Kathy

That night after dinner we were, as usual sitting in the parlor. Tristan had excused himself to go to bed early, which seemed odd, especially since Annalise was holding a small bouquet of violets and smelling them occasionally, while dreamily staring out a window.

“Your Grace,” a footman walked in, and Aaron looked up from his book, “I apologize, there’s, well, someone wants to see you.” Aaron frowned.

“Of course,” he whispered, “thank you,” he stood up. I looked oddly at him. “Could we talk, later?”

“I,” I looked up at him, “I suppose so.” He lit up at that and leaned down and kissed me on the cheek. I closed my eyes and made a decision then. I would go see Carlton and I would tell him that I couldn’t see him again.

It wasn’t as though we were serious, and he’s getting married.

Not that I think Aaron will necessarily be serious about me. I’m sure he has other plans. The boy is made out of plans.

“I’m going to go for a walk,” I announced.

“Hm,” Lisette looked over at me. I laughed and shook my head. “Oh, all right.” I laughed and sat down with her.

“Unless you want to talk,” I asked. She looked at me.

“No,” she said, “Why would I need to talk?”

“Because my brother gave you flowers and you’re clearly, well, ” I raised my eyebrows.

“Don’t be silly,” she said, “I’m going to go to bed.” She marched away. I laughed and walked out front. I stopped when I saw Aaron with the same girl from this morning, a few steps onto the lawn.

He was holding her hands.

“Kathy, I thought we’d settled this,” he said, tenderly, almost. The tone stopped me in my tracks.

“You did, but, well, I wanted to see you and,” she said, “I thought,” she looked down, “I thought there was something between us.”

“There was, Kathy,” he said, “there is, but it’s complicated.” I stepped out then. He looked at me and exhaled.

“Oh,” the girl said softly, “oh I see. I’m sorry to have bothered you then, Your Grace. M’Lady,” she curtsied, “you’re welcome to him,” she slapped him and then stormed off. I stared at him. I didn’t know whether I was angry or hurt or some horrible combination of both, but I couldn’t speak.

“Athena,” he said, “I didn’t think she’d come here, that’s what I wanted to,” I shook my head.

“No, it’s alright,” I said, my voice shaking, “who, who is she?”

“Kathy Sampson,” he sighed, “we were, I mean, before you came,” I nodded. “Athena, it’s over, I swear it, when I realized,” I frowned.

“When you realized what?” I said. “When you realized you could get me into bed?” He sighed.

“No,” he said, “when I realized my life was going to change, and that includes you.” I looked at him.

“Will your life change?” I said. He frowned. “You still belong here, Aaron, I don’t.” He stepped closed and slid his hands around my face.

“You could,” he said, “or I could belong in Dovetail.” I looked up at him. “Or we could belong in both.”

“And what did you tell her?” I asked. “I assume she’s from the village?” He looked away.

“I don’t want to talk about Kathy,” he sighed. “I thought,” I frowned. “I didn’t know she was in love with me Thena,” he sighed, “I thought we were just, I don’t know, playing around.”

“And this,” I whispered, gods those blue eyes, holding onto mine, I swallowed. “Are we just playing around?” The endearment, shortening my name, the softness of it. How many times had he played this scene?

“No,” he said, “no, this is, something else.” I swallowed. I don’t know when I’d started crying.

“I’m sorry, I can’t,” I whispered and ran away.  I made my way to the train, which was alive in a way I hadn’t seen since I was a child.

I was used to my cousins in Dovetail now, not to traveling life. But there were the sounds of music and dancing and children laughing. I found my way through it. The familiar faces nodded and bowed lightly to me.

“You made it!” Carlton found me. I nodded, and he took my waist and kissed me. “I was getting worried.” I laughed.

“It’s awfully, crowded,” I whispered right in his ear. He grinned, and took my hand.

“I can fix that,” he led me to a small wagon and we climbed inside.

A Complication

I woke up early in the morning, now that I’m rested and comfortable here, I’m back to my old ways of being up before dawn. I headed to the kitchen to grab something quickly for breakfast and was surprised to see Aaron and the back door, talking to a pretty girl with curly auburn hair.

She was holding a basket and her eyes looked wide.

“I’m sorry, Kathy, I thought,” he said,

“I know what you thought,” then she saw me and I jumped backwards, “Never mind.”

“Kathy,” he started and then saw me, I pressed my lips into my mouth.

“I didn’t mean to interrupt,” I said, “A friend?” I tried. He frowned.

“This is not my finest moment, and after last night, it is not how I was hoping you would find me,” he admitted. “Kathy is from the village,” he explained, “we were, that is,” there’s some fun in watching him squirm, “it’s over now, regardless, it’s been over.”

“Understood,” I grabbed a roll, “I was going to train and then go for a ride, if you wanted to,” he scratched the back of his neck.

“It’s market day,” he explained, I nodded. “I have to go over the account lists with the cooks,” I grinned. “What?”

“You take it seriously,” I explained, “running this place?”

“Someone has to,” he shrugged, “my parents are busy saving the world. But when its saved, I’d like Pantona to be a part of it.” I ripped a piece of the roll off. “After your training and your ride, I’d like to have lunch with you.”

“I’d like that too,” I said and kissed him softly. I managed to clear my mind training, I went to get Rosethorn saddled when I saw Annalise and Tristan walking back, she was carrying a small bouquet.

I made a note to tease Tristan later, but Annalise went back to the house and Tristan walked right up to me.

“So are you officially courting her now?” I grinned. “Flowers and everything.” He sighed.

“Dumanis train showed up today,” he grunted. I sighed.

“Really?” I said. “Uncle Trey or Aunt Brie? Aunt Andrea is in Dovetail this time of year.”

“Just Lotte and Xander,” he muttered. “I think Lotte knows.”

“Well, Lotte’s not an idiot and if she saw her,” I shrugged. “She won’t tell.” He nodded. “I’ll go see them in a bit. Is that all?” He shifted his feet.

“It’s wrong, you know,” he said, “I should stop it.” I looked at him and shook my head, “suppose, I mean, it isn’t safe, is it?”

“She likes you too,” I said. “I think it’s good for you. And how would it be dangerous?”

“If Grandfather thinks he has an in with the crown,” he drifted off, and I grimaced. That was concerning. Our Grandfather is not a good man, he’s brutal about his control over the merchant guilds. If anyone attempts to undermine that control, his vengeance is quick and usually bloody.

“Tristan, I can assure you,” I said softly, “Grandfather is going to attempt to leverage us to get to her regardless of if you’re sleeping with her or not.” I mounted Rosethorn and galloped toward the village. Our cousin Alexander, was smirking already waiting for me.

“My Lady,” he swept into a bow.

“Master DuFrey,” I muttered with a dip. “A letter would have been nice.”

“We didn’t know you were here until Lotte spotted Tristan,” he pointed out. I rolled my eyes. “Uncle Trey didn’t say a thing.”

“I doubt Uncle Trey knows,” I sighed, “we didn’t until right before we left.”

“Hm,” he nodded. “Come on, I’ll take you to Lotte.” I nodded and we walked through the wagons.

“Hello Cousin,” Charlotte DuFrey smiled at me. She’s fourteen years older than us, and never married, rare for a merchant woman of her standing, but she was never willing to marry down in the clans, and since she’s the granddaughter of Carland Dumanis, that meant it was the nobility or nothing.

“Hi Lotte,” I smiled at her, “I can’t stay long, I’m supposed to have lunch with,” I stopped as a wagon door opened and Carlton stepped out. “Oh,” I said. Charlotte winked at me and walked away.

“Lady Athena,” he said, “I,” I smiled.

“Why aren’t you in Dorin?” I asked.

“I was,” he admitted, “for a week, and then, well, my future inlaws,” he shrugged, “they’re holdings are mostly in Brightcoast, so,”

“A week,” I said, “you make quick work.” He stepped closer to me.

“But you knew that,” he slid his hands onto my waist. “Come see me tonight?” I swallowed.

“If I can get away,” I nodded. “I have to go.” I slipped away from him and padded back up to the manor. This was certainly a mess.

 

Anessa

It’s after dinner, which, I’ve learned is the best time to talk to Annalise. It’s about the only time she’s not trying to move. 

We’re working on embroidery, which neither of us excel at, but it’s bonding.

“So, tomorrow is market day,” Lisette says and looks at me. I nodded. “I have to go to market, I mean, I don’t have to, but I usually do, it’s the sort of thing that,”

“That the orphan ward of a Count would do,” I said. She nodded. “I don’t have a problem with it.” She glanced at Tristan. “He won’t either, just go while he’s running.” She laughed.

“Is there anything you want?” She asked. I raised my eyebrows. “To eat in the next week or so.”

“Oh, um, I like rabbit?” I tried. She cocked her head. “It’s silly, but when we were little we were at Resistance camp a lot, and my mother would make,” she placed her hand on mine.

“Of course,” she smiled. “There’ll most certainly be some. Hunting rabbit and selling it to the butcher is how most of the farm children make their pocket money.” I laughed.

“I have more exotic tastes you know,” I said, she giggled.

“Well, I don’t,” she grumbled, “whenever your cousins pass through Olivia tries to introduce me to something new and it is never as good as well prepared mutton with mashed potatoes.”

“Yes, but the difference is The Countess gives you a chance to say you don’t like it,” I giggled to her, “my cousins and my especially my uncle have no interest in hearing it.” she laughed.

“I’m having tea with the innkeeper in town too, William Santino,” she explained.

“I met William,” I said. “He took care of my horse when we first got here.” She nodded. Hearing the name I saw The Viscount move his focus from his conversation with his mother to us.

“OK,” she smiled, “you could come.”  I raised my eyebrows. “I’m serious, I would love to show you the village.”

“I don’t think so,” I sighed, “I have to,” I didn’t have an excuse, “I think I just need a little time to myself,” She nodded and we both went back to our terrible embroidery. I don’t know how much time passed.

“Do you hate having to be a lady?” She asked. I looked at her.

“I’m sorry?” I asked.

“I mean, things like this,” she explained pointing to her sampler. “Or having to be pretty.” I grinned.

“This is Cammadan,” I said softly. “Anessa lay down a tradition, you’re her namesake, you must her story.” She nodded.

“I know she was the only queen to reign alone,” Lisette said and bit her thumb nail. “She had no biological heirs but left the kingdom to her wife Eliza’s children with her first husband’s children.”

I looked at Tristan. I realized to a girl like Lisette, to whom a throne felt equally like a trap and promise, Anessa’s story might be an escape at least in one part.

Anessa found heirs without giving birth to them. If Queen Annalise chose a consort who’s blood was unsuitable, she could choose other heirs.

“She was also a warrior,” I explained, “who was blessed by the gods with beauty and grace. Warrior women of Cammadan never shied from being feminine. They fought in gowns, they remained groomed, they took lovers, men and women openly,” she smiled. “Other kingdoms pushed their women to the side, or forced them to become more like men, but no, we are Cammadie, we are daughters of Anessa, we are women, and we rule and we are strong and we love and we fight.” Her eyes filled with tears and she hugged me tightly.

“Olivia told me that I used to scream for you,” she whispered. I swallowed. “‘Where is my Thena! She sleeps with me!’ I don’t remember but I can believe it.” I touched her face.

“We shared a cradle,” I explained, “we were supposed to grow up together, I was never meant to leave your side.” She nodded. “I’m close to useless on this myself,” I admitted, “but it’s something to do,” she giggled. She looked up at Tristan, who’s been writing to that twit Marina Sanpierre. When he admitted it I was surprised, it caused a bit of a tiff which ended in me marching away from Aaron.

I wish I could pin him down.

I had a talk with Lisette about it, and she didn’t defend him, but she does seem to find it all amusing. She’s preoccupied though, because my idiot brother. I stepped out of her room and saw Aaron with a candle heading to bed.

“Is she alright?” He asked. I looked at him and nodded. “I’m sorry, that you find my manner so irritating. I’ll try to keep it in check.”

“I’m sorry,” I said, “I misjudged you and I don’t like being wrong.” He smiled. “Lisette is fine. I just wanted to take a look at the knives.” He laughed.

“I see,” he said, “here I thought you were looking for an excuse.” I shook my head but took a step closer.

“And if I was,” I whispered, softly. I could play this game. I was good at this game. He put the candle down and slid his hands onto my waist. Mine moved around his neck.

“It would be a good one,” he said, “and I’d be glad, I won’t deny it.” I nodded and kissed him softly. He pulled me close and then back to the door. I exhaled when we parted. It was a very good kiss. “Gods, Athena,” he murmured.

“Lisette says you usually move on quickly,” I said, “shall we try this again in a week?”

“If that’s what you want,” he said. “I don’t see the reason to wait.” I smiled and walked away to my room. I lay half asleep with my hands under the covers and between my legs.

When it came down to it, I wasn’t sure I wanted to wait either.

Dedication

I was frustrated that The Viscount wanted to ride out with me. I don’t hate him anymore, now it’s more like a low humming annoyance. He’s still to flippant, and casual about Lisette, about the next step.

And I don’t like the way he flirts with me. But it’s his land and I couldn’t very well say he couldn’t come on this ride with me. We were rushing through the woods, when he stopped, I did too after a bit and tracked back to him.

“What’s wrong?” I asked.

“We shouldn’t go further,” he said and dismounted. I looked at him.

“Why?” I asked softly. “Are you going to tell me the woods are haunted, Viscount? That the tortured bride of one of your ancestors walks the woods?” He shook his head.

“Nothing that specific,” he said, “but we’re nearing where Brayton burned out the woods to find the King and Queen,” he looked down, “feels disrespectful, and Lisette says it’s haunted.”

“Do you believe her?” I asked.

“I’m not sure I believe in ghosts,” he admitted. “But like I said, it feels disrespectful.” I nodded. “You seem surprised.”

“No,” I swallowed. “No, why would I be surprised?” He laughed.

“Because you don’t like me,” he said. “And I can’t figure out why, have I been a bad host?”

“You’ve been an excellent host,” I said, “which is the problem. You don’t take it seriously, you make jokes and tease her, and,” he nodded. “The resistance is my whole life, your grace,” I explained, “and you’ve made it very clear you think that’s foolish.” He started laughing then, not mocking, just laughing. “I don’t see what’s funny.”

“The resistance is your whole life,” he said. I nodded. “And you think it isn’t mine?”

“Obviously it isn’t,” I said, “you want to stay here where it’s safe and comfortable.” He nodded.

“When I was about eight, so Lisette would have been six,” he said softly, “and my parents were away, in Dovetail or maybe with The Resistance, I don’t know,” he inhaled. “But it was the first time she had a Dream, at least when my mother wasn’t there.” I looked at him. “Have you ever been around a seer when they’re Dreaming, Lady Athena? It isn’t pretty. They sweat and thrash and scream bloody murder, and when the seer is a six year old girl who still has regular nightmares about her parents being murdered it’s all the worse.” I swallowed. “And none of the servants knew who she was, so there I was, eight years old, all she had, holding her, telling her it was alright, that she would be alright, that I would keep her safe.” I looked at him. “She knows who she is, what she has to do. She doesn’t need me to remind her. But I imagine it’s probably nice to have someone who treats her like a person.” His face had changed, the laugh that was usually in his eyes had been replaced by something steely, determined. “The resistance is your whole life, that’s wonderful, to have that kind of purpose. But Lisette is my life, she’s my family, and I won’t let her be used.”

“I didn’t know,” I said. He nodded.

“There are probably many things you don’t know, my lady,” he said. “I’d be happy to illuminate anything you wish.” I sighed and shook my head and remounted. “What now?”

“You couldn’t let it last could you?” I asked. He shrugged and we rode in silence back to the manor

Tea With The Mastero

“You’re in here a lot,” I looked up from a book I was reading to see the Viscount in the doorway of the study.

“I like it in here,” I said simply and went back to my book. He walked in and sat down opposite me. “Can I help you, Your Grace.”

“Aaron,” he said, pointing to himself.

“If you say so,” I closed the book and met his eyes. They’re startlingly blue. “Can I help you,” he rolled his hand to prompt me, and I sighed, “Aaron?”

“Much better,” he smirked. “No, I was just sent to fetch you. The Mastero wishes to inspect you and your brother.”

Mastero?” I said and slammed the book shut. He nodded. “Why does he want to meet us?”

“Why wouldn’t he?” He shrugged. “He’s like you, thinks everyone is trying to kill her.” I rolled my eyes.

“I don’t think everyone is trying to kill her,” I stood up and stretched. He was watching me. Good. Let him. “You’d have struck by now, for example.” He laughed.

“I suppose I would have,” he said. “I’d be in line for King then, wouldn’t I?” I snorted.

“I think Brightcoast supercedes,” I said, “Lady Marina is very popular.” My voice was flat.

“Ah,” he nodded. “Good to know, come on,” he nodded towards the door and we walked outside. Tristan was waiting, practically vibrating anxiety. He hasn’t said anything to me, but I’ve noticed the way he watches her, how he relaxes when shes’s around.

Watching my brother fall in love has been fascinating. Being Tristan he can’t just be happy about it, I’m sure, and if I asked him he’d deny it, but it’s impossible to miss. We walked quietly through the woods down what was obviously a well worn path.

We entered a clearing with a small cottage and a lake. The air felt heavier, and I realized it was because this was a magic place.

Lisette was in the center of a ring of stones, her legs crossed and eyes closed. There were spheres of water floating and dancing around her. I lost my breath and looked at Tristan. His eyes were so soft, he was smiling fully.

“Oh!” We heard her gasp and the bubbles near her popped. “Oh, you came!” She leapt up and walked over. “I was supposed to make tea, but I lost track,” she ran into the house and then popped her head out of the window, “Come inside, I’m sorry.” I laughed. I’d come to expect this sort of thing from her, Aaron led us in.

“Aaron,” an older man said from a desk in the corner. “I didn’t expect you.”

“Am I not welcome?” He asked. The old man sighed. I liked him immediately. “Mastero Benjamin Anselm, May I present Lady Athena Dugarry and Sir Tristan Dugarry.” He glanced over.

“I made tea,” Lisette said, looking almost giddy, carrying a tray out. Tristan ran to her and took it. She beamed at him.

Oh, so it’s mutual at least, that’s nice.

“Well,” he said and stood up walking over, “Lady Athena.” I nodded.

“Mastero,” I said, “I’m happy to meet you.” He nodded and we all sat down. “My mother spoke well of you.”

“Your mother was a fine woman, your father, well,” he sighed, “he didn’t deserve her.” I laughed.

“She’d have said the same,” Tristan piped in as the tea was settled. “It’s a honor, sir.” He looked at him and nodded. “What were you doing, when we got here, Princess?” Lisette blushed.

“Just meditating,” she murmured. “But when there’s water nearby, I can get into the parlor tricks.”

“She’d do more with some discipline,” Mastero Anselm said. “Are either of you gifted?”

“No,” I said softly. “There was a time when we though I might be. It’s never been in our family though.” He looked at me.

“I see,” he whispered, “why did they think you,”

“How long have you been here?” Tristan interrupted. I nodded gratefully at him.

“I traveled with the King and Queen,” he explained, “they knew someone was going to have to teach this one,” he nodded towards Lisette who stuck out her tongue at him. “Of course the fact that she is unteachable did’t occur to anyone when she was a baby.”

“Weren’t you called back to the University?” I asked. The great institute still stood, even if it’s Masteros had been exterminated.

“Aye,” he smiled, “but I didn’t answer the call, a few of us didn’t. My brothers who went into hiding went deeply, or to Westran.” I nodded. “I am glad you’ve both finally come. Unfortunately, our visit will be short, Lisette and I have work to do.”

“Of course,” Aaron said standing up, “don’t let us keep you.” Tristan and I both stood up too. “See you at home Lisette.” We walked out with soft bows and then silently down the wood path.

“Are you alright?” Tristan asked. I nodded. I was glad he’d managed to change the flow of conversation away from a series of terrifying visions that occurred just after my parents died. “Do you think he approved of us?”

“As much as he approves of anyone,” Aaron said casually. He glanced at me. “You look pale, Lady Athena.”

“It’s nothing,” I said and marched back to the manor quickly.

You will be tested, Daughter of John, the voice had said, at ten I didn’t know what that meant, I still don’t. Or if the test came and went and I failed. I went up to my room and fell against the bed.

Coming here, meeting Lisette, has unsettled things that I thought were long buried.

I don’t like it.

First Test

“Athena,” Tristan said, shaking me awake. “Athena,” I groaned and pulled the covers over my head. “Come on, we have work to do.”

“No,” I said, “we just rode for seven days straight, and we know the manor is safe and I’m very sleepy.” He laughed and tugged on my foot.

“Hey,” he said, “I’m sorry about last night.” I sat up and rubbed my eyes. “It’s not your fault.”

“No, it isn’t,” I said. “You were never involved in the resistance leadership because you never asked to be Tristan, I didn’t block you out and neither did Martin.” He nodded and sat down.

“I know that,” he said, “I just, it was always easy between you two and it isn’t between me and him all the time.” She smiled. “So you know that they moved Marina from the capital too?”

“I do know that,” I said. “Are you relieved?” He looked away. “I know I tease you about her, and maybe I shouldn’t, if you care about her,” he shook his head. “Fine, we don’t have to talk about it, but I’m just saying if you do, I think you made a better choice than I did.”

“I think it would be almost impossible for anyone to make a worse choice than you did,” he grinned. I shoved him. “There’s nothing there, though. We’re friends, I do care about her but, I can’t even think about it,” I nodded. “And we have work to do.”

“Yes,” I said, “but today, I’m going to sleep in a bed and take a bath, like a civilized person.” He laughed.

“Alright,” he said, “I’m going to spar with her, see how behind she is.” I nodded and sank back into bed. “And since you agreed with the countess that we need to make a lady of her, maybe start with embroidery lessons.” I sprang up.

“That’s no fair!” I said, “You could teach her to dance or something.” He snorted and walked out. I sighed and rolled out of bed. Most of our things hadn’t arrived yet, they were a few days behind.

I quickly picked a green uniform dress I’d packed. I didn’t usually wear it for anything except dinners where I was on duty, but it would work for here. I peaked into a mirror and smiled.

A night in a bed had done it’s work, I felt and looked wonderful. I try not to be vain, but when you have a twin who looks just like you it’s hard not to notice when one is very attractive. And playing it down and saying I don’t feels stupid and petty.

I step outside and see the Princess Annalise stepping out of her room.

“Good Morning, Your highness,” I said. She smiled shyly at me.

“Good Morning,” she said softly. “You can just call me Lisette, you know. Everybody does.”

“Everybody doesn’t know who you are though,” I pointed out. She frowned.

“I guess not,” she said as we walked, “still though. I want us to be friends and that would be hard with you calling me, ‘Your Highness,’ all the time.” I laughed. “We were supposed to grow up together.” I nodded.

“There were a lot of supposed tos,” I said softly. She nodded. “You’re supposed to be sparring with my brother.”

“Ugh,” she groaned, “alright, I suppose we’ll go to the study.” I followed her and we met Tristan in the front hall. “Good morning.” He smiled. “Your sister says we’re going to spar.”

“If my sister says so,” Tristan winked. If I had something to drink I would have spit it out. Tristan acting like a human around someone who isn’t me, is not something I’m used to.

“I think you’ll like the study,” she said practically bouncing.

“Are we going to spar in the,” I started and then she flung open a pair of double doors. “Oooh,” I whispered. “The Study,” as she’d called it, wasn’t a small snug room, or even a grand library, but what a large hall, two stories, with an open training floor and several weapons hanging on the walls. I noticed a few battle axes, I know the Count favors them, so I wasn’t surprised. “Tristan,” I whacked his arm.

“Yes, I see,” he grinned. “Swords, Your Highness?” Lisette smiled.

“If you like,” she said, “if there’s something you like better,” she shrugged. “I’m trained on most close combat weapons. My archery needs work, but I’m still better than Aaron.” I nodded and Tristan pulled his sword off his belt. Lisette grabbed one of the practice swords and struck hard and fast. Catching him off guard, but I know my brother, he recovered quickly.

She is good, and she uses her size to her advantage, getting in close for her hits, and when she takes out his knees I actually applaud.

Tristan does not get beaten often.

Ever actually. I can’t even beat him.

“Well, it’s a start,” I said. Tristan grumbled. “I’m hungry, what’s for breakfast?”

Viscount Aaron

From just about the moment he strode in, all confidence and that clear smile, I did not like Viscount Aaron of Pantona.

“Did my mother leave you two on your own?” He asked. “That isn’t like her.”

“She was checking on The Princess,” I said. “I’m sorry your Grace.”

“Aaron,” he said. I frowned. “I’m glad you’ve come, it’s gotten very dull around here.” I swallowed.

“We’re here to protect the Princess,” Tristan said, “not for a visit.”

“Oh and she’s in so much danger here,” The Viscount retorted. “I’m not trying to undermine your mission, Sir Tristan, but I have a feeling however long you’re staying will feel more like a visit.”

“I doubt that,” I said sharply. He looked at me and smiled curiously. “We’ll have to see what she knows. Surely she doesn’t expect to just stroll into Dovetail and sit on the throne?”

“She doesn’t stroll much,” The Viscount said with a shrugged. “She runs, and trips over things, occasionally I’ve seen her skip, but strolling, no, not really her style.” He sat down on the couch and crossed his leg over his knee.

He looks so much like his father, but this arrogance, it doesn’t suit that face. Count Caleb is kind, if a little cold. I was about to say something else to shut him down when the Countess and Princess came back in and Tristan made an ass of himself pledging his life and sword to her.

I heard the Viscount cough to cover a laugh, which softened me a little.

“Oh for heaven’s sake, Tristan,” I said, breaking whatever trance he was in. He glanced over at me sheepish. The Princess was blushing. I was suddenly furious on behalf of poor, stupid, Lady Marina, who was probably spending her first night at Resistance Camp, mooning and wondering when her brave night was returning.  “Stand up, you’re making everyone uncomfortable.” He glared at me as he brushed himself off. “Countess, I think we should have tea. Tea always makes this kind of thing much less awkward don’t you think?”

“Whiskey can help too,” The Viscount winked. The Princess giggled and sat down. We started to chat a little then. She came to life when a messenger reminded her she had a magic lesson and she ran off.

“What did I tell you?” The Viscount smirked. “Not one for strolling.”

“Leave it, Aaron,” the Countess said sharply. He sunk into his chair. I like that he doesn’t argue with his mother. “Can you see that dinner will be ready on time?”

“Of course,” he murmured. He stopped. “Is there anything you would prefer, Lady Athena?” I gaped at him.

“Aaron,” The Countess said, he laughed and walked away his hands in his pockets, whistling. “I apologize. He has the manners of field hand, I should have done better.”

“They’re so,” Tristan said softly, “young.” I looked at him. I didn’t realize it at the moment but that was it exactly. They seemed so young. But Aaron was older than we were, and Annalise less than a year younger than we.

“The country is different from Dovetail,” she admitted and sipped her tea. “What are you thinking about Lady Athena?”

“What training does she have?” I asked. The countess laughed. “She can fight?”

“Quite well,” she said. “I think even you’ll be impressed.” I nodded. “I could use help making a lady of her though.”

“Does she need that?” Tristan said. I looked at him.

“Not to win,” I admitted, “but to rule, yes, she does. Unless she wants to build court from scratch but I don’t assume that’s the plan.”

“It is not,” the Countess said. “The plan, as you put it, is to take the capital as cleanly as possible, by her birthday, offer clemency where warranted and crown her.”

“Take the capital?” Tristan said. “Her birthday is at the end of the summer. We can’t take the capital by the end of summer, we don’t have the numbers!” The Countess sipped on her tea and then he looked at me. “We don’t! Do we?”

“We might?” I shrugged. “After,” I swallowed, “well you know, after, I stopped getting regular recruitment reports but before that we were near it.”

“Why were you getting recruitment reports?” Tristan asked.

“Because I asked for them,” I said. “The General would have given them to you too.”

“No,” he muttered, “he wouldn’t have.” He stormed out. I sighed.

“Excuse me,” I said and followed after him out into a courtyard, Tristan wasn’t there, but the Viscount was. “Have you seen my brother?”

“He came through with a storm cloud over his head and then asked where he was supposed to be sleeping,” he explained. I sighed and nodded. “Can I help?”

“You’re an only child so you wouldn’t understand sibling rivalry,” I said. He shrugged. “Where are we sleeping?”

“We’ve arranged rooms for you,” he said, “yours is next to Lisette’s.” I nodded. “Did you think we’d put you in the barn, Lady Athena?”

“I don’t know how these things are done in the county, Viscount,” I grinned. “I suppose I ought to find him.” I walked back inside.

Why am I flirting with him?

Pantona

I haven’t spent much time in the midlands before. but I can see why so many people are drawn to it. The fields are green, and the orchards are beautiful and people, with their pink skin and auburn hair are thrilled to come out and greet their Lady.

The hills are even nice. Not the mountains and foothills like home, here they roll and split the horizon, they’re small, and comfy and coming over one to see another farm or village feels like a thrill.

Tristan is unsettled. He has been since we started moving. I never would have thought that he’d be more attached to Dovetail than I am.

“There it is,” Countess Olivia smiled as we crested a hill. A small village, surrounded by farms, headed by a large, though not as large as I would have thought manor house. “That is Pantona.” I exhaled.

“It’s beautiful,” I said. She smiled.

“I know,” she said.

“How much longer is the ride?” Tristan asked. I frowned at him. “Don’t tell me you don’t want a bath, Athena.”

“An hour?” The Countess said, “about.” Tristan rubbed his horse, Elian’s, neck. I leaned against my Rosefire’s neck and looked at him.

“I hate that look,” he muttered.

“I’ll race you,” I said and spurred her on.

“Athena!” Tristan called after me. I laughed, I was surprised when, after losing track of time I arrived in the village with the Countess at my side, and not Tristan.

“We lost him?” I asked. She smiled.

“He’ll find his way,” she said and dismounted as we approached an inn. “Good morning, William,” a boy walked out to greet us.

“Good morning, Your Grace,” the boy, William, I assume. “We weren’t expecting you.”

“My guests were eager,” she laughed, “William Santino, this is Lady Athena Dugarry.”

“M’lady,” he said.

“Master Santino,” I said offering my hand. I may not like these kinds of things, but I understand them. Surprising me though, William Santino shakes it, doesn’t kiss it.

“I’m glad to meet you,” he said. “Your Grace, if you’d like I can look after the horses and send them up to the manor.”

“Thank you William,” she said, “is everyone well, as far as you know?”

“Yes ma’am,” he said. “The Viscount, he is expecting you?”

“Yes,” she laughed. “Do you mind a walk, Lady Athena?” I shook my head and we wandered through the village and then to the manor. When we arrived at the house Tristan walked up beside a girl, maybe a year or two younger than us. She’s dark skinned, and I have a sudden realization.

“Oh,” I exhaled. “Oh, Your Grace,” I whispered.

“Still think Thomas and Caleb don’t trust you?” She grinned.

The girl, Lisette, as she was introduced, Annalise, as I knew almost immediately. She was dressed like a peasant boy, and Tristan was smiling at her. Of course he was. She’s exactly his type.

“I’ll go change,” she said after hugging the countess.

“We should go inside,” Countess Olivia said softly. I nodded and we walked into a small but well appointed parlor. Tristan looked back and forth between us. “What did you think of our Lisette, Sir Tristan?”

“She seems very nice,” he said. “It was kind of you to take her in.” The Countess nodded.

“Kindess is a word for it,” she said. I was just staring at her, my mouth agape.

“Athena, are you alright?” Tristan asked.

“But she’s dead!” I said. The Countess exhaled. “She died! She died fourteen years ago!” Tristan stared at me. “She’s the Princess, you idiot.”

“Oh,” he said, “Oh!” The Countess nodded. “I knew she wasn’t dead.”

“No you didn’t,” I said. “Everyone, everything we’ve done, our whole lives, our parents! It was all a lie.”

“We never said she died,” The Countess said. “We let people believe whatever they want. You assumed she’d died, Tristan assumed she lived.” I sighed. “I should check on her, and find my son.” Tristan nodded and went and stood by the window.

“You could have backed me up,” I muttered and sat down.

“I make a habit of not doing that when you’re wrong,” he said. I looked at him. “This is what we’ve been fighting for, Athena, what Mama and Papa died for. To keep her safe.” I looked at him. “They didn’t lie to us. They didn’t tell us where she was, if she died, they didn’t tell us, it wasn’t a lie.”

“I hate when you’re right,” I mumbled and then smiled at him. He shook his head. “So you like her.”

“I spent all of fifteen minutes with her,” he muttered, “don’t be ridiculous.”

“But you like her,” I goaded.

“Quit it,” he said. I laughed.

“Oh, hello,” A young man walked in. We both stared at him. He was dressed in farmers clothes, but they were clean, and seemed little worn. He had auburn hair, and blue eyes and looked almost exactly like his father, if well, twenty something years younger. “You must be Athena and Tristan Dugarry, I’m Aaron.” He look around and then plopped onto one of the couches.

Countess Olivia

“She gave you a handkerchief?” I said with a loud laugh as we rode out of the city. Tristan scowled at me. “You cannot be serious? Like in a fairy tale about knights and ladies?”

“Don’t make fun of her,” he said. “Ma-Lady Marina care about me, about us, and our mission.” I sighed and rolled my eyes.

“She’s in love with you,” I said. He frowned.

“Don’t tease, it’s cruel,” he whispered.

“I’m not the one being cruel in this situation, Tristan,” I said softly. He frowned. “If you don’t have feelings for her, it’s wrong, cruel to use your word. She’s young and silly and she might be our queen one day.”

“It isn’t like that,” he said, “between us. You don’t know her, you’ve never bothered to try.” He had me there. “And maybe I do I have feelings for her.”

“If you say so,” I said and rode ahead a bit to where our charge was sitting, side saddle and serenely beautiful. “Is everything, to your liking, Your Grace?”

“Quite,” She smiled at me. I didn’t know the Countess as well as I should, after Tristan’s barb about Lady Marina Sanpierre, that stung a little. But I’d always felt an odd loyalty to General Martin, who’d raised me, to give the Count and Countess a wide berth. The Countess had chosen the Count over the General when they were young. “I’m sorry to take you away, I know your life in Dovetail is full.” I looked oddly at her. “I haven’t traveled without Caleb in a long time, it made me nervous. Thomas was kind enough to volunteer you and your brother.”

“You’re lying,” I said. She winked. “I mean, I know that’s what we told Lord Brayton, but,” she shrugged. “Is this about Lady Marina? Are we preparing to challenge,” she shook her head.

“Lady Athena, I assure you,” she said, “you’ll know everything you need to soon.” I nodded as we kept riding. I wonder sometimes about her, about her marriage and the choices she made. Lady Olivia Bano is treated almost like a legend, when people whisper about her. Like a Princess in a Story, courted by three suitors, one a king, one a hero and one a country lord. When a shadow swept over the king’s domain, and the hero felt called to defend it, the country lord swore to protect her and take her away and so she chose him. I doubted it was so simple, nothing in real life is.

“They don’t trust me anymore,” I said softly. She looked at me again.

“Oh, no, Athena,” she said, “you are not the first of us to make a mistake.” I nodded. “You loved him?”

“I thought I did,” I whispered. “But I didn’t even know him. Not really.” Warren Davis destroyed my trust, blew up my life and took my virginity. But I did not love him, if I loved him then there is something very wrong with my heart.

“I hope that you two will stay in Pantona,” she said, softly. “At least for a bit. We ought to have had you long ago.” I smiled at her.

“I wouldn’t have come,” I admitted. She laughed.

“Yes, I know,” she said, “you’ll never forgive me on Thomas’s behalf. You can forgive Trey though?”

“That’s different,” I said, “I was the reason for that.” She reached out and took my hand.

“So much your fault,” she said, “for one so young. Your Uncle’s and Thomas’s intransigence was not your doing. Your mother’s wish was that you be free to pursue your own heart. Now if that heart wants one of those pretty merchant boys your grandfather sends down to Dovetail every spring and fall, so much the better.” I giggled. “But I don’t think it is. You’re too much your father’s daughter. John knew duty, he knew Cammadan and the family,” she looked at me. “If the plan was to crown Lady Marina, would you serve her?” I looked at the Countess then.

“With every breath in my body,” I said softly. “But if in the next year we all do nothing? And I’m asked to serve Brayton, I’ll flee to Dorin so quickly your head will spin and if my grandfather won’t have me, I’ll cut my wrists.” The Countess nodded.

“And that,” she whispered, “Lady Athena, is why we trust you.”

Training

Just because we’re supposed to be leaving in a day doesn’t mean that I can rest. First of all it would give us away, and also, leaving Dovetail always makes me antsy. It has every since our parents died.

I’m out in the training yard, kicking the ass of some new recruit from the coast. He can’t keep up with me, and Tristan is looking on from the other side of the training field. He’ll say that me wiping the floor with this boy is bad for morale.

As the boy lands on on his back, he finally squeaks,

“I yield, Lady Athena,” I smile and help him up.

“You did well, Everett,” I said, “you’ve improved.” He frowned. “I’m serious, I didn’t expect the blow on the left side and the staff clearly suits you better than a sword. Keep working. You may even beat me one day.”

“I doubt that My Lady,” he said, but he was beaming. Tristan and I have different ideas about what motivates the guards.

I walk over to my brother who’s shaking his head.

“He wants to see us,” he’s grimacing. I nod.

“Well, we’re leaving,” I muttered, “I assumed as much.” He nodded. “I’m going to change.”

“You’re going to have to decide someday, Thena,” he said, “if you want to be a warrior or a lady.” I flipped my hair in his face and he sputtered it out.

“I do not,” I replied, “this is Cammadan. We have a long standing tradition of both.” He sighed loudly. “Besides, he likes me pretty, and it helps us all if we do as he likes.” Tristan grumbled something and stalked off. I went to the apartment and washed my face and glanced in a mirror.

The thing about surviving in Lord Brayton’s court is that you have to shine but not glow. Too much attention and you’re a threat, but not trying at all singles you out as well. I pulled my training tunic off and slid a simple burgundy dress over my head. I didn’t want to keep Brayton waiting, which meant anything more elaborate was out of the question. I brushed my hair quickly and slid a belt with one ceremonial guard’s dagger around my waist.

I met Tristan at the door to the throne room. He’d changed too, out of his tunic into a more casual Guard’s jacket.

“You look presentable,” I grinned. He shoved me and I laughed but steadied my face as we walked in.

The great Throne Room of Dovetail Palace was, allegedly, once a place of light and glory. But Lord Brayton and his black guards do not care for light, or transparency, or glory. Just darkness and secrets and fear. The large windows have been covered in tapestries for almost as long as I can remember.

I have a few memories of chasing a curly haired, dark skinned toddler about as the sun darted in and out of the glass, but I breath deeply to bury that. My memories of Annalise help no one. The Princess died before we could ever protect her.

“Lady Athena, Sir Tristan,” the soft, and ice cold voice of Lord Brayton Dovetail broke through the darkness. “Thank you for coming.”

“We are at your disposal,” Tristan said shortly and wish a bow. I swept into a deep curtsy as well.

“Of course,” Brayton grinned. “I worry about you both, being abandoned by the general must have been painful.” My hand twitched. It would be my death but it would be so easy to grab  my dagger and put it through his heart.

For Annalise.

For my parents.

For Martin.

“We serve the crown and the throne,” I managed, though the word choked me. “May The Princess return and sit upon it one day.”

“Yes, yes,” he said, “we pray for my cousin’s safety.” I nodded and stood. “Count and Countess Pantona have requested your services if you are willing.” I glanced over and noticed the Count and Countess, in their green clothes, their auburn hair clean and brushed, both of them too dignified for anyone’s good.

“We’d be honored,” Tristan said, glancing at the count who nodded, “to perform any service to true lords of Cammadan.” I heard a gentle squeak from behind us.

“You have something to say, Lady Marina?” Brayton purred.

“N-no, My Lord,” she managed stepping forward, “I didn’t mean to, only, Tr-Sir Tristan,” she looked down, “and Lady Athena would be so missed, here, at court.” She’s such a little fool. I know I should try to like her better, as she will, with all luck, be my queen someday but she makes herself so ridiculous.

Especially when it comes to my brother.

“Of course,” Brayton said, “they will be. None the less, I cannot deny such loyal courtiers a simple request, even for your comfort my dear.” She curtsied and stepped back. “Lady Athena, you have no objection?”

“None at all, My Lord, and why would I?” I asked. She’s an idiot but I do pity her, so I bat my eyelashes and seem as though his interest flatters me.

“Well, Commander Davis could complete his mission any day,” he said, “surely you wish to greet your intended?” My spine stiffens.

“Commander Davis and I both serve at your pleasure, sir,” I managed, not retching. “I know he will forgive my absence.”

“Of course he will,” he said, “Countess, will you accept your body guards?”

“Gladly, My Lord,” Countess Olivia of Pantona said. She winked at us and I smirked.