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.”

The Dinner

We walked quickly down the market to get to Uncle Trey’s house, and I wasn’t sure why I was so nervous.

“If he brings up the dowry, you don’t have to say anything,” I said softly. Aaron looked at me oddly. “I mean, this isn’t the negotiation.”

“I’m sorry, what?” He said. I sighed. “The dowry? Like, your dowry?” I nodded. “It’s something that’s negotiated?”

“Yes,” I sighed and straightened his jacket. “Though there isn’t much negotiation for me. My mother left the money for me, it’s not the family’s. And it’s up to Tristan and,” I paused, “well, I suppose your mother, or Lisette.” He shook his head.

“Anything else?” He asked. I smiled. “I know I’m a country bumpkin, Athena, but I do know how to be at a dinner party.” He kissed me gently and then knocked on the door. Gordon pulled it open.

“Lady Athena,” he said, “Count Pantona, please,” I smiled at him and he took my cloak and we walked into the parlor. Uncle Trey was there and my Aunt Brie. Brie’s son Alex and Charlotte, my Aunt Andrea’s daughter were also both there. My grandfather, Carlan Dumanis was standing, straight and tall, holding a glass of wine, dressed in the family colors of gold and blue.

“Thena,” Lotte smiled and stood up and embraced me. “Your Grace, I am so sorry for your loss, and please convey my respect to your mother. Your parents were uncommonly kind to me in my youth.”

“Thank you, Mistress Dufrey,” Aaron said taking her hand and kissing it. “My father was fond of you, and the horse you two chose bore our princess gloriously.” She laughed.

“Athena,” My grandfather said, I walked over and offered my cheek for him to kiss. “Count, what a pleasant surprise. Where is your brother?”

“Princess Annalise cannot be without both her body guards, Grandfather,” I laughed.

“Hm,” he said, “fine then. Tell him I expect to see him soon.” I nodded and he took Aaron’s hand. “Your Grace, as my granddaughter said, we were all saddened to hear about your father.”

“It’s kind of you sir.” Aaron said softly. “It’s hard to be too sad with such happiness in front of me though.” I looked at him, and felt myself flush.

“Ah, yes,” Grandfather smiled and we all floated towards the couches, “I received both your letter and Tristan’s, and I must say, it’s a pleasant surprise to have Athena so well settled. I thought we were going to have to drag her to Dorin to find someone appropriate.”

“Papa,” Aunt Brie said, with a slight caution in her voice, “there’s no need to discuss that now. Count Aaron, I suppose we’ll never convince you to have the wedding in Dorin?”

“I don’t believe it would be appropriate,” Trey said, winking at me. Aaron smiled. “It would have to be in Pantona.”

“I’m afraid so,” Aaron grimaced. “It would be one thing if,” I glanced at him, and he stopped. “It doesn’t matter, but it was something my father wanted.” I saw Grandfather’s face redden. I knew what he’d caught himself saying.

It would be one thing if we were noble. If Grandfather’s large house in Dorin were a proper manor, but it isn’t. So we’ll be married at Pantona.

“We had a wonderful summer,” I said softly, “Tristan too.” Grandfather nodded and the conversation changed again, to excitement about the coronation and the celebrations it would bring.

“Is it true?” Brie finally asked me. I looked at her. “About Tristan and The Princess?” I sighed and looked down. “Gods,” she leaned back.

“It’s complicated,” I said, “I think they’ve finished now, but well,” I shrugged.

“He can’t know,” she said, glancing at Grandfather. I nodded. “He has a girl picked in Dorin, and a boy for you, though that’s out.”

“Don’t tell Tristan,” I said. She shrugged. “He won’t do as he’s told, Aunt Brie.” She sighed. “And there’s Lady Marina.”

“Ah yes,” she smirked. “How is the Little Duchess?”

“They wrote to each other while we were away,” I said, “He’s more open to it than he’ll admit.” She nodded.

“I can work with that,” she said. I exhaled. Brie had always been our ally in the family. When Martin took us out of this house, when we enlisted, when I refused to come out in merchant society, she was the one who smoothed it.

Protecting Tristan, and so protecting Annalise, couldn’t be done without her.

“We need to discuss the coronation,” Grandfather said walking into the dining room beside me.

“I’ve barely discussed it with The Princess, Grandpapa,” I said simply. He sighed. “I have her trust but she has her own mind.” He frowned at me.

“Athena, I know you take your duty to the throne seriously, but your loyalty to this family must always be paramount,” he said. “We were the ones who kept your brother and you safe all these years.” I frowned at him.

“No you weren’t,” I exhaled. He blinked. “You didn’t keep us safe, Thomas did, Count Caleb and Countess Olivia did, we kept ourselves safe and Cornan watched over us. You all stayed close and quiet and bided your time. For that you will be rewarded, but I won’t let you lie about it.”

An Invitation

A few days after settling in to the palace I keep having memories. Flashes and images of our life before the fall, before Brayton. It’s aided by Lisette’s quick and easy way of running court. People are coming already. Martin’s brother’s, Lord Jeremy and Paul have arrived and I’ve never seen him quite this content.

The only shadow over our happiness is Countess Olivia, or Dowager Countess now, I suppose. And Aaron. They do their best. They smile and advise Lisette, but they feel like ghosts. Aaron talks about Pantona, about taking his father home.

“Lady Athena,” Elodie slips into my sitting room one morning, “Sir Tristan,” she nods to him.

“Captain,” he says with a smile. She blushed and looked down. “How can we help you?”

“There’s a message for you,” she handed it to me. “From the Market.” I sighed.

“Right,” I muttered ripping open the seal and reading it aloud.

My Beloved Grandchildren,

I am so proud to hear of your bravery in assisting our lovely young Queen to take her rightful place. I have arrived in Dovetail this morning and would be most pleased to see you this evening.

Your Affection Grandpapa, Carland Dumanis

“I’m not going,” Tristan said. I rolled my eyes at him. “Tell him she can’t spare us both.”

“I’m not going alone,” I said. I glanced at Elodie, who held up her palms and backed out of the room.

“Bring Aaron,” Tristan shrugged. “He’ll love it, he can talk about Pantona’s trade needs, and Grandfather will drop dead of happiness to host a Count.”

“You’re a coward,” I grumbled, “You just don’t want to go because you know Aunt Brie will have some debutante to throw at you.” He raised his eyebrows.

“You got it in one, look at you,” he muttered. “Alex came to see me yesterday. Apparently there’s enough gossip about us.”

“Oh,” I said softly, “but I thought after, that you weren’t.”

“We aren’t,” he sighed. “The suitors are coming, Cornan help me.” I pinched him playfully.

“You aren’t so bereft of admirers,” I said, “there’s Marina, for one.” He smiled. “She loves you, she always has.”

“She loves Annalise,” he said, “so do I.”

“You’re hopeless,” I shook my head. I stood up and walked to the apartment Aaron had been keeping. “Hello,” I smiled.

“Hello,” he smiled, “William Santino wrote me. He’s coming. He’ll even be here in time for the coronation.”

“I’m sorry, I know you were hoping to ask him to manage the estate for you,” I said. He nodded. “Do you want to meet my grandfather? He invited us to dinner and Tristan refuses but I think you’d be a worthy substitute.” He laughed and stood up, wrapping his arms around my waist.

“I’ll happily go,” he said. I smiled, so glad to have him.

Requiem

We raced to the market and searched quickly through the ranks, fighting a mix of shadows and Brayton’s actual soldiers. But we both froze when we saw it.

Count Caleb had been swarmed, his axe was not doing what it needed to do. We both raced over.

“Athena,” Martin called, “get him back to camp.”

“Yes,” I said as we pulled him away. Aaron was pale.

“Aaron,” he whispered, “is she,” he swallowed.

“She’s safe,” he said, “she went into the palace.”

“Good,” Caleb exhaled and then lost consciousness. I looked at the man I loved as we rode back, his father strapped to a wagon. He didn’t say anything.

“Aaron,” I said softly. He looked at me. “Marina will know what to do.”

“I hope so,” he said as we arrived. After he was settled in, we stood quietly outside the tent. “I should, my mother, and Lisette.” I took his hands.

“You don’t have to,” I said, “go be with him.” He touched my face. “Say what you need to.” He pulled me close.

“I don’t want this,” he said, “I don’t, I can’t.” I clung to him. I remembered that feeling, the hollowness, how suddenly you realized a part of you was gone that would never come back. “What am I going to do, Thena?”

“I don’t know, love,” I whispered to him. “I don’t. Come to me if you need me though.” He smiled softly and kissed me.

I wandered back, feeling ghostly, people were streaming into camp, injured and dead and safe and sound and everything in between. We won, that much was clear. I knew I should find Annalise. And Tristan, but I couldn’t. I found myself in the command tent. Elodie was standing with Martin and they turned. I ran and hugged her.

“I’m so glad you’re safe,” I whispered to her.

“You too,” she said. “Commander, General, I should check on my squad.”

“Of course,” Martin said and nodded, she saluted, “dismissed.” She left. “We need to promote her.”

“She’d make a good Captain,” I said, “I always thought so.” He nodded and we sat down. “He’s dying.”

“I know,” he whispered, “Olivia went to him.” I nodded. “Is Aaron alright?”

“No,” I whispered. “How could he be?” He took my hand. “I wish I could be happier that we won.” He laughed. “I keep thinking of my parents. I wish they could see it.”

“I know,” he said softly. “I should write to my brothers, they’ll be glad to know they can come back.” I smiled and stood up. “Just be there for him, Athena, as much as you can.” I nodded and went to my tent and found Aaron waiting for me.

“How was it?” I asked. He swallowed and we walked in and sat down.

“Difficult,” he said softly, “my mothere’s there now, and Lisette. He’ll prefer that.”

“Oh, Aaron,” I whispered and we lay down holding each other.

“We talked about Pantona,” he said softly, “for maybe for the first time in my life, about home and how he trusts me to it.” I buried my face into his chest. “He apologized, we were always supposed to have more time for that part.”

“I don’t know how it works for you,” I said softly. “Caleb was a warrior, I’ll sit vigil for him, if that’s what you’d want.” He laughed.

“We don’t honor the gods, Athena,” he said softly, “those are for those above us, and those below. Our soul belongs to home, to Cammadan itself, to Pantona, to our families.” I’d never heard him speak on it. “When it’s over, my mother and I will light candles, and we’ll say the names of each Count. When we have children, I’ll name one for him.” I smiled and cupped his face.

“Who are you named for?” I asked. He smiled.

“My great grandfather,” he said softly, “My father loved him, and never much liked his own father.” I laughed.

“Have you put a lot of thought into our children’s names?” I whispered.

“I’d always thought something with John and Alexia,” he whispered, I closed my eyes and he pressed a kiss against my forehead.

“I love you so much,” I whispered.

Battle Morning

As we ride into the city, it’s almost completely abandoned. I see a few face peaking out of the townhouses.

“Who are they?” Aaron asked nodding at one of them. Tristan snorted.

“Traitors,” he said, “they’re the nobility who stood by Brayton.”

“Things aren’t that simple,” I said softly. “We don’t know what was promised to them, what was threatened.” Lisette looked at me. “Anything like you Dreamed, Princess?”

“There were, if you can believe it, fewer people,” she muttered. Elodie smiled. “General, if you could secure the market, we’re going to the palace.”

“We’re?” Aaron said. She looked at him and nodded.

“Yes,” she said, “you, and me, and the twins.” He nodded and the four off us rode towards the large white building. Of course once we got in the gates we all heard the woosh and hiss of shadows. We dismounted and then Lisette went inside. She’d told us to stay behind, and so we did.

“We should be in there,” Tristan said, pacing, and then glancing up at the black guards on the balconies. “Why aren’t they attacking?”

“Who knows,” Aaron said, “but she’ll need us eventually.” I nodded and sat down on the ground. “What are you doing?”

“Ugh,” Tristan rolled his eyes. “She’s getting ready to commune.”

“She can do that?” Aaron said and looked at me. “You can do that?”

“Not always,” I said picking up the soil. “But the Palace is holy ground and there’s a battle going on. He’s probably close by.”

“By him, I assume you mean The God Cornan?” Aaron said.

“She does,” Tristan snorted. “She’s not particularly respectful, ever.” I stuck out my tongue at him. “But apparently the God likes that.”

“He does, actually,” I smiled. “Kick me or something if I’m needed.” I gripped the dirt and exhaled. “I am a soldier, yours to command.” I whispered. Slowly the wind whipped around me and I opened my eyes in the wide airy white temple. I knelt. “Sir.”

“Rise, Champion,” he said, “you’ve done well.”

“Nothing’s done yet,” I said. “I just thought, well,” he looked at me. “The Battle Magic.”

“Ah,” he said, “It is not my gift to bestow. That’s between my sisters.” I frowned. “You’re disappointed.”

“Well, it would be useful,” I said.

“The Sword is prevailing as we speak, it won’t be necessary,” he laughed. “But it will not be without loss.” I swallowed and the wave of understanding washed over me and I gasped awake. I stood up and looked at the boys.

“What is it?” Tristan said, he must have seen it on my face. Aaron walked over and took my hands.

“We have to go,” I said softly. “Aaron, your father.” He looked at me. “Tristan you’ll stay.” He nodded and looked towards the door.

“What did you See?” Aaron asked me. I shook my head. “Thena, is he dead?”

“No,” I said, “no, not yet.”