I walked back through the tunnel from Marina’s office, to my apartment. It was a new door, to those rooms, built off of the ones to the Princess tower, which these days sat vacant more often than not. It’s still Olivia’s when she’s here, but she and Thomas are here less and less.

I understand. Pantona is safe and happy and full of life. Here it’s tedious and quiet and it feels like the clocks have stopped. I miss them and I wish that I could be with them. And Aaron. And Athena and Tristan and Caro. In Pantona, watching Calla grow and explore. Seeing her climb the lemon trees, and run through the wheat and play by the lake.

But I’m here, stuck, waiting for Eric, who can’t come back. Won’t maybe. He could. It would cause all out war, but he could come.

“Well, someone looks preoccupied,” I smirked seeing Prior already lying on my bed, his boots tossed to the side.

“You are unbearably disrespectful Captain,” I smirked. He laughed. Prior Chastain was recruited not long after my coronation and rose through the ranks quickly. He joined Tristan’s Rangers and that was when we met.

He’s easy. I’ve had too little easy in my life.

“I apologize, Your Majesty,” he sighed. “Would you have preferred a great announcement and a lot of bowing?” I walked over and slid down beside him.

“Honestly?” I said and kissed him. “Yes, I wouldn’t mind it occasionally.”

“Noted,” he said and pulled me close. “I am supposed to debrief you.” I nodded solemnly. “We encountered four shadows, and stumbled into a briar nest. It was otherwise four months of staring at a blank desert horizon.”

“Tristan would give me more details,” I teased. Prior sighed.

“Add it to the list of the ways I am not as good a man as Tristan then,” he said and rolled me onto my back and I giggled. “He is however, in Pantona with his wife, so Your Majesty must settle for me.”

“Mm,” I sighed, “a pity, that.” We kissed. “You are early.”

“I know,” he said. “It was meant to be a surprise.” I laughed. “And I missed you.” I smiled and kissed him again. We undressed and he made love to me. Not the urgent hunger of a man starved of companionship for months, but the steady calm release of someone who knew what he was doing.

Not that I expected faithfulness for Prior. Or really anything from him, beyond pleasure and discretion.

“Why didn’t you go to Pantona?” I asked. He laughed.

“While I find your family and Tristan’s utterly charming, Annalise,” he smiled, “would you believe I prefer to actually see you?” I smiled. “The detour seemed unnecessary.” I kissed him. “We did spend a day with my Uncle,” I nodded and stood up. Wyatt Allred had brought his nephew to court to make up for his son’s shortcomings, to begin with. Evan’s shortcoming’s were entirely in his father’s mind of course, he’s a wonderful young man, and he and Raymond are exceedingly happy in their little house on the University Grounds.

“Is he coming back this year?” I raised my eyebrows. “The Council gets on splendidly without him, really.” He laughed.

“He will not thank Cornan,” he sighed. “He was considering pulling Evan’s tuition. I talked him out of that.” I smiled, “no, just the usual grumblings, that you’re distracted, we were better off with Brayton, that sort of thing.” I nodded.

“If that’s all,” I said and stood up. “I am distracted, but only a mad person wouldn’t be. I’m always pulled in ten directions.” He took my hand. “Prior,” I mumbled.

“It scares me,” he said, “he could,” I shook my head.

“Wyatt is a blowhard,” I said softly. “There is no real organizing force against me in Cammadan. We’d know.” He nodded. This wasn’t arrogance. Thanks to Carolina, largely, we knew where basically all the money in the kingdom moved. Even if the old men who didn’t like me were trying to organize, they had no money to raise an army. “Is he still threatening to disinherit Evan?”

“Yes,” Prior said, “will you still deny his requests?”

“Obviously,” I kissed him. “Thank you for this, I needed it.” He smiled.

“I live to serve,” he grinned. I rolled my eyes. “Annalise,” he said softly. “Be careful, please.” I kissed him.

“I’ve faced worse,” I whispered. He smiled. “Are you coming to Westran with us?” He sighed.

“You know that isn’t up to me,” he muttered. “It could be, if you’d promote me.” I laughed.

“Oh that would certainly go over well,” I said, “and no one will question the logic behind that decision at all.” He frowned. “I can’t promote you anyway, that isn’t how the Rangers are structured.” He sighed.

“Well then by taking up with you’ve I’ve made a disastrous career decision,” he mumbled, “Tristan will never forgive me for it.” I threaded my fingers through his.

“Don’t do that,” I mumbled. He looked at me. “It’s unfair to him.” He nodded. It’s unfair to me. But I didn’t say that out loud. I know what everyone thinks of me taking up with Prior. I just didn’t realize Prior was included in everyone, himself.

The Queen has taken another guard into her bed, another potential ally, not an appropriate choice for a consort. But at least he’s Cammadie. No one’s accused him of being a spy. So that’s nice.

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