Daine came to a stop, cocking her head as she listened to the sounds carrying down the corridor. Kit struck the back of her legs with a trill, not having seen the woman halt.
"Kit, hush," she shushed the dragonet. The pair had been on the way to the kitchens to pilfer a late night snack. Their route passed Geoge's study, and while it was not uncommon for candlelight to be spilling from it at all hours it was usually quiet. Tonight however, an unmistakable sound bounced off the stone walls through the corridor. Anyone who had heard it once would forever recognize the sound of the Lioness in one of her tempers.
"Kit, let's go back to bed." Daine turned, realizing too late that her young charge was no longer behind her. "Kit? Come back," she hissed when she saw the immortal scampering towards the study. She chased after her but Kit evaded her, succeeding in pushing open the study door and making such a loud entrance that Daine was almost impressed that Alanna didn't so much miss a beat as she berated her husband.
"Daine—" George lurched to his feet as Daine reached for the dragon, missing again.
"I'm sorry," she lowered her gaze, cursing as Kit slid under a chair, "I'll just grab her and get out of your way."
"No, please, stay Daine. I'd like your opinion." Despite addressing her, Alanna had not bothered to actually look at her as she was still preoccupied with staring daggers at the Baron.
"I'd prefer not to," she mumbled, ducking to check for her charge under a scroll-covered table.
"As would I. No offense," he offered and Daine waved him off, mortified. Kit stuck her head out from under a chair clear across the room and stood on her hind feet, releasing a series of chirps.
"Thank you, Kit," Alanna smirked, "See? It's a tie; Kit and I win."
"Love, we've talked about this. That's not how a tie—"
Alanna did not seem concerned with playing fair, however, and instead threw a leather bound parchment pad on the table in front of Daine. "My husband, love of my life, father of my children has a file on me. A file ."
Daine hesitated, glancing between the couple. When she didn't respond Alanna pushed on. "Imagine my surprise when I creep up here and see the spying dolt updating it," she was working herself into a frenzy once more. Daine was fairly confident that had Alanna been more calm she actually would have called him a much worse name.
"Well," Daine started only to stop as Alanna shot her a look that could stall a stormwing. Luckily, this was not the first time she had been the target of one of the Champion's pets. " Well , he is the Spymaster. I suppose he has to keep records."
"On his wife ?" Alanna hissed at the same time George remarked, "My role is not actually common knowledge, so if you both could be a little more discreet."
"Shut it," Alanna whipped back to her husband, "see if I tell you anything ever again." She turned back to his desk where Daine noted several other similar ledgers were stacked, and began to rifle through them.
"Love, you're more than welcome to read your own but I can't let you have anyone else's." George moved to stop her but was swatted away.
"Is she armed?" Daine asked quietly, looking around Alanna to address him. He shook his head and waved her off.
"Watch me," Alanna flipped open the cover of a particularly thick file but George pulled it away with a laugh.
"I don't think so, Lass. You know I can't let you."
"Oh, look. Maybe I can't but someone else can. Daine, here's yours," she held up a file out of George's reach. Daine stopped scanning the room for Kitten, who had least been seen skirting behind a curtain, interest suddenly piqued.
"I have a file?" She was almost pleased. "Why is it so big ?" Her gaze followed the ledger as Alanna moved it within reach.
"I have no idea, Daine, your time here has been so uneventful," Alanna replied dryly. Daine reached for the file but George snatched it before she could.
"I'm not so sure about that," he was laughing again but there was a nervousness to it.
"Why not?" Now Daine's interest was really piqued.
George cocked his head with a sigh, but was saved providing an immediate answer as a light tenor voice interrupted them. "I'm a little offended to find you all having a party without me." Numair leaned against the door frame, studying the group with amusement. Kitten, appearing from behind the door, pawed at his breeches until the mage scooped her up.
"Don't spoil her; she's been fair troublesome." Daine said to Numair, who was too busy scratching the immortal under the chin to pay much mind.
"Numair, tell George that Daine should be able to read her file since I'm allowed to read mine."
Numair stood straight, bemused. "Her file? Geoge, are you spying on us?" He shot his friend a look of mock reproach as Daine giggled.
George moved back around his desk. "If you're looking for something to read I suggest you go to the library, because these aren't out for loan."
"The libraries locked at this hour," Numair shrugged, placing Kit on a settee and putting his hands in his pockets—the picture of innocence.
"Oh Mithros, Numair, I know you nicked the key."
"So you have been spying on me."
"I'm glad you're so amused," Alanna spat at the mage. She tapped her foot impatiently. "Are you going to give her the file?"
"Why should I?"
"You gave me mine."
"Are you saying you're showing me favoritism because I'm your wife?"
"I honestly thought that was obvious when I gave it to you," he shrugged, bewildered. "Are you mad that I have a file, or are you mad because I show you favor?"
"Both but let me yell at you for them one at a time," Alanna doubled down and held out a hand. "Daine's file."
"George," Daine interjected, "I would actually very much like to see what's written about me." She was fair preoccupied wondering what possibly could have filled so many pages.
"Daine," George cast her a sympathetic look, but was cut off before he could continue.
"It does seem only fair, George," though his demeanor remained pleasant, Numair was more serious than before. "And where's the harm? Who's she going to tell all her own secrets to?" He winked at her and she smiled in return.
George sighed, sitting down and leaning back in his chair. "Numair, I don't think you want me to do this." George stared the taller man down, peering at him over steepled meaning was being silently conveyed, however, seemed lost in translation.
"I'd very much like to see mine, on that note." Numair pinched the bridge of his nose.
"Look," George leaned forward against his desk, "the information contained in these files is a compilation of hearsay and rumors that come to me; not just what I witness. They're messy and disjointed, and what's in them doesn't always pertain to just that person." He was still looking intently at Numair. "Do you understand what I'm saying?"
"Yes, George, I'm familiar with what a research note looks like," Numair sighed. "I don't see the harm in us having a peek."
Daine smiled at George, hopeful, and the Spymaster sighed. Picking up Daine's file he held it out towards her, pulling it back at the last second, "are you sure?" He asked Numair, who shot him an odd look in response and urged Daine forward.
Daine shook her head, "Odd's Bobs, George. I can't think of anything that could be in there would care about anyone in this room knowing about me, let alone myself." Before she could take the ledger, Alanna snatched it once more.
"See?" She shot George a withering glance, "If Daine's alright with it then I can read hers."
"Alanna," Numair reached out to stop her from opening it, concern appearing for the first time, but Daine stopped him with a shrug.
"No, that's fine. I meant what I said" She leaned back against the table and motioned for Alanna to continue who, to her credit, had paused to wait for permission.
"Kyporith's shiny left coin, this is not a reading group," George rubbed his temples, shaking his head. "Daine really should read this privately."
"Let's see," Alanna flipped through the pages, not minding her husband in the least. "Veralidaine Sarrasri; Born 436 HE. Yes, yes, we know that. Five feet, six inches—are you really?" Alanna looked up at Daine, glancing her up and down, "I thought you were taller."
"I'm sure everyone seems taller from down there," Numair murmured, earning a glare from Alanna before she pressed on.
"Hometown is Snowsdale, population an unknown number of codswallop eating, small-minded dung beetles—"
"That's not what I wrote."
"About fifty, George. Give or take," Daine interjected and saw George make a quick note on a spare bit of parchment.
"Let's skip ahead. 451 HE; Daine traveled to Carthak as a member of a peace delegation," Alanna murmured, skimming the page with her finger, "and wrought more havoc than even the worst-case scenario predictions thought possible. Possibly banned from any future delegations, though likely not as Jon seems amused."
"I did write that."
"Harbor Gull—George these code-names are so odd—reports that the now-Emperor Kaddar extended an offer of marriage to Daine which was rejected." Alanna whistled, peering at Daine over the ledger. "I didn't know that ."
"There was nothing to tell," Daine shrugged, "It wasn't as exciting as that all makes it sound."
"I can vouch for that," Numair grumbled from beside her and she nudged him with her elbow.
"Now who's admitting to spying? I wonder what yours says about how you spent your time in Carthak," she whispered.
"Empress Daine," Alanna smirked, "wouldn't that have been a sight?"
"I will say, turns out Thayet was right about holding out for a better offer," Daine laughed, "Ozorne only offered me Countess."
"I didn't know that," George interjected, jotting down another note and raising an eyebrow at her. "Any other royal titles you've declined, little one?"
"No—what?" She responded to Numair's incredulous look. "Goddess isn't a royal title. I'm not sure it's a title at all." She turned back to George and Alanna who were staring at her in disbelief. "After the Immortals War, but just a lesser one," she offered as an explanation.
George exchanged a look with his wife before turning back to the Wildmage, "Well, if it's just a lesser one there's no point in even making a note."
"You're allergic to strawberries?" Alanna asked, having turned back to the notes with a shake of her head. Daine nodded, crossing her arms.
"I think that's probably enough; you've had your peek," he extended his hand, hoping for a file that Alanna obviously had no intention of passing off.
"No, let's hear more," Numair waved for Alanna to continue, "this is actually quite fun."
"Don't say I didn't warn you," George said quietly.
"454 HE; moved from rooms in the Riders' Barracks to a cottage at the edge of the Royal Forest designated by their majesties. Primarily splits time between Corus, The Swoop, and Numair Salmalin's tower since the war." Alanna pursed her lips, flipping through more pages. "How is this organized? There's more pages here than there is time left."
"Are there pictures?" Numair asked, examining his nails. "If so, I really hope they're flattering George. I should like to think that Tortallian Spymasters for centuries to come will have a fair depiction of how beautiful we all are."
"Oh, look—there's a whole section on your relationships, Daine." Alanna ran her finger down a list of names, each with varying lengths of description next to them.
"Actually there are pictures, Numair," George was looking at the mage intently, "I had Volney Rain do yours."
Numair stiffened, gaze shifting to the Baron. The two held eye contact and George inclined his head to confirm the realization dawning on the taller man.
"Here I am! Alanna and Daine have developed a close camaraderie and friendship, with an element of familial bonding that has become commonplace for a particular group of King Jonathan IV's inner circle of supporters. For more on this dynamic, reference Onua Chamtong. For more on the relationship between Daine, Alanna, and Onua reference King's Folly, Midsummer 453, and bad decisions—very funny George." Alanna glared at her husband, though looked a little queasy at even the memory.
Numair laughed weakly, "George might be right; it's getting late."
"Leave if you want," Alanna waved him off, skimming the next page, "Daine has developed an intense, reciprocal bond with Numair Salmalin. He acted as her teacher until approximately 450 HE and as a colleague in varied capacities since."
"Daine is fiercely and, if needed, violently protective of Numair as he is of her. Should allegiances ever be tested, it should be assumed they will maintain loyalties to one another first and foremost. There's a note here," Alanna flipped the ledger sideways and squinted as writing jammed into the margin, "classification of relationship as of 452 HE unconfirmed."
"Alanna ." Numair's voice was more than a warning now, and Daine shot him a questioning look.
"In January of 451 Salmalin contacted Volney Rain to commission—" Alanna stopped reading out loud, but continued to mouth words as her eyes moved across the page. She glanced at George, who was staring into the fire, and then to the mages. Numair clutched the table, knuckles white, as Daine looked between them.
"What does it say?" She felt her stomach drop. She hated when she felt like everyone around her knew something she didn't, especially if it were about her.
"Ah, it's a little hard to make out the handwriting," Alanna replied, but Daine had already crossed the room and taken the file from her hands. She turned away from the group, scanning the page. She wasn't sure how long it felt like to the others but it seemed an eternity to her. It didn't help that she had to read it several times, sure that it was some trick of the light.
"Can I speak to Numair privately, please?" She turned to them, calmly, holding the ledger in front of her with clasped hands. Numair stared at the ground in front of him, arms crossed as George and Alanna exchanged a look.
"Why don't we take Kit for a snack?" Alanna said, finally, as she plucked the dragonet from the table. George stood and followed them, vacating his own study and closing the door behind him.
The fire crackled as she studied him, but he refused to meet her gaze.
"Daine," he said quietly, but she opened the ledger again and began reading.
"In January of 451 Salmalin contacted Volney Rain to commission a portrait of Daine, miniature in scale. Shortly after Rain completed it, Silver Fox reports having sold a man matching Salmalin's description a silver locket. While mages have many uses for effigies in their work, most are insidious and considering the nature of their relationship to date it is more likely that these are lover's token." She swallowed, using her finger to keep her place as she skipped ahead, "Daine suffered a dire bout of unicorn fever in February of 451 during which time a healer reported to Silversmith that Salmalin was observed cutting a lock of her hair and pocketing it. This corroborates that Salmalin's attachment to the girl is not platonic and that he, at least, is in love with her though there is no evidence of a consummate romantic relationship at this time."
She stopped reading, shaking her head. "There's more, but—" she sat down hard on a settee, closing the file in her lap. She took a deep breath before looking up at her friend. "Is it true?"
He fiddled with the cuff of his shirt. "And if it is?"
"Then I think we'd have a fair lot to talk about." When he didn't answer she swallowed and pressed on. "A fair lot, but probably not near so bad as you may be thinking."
He stopped fidgeting, eyes flicking up to meet hers. He looked at her for a long moment, as if trying to ascertain her meaning without playing his hand. Finally, he sighed and crossed the room. He reached out his left wrist where she saw black fire glimmer as a silver locket appeared. When he made no further move, she reached out tentatively and opened it. Looking back at her, cradled in her hand, was a tiny portrait of her own face—perfect down to every little detail— and a single lock of smokey brown hair.
She reached out with her free hand to clasp his, giving it a squeeze. Smiling, she looked up at him.
"Well then, I think we have a fair lot to talk about—don't you?"