With All Due Respect

Marina

I started to get undressed when I felt Damian’s lips against my neck. He undid my necklace clasp and then began unlacing me.

“I’ve been thinking,” he said softly.

“Mm,” I closed my eyes.

“I may resign my post,” he said, “and go to work for my father. Then I could live here, but still sail.” I turned around and kissed him deeply. “Nothing’s final, love.”

“That you’re even considering it is my victory,” I whispered and he walked me back to the bed. “Damian,” I said gently, “let me undress.”

I want to undress you,” he said softly, pulling my gown down. “I hate that you ever wear clothes.” I giggled as he kissed me.

“I’m sorry M’Lady,” a guard ran in. I sat up and pulled my dress, “Commander Dugarry is here.” I stood up.

“Did she say why?” I asked. He shook his head. I exhaled. “We’ll be right down.”

“Meaning no offense,” he mumbled, “She’s requested Lieutenant Lestoff remain here.” I looked at him worried, but he nodded.

“Alright,” I said and walked downstairs. Athena was staring at me. “What is it?” I said softly. “Thena,” I said softly. “Why didn’t you want Damian to come?”

“The ships are here,” she said, her voice dry. I stared at her wide eyes. “Some admiral has already come ashore to speak to Lisette.” I stared at her. “I’ll speak to Lefty, but he can’t leave, Eric and Raymond are sequestered at the palace too.” I swallowed.

“And the others?” I said.

“At the barracks, the same situation,” Athena said softly, “until we know more, we can’t risk.” I nodded. “Do you want to tell him?”

“He’ll want to go to Eric,” I whispered. She nodded. “Can’t we escort him?” She shook her head.

“No, I’m sorry, these are the orders,” she looked so sad. It’s moments like these that I remember that she’s a soldier, first and foremost. “Marina,” she said, “be quick about it.” I nodded and hurried back upstairs.

“What’s wrong?” Damian looked at me. “Rina,” I swallowed.

“There are ships,” I said softly, he exhaled, “I have to go to the palace, Athena said you have to stay here until we know more.”

“You don’t think,” he whispered, “Marina,” I swallowed. “I didn’t send for anyone.”

“No one thinks that,” I said, “but Athena has orders.” He exhaled. “I’m sorry, I know.” He pressed his forehead to mine. “I have to go.”

“I know,” he whispered. “I love you.” I nodded and grabbed a cloak and Athena and I moved quickly up the beach to the palace and into the throne room. Annalise had changed. I smiled. The Crown of The Goddess was on her head, and she was in her green battle dress.

“Where is he?” She asked Athena.

“Being held in the dining room,” Athena said simply, “we wanted everyone here first.” I walked over and kissed her gently on the cheek.

“Are you alright?” I said. She nodded. “You can do this.”

“Right,” she mumbled and settled in on the dais. Martin, Athena and I flanked her, Aaron standing vaguely off to the side. The guards opened the doors, and a man in a highly adorned Phanian navel uniform.

He was tall, and dark skinned. His hair was twisted into dread locks and he had an almost arrogant smirk on his face.

“Your Majesty,” he said, “my apologies if I disturbed your sleep.” Annalise had her steely Sword Face, as I’d come to call it, on. “I am Admiral Kieran Franz.” I swallowed and looked at him, trying to get any sort of read, but he felt blank. “I am here as an emissary from King Daniel.”

“You are welcome Admiral,” she said, “I am confused, though, is King Daniel unhappy with his current emissaries? I can’t believe that the prince and my honored cousin were somehow lax in their duties here.” I glanced at him, seeing if he would call the bluff, that Raymond and Eric were both conspicuously absent. “And if you’re an emissary, why is there a fleet of war ships blocking my harbor?”

“This isn’t a blockade,” he said, “should anyone wish to enter the harbor they will be allowed to pass.” Athena snorted. “Of course Lady Athena, that would be a concern of yours?”

“I’d be curious to see you try to stop my grandfather, sir,” Athena said. I looked at her with caution. “However, yes, it is good to know.”

“Of course,” he smiled. “Regardless, we haven’t come to disrupt, but we believed there was some cause for concern when it came to Prince Eric and Lord Raymond.” Annalise’s eyes narrowed. “Where are they, now, come to think of it?”

“I didn’t feel the need to wake them,” Annalise said. His face flattened. “But of course we can send for them.” She nodded to Aaron who walked out of the room. I swallowed, but my throat was dry. Something was very wrong.

“Oh, good, it’s you, Franz,” Eric smiled walking in. He looked amused, which made me nervous. “Here I thought my brother was serious about an invasion.” The Admiral scowled at him. “You’ll have to forgive Lord Raymond, he’s been spending a good deal of time at the University and isn’t in the palace at all this evening.” I exhaled, relieved. “Your Majesty,” he smirked at Lisette. “I hope you’re well.”

“Well enough,” she said gently. “And yourself?” He grinned.

“Eminently satisfied, thank you,” he smirked. I looked at Athena who rolled her eyes.

“Your Highness,” The Admiral cleared his throat, “The King And Queen had concerns,” Eric’s eyes narrowed at him.

“You are suggesting that my brother and sister in law sent a flotilla of war ships because they were concerned about me?” He said. “I’d rather you not insult me, or Queen Annalise with such pretense.” I inhaled, I’d never really seen Eric be royal before, it was a bit mesmerizing. “I assume there’s at least a letter?” The admiral nodded. “Good then, when I know what my brother wants of me, and what I intend to do about it, I will inform you.” He looked at him. “You’re dismissed.”

“I outrank you, boy,” The Admiral growled. “You’re barely a captain, I won’t be dismissed.” That’s when Annalise stood up. She was practically floating.

“This is my kingdom, Admiral,” she said, “you’re in this room, your men on that beach on my permission.” She glanced at Martin and Athena. “May the gods have mercy on you if you think two of Cornan’s champions can’t handle you.”

“Of course, Your Majesty,” he said and bowed. “I’ll take my leave and await an answer.”

“Do that,” she said and he turned and left. She sighed and collapsed into Eric’s arms. He laughed. “He seems pleasant.”

“Oh very,” Eric nodded, “always liked me too.”

“I missed something,” I said.

“From not speaking to happily in love in an evening,” Martin sighed, “I am very grateful to not be young anymore.” Eric looked at me.

“Is Lefty alright?” He asked. I sighed.

“I don’t know,” I said, “I ran over here.” He sighed and looked at Martin.

“You think Lefty’s the one who got us here?” He said. Martin sighed and shrugged.

“Believe it or not your highness,” he said gently, “I don’t rule out anything when there’s half an armada on our doorstep.” Then he looked at me. “Athena, please send a few guards to the manor and to the university. I think it will set everyone’s minds at ease if Lieutenant Lestoff and Lord Raymond are here.” Athena nodded. “Your father too?” He asked.

“No,” I croaked. “No, I don’t think that will help.” This was my father’s greatest fear, I realized. I swallowed and sat down, dazed.

If war was coming, I didn’t know what would happen next.

Invasion

Annalise

I felt entirely limp as Eric propped himself up on his elbow and grinned at me. I’ve never felt like this, so spent and full of pleasure and happiness at the same time.

“You don’t need to look so smug,” I said. He laughed and pushed my hair off of my face. “This isn’t because of you, necessarily, I like sex.” He laughed.

“So I could see,” he said and kissed me gently. “I like you like this,” he said. I arched an eyebrow at him and he kissed me again. “You’re more vocal than I expected.”

“You’re more forceful than I did,” I said. He kissed me. “I’ve wanted this for so long.” He smiled and kissed me again, moving to my neck.

“So what now, my love?” He asked. I sighed.

“Marriage, I suppose,” I stretched. “If you’ll have me.” He grinned and pulled me close.

“It doesn’t have to be tomorrow,” he said softly, “if you aren’t ready.” I kissed him gently again. “I don’t want to wait forever though.”

“Of course not,” I said. “But perhaps a bit? We should get used to each other, and,” I looked at him, “well, I’d like to meet your mother and sister.” He laughed and rolled onto his back.

“Oh, they’d like to meet you too, I’m sure,” he said softly. “I’d like to bring Katrin here, honestly, to live.” I looked at him. “It’d be better for her, I think.”

“Why is that?” I asked quietly. He frowned.

“She’s in Princess Karina’s household now, which is fine,” he sighed. “But I don’t want the court to get it’s hooks into her. She’s special, that would be allowed here, not so much at home. But until something more permanent can be arranged, under Elana’s care is as close to safe as possible.” I kissed his neck softly. “The only thing I’d regret about us is bringing my family’s mess to your door.”

“I don’t know that my family is any better,” I laughed and straddled him. His hands slid up my body. “Marina is practically losing her mind, I’m reasonably sure that Uncle Les’s is long gone, Olivia and Aaron would rather live out their days half a continent away and Brayton wants me dead.” He laughed.

“When you put it like that,” he said, “we really are perfectly suited.” He kissed me. I whimpered as his hands slid onto my hips and positioned me. “But I believe we both reached that conclusion earlier.”

That’s when there was a frantic knock on the door, not like Athena’s gentle knock earlier. No this was urgent. I sighed and quickly slipped a robe on. I opened the door.

“Thomas?” I said, seeing Martin standing in front of me. “What is it?”

“If I could have a word,” he mumbled. I nodded and stepped into the parlor. “There’s no easy way to say this.” I swallowed. “There are at least twenty Phanian warships in the bay and a small landing party is on the beach.”

“What?” I said. “That’s, that’s not possible.” He looked at me. “What do we do?”

“Is he in there?” He asked, raising an eyebrow. I nodded. “Damn, and Raymond is at the university and Lestoff already at the manor. It would be easier if they were all together.” I swallowed.

“Thomas, you don’t think,” I exhaled, “he wouldn’t betray me.” He looked at me.

“I haven’t ruled anything out yet,” he said softly. “But I also haven’t even begun to reach a place where I could make an accusation.” I nodded. “Annalise,” he said softly, “we don’t know what this is yet. But you need to tell him, and Elodie is going to guard him here. Mercy will dress you, do you understand me?”

“Yes,” I croaked. He kissed my forehead and went to leave. “Thomas,” I said softly, he stopped. “What would my father have done?” He exhaled.

“He’d have trusted my judgement,” he said softly, “but that got him killed, so I can’t push you to do that.” I nodded. “You’ll be fine.” I swallowed and walked back into the bedroom.

“I heard most of it,” Eric said softly and pressed his forehead to mine. “What do you need from me?”

“Please swear it wasn’t you?” I said. He nodded. “I know you’ve been angry and,” he swallowed.

“I didn’t,” he said, “I didn’t even write my mother that we were arguing because I was worried that this might happen.” I kissed him gently. “But I’ll stay put until I’m called for.” He cupped my face. “Highlight the Goddess in your dress, whoever it is, they’ll likely be a pious idiot.” I laughed.

“Thank you,” I whispered. “Goddess, I was mostly just worried about what I was going to tell Harran.” He laughed. “I don’t want war.”

“I know,” he said. “Go get dressed, I’ll be a good boy.” I smiled gently and walked back out into the main room. Elodie and Mercy were waiting. Mercy dressed me quickly, my green uniform gown laced up quickly and the crown of the Goddess on my head. We walked down to the throne room and I walked in and saw Aaron looking at me.

“You’d be well within your rights to say you told me so,” I said. He shook his head.

“This isn’t quite how I wanted to win the argument,” he said. “I’m sorry. I was an ass.”

“I’m sorry too,” I sighed, “I was reckless.” He shrugged. “Friends.”

“Always,” he hugged me. “Are you ready? Athena went to fetch Marin.” I nodded and settled on the throne, trying my best to gather my dignity.

Romance

Athena

After dinner I suggested that we walk on the beach, because Aaron is so on edge, and barely speaking to Lisette still. He was so there when I was dark and I want to be there with him, too. But he’s sullen and edgy and I miss his sparkle and laugh.

“They seemed nice,” he said softly, “Brea and Nika? Do you like them?” I smiled.

“I like Nika,” I said, “or at least I think so. Brea seems a little more high handed, and she wants to take Harran away and I can’t forgive that.” He laughed.

“Mm,” he sighed, “yes, you’re too protective of your friends.” I looked at him. “I was glad to see Eric at dinner.”

“Me too,” I said softly, “I don’t know that it will amount to much. Marina seems to think he doesn’t have it in him to forgive her.” He nodded. “Do you?” He sighed.

“I think I have already,” he admitted. “I’m just punishing her now,” I laughed. “And I miss her.”

“I can tell,” I said. “I got a letter from Tristan today. Carolina DuKarras accepted him. They’re planning to be married in Dovetail, after us.” He smiled.

“After us?” He said. I nodded. “I’ll pressure William about the place in Pantona for them. And she’s joining the guard?”

“That seems to be the plan, though I suppose it’s up to Lisette,” I shrugged, “and Martin.” He nodded. “Are you going to enlist?” He laughed.

“No, darling,” he said, “I don’t think I will, if you can forgive it.” I laughed.

“Of course,” I said softly and kissed him gently. “If it comes to war though,” he exhaled.

“I’ll fight beside you,” he whispered, “and her, always, but knowing I can walk away,” he drifted off. “And I can’t pledge more to her, if these past few weeks have shown me anything it’s that I can’t,” he sighed. I smiled softly at him.

“I know,” I whispered. He looked at me. “This is very romantic, by the way,” he laughed and kicked the sand.

“We’ve been a little pathetic on the romance front lately, haven’t we?” He smiled. I laughed as he pulled me close. “Better?”

“Oh, much,” I nodded. He kissed me. “Aaron,” I muttered.

“Yes, Athena,” he said softly. He traced my jaw gently with his thumb. I exhaled.

“The game you and Lisette used to play, if she was really Lisette,” I said softly. He nodded, “What would we be in that world?”

“I can’t imagine I wouldn’t have dropped everything to pursue you the minute I met you,” he smiled. “Without Lisette between us, it might have taken me longer to get your guard down.” I laughed.

“It certainly would have,” I said with as much dignity as I could muster. He laughed. “But I can’t imagine not softening to you eventually.”

“Mmm,” he nodded and kissed me.

“I don’t understand why you sent for me, then,” we both slunk back behind a pillar hearing Brea, following after her was Harran.

“Because I needed to know I could trust whoever it was,” he said, “and I trust you.” She snorted, Aaron looked at me.

“You needed someone with the sight and you knew Nika wouldn’t come without me,” she said, “I guess I was fooling myself, thinking that you actually wanted to see me.”

“Brea,” he said gently, “what am I supposed to do?”

“I don’t care what the elders say,” she straightened up, “or even you, I won’t marry Rian just because you changed your mind.”

“I never made up my mind,” he hissed. “You made it up for me, but things changed.”

“Yes, obviously,” she said. “And I’m just supposed to bow and smile at the woman who’s ruined my life, how excellent.” She marched back into the palace.

“I know you two are there,” Harran called out. We stepped out. “Does Lisette know?”

“I think she guessed,” Aaron grimaced, “though I doubt she thought you were celibate between leaving us in Pantona and getting into her bed three weeks ago.” He sighed. “You might have warned both of them, though, for your own sake.”

“Brea wasn’t wrong, though,” Harran sat down and looked at his feet, “I knew we needed Nika and she’s not likely to do anything without her sister. It wasn’t really fair to her.” I looked at him. “She should marry my brother though, she’s being stupid about that.”

“Maybe she is,” I said softly. I left the rest unsaid. He was being stupid too, he knew Lisette didn’t love him, and wouldn’t keep him with her for the long term. Aaron looked at me. “Nika seems game though.” Harran laughed.

“I think Nika will do well here, honestly,” he admitted, “She never quite fit with the tribes. The Witches are always a bit on their own, but Nika,” he shook his head. “She was exceptional, which made her lonely.”

“No wonder I like her,” I smiled, “I’m exceptional too.” He laughed and I heard Aaroon snort derisively.

“Athena,” Marina walked out. “I have to get Papa home, but I made Lissette a sleeping drought, could you bring it to her?”

“I’ll bring it,” Harran said. Marina stared at him.

“Did she ask for you?” She said softly. He frowned. “She was upset today, I wouldn’t press.” He sighed.

“You’re right,” he mumbled and slunk out, probably back to his own rooms.

“Our little diplomat,” Aaron smirked. Marina sighed and shrugged.

“I know Eric went to speak to her,” she said, “I can’t imagine Harran showing up to help her to bed would help that conversation along.”

“No,” I said. “I don’t imagine it would.” I inhaled. “The kitchen will have it?” She nodded. “I’ll bring it. Although, isn’t it Mercy’s job, technically?”

“Technically,” Marina shrugged, “but she and Elodie disappeared ages ago and you’re right here.” I laughed.

“The lady has a point,” Aaron sighed, “if we’d adjourned to bed immediately instead of taking a walk maybe you’d get out of it.”

“Hm,” I sighed, and kissed him. “I’ll meet you there then.” He grinned. I walked inside and up to Annalise’s apartments. The two guards at the door let me past, as I held the pot of tea that Marina had brewed up.

“Lisette,” I said, gently but loud enough to penetrate the door, as I knocked. There wasn’t even much of a sign of Eric, which was a little worrying. “Lisette, Marina sent me with the potion for you.”

She opened the door, looking flushed and wrapped in a sheet. I cocked my head to the side.

“I don’t know that I’ll need it after all,” she said and took the pot. “But thank you, and I’ll thank Marina later.”

“Of course,” I said, “should I send Mercy up?”

“I’m alright,” she said softly. “Really.”

“Hello, Commander,” Eric walked over and hugged her from behind. “Is everything alright?”

“Your Highness,” I said. “Yes, just doing my job.”

“I’m fine,” Lisette said, “we can speak in the morning.”

“We certainly will,” I raised my eyebrows and sighed as she closed the door.

Resolution

Annalise

I don’t know that I’ve ever sat at a dinner this awkward. Everything is being done formally, which Olivia saw to, not something we’ve done since coming to Brightcoast. Since we’re honoring Brea and Nika they’re sitting on either side of me, and Harran walked in with Brea on his arm.

I’m trying to will myself to be jealous, but it simply won’t rise in me. It’s more annoying, that he has another demand on his time and a bit frustrating that he didn’t tell me that he’d sent for someone he had a history with.

And as if it wasn’t enough to have her staring daggers at me, and Harran not meeting my eyes, Eric’s decided to return to being seen in public tonight. My heart stopped in my chest when he walked in, he didn’t look terribly well, better perhaps than when we last talked, but it was clear that anger didn’t suit him at all.

I found myself longing for a smile and wink from him to get me through the night. It wouldn’t come, I knew that much.

“Your Majesty,” Nika said softly and I turned to her, “I think we all got off on the wrong foot this afternoon.”

“Yes, I think we did,” I said softly. “I’m sorry, I often feel pulled in ten different directions.” She smiled and nodded. “We do need your help though, rather desperately. Marina and I have something of an adhoc magical education. Mastero Anselm did as well as he could on his own for me, and I think the sisters in Dovetail went as far to the line as they could safely with her.” Nika nodded. “But it was lonely, and we’re often simply muddling through.”

“Of course,” Nika nodded. “And we are here to help.” She sighed. “Are you really sure, about the gods?” I nodded.

“Reasonably,” I sighed. She made a quick sign against evil. “Harran said you serve Amina, or at least, don’t shy from her realm?”

“The Dark Lady is as much a power as her siblings,” she shrugged, “she must be honored for that, her realm is crucial to any balance in this world.” I looked at her. “Have you ever seen a ghost, Majesty?”

“I used to hear my mother,” I admitted softly, “her voice, screaming as she died.” Nika nodded.

“Our time honoring the dark lady is about helping shades and ghosts cross over,” she explained, “it’s about them, not about her. But she’s vain, she likes tribute.” I laughed.

“I suppose she and I might have more in common than I initially gave her credit for.” I smiled and Nika laughed.

The final course was served and some music started, there was dancing, but it wasn’t formal, I put my foot down at a full formal ball. There was one planned for high summer in a week. I stepped out of the room onto the terrace and breathed in the air.

“If you keep carrying the weight of the world you’ll break in half,” I turned and saw Eric, leaning against the door. “And you’re so tiny, Anya, how will you manage?”

“I have to, if you’ll recall,” I shrugged, “Sword of The Goddess, and all.” He nodded and made a soft affirmative noise. “Eric,” I whispered as he stepped over to me. He pressed his forehead against mine. “I’m sorry.”

“I know,” he said, “I accept your apology, I do, I don’t know if I can forgive you.”

“Yet?” I whispered. He sighed.

“Yet,” He mumbled, “or ever.” I swallowed. “I wish I loved you less. Then I think I could let it go, for everyone’s good. But Gods, Annalise I love you, and I want you to love me. Maybe it’s unfair that I want you to only love me.” I swallowed. “But I can’t change that. I won’t share the parts of you I don’t have to. You’re already a queen and hero, there’s already such a small part of yourself that you even can give to a lover.” I swallowed. “And I want it to myself.”

“But I do only love you,” I said. He sighed. “I just can’t be as cautious as you, it’s not who I am.” He kissed me and pulled me close. “Eric,” I whispered, he was holding me so close.

“I want you so badly, my darling,” he said, “I’m sorry if you ever felt like I didn’t.” I looked up at him.

“What do you need from me?” I asked. “If my saying it can’t convince you, what do you need me to do?” He sighed and pulled away. “I can,” I swallowed, “I can send him away, if you,” he looked at me.

“No,” he shook his head, “no that’s clearly not the answer. Tristan’s gone, after all, and that didn’t fix anything.” I swallowed, “I won’t leave, I’m not giving up on you, on us,” I nodded.

“Hold me again,” I said gently. He smiled sadly and pulled me close. “I’ve missed you so much.”

“I’ve missed you too.” He said and lay a gently kiss against my neck. “I should go.” He went to pull away and I pulled on his shirt to keep him close. He exhaled and looked down at me. “Anya,” he whispered, his voice thin, but he was smiling.

“Kiss me again,” I said. He kissed me deeply. I arched into him. “I’m aching for you.” I whispered.

“Your bed is a bit crowded at the moment, isn’t it?” He said. I swallowed. He ran a single finger across my jaw, then down my neck. “Are you aching for me, or simply aching?” I looked at him. “This is what I can’t forgive, Annalise, I know it’s unfair, but if you wanted me, and not just sex, you wouldn’t have continued with Harran.” I stared at him.

“I’m sorry that I’m not the perfect pure little princess who you dreamed and fantasized about,” I said sharply. “I’m sorry that I’m a flesh and blood woman who wants to be satisfied. I’m sorry that I fell in love before I ever even saw you, and then that choosing you wasn’t ever enough.”

“That isn’t what I meant,” he snapped back. “Goddess you’re the most infuriating woman I’ve ever met.” I smiled softly at him.

“Again, all apologies, your highness,” I said. As if he wasn’t infuriating either. “If you’ll excuse me.” I walked back inside and thought about looking for Harran, and then my heart sank. I didn’t want him. Well, I did because I knew it would feel good, to go to my room and wrap myself around him and be lost in the bliss of his touch, his kiss, him inside of me.

But it wasn’t Harran I wanted. Not really.

“Are you alright?” Marina walked up to me. I swallowed.

“I think I need to go to bed,” I said softly. “Make my excuses?”

“Of course,” she said softly. “I’ll bring you something to help you sleep if you like.” I nodded. “Lisette,” she said as I walked past her, “it’s going to be alright.” I exhaled and walked up to my room and undressed quickly and climbed into bed.

I tried to sleep even without whatever Marina would bring me, but sleep wouldn’t come. I wondered if even without my asking for him Harran would be here. Probably not. He hadn’t before, we always had to make plans. I sat up hearing a knock.

“Marina, just come in,” I said and stood up. I walked and opened the door, Eric was standing there. “Not Marina.” I said.

“No,” he whispered and pulled me close and kissed me. I exhaled. “We weren’t finished.” I looked up at him.

“Weren’t we?” I said, he shook his head, the look on his face was one of wicked amusement.

“We were not,” he said, I swallowed. He’d been in my apartment before but never my bedroom. “I shouldn’t have brought Harran into it. It isn’t about that, it isn’t about you and other men at all.” I sat down on the bed. He walked over. “I don’t simply want to be a place holder because you hate to be alone.”

“I do hate to be alone,” I said softly, I sat up on my knees and wrapped my arms around his neck. “But I don’t want just anyone, I want you.” I kissed him again. He pushed me down under him onto the bed.

“I can see that,” he teased as his hands slid up my thighs, “or feel it, as it were.” I exhaled as his fingers brushed gently against me.

“Eric,” I mumbled, “don’t stop,” he did though and moved up my body, sliding my plain white shift over my head. The way his fingers felt sliding up, gently brushing my skin. “If you try to leave now, I’ll have you executed.” He chuckled.

“I thought you wanted to avoid war,” he mumbled, he was sitting up and unfastened his pants. I giggled. “Killing me would ensure it.”

“Frustrating me further will ensure your destruction, Your Highness,” I said leaning to sit up. He grinned and pushed me down again, this time gripping my wrists. “Eric,” I squirmed against his hold.

“You’ve accused me of being cold,” he said, “of not wanting you.” I swallowed and he kissed me. “I know that if you choose me, what my place will be.” I exhaled. “Besides you, behind you, kneeling to you first and always.”

“Yes,” I said, squirming more as he continued to hold me trapped under him. He was pressing against me, hard, and hot. I knew I should say more, but I couldn’t. I was so stimulated, I just wanted him\

“But perhaps that’s not what you want here, hm?” He whispered in my ear. “In bed you don’t have to be a queen or a hero, you can be a woman.” I exhaled. “My woman.” He met my eyes. “I’m going to take you now, Anya, as many times as I like.”

“Please,” I managed before he kissed me, his tongue tasting my mouth and then pushed into me. I groaned. He wasn’t big, I realized, but I didn’t care, he fit, beautifully and fully, as he thrust into me. I arched into him, thrusting up as he moved down. “Eric, Goddess, Eric,” I screamed as he moved his mouth to my neck. I cried out as he finally released my wrists, I grabbed onto his shoulder. “Don’t stop, please, don’t stop,” he slowed his stroking in and out of me then and pulled out. “Why did you stop?” I whispered. He grinned wickedly.

“Don’t give me orders,” he said. “Everywhere else, every other facet of our lives, I’ll be your consort, your humble servant, and do exactly as you say,” he rolled onto his side, and I followed him, “But here,” he kissed and then nipped my neck, I whimpered, “here, I’ll do as I like.” I swallowed and whimpered again as he turned my face and kissed me again. “Shall we continue?”

“Yes,” I said softly, “yes please.” He bit my bottom lip gently.

“Good,” he pulled me close. “I love you.” I smiled softly, but was quickly lost in the bliss of him inside of me.

Pep Talk

Marina

We’ve all been on edge these past few weeks, but meeting with the witches seems to have brought everything to a boil. Annalise is furious, Aaron is smug with I Told You So’s, Athena’s just gone off to train, which means she’s frustrated, and it’s all I can do to not scream as loud as I can.

Instead I left and walked to the apartment Raymond, Damian and Eric have been sharing and was surprised to see Eric opening the door.

He’d been keeping to himself lately. And he looked awful.

“He’s not here,” he mumbled, “I think he went down into town.” I nodded and shifted my weight. “Can I help you with something, Marina?”

“I suppose not,” I said. He nodded. “Eric, I,” I wanted to apologize, I wasn’t sure why. He blinked at me. “Are you staying for us?” He laughed at that.

“To be honest, I’m not sure why I’m staying,” he admitted. “For you and Lefty, maybe, for Raymond, I suppose, because I’m a fool?” I looked at him.

“No one thinks you’re a fool, Eric,” I whispered gently. He frowned and shook his head.

“I am though,” he whispered.

“Have you tried talking to her?” I asked gently. He shook his head.

“I doubt that would help,” he admitted. “I think we talked too much as it is.” I looked kindly at him. “I’ll tell him you stopped by.”

“Alright,” I said quietly, “but I still think,” he laughed. “Well, you should talk to someone.” He looked at me

“How were the witches?” He asked. I sighed. “Oh, it went that well?”

“They were a little insulted that the rest of us were there,” I admitted. He nodded. “And one of them clearly has some kind of history with Harran, and she didn’t seem overly pleased to see him.”

“Uh huh,” he nodded. “And do you think my presence would have been helpful?” I bit my lip.

“I think it could be now,” I sighed, “I think she’s better when you’re around, I think she thinks more clearly, and I know she misses you.” He sighed and rubbed his face. “It might not hurt you to sober up first, though.”

“I’m not drunk,” he said. I raised my eyebrows, “right now. I was, and I likely will be, but at the moment, I am not.”

“Alright,” I said softly. “Well, might I suggest going to dinner rather than getting drunk by yourself?” He sighed. “Eric, please,” he swallowed and slid a hand against my cheek. “Don’t do that.”

“Lefty said if we leave you’re coming with us?” He said. I nodded. “That’s something of a comfort,” he left the door open and I followed him inside, “I won’t have ruined his life, Annalise didn’t ruin yours.” I frowned at him.

“Well, first of all, I don’t think that it’s a matter of you two ruining our lives,” I grumbled, “and Damian is mostly blaming King Daniel if you must know.”

“I see,” he nodded. “Well, Daniel makes for a good scapegoat most of the time.” He frowned. “Is it public with Harran?” I took the drink he handed me.

“It isn’t exactly,” she said, “it’s not like with you. Closer to how it was with Tristan, everyone knows, but no one is admitting that they know.”

“Oh how fun,” Eric nodded downing his drink. “That was so much fun for me, and I wasn’t even in love with her then.” I sighed and shook my head.

“Does she know how you feel?” I asked softly. He looked at me.

“I would assume so,” he shrugged. I groaned. “We did talk about it, but well, I doubt it matters.” I looked at him. “She chose him.”

“Because you neglected her,” I said simply. “For the love of Rana, Eric, she was in love with you too, I think she might still be, but you humiliated her. If you want her to know how you feel be a man and tell her and show her.” I stood up, “I have work to do, and you have decisions to make.” I walked outside and leaned against the wall.

“Oh, there you are,” Damian said walking over to me. “I stopped at the manor but I couldn’t find you.” I kissed him and he pressed me against the wall.

“You should get in there,” I said, “I think I convinced him to come to dinner.”

“Even you can’t work such miracles,” he laughed. I shrugged.

“You need to tell him,” I said softly. He sighed, “he mentioned me coming with you, but nothing else?”

“He won’t like it,” he whispered, “I don’t like it.” I kissed him again. “Marina, sweetheart, do you think there’s any other way.”

“That depends on them.” I said softly. “But for us to stay together and not have war, otherwise.” He nodded. “No, I don’t think there is.” He sighed.

“How were the witches?” He asked. I sighed. “Oh, well, I’ll be at your side tonight.” I kissed him.

“I’d hope so,” I said softly. “See you later.” I walked down to Annalise’s rooms. She was lying on the couch with a cool cloth over her eyes, placed there no doubt by a lazy looking Mercy who was ironing a dress. She looked at me. “Well, this is an idyllic scene.” She sighed. “You’re feeling worse?”

“People usually like me when they meet me at first,” she said glumly. “I’m very charismatic, and lovely.”

“You are both of those things,” I agreed, “but maybe witches are different.” She pulled the cloth off her face. “Where is Harran?”

“Smoothing things over with Brea,” Mercy said, “Elodie and Athena are helping the sister.”

“Nika,” I said instinctively. I knew I had to talk to her. “Lisette, I think you’ll need to talk to Eric tonight.” She pulled the cloth off her face.

“I would happily if her would speak to me!” She said. “Will he?” I shrugged.

“I tried,” I said and pulled her up.

Reception

Athena

We haven’t had any official receptions since getting to Brightcoast and I’d forgotten how tedious they are. But today we’re receiving the witches. Two sisters who Harran sent for, near our ages, which should be nice, having more people around.

The two girls who walked into the throne room were rather impressive, actually. They were both dressed entirely in black, and the taller one had long shiny straight hair, a round friendly face and a genially bounce in her step, the smaller one had her hair veiled, and a thinner face, and everything about her seems much more serious. They’re both brown skinned and have deeply arresting almost amber colored eyes.

“Your Majesty,” Harran said stepping forward. “May I present the honorable Brea and Nika Averran, Witches of The Westran Border tribe, and old friends of mine.”

I heard a sharp inhale from Marina, who was standing next to me. I wondered if she was feeling the same thing I was. It wasn’t as pronounced, as full, but the sisters’ presence seemed to add the same chill to a room that The Black Guards used to.

“Welcome,” Annalise said, stepping off the dais, “I appreciate your speedy arrival.”

“We are at your majesty’s disposal,” the taller one, Brea, said while curtseying deeply. “And honored that The Heir thought of us.” Harran looked down, almost blushing. I grinned.

“I trust your journey was comfortable?” Lisette asked.

“Very,” the smaller one, Nika spoke. “It was nice to see more of Cammadan, we’ve always stuck to the northern coast, for safety.”

“Of course,” Annalise said, but I’d noticed another shift in Marina’s body. I caught her eye and mouthed. “But I’m sure it was long, and you must be tired, please, follow me and I’ll show you to your quarters.”

Her? Marina had Dreamed a witch. She nodded sharply at me. I exhaled, I didn’t know if that was a good or bad sign. I followed after our honored guests and stood at the door as the reached the apartment.

“Is a soldier necessary?” Brea said, glancing at me. Harran snorted. “We aren’t a threat to you.”

“Lady Athena isn’t just a body guard,” Lisette said simply, “she’s also one of my closest advisors.”

“And The Champion of Cornan,” I said, Brea’s spine stiffened. “But by all means, Brea, was it? I can leave you all be.”

“Don’t be nasty,” Marina chastised me, I sighed, “Athena’s an acquired taste, for most of our lives she thought I was an idiot. But we’re good friends now.” I laughed and sat down next to her.

“I didn’t think you were an idiot,” I said. “I thought you were weak willed, silly and overly fixated on my oblivious brother.” I paused, “I was right about the one.”

“Sorry,” Raymond ran in, holding three very thick books. He looks so much better these days. He’s gaining weight and he’s always a little bit disheveled and busy, and suits him. “I’m sorry I missed the reception.”

“This is our cousin,” Annalise said with a gentle smile, “Sir Raymond Quents of Tumona.” Nika looked at him with her eyes narrowed.

“I was under the impression we were here to advise you,” Nika said, she was staring directly at Annalise, in a way that was probably unsettling, “not be a part of a council.”

“Nika,” Brea said softly. “My sister is correct, we’re not accustomed to,”

“Unless my father has changed a great deal in the past year,” Harran said, “I doubt this set up is unfamiliar to you, since Anders, Rian and I have basically been ruling for him for the last decade.”

“We thought that perhaps the vital young queen had things a bit more in hand than your father,” Brea said with a casual shrug.

“You were mistaken then,” Lisette sighed, “or at least misinformed, since as you can see, ruling is about as straightforward as herding cats.”

“My sister doesn’t mean to be disrespectful,” Nika said, “only, well, what is expected of us?”

“I dreamed you,” Marina blurted out, I looked at her, “I hadn’t Dreamed in months and then I had one, and you were in it, and well, I wasn’t sure it was you until I saw you today but you clearly are supposed to be here.”

“And I’ve been Dreaming that the Gods are imprisoned on tribal lands,” I said, “we have a feeling the two things are connected.”

“I’ve also been called several times by the Dark Lady and am not sure how to handle that,” Raymond said. I sighed and pressed my fingers against my nose. Brea laughed then.

“The Dark Lady would find you useful,” she sighed, “she’s never had much of a foothold in Phania. Too orderly and much to dedicated to Rana.”

“Brea,” Harran said softly, “please, be serious.”

“Of course,” she said, “but as I see it, you are actually extraneous here.” He glanced at Lisette.

“If the situation doesn’t suit you,” Lisette said, “you are welcome to return home,” she stood up, “but we do need your help, and I appreciate you coming.” She stood up and left, I followed after her as did everyone else. I could see the storm cloud over her head and decided to stay clear, I went down to the training field and went through some basic excercizes and was surprised when I saw Nika standing near me after a few moments.

“I feel like I should apologize,” she said. I looked at her.

“You barely spoke,” I shrugged. She smiled.

“Yes, but,” she shrugged, “my sister is,” she bit her bottom lip, “The Duchess called you an acquired taste?” I laughed. “Brea is the opposite, too sweet and then you find yourself sick from it.”

“I’m familiar with the type,” I said.

“It will be worse here,” she frowned. “She and Harran,” she sighed. I nodded.

“I picked up on that,” I said. She frowned, and picked up a staff. “Do you spar?” She smiled.

“Yes,” she sighed, “but not well enough to challenge you, I think.” I shrugged.

“How do you expect to get better?” I moved into battle stance. She smiled and move into hers and struck out at me, I blocked. “Agressive, that’s good.” I moved against her and she blocked me. “And quick.” I reversed her block and disarmed her but then felt a pressure push me away like wind. “Oh you have to teach me that.” I said as she pulled me up. She laughed.

“I don’t know if I can,” she admitted.

“Ugh, useless to me,” I winked. She blushed and looked down. “Not as bad as Marina, who isn’t even a Warrior and was given Battle Magic and Cornan told me it isn’t his gift to give.” She laughed.

“Does he speak to you directly often?” She asked as we made our way back to the palace.

“Not so often,” I shook my head. “I haven’t been able to commune anywhere but Dovetail or Pantona, certainly not here, and the Dreams are fewer and farther between.” I sighed. “We’re reasonably sure they’re weakening.” She nodded. “You fight well.”

“We’re all trained,” Nika shrugged. “Witches often have to travel from camp to camp, holdfast, even to cities, unlike many of our people. And warriors can’t always be spared to accompany us. Or so the Chieftain says.”

“Harran’s father?” I said. She nodded. “He mentioned something about his brothers and marrying witches.” Nika snorted. “No?”

“My sister would perhaps accept Rian,” Nika said, “but she wanted Harran.” I looked at her. “I’ve convinced her to stay, mostly because I want to.”

“I’m glad of it,” I said, “if only because you will be teaching me that move with the wind.” Nika laughed. “I’m familiar with having to navigate life with a difficult sibling.” She cocked her head. “My brother is,” I paused, realizing I hadn’t missed Tristan in a while. I’d been busy, with the wedding, with Lisette and Harran and containing the fallout from Eric. “Well, he can be difficult, though he’s apparently improving.”

“Apparently?” Nika grinned, “is he not here?”

“No,” I shook my head. “He’s in Dorin. I miss him.”

Consumation

Carolina

Dinner seemed to crawl, though I couldn’t help but relish the toasts to my and Tristan’s happiness, his hand protectively on my back and beaming down at me in adoration.

Or lust. It might just be lust, but at this point I’d take it.

After when we adjourn to the library, I can feel his impatience as we sit quietly and Geno DuFrey pontificates on legacy and the deep connections between The Dumanis and all merchants as well as the crown.

“You promised,” he says cheekily. I smirked. “But Uncle Geno might ruin my mood.” I giggled and sidled next to him.

“I can wait as long as you need,” I whispered and slid my hand to his thigh. “Or restore the mood, if you’d rather.” The sound he made was somewhere between an exhale and a growl. I wasn’t surprised. Andrei had very much appreciated my abilities in that department.

I’d been thinking about Andrei a lot recently. I knew I had to tell Tristan about him. And I was wondering if I’d compare the two of them, I already had in a few ways. From just our fumblings I could tell that Tristan was, well, bigger than Andrei, and as I understood it this matters to men quite a bit, but I don’t quite see how it translates to my pleasure. Not that it was something Andrei was particularly attuned to, anyway. Our nights often ended with him whispering how wonderful I was while I touched myself to finish.

“I don’t think it will be difficult,” he said softly. “How will this work?”

“When they leave,” I explained, “Emily will detain my parents and Alex will bring you upstairs.” He smirked. “They owe me.” He laughed.

“I heard,” he mumbled and kissed me again.

When we did finally adjourn, six toasts later, Tristan departed, or acted like he had with a gallant kiss of my hand, and while Mother wanted to stay up and talk more, I insisted I needed to go to bed.

I was nervous just, waiting. Should I undress? He might want to undress me, though. I did decide to talk off my jewelry and the take my hair down, when the door opened.

Tristan was standing, so tall and proud, and all of his attention was focused on me. It was spellbinding. I swallowed as he walked over and took me by the waist.

“Please don’t tell me you’ve changed your mind,” he whispered. I smiled.

“No,” I said, and we kissed again. We fell back against the bed and he began kissing my neck softly. “Mm, Tristan wait,” I whispered. He stopped and looked down at me. “I need to,” I paused and exhaled.

“Carolina,” he whispered. “It’s alright, you’re nervous, so am I.” I looked at him. “I’m not that experienced, but I’ve never had complaints.” I giggled.

“I feel like I’ve lied to you,” I whispered. He carefully pushed my hair off my face. “This isn’t the first time,” I sighed. He nodded. “And I thought I loved him, and that he loved me, but then he disappeared and,” he kissed me gently.

“I’m not going anywhere,” he whispered. I looked at him. “I don’t care, about what happened before. After what I’ve done, everything seems small.” I pressed my forehead into his chest. “We have our whole lives.” He kissed me. “And you’re so beautiful, I knew it wasn’t actually possible that the only time anyone noticed you was my idiot cousin.” I giggled. “Now, where were we?” I smiled and slowly undid the buttons on his shirt. He slid my dress off my shoulder and then past my waist. “Is this alright?” He asked.

“Yes,” I said. He pulled the rest off, then he starting touching me. I exhaled as his fingers worked me gently. “Oh, Tristan, mm,” I managed.

“You like it then?” He asked. I nodded. He kissed me and carefully moved down my body with the kisses. Each kiss felt heavy with his desire and when he reached between my thighs I whimpered and pulled back, “it’s alright, sweetheart, let me please you.” I closed my eyes as he kissed me gently and then harder.

And what came next felt so overwhelming. I was overwhelmed with haze and explosion of pleasure. I’m sure I was shouting his name. I gasped for breath when he came up and kissed my lips gently.

“Oh Tristan,” I whispered.

“Mm,” he nodded. “I’m glad you’re happy, darling.” I smiled, and my hand crept between his legs.

“And what about you?” I whispered. He grinned and rolled me over onto my back and I squealed.

“I,” he said while kissing me again, “am easily pleased.” I gasped as he pushed into me. That part was over rather quickly, but it felt much better than anything I’d done with Andrei. “Tell me,” he said, “this man who left you, was he perhaps missing part of his brain?” I giggled.

“I’m glad you enjoyed yourself,” I said softly. He stroked my hair softly. “I’m using you as an excuse to keep wearing my hair down.”

“Mm,” he smiled, “good, because I like it. I can even drop a hint that it’s the fashion in Dovetail if it will stop your mother pinning it up every night.” I looked at him.

“Is it?” I asked. He laughed.

“Sort of?” He said. “Lisette and Marina wear theirs up, but their hair is curly and often braided, so a lot of women follow that. But a lot of women, including my sister and our friend Elodie wear theirs down.” He kissed my neck softly. “I like yours, I like being able to touch it.” I smiled. “When do you want to get married?”

“I don’t know,” I said softly, “as soon as we can, I suppose. Father and your sister need to sit down before we do.” He nodded. “So after we’re in Pantona.” He kissed my hair again.

“And do you want all of it?” He said softly. “Married by my grandfather, in the guild hall? A reception here and a ball at the manor?” I rested my chin on his chest.

“No,” I said quietly, “although the look on everyone’s faces would be delightful.” He laughed. “But I’d just as soon return triumphantly as Lady Dugarry at Emily and Alex’s wedding.” I paused. “But then what are our options?

“Well,” he said softly, and kissed my hand, “A Mastero would usually preside over a guardsman’s wedding, and Anselm doesn’t seem to hate me,” I laughed. “It could be quiet, simple, in Dovetail.” That sounded like heaven.

“I like that,” I admitted softly. He pressed his forehead to mine. “What do nobles do?” He exhaled.

“The reigning monarch,” he said softly, “or a chosen, usually in the palace, or on a home estate, which I don’t have.”

“Oh,” I rolled onto my back, “that would mean,” he nodded. “Well, I think that would be an awful idea then.” He laughed.

“I wouldn’t mind Marina doing it,” he admitted, “but it would a little uncomfortable.” I kissed him.

“Yes, I think so,” I agreed. He nodded. “Will she hate me?” He sighed.

“I don’t know,” he said softly, “I hope not, I don’t think so.” I looked at him. “She’s a complicated person,” I looked at him. “I wouldn’t expect a warm welcome, though. She’ll keep her distance, most likely.” I swallowed.

“I see,” I whispered, “I suppose you have to leave, in case they check on me.” He laughed at that. “After Andrei, Mother became very strict.” He kissed my forehead.

“Alex is waiting at a tavern to toast me some more anyhow,” he said softly, and stood up. Just watching the way his body moved was entrancing. His muscles were so disciplined, nothing was out of place, I could see how each ripple would effect the next. “I’ll come for breakfast.”

“I’d like that,” I cooed as he kissed me again. “Tristan,” I said softly.

“Yes, Carolina,” he said softly.

“I just,” I whispered, “I’m so happy.” He smiled.

“Me too,” he said gently. “Get some rest.” I snuggled back under the cover. He walked towards the door. “Caro,” he said softly, he’d never shortened my name that way before, it melted me. “I don’t want to lie to you, I’m not sure if I,” he exhaled. “I want to love you.”

“I know that,” I whispered softly. He nodded. “I’m glad that you can,” I looked at him, “thank you for telling me the truth.” He smiled and left. I sighed and flopped back into the covers. I’d been content, happy to be wanted and not even thinking beyond that. But somehow, him stating outright, so plainly that he didn’t love me. It felt like I’d been punched in the stomach.

Witches

Annalise

I was startled awake in the morning to Marina calling my name out and standing over my bed.

“Good morning,” she said and tossed a simple walking dress at me. Harran woke up too and bleerily rubbed his eyes. “Your Highness.”

“Duchess,” he murmured. “Is the sun even up yet?”

“Yes,” Marina said, marching over to the windows and throwing open the curtains. “Get dressed, I need to talk to you.” I stared at her in disbelief.

“So you’re speaking to me now?” I said. She sighed and rolled her eyes.

“Clearly,” she mumbled. “We need to go to the temple, and we need Raymond and Athena too.” I sighed.

“Did you Dream?” I tried. She nodded. “Bad?”

“I thought I was going to drown,” she said. Harran rubbed the back of his head and looked at her.

“Aren’t you chosen of sea goddess?” He asked. I shushed him and went and sat down with her. “I’m just saying wouldn’t that make drowning difficult?”

“I was North, I think,” she said, “at least it was cold, and the sea was,” she shuddered, “angry and out of control, and then she said that The Dark Lady would fill the chaos.”

“Who said?” I asked. “Rana?”

“No,” she whispered, “no she wasn’t,” she shook her head, “I didn’t know her. She was all in black, and veiled, but I could see her eyes,” she exhaled. Harran was out of bed and dressed now. I looked at him.

“And she called Amina, ‘The Dark Lady?'” He said. She looked at him and nodded. “Oh, she’s a witch.”

“Calling people witches is rude, Harran,” I said.

“No,” he said and kissed me, “calling you two,” he pointed at us, “witches is rude, because you aren’t. But the tribes have witches, real ones. They commune with the newly dead, and heal and perform marriage and burial and naming rites.”

“Oh,” Marina said. “And they veil their faces and dress in all black?” He shrugged.

“Sometimes,” he said. “But usually only for official duties.” I stared at him. “What?”

“And they serve Amina?” I asked.

“No,” he said, “they serve the tribes. They don’t serve any god in particular. They’re aligned with Amina in some ways because of their rites of the dead.” Marina was staring at him. “At least one of my brothers will likely marry witches, it’s quite common for them to marry into chieftan families.”

“She said she’d grown bored,” Marina said, “and she had these eyes,” I looked at her. And Harran nodded.

“They all have nice eyes,” he mused. I elbowed him. “Not as nice as yours obviously.” Marina snorted. “You didn’t get a name?”

“No,” Marina said. “She was about my height, but that’s not guaranteed in Dreams. I used to Dream this one was ten feet tall.” She nodded to me. “She seemed to know me.”

“What do you mean, they’re aligned with Amina, but don’t serve her?” I said. Harran sighed.

“We don’t see The Dark Lady the same way you do,” he explained. “It’s not about Rana and Cornan having superiority, it’s about the triad being in balance.” I looked at him. “The Witches are as much a part of that as The Masteros. Being of the tribes they were able to mostly escape Brayton’s purges, but, well,” he shrugged. “It’s been a hard decade for all of us.” I looked at him.

“Are there many witches our age?” Marina asked eagarly.

“No,” he said, “only a handful.” I looked at him again, and touched his face.

“Ah,” she nodded, and then stood up, “I need to talk to Raymond.” She swept out of the room and then backed back in. “Thanking you for your help, Harran. Lisett, I am still angry with you, but a little bit less.” She bounced out.

“I should probably go with her,” I said and stood up, “by dinner tonight she might even like me again.” He laughed and kissed me.

“We can only hope,” he said, “do you want to send for a witch?” I looked at him.

“Yes,” I said softly, “and I trust who you choose.” He nodded.

The Plan

Marina

I was still angry with Annalise when I got home that night after dinner. I’d sent Mercy to help her get dressed and done little more than nod and smile at dinner. When we got home I started going up to go to bed.

“Rina,” Papa said, stopping me, “I think we need to talk.”

“Alright,” I said and followed him into the library. “What is it that you want to talk about?” He sighed and sat down.

“Aaron said today you’re considering going to Tumona?” He said. I sighed.

“I knew you’d object,” I said. He frowned. “I want to see where you’re from, and furthermore, I think you should go with me.”

“I won’t go back there,” he said. I sighed. “If I didn’t go back when it could have spared us all,” he closed his eyes, “why would I go now?”

“Because I can’t go alone,” I said softly. He looked at me and sighed. “Because I might have to spend the next year lying and maneuvering in a place I don’t know. A place I do know won’t be safe for me.” He looked at me.

“What are you planning?” He asked. I sighed.

“If Annalise refuses the prince, or if he decides he can’t take her,” I shook my head, “well, her anymore, I’ll go back with them. I’ll present myself for the alliance,” he wrinkled his brow.

“And your Lieutenant doesn’t mind this plan?” He said. I pressed my lips into my mouth. “Don’t misunderstand me, it’s not a bad plan. It’s actually quite a good one. Daniel could always be distracted by something new and shiny.”

“Damian doesn’t love the idea,” I admitted. “But he understands it.” He nodded. “The excuse of visiting Tumona, well, that simply makes the most sense to get me there.” I sat down. “I do want to go though. I want to see Vacana, see the temple. It feels important.” He smiled.

“Marie and I left for good reasons,” he said softly, “they’re not,” he exhaled, “it’s not a good place, for girls like you. The sisters there, the temple,” he shook his head, “it’s cold, and detached. They don’t want Seers to be human, to feel.” I looked at him. “I don’t want to see you hollowed out.” He was sitting on the couch now, he looked exhausted. I knelt in front of him and took his hands.

“Papa,” I whispered, “I won’t be hollowed out, I’m not,” I looked at him. “We don’t have to be afraid.” He pressed his forehead to mine. “I’m strong, you raised me strong. The Goddess made me strong.” He smiled softly. “And it may not happen at all.”

“Oh my sweet girl,” he said softly.

“Besides which, surely Queen Elana has changed a few things?” I said. He snorted. “She’s your cousin and Raymond seems human enough to me.”

“He got out young,” he said, “and he’s a boy.” I laughed. “My cousin,” he exhaled. “Her mother, even more so, will take kindly to my returning to the island.” I smiled.

“You’re overthinking this,” I said, “I promise.” I kissed his forehead. “I’m going to bed.”

“You can tell Lieutenant Lestoff he can simply escort us home, rather than slip in through the servants quarters,” he smiled coyly at me. I blushed.

“I have told him that,” I explained, “but he still thinks you don’t like him for some reason.” He laughed. “Good night.”

“Good night,” he said. I walked upstairs and undressed and tried to stay awake waiting for Damian, but instead fell almost instantly to sleep, and even more importantly, for the first time in what felt like ages, I dreamt.

I was standing on a beach. Not our beach, one covered in rocks, the sea in front of me had drifts of ice. A large wave was forming, and a girl was standing next to me. She was dressed all in black, even veiled in it, except for her very vivid brown eyes, which met mine.

“You see how unsettled they become?” She said, her tone was even, calm, as if we were finishing a conversation we’d been having for a while. “The Dark Lady will fill the vacuum of chaos, as is her right.”

“But if she rises,” I choked out against the cold air. The other girl shrugged.

“Who can say?” She said. “But hurry, will you? I’ve grown bored.” The wave crashed taking me with it and I tried to scream but instead found myself choking on sea water.

“Marina,” Damian’s panicked voice called me back as I woke up, gasping for breath, and screaming, shaking, and sweating, “Marina, please, calm down, love,” I met his eyes and sobbed, and he pulled me close. “Oh my darling,” he sighed, “was it bad?”

“Awful,” I said. “I saw,” I swallowed and realized I couldn’t tell him. Something about, her, felt like a betrayal. “I can’t remember, but it ended with a wave taking me.” He nodded and stroked my hair, I rested my cheek against his chest. “I tried to wait for you.”

“The Dream didn’t want to wait,” he said with a dark chuckle. I missed him. “And you were busy today, plotting.” I looked up.

“You’re angry with me,” I said. He looked at me again and kissed me softly.

“No,” he said, “I’m angry at Eric, for thinking he could ignore Annalise’s desires because of his own insecurities. I’m angry that I’m the son of a ferryman and whore so I’m dependent on him to give you what you deserve. I’m angry that Daniel is rash and stupid and would rather force unhappiness on all of us than acknowledge his daughter’s fate and ability.” I kissed him gently. “But I’m not angry with you.”

“We’d be together in Phania,” I said quietly. “It would have to be secret, but,” he laughed, softly this time, but still that humorless dark laugh.

“Maybe,” he said, “but more likely they’d keep me busy, away from you. They likely know about us by now, and if you’re there for Eric,” he sighed, “they won’t want me near you.” I looked at him. “And that would be worse than leaving you here, being close enough, just out of your sight. Or even worse in the same room but not able to touch you, or talk to you.” He sighed. “Torture.”

“War would be worse,” I said softly.

“I know,” he said. “Maybe they’ll make up.”

“Maybe,” I said softly. “I hate this.” He exhaled. I kissed him gently. “My father said you don’t have to slip in, you know.” He smiled.

“It will be good practice.” He teased. I swallowed and clung to him until we were both sleeping.

Proposal

Carolina

I woke up and walked downstairs to the parlor, where Father was sitting at his desk scowling over another letter, while Mother hummed happily over her embroidery. I hadn’t seen Emily, which meant she was probably still in bed.

“Good Morning, Caro,” Mother said with a grin, “a note for you.” I smiled and took it. Tristan sent notes most mornings. I looked forward to them almost as much as his visits.

“Thank you,” I said and opened it.

Dear Miss DuKarras,

I hope this finds you well. If you’re available some time today, I would very much appreciate a private conversation, followed, if possible, by an interview with your father.

Please respond promptly. As you saw yesterday evening, I am low on patience in regards to the matter I wish to discuss.

You Humble Servant

Commander Tristan Dugarry

“Father,” I said, he looked over at me, “did Lady Athena’s most recent letter meet your standards?” I swallowed. I hoped he didn’t see how much I was blushing. At a dinner party that Cassidy Weirs threw last night, Tristan had practically bitten the head off of Galen DuTrin, who’d remarked that the commander seemed singularly focused, when surely there were other amusements available. He’d later kissed me so fiercely, I thought my gown would catch on fire.

I could easily live the rest of my life vexxing him, if it meant I could get more kisses like that.

“Yes,” he grumbled, “she’s being quite generous, a place in The Guard if you want it, a townhouse in Dorin and a place, exact location to be determined on her husband’s land.” Mother dropped her embroidery. “Is he going to propose? Or has he already?”

“He asked to see me today,” I said, “and then to speak to you after. So I think he’s going to, yes.” Father nodded.

“And you’d take the place in the guard,” he said, “I assume. I know his grandfather was hoping you’d influence him into the busissness.”

“I don’t think he has any interest in that,” I said, “but that isn’t what I asked.” He sighed, as Mother glared at him.

“I am comfortable with the terms, yes,” he said, “and if you’re going to accept him, I won’t push back.” I nodded quickly. “Are you going to accept?”

“Oh don’t be silly,” Mother said, “of course she is. The boy’s here nearly every day, and she’s been walking around with her head in the clouds.”

“I have not,” I said. She rolled her eyes. “And I do plan on saying yes.” Mother pressed her hands against her mouth.

“Whatever shall you wear?” She said exclaimed, “and we must get your hair up.” I twirled an end around my finger and thought of Tristan’s hands tangled in it.a v

“He likes it down,” I said softly. She nodded. “I hadn’t considered what to wear.” She frowned.

“I wish there was time to find something new,” she sighed. “Go wake your sister, I’ll consider it.” I nodded and ran up to Emily’s room. I was excited to tell her. I burst open the door, thinking I’d see her with the covers over her head. Instead I saw a very surprised Alex sitting up quickly, while Emily, horrified jumped to her feet.

“Good morning to you both,” I said, flouncing to and plopping in a chair. Emily swallowed.

“Oh you won’t tell Papa, will you Caro?” She said. I glanced at Alex. “We’re getting married anyway, after all, and well,” I glanced at Alex, who at least looked marginally ashamed of being caught.

“Of course I won’t tell,” I said, “but he should slip out, Mother wants to see you, we have to pick something for me to wear.”

“Ah,” Alex said, standing up and pulling his pants on. “Tristan has gathered his courage then?” I rolled my eyes.

“Tristan marched into Dovetail on the day The Queen captured Lord Brayton,” Emily said, “I’m sure he’s not afraid of Caro.”

“I’ve met Brayton,” Alex said and took my hand and squeezed it, “Caro is much scarier.” I giggled. “My love,” he kissed Emily. She smiled as he slipped out the door.

“How often does that happen?” I raised my eyebrows.

“Not often,” she said, “never really, last night we just got more carried away than usual.” I nodded. “Are you excited?”

“I am,” I said softly. She smiled. “Em,” I whispered, “I worry about my leaving though.” She looked at me. “I know you love Alex, and he loves you, but that family,” I drifted. She sighed.

“You’re marrying into that family too,” she pointed out.

“It’s different and you know it,” I said. She looked at me, slightly amused. “You could come with me, we could get away.”

“That’s what you want,” she said softly, “it’s never been what I wanted, if it was, I could have had it.” She’s right of course. “Tell mother I’ll be right in, but I think the green dress, with the gold sash. The Uniform colors. He should know where you stand.” I’m so used to my perky little sister that I forget this side of her. The merchant side, cold and calculating.

“Right,” I nodded.

After my attire was chosen, the decision was made that Tristan would come after lunch, and when things were settled we would send for Alex, and his aunts and uncles. Not the old man, who wouldn’t deign to come into this house until after the wedding.

Emily and Mother posed me on a bench under a flowering tree. The whole thing felt stupid and faked and not like Tristan and I at all, with our blunt conversations and long walks, but I’m tired of fighting with everyone. I just want him.

And when he walked through to the garden, dressed in his simple training uniform, I couldn’t help smiling. He looked so shy and yet also firmly sure of himself.

“Hello,” he said softly.

“Hello,” I managed to exhale. “You wore the uniform.”

“You like the uniform,” he said softly. I nodded. “Carolina, I,” he swallowed, “remember, when we first met and I said I didn’t like games?” I nodded. “I want to marry you, do you want to marry me.” I swallowed.

“Yes,” I said softly, “yes, I do want to marry you,” he smiled and pulled me close and kissed me. His hand slipped to my backside and then my thighs, still over my skirt, I hadn’t let him under it yet. “Tristan,” I whispered, “not here.” He sighed, resting his forehead against mine.

“I want you so much,” he said. I smiled, Emily owed me for this morning, so I knew tonight wouldn’t be a problem.

“Tonight,” I said, “but now you have to talk to my father.” He groaned.

“Tonight,” he said softly, he lips barely brushing my ear. “You promise?” I nearly relented there. But the idea of my first time with Tristan being rushed and against the tree, his hand over my mouth so no one could hear me.

“I promise,” I exhaled.