We're still on the chapter where Ralon beats the crap out of Alanna until she can no longer stand it and has to figure out a way to fight back. Last time I talked about how Myles and George both focused on flaws in the system—Myles told Alanna it wasn't fair that her only recourse was to fight Ralon, and George taught Alanna how to fight dirty. We also saw that Alanna herself is not married to the typical knight's way of doing things, at least when the laws don't protect her like they should. But we'll talk about that more at the end of this one.
This time, we'll talk about everyone else's response to Alanna's plight. The rest of the characters in this chapter—Coram, Duke Gareth, and Jon and his friends—all agree that Ralon could seriously hurt Alanna and that she has no real way to defend herself against him. They all also agree that Ralon is scum and does not deserve a knight's shield. But none of them step outside the bounds of their roles prescribed by chivalry to do anything about it, and they cheer Alanna on when she realizes that her only way to end the violence is through violence.
We'll start with Coram and Duke Gareth, since they are the adults here. Unlike Myles, they don't approach Alanna proactively and tell her that she can safely talk with them about her struggles with Ralon. Coram, at least, is worried about her: he exclaims over Alanna's injuries and helps her tend to her wounds. But Alanna refuses to confess that she's being bullied, and Coram responds like this:
He grinned. "I'm off to fetch some raw meat for your eye where th' ground hit ye..." He clapped her on the shoulder and added, "You're a plucky lass. I'm proud of ye."
He praises Alanna for bearing her hurts silently and without complaining, and he also covers for her when the other boys arrive and ask what happened, sticking to Alanna's excuse that she fell and not that she was savagely beaten by an older, stronger boy who's spent the last four years training for combat.
So, yeah, it's nice that Coram feels sorry for her, but he still praises Alanna for learning how to be "plucky" instead of doing anything serious to help.
What about Duke Gareth? As the man in charge of the pages, you'd think he would care that there's a squire beating up first-year pages. Instead, we get this exchange between the Duke and Alanna:
"I fell down, your grace," [Alanna] said, her face straight.
"Mithros, boy, can't you think of a better excuse?"
She scuffed a foot. "This one works so well, sir. It--it has tradition behind it."
Gareth scowled at her. "It certainly does. I've heard it from every page who's been fighting that I ever trained—with a few exceptions... You are pert, Alan of Trebond. An extra hour of mathematics for you for the next five weeks. You may go."
Alanna was opening the door when he added, "I wish you would thrash him. He deserves it."
Let's take a minute and unpack all the gross stuff in this exchange, hmm? First of all, Duke Gareth is aware of what's going on between Alanna and Ralon. He knows Alanna is lying to save face, and that Ralon is willing to go as far as to break Alanna's arm to make a point. But the Duke is not going to step in, and he actually punishes Alanna for getting her ass handed to her. He recognizes the severity of the threat, but as far as he's concerned, it's not his place to help. If Ralon injures Alanna permanently or Alanna gives up and goes home, then that's just what was meant to happen. And if Ralon somehow managed to pass his tests and become a knight, then that was meant to happen too. No one could possibly step in at this level and stop these bad patterns from developing, and no one could ever ask if this is maybe a bad way to train the people who are meant to be the sacred defenders of the realm.
Second, Duke Gareth minimizes what's going on here by calling it merely "fighting." This is not a case of boys fighting like boys. This is a case of an older student targeting a younger, weaker, less influential noble for no particular reason. It's not a match between equals, nor does teach the two of them about the Code of Chivalry, which explicitly lists protection of the weak as a core value of knighthood. Gareth also mentions that he's used to the “I fell down” excuse, which means he's seen other students targeted like this and has probably already seen Ralon hurt someone. But it's apparently just something boys have to do on their way to manhood.
So there are the adults in Alanna's life. Let's move on to the boys. When Jonathan and his friends see what's happened to Alanna, they’re outraged, even though Alanna refuses to open up to them. The boys do not reach out to any adults or even older students. Instead, they set about administering their own form of justice. First, they have Raoul attack Ralon to teach him a lesson. When that lesson fails to stick, Jonathan actually diverts one of their teachers during a class period, and all three of them work together to beat the crap out of Ralon.
Again, all of the adults in their lives are aware of what's going on. Everyone knows, but no one is willing to step forward and say that the system is broken—except for Myles, and as stated in the previous entry, his inability to fix anything has driven him to drink. So, yeah, at this point I think we can all agree this system is not ideal.
The good news is the book does not condone any of this.
Alanna works very hard to beat Ralon, and eventually she manages it through a combination of her knight's training, lessons in wrestling from Coram, and lessons in dirty fighting from George. It's an excellent fight scene, but that's just par for the course for Pierce. Eventually I'll get tired of yelling about the patriarchy and talk about why her fight scenes are so good, because, honestly, she writes the best fight scenes I've ever read. But that's another post.
Anyway, Alanna. When it's all said and done, Ralon flees from court, and Alanna no longer has to fear for her safety. But Myles approaches her again to find out her feelings on the subject, and they are—complicated, to say the least.
"Your servant Coram is bragging to his fellow guardsmen that he knew you could do it all along. The other boys want to celebrate—they think you're a hero. Isn't that what you wanted?"
She splashed cold water on her face. "Is it? I don't know." She rubbed her face dry and looked at him. "I threw up afterward... I hate myself. I just knew more than Ralon did. And he always loses his temper when he fights--I took advantage of that. I'm as bad as he was."
Myles tells her that Ralon probably never felt bad for taking advantage of an opponent in a fight, but Alanna isn't reassured until Jonathan shows up and basically tells her the same thing:
"Did you enjoy fighting Ralon? We'll forget for now he's older than you and a squire."
"When we were actually fighting—maybe," she replied slowly. "After—no."
"You won't find anyone smaller than you are, so you can't beat on them... And after today we're all going to think twice about whether you're the weakest."
Alanna takes this to heart and decides that she did the best she could with a bad situation, which is the truth. And yet the whole thing still feels unnecessary—any of the many adults who saw what Alanna was going through could have stepped in at any point. Instead we get this gross mess and everyone comes away feeling slightly dirty.
But at least Alanna learned some good fighting tricks, so that's cool, I guess?