had kept at bay for hours. Teagan pulled her into another hug, lips pressed to her neck. Morrigan laid a hand on her shoulder, her age apparent for the first time since she'd met her six years previously.

"Eli's family were killed by the soldiers, and I carried her out. I can't keep her."

"We have it in hand, child." Morrigan lifted Eli into her arms without another word, and handed her over to Teagan who wrapped her up in his arms warmly enough to put the infant at ease. He smiled down at her, wrapping her curls around his fingers. The blanket Alana had wrapped her in was a soft blue, one she herself had used as a baby.

"No one blames you." Her worst fear dissapitated.

"It's over. May I come home?"

"No, child. We need more information on the High King. I'm sorry." Morrigan rested on hand on her cheek, grey eyes dark with regret. "We must go, and so must you."

The moon was low, the sky touching blue.

"I love you." Her voice was a mere whisper. Teagan looked close to tears as he kissed her cheek, Eli pressed between them.

"We're here, close by."

Alana's cheek burned with the kiss, her arms felt empty. Family felt such an abstract term when alone. These days she did nothing but wander the castle and surrounding grounds, or read, or simply lie, tucked close to Cliona for hours on end, plotting. The crumbs she could gather from the throne room were minimal, the king not willing to burden her with further news. He had written to the High King, this much she knew, but little else.

Boredom was the other issue. She had too much time to think.

And, after the slaughter, she was much too afraid to use her magic.

Until, one day, she couldn't stand it anymore. Wake up, break her fast alone in her rooms, walk about the palace and gardens, alone with Cliona, read alone, hover about the throne room alone, tea with her mother, stilted dinner with the king and her parents, and bed. Alone.

With face set, she crawled out of bed, determined that today should be different. She hadn't used her magic for days; it felt like a limb laid unused in a cast. Dressing quickly in a good wool dress, she called out for Cliona and headed straight out to the stables.

The day was young, the sun barely rising in the silver sky when she marched out of the palace. The castle was just shaking itself of sleep; maids running about lighting fires, boys delivering goods, housekeepers, cooks, scullery maids, all running about the place before the rich and noble even lifted their heads from their pillows. Alana found it intolerable. Quiet in her leather boots, she jogged over to the stables, the smell of animal sharp in her nose. Curiously, the stable boy was outside, his cap in his hands.

Thinking nothing of it, she walked straight past him and towards the stall the beautiful stallion her uncle had given her resided in. Dragonfly did not like Cliona. Cliona did not like Dragonfly. Sure enough, the horse threw his head as the wolf stalked nearer.

"Oh for goodness sake, darlings, can you just try to get along?" She reached out on hand to sooth the horse, stroking him on the velvet nose. He quietened until Clio made herself obvious again, butting her head into her mistress' side. Resisting the use of magic with an ease that had previously been so difficult, she simply knelt in the straw with her hands on the wolf's enormous head and a quick kiss on the muzzle.

"I'm sorry baby, I need to ride today, and I can't have her getting spooked."

Cliona rolled her eyes at her, gently reproving.

"I know I can ride you, but I don't want to scare everyone in the village, do I? Go for a run around and stay out of trouble."

The wolf cocked her ear and, with a huff, the turned and trotted off.

Alana turned to Dragonsmile with a gentle smile on her face, whispering sweet nothings and leaning her body entirely against the stall door.

"Do you find it difficult to like creatures of your own species?"

Jolting, she whipped around at the voice so close by. Korin leaned in the shadow of the morning sunshine, dark hair mussed and his chin unshaven, sleepy eyes dancing with amusement. He looked more light-hearted than she had ever seen, his expression darkening only slightly at her proximity.

"Do you find it difficult to be likeable?"

"Not usually."

Alana ignored him, heaving her saddle onto Dragonfly and carefully doing up the straps, eyes fixed firmly on her fingers. She was aware of him watching. When she glanced up, she met his illegible features.

"What?" She snapped, running her hands over the saddle to make sure it was tightened properly.

"Where are you going?"

"Anywhere." With the reigns in one fist, she led her horse out of the stable. He shrugged and let her walk on, chin lowered in amusement with a slight quizzical angle to his head. Once out in the morning sunshine she swung herself up onto Dragonfly's broad back, glanced once to check Cliona was sitting away, her tail sweeping dust motes into a glittering cloud, and turned nose towards the moorland. A steady walk, as she tucked her cloak around herself and smoothed her hair back off her face, a trot as she left the premises, and a canter the second hoof touched grass.

The horse rode free a while, powerful muscles clenching beneath her as she clung on with thigh muscles unused to such exertion. Her hands burned, blisters blossoming over her palms. She had grown soft, living the life of a lady. Lekon was a mild kingdom, sweetly middling, with pastoral, domestic beauty exemplified by lush gold fields, bubbling streams, light, acrylic sheep dotting the landscape. These were the views of her childhood, as unlike the dramatic cliffs and mountains of her adolescence as they could be. They were comforting, but as Alana thundered through on her horse she couldn't tear herself from the little girl who had knelt on her seat with her face pressed against the glass of a carriage, watching it pull away.

Alana gritted her teeth and concentrated on the present; on the hooves in the chalky mud, her puff of breath that deepened to pants, the warm, delicious movement of muscle and sinew. A sheen of sweat soon coated her skin, and she pulled up the horse to a trot, then a walk, breathing easier for the distance.

Idly, she directed Dragonfly through country she had known well as a child, through fields she knew the owners of, running and leaping fences when there weren't gates, resentment at the idea of a simple road welling up as she moved further and further away from any path.

Which is why, after some time walking, the sound of another set of hooves was disconcerting. Alana turned to find another rider disturbingly close to her, cantering, its rider impassive. Anger, blindingly hot, raced through her, followed by a thrill of fear. Someone was following her.

She turned and urged Dragonfly faster. He sensed the excitement of a chase and lurched into action, nearly throwing her off. They had caught up and, with the adrenaline of a race, the horses threw themselves onwards. It was only after seconds of breakneck speed that she realised what she could hear was Lauron's laughter.

An answering surge of exhilaration surprised her. It was as they both leapt over the next fence that she realised she was grinning. The rode recklessly, unguided, their horses instruments of their own fortunes with tiny humans crouched over them, clinging on for dear life. The reigns cut into her hands, her thighs burned, her eyes watered and all she could hear was the thundering of hooves and the pant of tortured breath. A tree, in the middle of the next field- the last field, as the river cut through the north side and finished the pastureland. With a glance at her opponent she realised he had clocked it to, and, with an unspoken challenge, both crouched lower over their animals and screamed at them to ride harder.

But Dragonfly had been ridden hard for too long, and his breath was laboured. He was no racing horse, but the passion in him was enormous. He rode hard, driving himself into the ground, nipping past the tree an inch behind Lauron. Her disappointment surprised her, adrenaline pounding in her ear drums. She let her horse walk off as he pleased, slumping back in the saddle and lifting her hair from her damp neck.

At the river she slid off, landing on her behind with a thump. With legs of jelly she crawled towards the river, eased off her riding boots, and dipped her feet in with a moan of absolute abject pleasure. A heavy body landed beside her, his own horse dipping its nose into the cold chalk stream. Alana unclasped her cloak at her neck and reached forward to scoop a handful of cold water into her mouth, enjoying the exhausted silence while it, however transiently, lasted. The silence extended, becoming awkward.

"Why did you follow me?"

"I apologise for sneaking up on you."

They both spoke at the same time, voices freezing in their throats.

"An excellent race, my lord."

Lauron was lying easily on the grass beside her, propped upon his arms. She noted from his stance that he didn't feel the awkwardness in the slightest, but rather was enjoying the sun more than anything else. She tried to make herself comfortable.

"You ride well." His eyes glittered, an easy grin stretching sunnily across his face with an ease that was sincerely lacking in his brother. An answering smile touched her lips, as she wrapped her arms around her knees. He was a good boy, easy and happy because the world had never challenged it, and he had never thought deeply enough to consider that it could be anything else. He had been dealt a good set of cards and didn't think about the deck before him, reading the stoic faces of his opponents as kind. He had always been the child with the best toys, the most attention, and the most bewildered when she or Korin cheated at games. Some people find it hard to fully grasp life as it stood, seeing it instead through the warped lens of privilege. It was impossible to hold him to blame, he was too innocent. Too charming.

"Thank you, my lord."

"Don't 'my lord' me, Alana, we've known each other since we were children." Lauron threw an easy arm around her shoulders, laughing mouth suddenly very close to hers.

"Lauron." It was nice to be held. She didn't fight against him when he pulled her back to lie on the grass, side by side.

"I remember when we were younger you used to order me around like a slave," his throat was a column as he stretched his head upwards to watch the clouds, 'especially with Korin being such a little bastard."

"I was a spoilt little bitch." Alana grimaced to herself, lifting a hand to pillow her head. It felt simple, like she was five years old again and Lauron was lumped with babysitting her. He had been thirteen, and infinitely more interesting than Korin; she had followed him around like a puppy. She told him so and he chuckled lowly, turning to look at her from beneath veiled eyelashes.

"If only matters hadn't changed so considerably."

An odd blush worked its way up her neck. A man hadn't looked at her like that before, with that softness. Lauron reminded her of Teagan, with his tawny summertime looks, and Alana couldn't help but wish he would wrap his other arm around her and just hold her. She had missed affection.

"You're more than welcome to remain my slave."

"I am." He rolled onto his side, one hand raised to graze her lower lip. "Your slave."

Alana fought to regain her brain, the fogginess of want blurring her intellect. She was a young girl, he an attractive man. They lay under a blue sky, his body was warm and his eyes burned with desire. What could be more natural, more obvious?

"It's a shame I haven't seen much of you since I returned." Her voice was a breath against his mouth, the inches importantly keeping her from losing her head. She carefully and deliberately rolled over again, away from him. He lay still a moment before propping himself up on one arm beside her, looking down into her face.

"I've seen you, I couldn't stop looking." He brushed his lips over the corner of her mouth and she shut her eyes in pleasure of contact. His hand stroked her stomach through her corset, inching down to her hip, teeth slowly grazing her lower lip.

"You really are a remarkably talented womaniser. I can see why all the women in the town fall over themselves." Alana sat upright, immediately feeling cold air and loss as he fell away.

"I haven't been able to touch another girl since I saw you, 'Lana."

She was new, she was therefore interesting. She was an easy target. She was muddled in the head, bored, and starved of human contact and affection. He was Lauron, he was the crown prince. It would be so stupid. She chanted in her head, shutting her eyes as he kissed his way up her throat, both hands holding her tight against him.

"I'm sure many girls have made up for my absence."

Fighting with everything she could, every atom of her begging for his kiss, his body, someone warm to hold, she stood up. Empty air whistled through her aching arms, her blood cooling as she saw the anger on his face.

"I want you so much I ache."

"I'm positive you'll find it in yourself to overlook me eventually."

"'Lana, I'm sorry-" He stood too, arms half raised, eyebrows lowered in confusion. He was not used to rejection. She curtseyed, pointedly, before vaulting onto her horse and cantering away, burning with desire and loneliness.

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Loneliness is a funny thing. It's like a burning in the intestine, a sickness, a pressure in the head. It's physical. It is the abject lack of anyone around, a heaviness of absence. Arms ache to be filled, lips feel cold, and the soul lies dark and lethargic somewhere unreachable. It causes the mind to lie still, trapped in a limbo. The ride did nothing to temper it; in fact, her altercation with Lauron had made it worse. To be touched, to be wanted, it was too heady to not be a problem. If he tried again, if a servant tried, if anyone tried, she would let them hold her, kiss her. Despite that burn, she was self-aware enough to understand that what she was feeling was a vulnerability that was both absurd, and dangerous.

Cliona pushed her way into the room, making Alana turn from her window and gratefully leap onto the bed, snuggling down with the ball of fur. The feeling did not ebb, Cliona's effect marginally defeated by her lack of speech. She was failing her mission, had led to the deaths of innocent magicians and was no closer to understanding the High King. Damn, damn, damnation.

I can't do this.

Lofty feelings of grandeur had suffused her as she had begun this mission; of course she would succeed: she would infiltrate the magician camp, rescue them and, when the High King came to wreak revenge on her uncle she would single-handedly uncover him with applause and laurel wreaths tinged gold in her imagination. Bullshit. She was tired, lonely and sick of the oppression of duty. She was no hero, to be read about, she was a spoilt, self-indulgent child with too much power. Even her parents were strange with her, both patronising and overtly protective, refusing to see her for someone she had become.

Alana shook her head. She needed to stop thinking. What she needed, she concluded, was Teagan. Immediately, the lightness of decision buoying her, she dropped into her seat at the writing desk, selected a non-descript piece of parchment, and dipped her pen into plain black ink.

Humpthy;

I need you. Can't do it alone. Two heads are better than one. Convince M. Send word with the wolf.

S.

The note was coded, a code they had known since they were children together. It was simple, and alphabet of their own devising, and yet she didn't expect it to be intercepted.

Slipping a length of string around it she turned to tie it to Cliona's neck. The wolf glared up at her, amber eyes beseeching, a whine low in her throat.

"Don't you miss Teagan, Clio?" Alana kissed her on the top of the head, "Take this to him. Don't be seen, and when you're back come straight to me." She opened her bedroom door, looked both ways, and shooed her out.

The wolf huffed once, but at the sound of Teagan's name she calmed and leapt away into the stony darkness, as fast as she could.

Alana lay back on her bed, absent of her only friend, but milling with the excitement of the coming of her brother.

When Cliona arrived, much later, panting, she was at dinner with the royal family and higher courtiers. Hastily excusing herself she left the room with an imperious swish of her skirts that denied curiosity, and dragged her wolf into an alcove to read the response.

His handwriting was strong and leaning to the left, lazily rolling out until the end of the sentence came as a surprise.

Brat;

Little convincing necessary. We expected it after the debacle. I was your driver from school, (can we convince them we made love in the carriage and you're pregnant with my spawn? Too far? Could do with an earldom.)

Suppress your excitement.

H.

Alana suppressed a snort and slipped the parchment into her bodice. Feeling lighter than air, she returned to dinner, for once able to overlook the stilted awkwardness of her parents, Lauron's flirtatiousness, Rohon's stress and Korin's cold disregard. Teagan was coming to help her.

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