A Question Of Conversation

“How long have you been in the guard?” Prince Eric turned to me at dinner. I looked at him and swallowed the piece of fish I was chewing.

“Officially?” I said. He shrugged. “About five years, you can induct as young as twelve. But unofficially, Tristan and I have been in since we were babies.” He laughed. “What’s funny?”

“Nothing,” he said, “it just sounds familiar. It’s my life with the Navy.” I smiled and nodded. “Your parents wanted you in the guard?”

“Yes,” I said, “I mean, I suppose so, we never talked much about it. It mattered to them, they were very proud of their own work.” He nodded. “And your father?”

“I don’t remember my father at all,” he said, “but Simon, that is, Lord Lestoff, he knows the sea, he’s a ferryman, and he had high hopes for Lefty and I.” I nodded and took a sip of my wine. The food and wine are both wonderful, but they always are with Countess Olivia.

“I see,” I nodded. “Do you like the Navy? My cousins are wild about sea life, even if they’re usually stuck in offices after they take a few tours.” He laughed.

“I do like it,” he said, “I was wretched in Vacana, you can ask Lefty.” I laughed.

“I’m looking forward to the sea,” Lisette chimed in, he looked at her. “We’ll go to Brightcoast in the Spring.” Marina looked over at her, her eyes wide with joy.

“Will we?” Aaron said, “Gods, Rina, did you bribe her, or has Anya Norvine been nagging you both too much?”

“Even if you all went North,” Marina answered him sharply, “I have to go back sometime.” She stuck out her tongue at him.

“It’s not about the Duchess,” Annalise said softly, Tristan frowned. He hadn’t spoken much and I couldn’t blame him, though I was grateful he’d agreed to come. Lisette had been waffling for weeks about where the Court’s first official visit should be, but of course, Tristan’s decision to go to Dorin would mean she didn’t want to be there.

“We’ve been to Brightcoast a lot,” Lord Raymond said, “it’s really quite beautiful. Lefty knows more people there than the rest of us.” Lieutenant Lestoff choked on his food and coughed.

“Yes, I well,” he sighed, “did you know Your Grace that you have a good sized population of Pharras in your Provenance?” Marina looked at him and shook her head.

“No,” she said, “I hadn’t realized. It’s shameful, but I don’t actually know a lot about Brightcoast, my education was curtailed in many areas.”

“What a kind way of saying that Brayton tried to keep you stupid and powerful,” Tristan managed. “Do you have a special interest in the Pharras, Lieutenant Lestoff?”

“My mother was Pharras,” he explained, “so I would say so.” The looked that passed between them was icy.

“I’m a little lost,” Aaron said. “I thought that Pharras was Phanian.”

“It’s a subject of some debate,” The Prince said softly. “The Pharras certainly wouldn’t say so.”

“The island has been Phanian for so long,” Raymond explained, “but the people maintain their individual culture should allow them to be separate.”

“It sounds a lot like The Westrans,” Lisette said, “I’m hoping to unite them with us eventually, and I’d rather it not be a conquest, or for them to lose what makes them who they are.”

“A people’s own sovereignty is often a part of who they are,” Lestoff said. “Pharras is a strange case, though, I’ll admit, and I also think it would be to The Westran’s advantage to take your protection and resources.”

“Not so strange,” I shook my head, “my grandfather also often speaks about our culture and need for independence.”

“No offence meant, Lady Athena, but I think my people are at a bit of a different juncture than your grandfather,” he grinned. I laughed.

“A bit,” Tristan smiled. “But then again, imagining the world revolves around him suits him.”

“We really do need to get your Grandfather and my brother in the same room,” Prince Eric smiled. I laughed. “Countess, I apologize, you seem quiet, we’re being terrible guests.”

“It’s alright,” Countess Olivia smiled, “the conversation feels familiar, but comfortably so.” I smiled at her. “And I agree about Carland and King Daniel by the way. Their egos might block out the sun, but it would be amusing.” I smiled at her. “Your Highness, are you enjoying the lamb? I had it sent up from Pantona as it’s Lisette’s favorite.”

“It’s wonderful,” he said. I smiled. He’d done his job with Countess Olivia, she was clearly charmed.

Confrontation

We were sitting in Trey’s office, all of us, lined up on one side of the desk and Grandfather on the other. Well, Martin wasn’t sitting, he was standing leaning against the door.

“As I see it,” Grandfather began, “we have an excellent opportunity, with Tristan finally deciding to do his duty by his family,” Martin snorted, and I shot him a glare, he held up his hands. “Athena will be making her home in the Midlands, and there are several families who would be happy to expand their territory there, with daughters the appropriate age.”

“And why are we here, then?” Martin said. Trey sighed and pressed his fingers against the bridge of his nose. “If it will be so easy, I don’t see why I need to be consulted. You all know I think it’s a bad idea, that it goes against Alexia’s wishes, my wishes as his guardian,”

“Tom, everyone knows your objections,” Trey said, “but it’s Tristan’s decision.” Tristan was silent, I wanted to know what he was thinking but he wouldn’t meet my eyes, so I couldn’t even guess. “We need to know you’ll stand behind him. And you, Athena, and Count Aaron.”

“Of course Aaron and I will stand behind him,” I said. “Was that ever in question?” Tristan looked at me and his face softened.

“And his place in the guard is assured?” Grandfather said. “As it was with his father, it is a large part of his appeal. A rise in station for the girl.” Tom sighed and looked down.

“I would not dismiss Tristan,” he said, “only a fool would let go of such a soldier willingly, but as he likely told you, the decision is not entirely mine. The Guard serves at The Queen’s pleasure.” Trey nodded.

“I told them,” Tristan said, “she won’t ask me to step down.”

“For the moment, but a jealous young girl’s judgement,” Grandfather started. I stood up then. “Where are you going?”

“I won’t stand here and listen to you insult her,” I said. “She is your Queen, and would never,” I looked at Tristan, “how dare you?”

“Athena,” Trey said softly, “No one is insulting Queen Annalise, there is a concern, that she may, well, change her mind regarding Tristan’s position given they are no longer,” he waved his hand.

“She wouldn’t do that,” Tristan said, I saw him gripping the arms of his chair. “As I’ve been saying all afternoon.”

“And I think Carland is insulting her a little,” Martin said, “though I understand the idea of loyalty beyond immediate gratification is unthinkable to him.” Grandfather stood up at that.

“If I had my way Thomas Martin you’d have been,” he was seething and thought better of it.

“Always a pleasure to hear your empty threats, sir,” he said glibly, he looked over at Trey, “I genuinely thought we could get past all this.”

“Perhaps your time in Pantona will help you,” Trey said. Tom nodded.

“Speaking of you going to Pantona,” Tristan said, “I can’t leave for Dorin before Martin and Count Aaron return. I can’t leave the Queen that vulnerable.” Grandfather nodded. “You know my other stipulations for the contracts.”

“Of course,” Trey said.

“Then we’re done here,” Tristan stood up and we all three walked out. We got out into the street. “How many times has he threatened to have you killed?” Martin laughed.

“I lost count around my twentieth birthday,” he shrugged. “He’d never do it, for all our problems, Trey would never forgive him.” I smiled. “You’re sure about this?”

“I am,” Tristan said, but his voice was caught in his throat. “It worked for my parents, after all.”

“They were lucky,” Tom said softly, “and your mother was an uncommon person.” Tristan smiled. “Whoever she winds up being, you know I will welcome her.” Tristan nodded and looked at me.

“When I’m a countess,” I muttered, “I’m going to ban him from Pantona,” I said, “Trey and the Aunts may come, but if he sets foot on my land I’ll throw him in a dungeon.”

“I don’t think Pantona has a dungeon,” Tristan laughed as we started walking.

“Well then I’ll build one,” I scowled, “and throw him in it. As if Annalise would dismiss you,” I sighed, they were both laughing. “It isn’t funny,” I said.

“It’s a little funny,” Martin smiled. “I am glad to finally have you on my side though, Thena.” I looked at him and nodded, we walked back to the palace and I got to my apartment to find Aaron waiting.

“How did it go?” He asked. I sighed and straddled him on the couch and kissed him. “Oh that well?”

“I yelled at my grandfather again,” I said, “I don’t think he’ll put up with a third time.”

“Do you still want to ban all Dumanis business in Pantona?” He asked. “We can if you really want to. The tenants might be disappointed but they’ll get over not having anyone to sell animals or crops to, or buy city goods from.” I shook my head.

“No, we can’t ban the family,” I muttered, “but he insulted Lisette!” We kissed again.

“Thena,” he whispered as I moved my hands down to his waistband, “we have to go to dinner with my mother.”

“We can be quick,” I assured him. “I need you.” He smiled and ran his hands through my hair, and I pushed his pants down. His hands moved up my thighs.

“You’re the most incredible woman,” He mumbled, as I arched my back letting him into me. I writhed, riding him until we both finished. “I’m going to miss you so much.” He whispered.

“I’ll miss you too,” I said and stood up and went to clean up. “Why are we going to your mother?”

“Lisette wants her to get to know The Prince,” he sighed and leaned back.

“And this isn’t possible in the banquet room?” I frowned. It wasn’t that I didn’t love an evening with Countess Olivia, but the idea of more family time is overwhelming right now.

“According to my mother, no,” he said and stood up. I laughed. “Thena,” he said softly, “what if we got married, and you came back to Pantona with me?” I looked at him.

“I want that more than anything,” I said softly. “Really, I do.” He smiled. “But my brother,” he sighed, “and Martin and Lisette.” He nodded. “And your father, do you want us to get married before he’s at rest?” He sighed and hugged me around the waist.

“I suppose not, but if he hadn’t died we’d be married already,” he pointed out. I shook my head.

“That’s morbid, my love,” I said, “go, I have to get presentable.” He sighed and kissed me again.

“Fine,” he muttered. “See your later.” I swatted him on his way out.

Riding and War

We were riding into the valley behind the city, and I felt so spectacularly free. This kind of movement had been restricted for so long. Tristan had left to go settle things with Grandfather, and while Lisette had seemed disturbed at first, she seemed to have calmed down. She paid light attention to her cousin but mainly to Prince Eric.

“This could work,” I said, sounding more relieved than I realized I was to Aaron. His eyes were still narrowed. “Aaron, she has to marry someone.”

“I know,” he said, “I don’t have to like it though.” I laughed. “I am trying to convince myself this is better than Harran.”

“Where is Harran?” I asked. “Surely he was invited?”

“No,” Aaron said, “We thought Tristan was coming and I thought two suitors more than sufficient.” I smiled and glanced over at Marina, she looked more confident than I’ve ever seen her, glowing under the attentions of Lord Raymond and Lieutenant Lestoff.

“Did we bring food?” I asked. Aaron shook his head.

“You brought a bow, love, I assumed you’d handle it,” he teased. I laughed and spurred my horse on. I loved to hunt, I think it’s one of the gifts that the God gave me, as I’m also quite good at it. I managed to grab a few rabbits and even spotted a stag.

Maybe a hunting party at another time, a whole stage was a bit much for lunch. Returning to the party, I asked Marina to light a fire, which I had to admit was her to let her show off a bit. Lord Raymond immediately asked for her help teaching him magic. She agreed.

Once we returned to the palace, a page handed me a note.

Thena,

I think it’s settled. Come to Trey’s. Bring The General if you can convince him.

Tristan

I sighed and walked into the barracks. Martin was sitting behind his desk, working on something.

“We’re invited to dinner,” I said sitting down. He looked up at me.

“No,” he said, “you’re mother is going to torment my dreams forever for not stopping this, I won’t break bread on it.”

“It worked out alright for her,” I pointed out. “Maybe it will for Tristan.” He stood up and frowned going over to the window. “What were you looking at?” I picked up the paper. It was a report from Phania.

“He’s building an armada,” Tom said, “and recruiting land troops, solidifying the alliance with Rastan to block the North.” I swallowed.

“Prince Eric told Annalise his brother wants an engagement by the fall,” I said, my throat dry. “You think if it isn’t settled they’ll invade?”

“Daniel wants The Sword on his side,” he explained, “he always did. He thinks he can control Annalise through her marriage to Eric, but he’ll do it through fear, or domination if he must.” I nodded.

“Have you told her?” I asked. He frowned and shook his head. “You have to, she needs to know.”

“I will,” he said. “Trey’s tonight?” He sighed, I sat up and nodded. “Fine, I need to talk about this with him too. As helpful from a rallying point Duchess Norvine would be, it’ll be your family who builds our Navy.”

“Fine,” I said, “if that’s what it takes to get you there. Don’t wear a uniform, you know they hate it.” I stood up and walked out of the office and through the training yard. One of the guards, Helena, I think her name is, was supposed to be on rotation, but instead she was leaning against a pillar and Harran was pushing her hair behind her ear.

“Recruit,” I said, cause her to stop mid giggled and straighten herself, “Your highness,” I grinned at Harran.

“I’m sorry Commander,” she mumbled, “Prince Harran was asking,” she exhaled, “I’ll return to patrol.”

“You do that,” I said as she walked away. I looked at him.

“You didn’t have to ruin my fun,” he said.

“You could wait until she’s off duty,” I said. He sighed. “Aren’t you supposed to be courting Lisette?”

“So you’re on my side?” He said as we walked towards the palace. “What about your brother?” I looked at him.

“I’m on her side,” I said. He nodded. “And my brother should not figure into the equation.” He looked at me. “Dance with her tonight. If you let Prince Eric monopolize her,” I trailed off.

“Yes, yes,” he shoved me gently, “I don’t need to be told how to woo, Athena, especially not a girl I had in my hands three years ago.”

“She’s a queen now,” I said with a shrug. “Might require some rewooing.” He laughed.

Dueling The Lieutenant

I got up early, even poking Aaron to see if he wanted to get up to train with me. He grumbled and pulled the covers over his head and I laughed before getting dressed and heading down to the yard.

Tristan was waiting for me and I smiled at him. He shrugged back and pointed. I noticed Lieutenant Lestoff was standing waiting. I smirked and I saw my brother laugh as I walked over.

“Hello Lieutenant,” I said, “may we help you?”

“Lady Athena,” he said and then stopped, “Or Commander Dugarry? Which do you prefer?”

“Lady Athena,” I said, truly shocked, most people, men especially simply said what they were comfortable with. He nodded. “I heard you wanted to spar?”

“I wanted more than that,” he winked, “but having spent some time with you intended, I can see that would be hopeless.” I laughed. I liked him, almost in spite of myself. “Luckily Dovetail is not bereft of interesting women.”

“Hm,” I nodded and picked up a staff and tossed it to him. He caught it easily. “Well, as long as you’re entertained.” He smiled and bowed I return it and Tristan met my eyes.

“Flatten him,” my brother grinned. I laughed. He liked very few things more than when I beat someone new. Particularly if the new person is at all arrogant. He struck first, I blocked. Then we both pulled back and I struck.

“Tell me,” I said, “why now?” He smiled.

“Well, we couldn’t very well come while Brayton was in charge,” he shrugged, going for my legs and I jumped over the staff. “King Daniel never officially acknowledged him.”

“But she’s been here for months,” I said, landing a hit on his shoulder. He winced but then twirled the staff and reset.

“You’re new to diplomacy if you think we could run out of Rastan the moment we heard the news,” he pointed out. “Though I notice none of them are here.” I nodded and winced as he hit my ribs. But then I caught his staff with mine, disarmed him and crossed them at his neck. He inhaled sharply and then laughed.

“Yield?” I said.

“With pleasure,” he said and extended his hand, I took it and shook it. “I look forward to our ride later.” I nodded and he turned and left. “Will, um,” he inhaled stopping, “will the Duchess be joining us, do you know?” I stopped and nodded.

“I believe so,” I said.

“Oh,” he said, “well good then.” He kept moving. I heard Tristan exhale sharply.

“I can’t go,” he said. I glanced at him. “I’m going to see Grandfather, to, well, make plans.” I looked at him and then hugged him. “I’m not saying I’ll do it, but I’ll hear him out.” I nodded.

“Good,” I said, “I think it’s the right thing, Tristan, really, I do.” He nodded. “What will you tell Lisette?”

“The truth,” he sighed, “that I finally understand what she’s been saying, that we can’t be together, no matter how much we want it.”

“And Marina?” I said. He sighed and frowned.

“Marina knows, and understands, somehow, I think, she always will,” he said. “I don’t like him sniffing around her though.” I threw my head back and laughed.

“He’s a flirt, I’m sure she can handle it.” I said. He snorted. “It really is a shame I met Aaron first, because I think the Lieutenant and I could have had a great deal of fun together.”

“Oh Cornan,” he gagged. “I don’t need to know that.” I giggled as we headed back to the palace. Martin was waiting for us with his arms cross. “Morning General.”

“You,” he pointed at me, “Upstairs,” and his eyes narrowed at Tristan, “you and I are going to have a conversation.” I swallowed. “Now, Athena.”

“Thomas we aren’t children,” Tristan said.

“I am aware of that,” he said, I looked between them. “Athena, I won’t ask again.” I swallowed and walked away it isn’t as though I won’t be able to hear them. “Quiet” is not the word for when Thomas and Tristan argue.

“And what, precisely, would you have me do instead?” I hear Tristan.

“That isn’t the point!” Thomas bellows back.

“No, to you the point is merely knowing you were right and Trey was wrong, but it’s my life,” Tristan roared back. I stopped running into Countess Olivia.

“Heavens,” she said, “what is that about?” I sighed.

“Tristan proposed to Lisette but now he’s going to go to Dorin and possibly marry a girl the Dumanis picked out,” I explained. Another yell and we both winced. “The General is, not pleased.”

“I’d gather not,” she said. “Lisette is taking the Prince riding?” I nodded. “I will talk to Thomas.” I frowned. It might calm him down.

“And selling yourself to some featherheaded debutante solves the problem, how, Tristan?” Thomas yelled. I winced, and it might not.

A Bargain

This second ball isn’t nearly as fun as last night, mostly because I’m spending it entertaining my cousins. Aaron basically abandoned me to glower at Prince Eric, who I’ve noticed has made Lisette laugh at least four times.

“Athena,” Alex said sitting next to me, I smiled at him softly, “I was hoping to speak to Tristan, I had an idea, about when he comes to Dorin.”

“I wouldn’t bring it up,” I said softly. He frowned. “He’s not, quite open to the idea yet.” He sighed.

“That complicates things then,” he muttered, “do you think he’ll come around.” I glanced out on the balcony and saw him and Marina.

“It’s possible,” I said, “I hope so.” He nodded. “You have someone in mind?”

“Carolina DuKarras,” he said. I cocked my head to the side. “I’m, or I was courting her sister before I came here. Caro doesn’t want to stay in the guild, you see.”

“Making Tristan a very suitable match,” I said, “his wife would be expected to join the guard.” Alex nodded. “I’ll mention it, soon.” He nodded. As the night wore on and Annalise made a plan to go riding with the Prince in the morning I realized that Tristan was gone, and so was Marina.

“I thought we could maybe,” Alex started, and I sighed.

“I’m sorry, Alex, I have to go,” I sighed. “Apologize to your mother and to Aunt Drea?” He nodded and I rushed out of the ballroom and then up to Annalise’s apartments. I knocked on Marina’s door and she answered it looking flustered, but, well, at least she was still dressed.

“Are you feeling well?” I said, giving her the easiest out I could. “You left so suddenly.”

“It’s been a trying day,” she squeaked, I let her in on the plan for tomorrow. She nodded quickly. I sighed and pushed the door open.

“Have a lovely evening, Tristan,” I said. He looked up at me from the bed. “You should go back to your room, before you do something you regret.” After what was easily the most honest and the worst conversation with Marina ever I marched back to my rooms where Tristan was waiting.

“That was a ridiculous display,” he said practically jumping off the couch.

“Excuse me?” I said.

“What I do, what Marina does, it’s none of your business,” he said. I glared at him.

“I told her,” I said, “since you left out the fact that you asked Annalise to marry you today.” He looked at her.

“You don’t understand,” he said. “You couldn’t.” I stared at him.

“That you’re treating Marina as a consolation prize,” I said, “or worse as revenge.”

“It isn’t like that,” he mumbled, “I care about Marina, I always have, just because you didn’t understand that and thought it was all a joke.” I looked at him. I tried to remember the years we’d all grown up together, and a few pictures did enter it. Tristan laughed when I teased about Marina’s crush, but he never dismissed her, even sought her out sometimes in the evening. He did carry that damn hanky she gave him, and wrote to her the whole time we were in Pantona. He’d avoided William, staying out of her way, but I’d assumed that was about Annalise.

“Oh, Tristan,” I sighed, “what are we going to do with you?” He sighed.

“Pack me off to Dorin to marry Alex’s leftovers?” He raised his eyebrows. “Charlotte told me.”

“First of all, Charlotte talks too much,” I said, “and second of all, as far as I know Alex was after the one they want for you’s sister, not the girl herself.”

“Ah,” he said, “still, it’s Dorin, and a year of doing everything Grandfather wants, and not being with you or Martin or,” he looked out the window and we both walked over to it. We heard Annalise laughing from the courtyard.

“Or Lisette,” I said softly, “or Marina.” He nodded. “But, Carolina DuKarras wants to leave the guild.” Tristan looked at me. “That’s why Charlotta and Alex thought of her for you.”

“I’ll think about it,” he said softly, I sighed. “I will, Thena, really, I promise, but you don’t actually want me to leave do you?”

“No,” I said, “of course not, but I want Trey and the aunts to stop bothering us,” he laughed, “and I want you to be happy.” He nodded. “And if you’ll be happy with Marina, I know she’d be happy with you.” He sighed and flopped down on the couch and then Aaron walked in.

“There you two are,” he grumbled, “I just spent forty minutes following Lissette and Prince Eric around the grounds because her bodyguards had mysteriously disappeared.” He was so flustered and angry we both burst out laughing. “It’s not funny, this isn’t my job I’m supposed to lecture her about how this whole thing will infuriate the Provenance leaders, you two are supposed to make sure she doesn’t get assisnated by foreign suitors.” Tristan laughed so hard he snorted.

“I’m sorry, my love,” I said as he collapsed between us, “but I think that if Prince Eric attempted to assassinate Lisette, she could very well handle it on her own.” He looked at me and then at Tristan.

“Tristan, it’s well after midnight, she’s probably expecting you,” he said.

“She can expect away,” Tristan said and stood up, “I’m going to bed, I have a lot to think about.” He squeezed my hand and smiled at me. “Good night.”

“Good night,” I said softly. He left and Aaron rolled over and looked at me.

“I barely saw you tonight,” he said softly.

“I know, I’m sorry, Tristan was being impossible,” I said. He nodded and kissed me.

“You’ll just have to make it up to me then,” he grinned and swept me off my feet.

The Foolish Ones

I walked into my rooms exhausted. I’d heard Marina had settled the Prince’s crew in the barracks, but I was even more surprised when I saw Tristan sitting on the couch with a dazed look on his face.

“What is it?” I asked and sat down with him. “If you’re going to brood the whole time Prince Eric is here I’ll stab you, I mean it.”

“I,” he swallowed, “I think I ruined everything,” he whispered. “We were so happy last night and, I just, it just popped out.” I stared at him.

“Oh, Tistan you didn’t,” I said. “What did she say?”

“What do you think?” He said, “Do you think if Lisette and I were engaged I’d been sitting here?” He stood up. “I knew she couldn’t, but well,” he sighed. “I love her, Athena, I can’t help it. I’ve tried not to,” I looked him, saw how desperate he was.

“I know that,” I said, “but Tristan, you can’t go on like this.” I looked down, “Maybe, there’s an answer, maybe you should,”

“If you say I should go to Dorin I’ll punch you,” he muttered. “I won’t do it. Mama would have hated it, and besides,” he looked down, “it’s not like I don’t have other options here, you’ve said it yourself.”

“Don’t do something you’ll regret,” I warned him. He looked at me. “Something else you’ll regret.”

“You don’t understand,” he said softly. “You never did.” I looked at him.

“Maybe not,” I said, “but there’ll be a special room in Amina’s court for you if you hurt her now.” He glared at me and left after that. Tristan and I don’t argue often, but when we do, it’s dangerous.

“You know, Athena,” Aaron said walking in, “I think that these Phanians might not be entirely trustworthy.” I looked at him and laughed in spite of myself. “I’m serious, showing up the day after the coronation, at dawn like that? And the other two,” I looked at him. “They’re both already panting after Marina.”

“My love,” I said, “you are welcome to a brother’s protective suspicions for Lisette, I’d never deny you,” he flopped on the couch next to me, “but don’t deny Marina some fun at being chased. She never really has been, I think it will be good for her.” He laughed. He kissed me. “Tristan asked Lisette to marry him?”

“Took him long enough,” he muttered, “and terrible timing, she said no?”

“Of course she said no,” I said, “You know she can’t, he knows all the reasons, he’s just throwing a fit.” Aaron sighed.

“Mm,” he said, “we’re leaving soon.” I nodded. “Martin is coming, and Mama is going to ask Duke Lestat.”

“I see,” I said softly.

“I want you to come,” he said rolling onto his side. “It could be months, Thena and I don’t want to be without you that long.”

“I love that you asked,” I said softly, “really, but with you and your mother and Martin gone, who will look after Lisette?” He smiled.

“Marina,” he said softly, “Tristan, Elodie, Harran, the Phanians,” he kissed me between each name.

“Incompetent, all of them,” I sighed. “So sad.” He laughed. “I don’t want to be without you either, Aaron, but I can’t go, not now.”

“I know,” he said, “but I wanted you to know I wanted you there. I’ll always want you there.” I kissed him.

“Ugh,” I sighed standing up. “Who’s idea was it to have five balls? And to invite my family to all of them?” He laughed.

“Lisette’s I think,” he said, “though your family, I blame you.” I laughed. “Are you on duty?”

“No,” I shook my head. “Aunt Andrea sent us all new gowns.” I smiled, “I think you’ll enjoy mine.”

“You Aunt Andrea is a mad genius,” he said with a grin. “Every woman in the guard in her gowns and next week half the court will buy from her.” I laughed. “Thena,” I looked back at him, “we didn’t talk about it.”

“There’s nothing to say, I’m not and I wasn’t,” I shrugged.

“Are you relieved, disappointed, what?” He asked. I looked at him.

“Both,” I admitted, “I want to have your children more than anything, but the timing is not ideal.” He smiled.

“I suppose not,” he said softly. “I’ll see you later.” I nodded. He walked over and kissed my forehead. “I’m disappointed too, for the record.” I smiled at him and hugged myself close.

The Ever Coming

“What if he hates me?” Annalise said, pacing in front of the palace. Tristan was staring grimly ahead and I was sitting on the steps.

“He won’t hate you,” I said, she looked at me. “Lisette, you have to calm down.” She sighed and looked at Tristan. He wouldn’t make eye contact with her.

“He might,” she said and bit her thumbnail. “I’ve been thinking about him my entire life, you know?” I smiled softly at her.

“I’d bet he’s thought of you a few times as well,” Tristan managed, it was like the words choked him. “How could he help it?” She looked at him.

“Tristan, I,” she swallowed, I cleared my throat, reminding them that I was present. “I wasn’t paying attention, I should have Dreamed it.”

“Don’t be ridiculous,” I mumbled, suddenly feeling guilty. Maybe I should have known? I’ve been distracted lately and haven’t even considered communing. “From everything you’ve told me about your conversations with Rana, this kind of surprise seems exactly her style.” She sighed and straightened her gown again. She looked lovely, even more than yesterday, even, with her hair in a braid circling her head and the Crown of The Goddess on her brow. She was somewhere between that simple farm girl we met a few months ago and the great queen and savior she was when crowned.

Marina was exceptionally good at her job. As I spoke the group of them came walking up. Marina looked bouncy and anxious and Aaron had that twinkle in his eye that he gets when he wants to make trouble. The Prince himself was a bit of a surprise. Shorter than I’d expected, and much better looking. My Dorin cousins knew him a little and mostly talked about how he was reserved and uninteresting he was. (I have this sinking feeling it’s more about him not wanting to marry any of them rather than The Prince’s actual personality.)

He and Annalise greeted each other coldly and Tristan managed to be aloof but not rude, something he struggles with even with people he’s indifferent to. As we all disassembled Aaron jogged to catch up to me.

“I’m going to train, are you coming with me?” I said, shocked. He never trains anymore. Says now that the war is won he doesn’t need to.

“You’re going to have trouble,” he grinned. I rolled my eyes. “The Princes’s step brother came here with the expressed purpose to woo you.” I snorted. “I’m serious.”

“And you allowed him to speak like that?” I said and crossed my arms.

“I assumed you would shut him up yourself my love,” he grinned. “Which will be most amusing for me,” he crept close to me and kissed me gently. I giggled.

“And suppose I find Lieutenant Lestoff more attractive than yourself,” I whispered. He laughed.

“I’m afraid that you have given me your word,” he teased. I laughed. “Thena, this is going to be complicated.” I nodded. “There are already people rumbling that if she marries someone not Cammadie, or at the very least Westran the guilds will be unhappy.” I nodded. “I know you hate politics, and I know Tristan hates it even more, but,”

“They’ve spent a whole twenty seconds in one another’s company, Aaron,” I said softly. “Let’s not have their vows written and my grandfather in open rebellion just yet.” He nodded. “I do have to go, I swear if any Phanian officers flirt with me, I will send for you immediately before tossing him on his ass.” He laughed.

“Excellent,” he muttered and kissed me. “I should see to my mother, we’re trying to decide when to go home,” I nodded. “I wish you could come with me.”

“I wish I could too,” I said softly. I’d been longing for Pantona. For the quiet, and the fields and hills. For the excited bustle of market days and even the cool shocking looks from other girls who Aaron had slept with. And for the life that we could maybe already have there, if his father hadn’t died.

“Thena,” he whispered and kissed my forehead. “What has Martin said to you?” I looked at him.

“Excuse me?” I said. He sighed and rubbed the back of his head. “About us? He’s not sure I’m making the right decision.”

“No, I know, he’s told me as much,” he sighed, “I mean, about, well, about my mother.” I sighed and shook my head. “I just, she said he’s coming, to Pantona.”

“He hasn’t told me anything,” I grumbled, “I know he’s been spending time with Trey again.” Aaron nodded. “I don’t think it has anything to do with your father.” He swallowed and smiled sadly.

“How do you always know what I’m thinking?” He asked.

“I’m just that good,” I said softly. He smiled. “They weren’t together, Aaron.” He sighed. “I know it, he had,” I shook my head, “after Trey, there were men and a few women, but no one permanent, and never your mother, I would have noticed.”

“And why is that?” He asked. I blushed.

“Because I watched her,” I said softly, “you weren’t here, you couldn’t understand. Your mother was, this brilliant light in the darkness. And the rumors about her, about how she’d been this great beauty and could have been queen but gave it up because she loved your father, it was entrancing.”

“So you were always a romantic under all that sarcasm?” He raised an eyebrow. I shook my head.

“Infuriating boy,” I said and walked away towards the training field. The new recruits were better than I’d expected. So many were eager to serve Annalise.

“Lady Athena,” Prince Harran walked over to me, I smiled at him and dipped lightly, “if I am to understand, I have competition now.”

“You always had competition your highness,” I said. He laughed. “But yes, The Prince of Phania arrived this morning.” He shook his head.

“Typical,” he sighed. I laughed.

“Do you know him?” I asked, tossing him a wooden sparring sword. I like sparring with Harran.

“Prince Eric?” He said. I nodded. “No, my older brother Anders met him at Rastan. I went to Pantona.” I laughed.

“I see,” I nodded and strucked first, he blocked me.

“Lady Athena?” I turned hearing the Prince’s voice. I spun and was face to face with him. “Am I interrupting?” There was a laugh in his voice.

“No,” I said, “of course not, your highness. Do you know Prince Harran, from the Borderlands?’

“No,” he said. “Your Highness,” Harran nodded at him. “I was wondering if you might know, my men, as we came so quickly we didn’t make arrangements, and they could stay on the ship but it’s not comfortable, and,” I laughed and shook my head.

“I’d imagine not, but I’m not the one to ask about such things,” I said.

“You’re head of The Queen’s Household, aren’t you? Or did I misunderstand?” He swallowed.

“Lady Athena is Captain of Her Majesty’s Guard,” Harran grinned, “if you need a bandit caught, she’s your woman.” I poked him and then nodded towards the terrace of the palace, where Aaron was standing talking to Marina.

“It’s my betrothed, Count Aaron or Duchess Marina you want for that sort of thing,” I smiled, “I’m hopeless at logistics.” He nodded. “Is there something else?”

“I feel as though I should apologize, your brother,” he looked down, “I didn’t realize you were estranged from your family in Dorin.”

“Don’t mind Tristan,” I said, “we aren’t, well, I’m not. With Tristan it’s more complicated.” He nodded. “Is there anything else?”

“I suppose not,” he said softly, “my brother would be interested in this.” He gestured to my sword.

“He’s very welcome,” I smiled. Harran snorted. The Prince bowed and turned and walked away. “They’re peculiar.”

“I think they’ll find us confusing,” Harran grinned, “Anders said they’re very formal.” I nodded.

“Yes, but you thought we were formal,” I said and kick his knee knocking him to the ground. He laughed. “You know if you’d have asked her last week she’d have taken you, I think.”

“No she wouldn’t have,” he said. “She wasn’t going to have anyone until he came.” I nodded.

Loose Ends

It’s been fun for me, watching William Santino court Marina. If nothing else, it’s been fun watching the way it makes Tristan angry, in ways even he can’t quite name, and I thought that they were doing well together, but this morning when she sighed saying she didn’t know how to end things I was shocked.

But her explanation shocked me less, that William was ready for sex and she wasn’t.

I’m not surprised Marina feels she isn’t ready. She’s grown up so much, but she’s still awfully young and childish. And despite her protestations, I don’t think she’s quite over my brother, who spent the whole day with a smiling determined look on his face, focused entirely on Lisette.

So, we’re doing this again.

As Aaron sat quietly opposite me staring at him, he smirked.

“What?” He asked.

“I think I can fix several problems at once,” I said and marched over to him. “Master Santino.”

“Lady Athena,” he said, “is there something I can help you with?” I swallowed.

“I know the queen was happy to have you here,” I said softly. He looked at me. “But you once said you would be happy to do me a favor.”

“Lady Athena,” he sighed, “I was never much of a spy, just an attentive inn keeper, who was well placed. I didn’t even spot,” he looked down.

“I don’t have need of a spy,” I explained, “I have need of an attentive inn keeper, well placed,” he smiled. “Do you miss Pantona?”

“A little,” he shrugged. “But I believe I’ve reached the end of my usefulness there.” He glanced at Marina, twinkling with several of the suitors.

“And you think you’re more useful here?” I said sharply, “Or perhaps in Brightcoast?” He snapped his neck to look at me. “If your talent is being well placed, there are more useful places. Including Pantona.”

“Is this an order, Commander?” He whispered. I looked at him sternly.

“No,” I said, “it is however a favor, being asked by your future lady.” He nodded shortly. “I doubt either of your hearts will be broken if you say good bye tonight.”

“I’ll consider it,” he said.

“Do that,” I smiled and walked away. I went over to Martin who looked and me shook his head. “What?”

“I don’t know that I approve of this,” he said, carefully flicking the charm around my neck. “I had a very long conversation with Trey after that stunt you pulled at dinner with your grandfather. He seems to think I’ve let you run wild and become disrespectful.”

“He’d be right,” I said and crossed my arms. “I’ve heard you say worse to him. I only told the truth.” He laughed.

“Your Grandfather is allergic to the truth,” he said, “they’re threatening to disinherit you.”

“I’m terrified,” I raised my eyebrows. “I’ll threaten to have Aaron cut off Pantona, my inheritance is safe.” He sighed. “You and Trey are talking?”

“Don’t change the subject,” he pointed at me. “You aren’t a Countess yet, Athena, and perhaps you can afford to cut off the guilds but the crown cannot.” I sighed. “You’ll go, before he returns to Dorin, you’ll apologize.”

“Fine,” I mumbled, “but can I threaten to cut him off just a little?” I held up my fingers spaced apart.

“No,” he said, “you’ll say you lost your temper and that you’ve always appreciated the support of your family and that you cannot wait for the future little lords and ladies of Pantona to be wholly loyal to the family Dumanis.” I wrinkled my nose in disgust.

“All this so Trey will keep speaking to you?” I said. “I think you’d do better with my mother in law to be, Thomas.” Countess Olivia was still dressed in black, though she didn’t wear a veil to such a celebration. She still looked deadly pale.

“Don’t tease about things you don’t understand,” Martin said, his face red. “She’s in pain. She doesn’t need reminders of old wounds.”

“I can’t force you to be happy,” I said and kissed him on the cheek. “But while you let the past dictate everything you do, don’t meddle with my future.”

The party continued, before I was able to convince Aaron to leave, I noticed Annalise and Tristan slip away. I sighed. That would only end badly. Aaron and I drifted off to sleep and I slept dreamlessly only to be woken up by Elodie gently poking me.

“What?” I muttered, “Elodie, I’m not on duty.”

“It isn’t that,” she said, and swallowed, “Lady Marina said to come find you,” she glanced at Aaron who was now rubbing his eyes, “both of you, and Tristan if,” I sighed, “The Phanians are here.”

“Well,” Aaron yawned. “This should be interesting. Lisette will be pleased.”

Finally

Before going to Lisette’s room I slipped to the office where Elodie was looking over the arrangments for the coronation.

“Commander,” she said and stood up.

“No,” I shook my head. “This isn’t about,” I sighed and we sat down. “I need a healer.” She raised her eyebrows. “My cycle is late.”

“Ah,” she said, and set her pen aside. “Have you been using Whip Willow?” I raised my eyebrows. “Well?”

“No,” I muttered. She nodded and knelt down.

“And Count Aaron, I mean, I assume Count Aaron,” she said, I nodded, as her hands moved to my abdomen, “he’s finishing, well, still in you.” I nodded. “That’s quite careless Lady Athena.”

“I’m aware, thank you,” I mumbled. “Not a problem you’ll ever have.”

“No,” she grinned up at me, “though I’ve my own frustrations in that area.” She winked.

“She still won’t tell her father?” I sighed.

“No,” she said. “Mercy is, alas, still concerned he’ll disown her. As if that matters now, he never had land, and Annalise wouldn’t let him disinherit her for it.” I nodded.

“I’d support you no matter what, though you can do better,” I said. She smiled. “So, am I?’

“You aren’t pregnant,” she shook her head and stood up. “But start using whip willow, I know it’s disgusting.” I wrinkled my nose. “Lady Marina said she’s working on something, a potion rather than the tea.”

“I’ll put up with the tea,” I said softly. She nodded. “I have to admit I’m at least a little disappointed.” She sighed. “What if I can’t?”

“Athena, you’re perfectly healthy,” she shook her head, “you’ll have plenty of children.” I frowned and leaned back in my chair. “What does your grandfather say?”

“He’s over the moon,” I muttered. She nodded. “Aaron thinks it’s all silly, the contract, and my dowry from the family. I know you don’t approve either.”

“I don’t, but only because you’re too good for them,” she shrugged, “it matters to you though, so it matters.” A bell rang and we both stood up. “We’re going to have a queen to serve, My Lady.” I hugged her tightly.

“Yes,” I smiled, “finally. I should go, I’ll see you on the other side.”

Possibilities

I woke up in Aaron’s bed the morning of The Coronation. I felt him breathing against my neck and smiled. To know this is settled will make peace, which I don’t know if I built for, easier. I slide my hand to my stomach.

I haven’t told him. We’ve been careless, too happy, and full of grief and relief. And I don’t know if it’s real. My period should have come last week, and it didn’t.

“Come back to me,” Aaron whispered in my ear. I laughed and rolled over.

“I didn’t mean to go away,” I said, he smiled and kissed me softly. “Aaron,” I whispered, “If,” I sighed, “I know we said we’d wait for the wedding and I’m happy to.” He brushed my hair out of my face. “But, well, we may need it to be earlier.”

“Oh,” he said, “oh I see.” I swallowed. “Are you sure?”

“No,” I said softly, “I’m late is all, I’ll see a midwife, but I didn’t want,” he nodded.

“Did you think I’d abandon you?” He asked. I shook my head.

“Never,” I said softly. “You would have by now.” He smiled and pulled me close.

“What do you need me to do?” He asked. I laughed.

“Nothing,” I sighed and stood up, “I suppose if I’m not I’ll have to start using Whip Willow, ugh,” he laughed.

“Or we could just stop sleeping together,” he shrugged. I glanced over my shoulder at him and rolled my eyes. “It’s a suggestion.”

“Mm,” I sighed and looked in the mirror.

“Are you in uniform today?” He asked. I piled my hair on my head.

“For the ceremony,” I explained, “then a gown for the ball.” He nodded. “Why?” He rolled over and pulled out a box. “Aaron,” I muttered, and opened it.

There was a small pendant on a green ribbon, with the crest of Pantona, wheat with a sun rising behind it, on one side, and two A’s intertwined on the other.

“You don’t have to wear it if you don’t want,” he said, “I don’t know if it’s still done.” I kissed him.

“I love it,” I said, “and I don’t care, I’ll bring it back in fashion, put it on me please.” He laughed and slid on the betrothment necklace. It isn’t really done anymore, not even at court, but I love that he did it. I have my mother’s still.

“You’re my family now,” he whispered, “whatever comes next.” I kissed him gently. “With the coronation settled, I want to announce it officially.”

“Alright,” I said, “but we have to do the negotiations first.”

“Right,” he mumbled, “that.” I raised my eyebrows. “Me and Tristan?”

“You can’t negotiate for yourself,” I shook my head. “You have to choose someone.” He sighed and ran his hands through his hair. “This is important to me.”

“I know that love,” he said, “and I suppose Lisette can do it.” I looked at him. “Do you want to do it before, or after I bury my father?” That was sharper than I expected from him.

“Well, that depends, doesn’t it?” I snapped back. He exhaled. “But if I’m going to have your child, it makes no difference to my people if it’s born before we marry. That’s your side of it.”

“Please don’t be mad at me today,” he said walked over and slid his arms around me. “I become irrelevant today, as if it wasn’t made clear by Harran last night.” I giggled. I liked Prince Harran, the heir of border tribes.

He knew Lisette and Aaron well, as his father had sent him to Pantona three years ago. While she’d managed most of the suitors coldly and politely, she’d clearly gone weak in the knees around Harran. I couldn’t say I blamed her, he was well over six feet tall, completely muscled and was also charming and clearly adored her. If I weren’t spoken for, I’d have gone for him myself. But the fact that anyone could turn her head besides Tristan made the truth of the future painfully clear for Aaron.

She would marry, and he wouldn’t be the person she turned to first anymore.

“Fine,” I sighed, “we’ll discuss it later, and we both have work to do today. I’ll see you at the ball.” He kissed me, and his hand slid to my stomach.

“I’d be happy, Thena,” he said. I smiled at him. “Truly.”