Note: The Merriest Of Christmas Weekends To You, Marina Chronicle Readers! As a Christmas present to you, (and me!) I’m publishing two interludes, about my two favorite people in this world right now…Prior Chastain and Evan Allred. Who are these cousins who popped up and suddenly fit right in with our A list? What’s their deal?
Anyway, Prior first. Please feel free to score this particular piece with Taylor Swift’s “Mastermind” and know that in my mind, Prior is Brandon Routh.
The induction had come more quickly than he’d paid attention to. As he knelt and looked up at Queen Annalise, Prior Chastain could barely even think of the past two months of training and bonding with his squad. She was almost glowing, and she was all that mattered.
“I thank all of you,” she said, her voice gliding over the group. “And welcome your service.” They rose. Commander Dugarry said something to her and her face lit up in a laugh. He was lost. His queen could have his whole heart, physically if she wanted it.
“You seem distracted,” his cousin Evan said that evening. Prior looked at him. “Aren’t you relieved to be inducted?”
“I am,” Prior nodded, “disappointed to be staying here though.” Evan raised his eyebrows.
“It’s important work,” Evan shrugged, “I doubt Brightcoast will be all that exciting.” Prior laughed. “Did you speak to her?”
“No,” Prior laughed. “I don’t know that I ever will.” Evan sighed. “Why?”
“I don’t know,” Evan said, “I just don’t know how to talk to her.” Prior smiled. “I don’t suppose we could swap? I join the guard and you try to marry her?” Prior’s heart sped up at the thought of it. “I’m joking. Aside from my complete lack of interest, no one is getting near her with Dugarry around.”
“The Commander is leaving,” Prior said thoughtfully. “He’s going to Dorin. There’s still the princes though. And the fact that you don’t like women.” Evan laughed.
The Guard had been his Uncle’s idea, but the Rangers were his own. He was more suited to the quick moving nomadic life of the small unit. The long quiet rides through Failon’s forests and Westran’s deserts felt peaceful to him.
“Chastain,” Commander Elodie Willis-Graves walked into his barrack, he stood up and she smiled at him. “I have an assignment for you.”
“Really?” He said. He’d yet to be assigned a permanent partner.
“Mm,” she nodded, “The Countess of Pantona is pregnant.” He raised his eyebrows. “Sir Tristan requires a new partner and I think it should be you.” He stared at her.
“What?” He said, “why?” She shrugged.
“You’re good at this,” she said, “and the family likes your cousin. Tristan doesn’t really like anyone, but I think he’ll get along with you.” He stared at her. “Come on, you have to meet them.”
“You say, ‘the family,’ Elodie,” he stuttered as he followed her through the training yard, “does that mean, Sir Tristan and Lady Carolina?”
“Hello Elodie,” Duchess Marina of Brightcoast cheerfully trotted up to them. “Oh you must be Prior Chastain! Evan’s told me so much about you. I do hope you and Tristan get along.” He blinked at her.
“Thank you, Your Grace,” he bowed. She looked at the Commander.
“Elodie, are you and Mercy going to be at dinner tonight, I need to know how many places are to be set?” The Duchess asked.
“Not tonight, no,” Elodie said. “Althea’s had a cold.”
“Oh, poor thing,” the Duchess clucked, “I’ll make a tea for you all.”
“Thank you,” Elodie laughed as the Duchess padded off. “You look overwhelmed.”
“They know who I am?” He said. She rolled her eyes.
“Obviously,” Elodie said, “your cousin is living with theirs.” Prior exhaled through his nose.
“I know Raymond knows me,” he said. “But The Queen and The Duchess.” Elodie smiled fondly at him.
“Prior,” she said, “I’ve seen you with women, Annalise and Marina are just the same.” He frowned. “I’m serious. Probably Her Majesty more than anyone. She didn’t grow up a queen, she grew up a farm girl in Pantona.” He nodded. “She’s kind of a flirt too, you should know.”
“What?” He said. She smirked. Elodie always saw too much. “It isn’t,” he sighed. “What if I saw something?”
“Yes, the worst thing that could happen to you is that you tell your queen you find her bewitchingly attractive,” Elodie’s voice was flat and sarcastic. “She’ll despise you for it.” Prior sighed. She didn’t understand. No one did.
Six months and three missions later, he’d grown used to the rhythm of things, he liked Tristan Dugarry, who’s seriousness and stoicism, he’d learned was more shyness and social discomfort. Among the people he was close to, the Commander was engaging, and thoughtful.
Their time in Dovetail was his favorite. Because he was close to her. The Queen. Annalise. And she knew him now, paid attention to him, he could make her laugh.
“Hello Captain,” she smiled at him one afternoon walking from holding court.
“Your Majesty,” he bowed. She looked oddly at him. “Can I help you with something?”
“I’m curious why you come here,” she said as they walked out. “Between missions I mean, rather than go home.” He laughed.
“Ah,” he nodded. “My uncle, likes for me to be at court. All of our lives are made easier by my uncle being pleased.” She laughed.
“That’s true enough,” she said, “you’d be next in line wouldn’t you?” He raised his eyebrows. “If I accepted his petition, to dishinerit Evan?”
“His what?” Prior said. She smiled. “Of course. Here I thought he just wanted me to be happy.” She laughed. “I hadn’t realized he’d made his desires official.”
“I’m not doing it,” she remarked. He nodded. “I hope that’s not a disappointment to you. I like Evan and he’s a calming presence on council.” He smiled. “You’ll join us tonight? With everyone back in Pantona, Marina, Raymond and I are feeling a bit lonely.”
“I’d be honored,” Prior said gently. She smiled and turned and walked off. This would be the first time he was seeing her so intimately with Tristan not present.
“May I ask you something?” Annalise said that evening. They were alone, The Duchess had gone to bed and his cousin and his partner were also gone. It had happened too quickly for Prior to excuse himself. He also realized that he didn’t want to.
“I think you may ask whatever you like,” he pointed out. “You’re a queen.” She laughed at that and refilled her wine glass.
“I still like to be polite,” she sipped softly on it. “You watch me,” she said. He nodded.
“That isn’t a question,” he pointed out. She rolled her eyes. “You want to know why?” She nodded. “Because I can’t help it. I’ve tried to, since I came here five years ago. But I can’t stop.” She smiled coyly and leaned back against the sofa.
“Hm,” she nodded, “Would kissing me help, or hurt, do you think?” He blinked at her. “Sometimes it can help, you know, to get the fascination and fantasy out of your system. You could ask Prince Harran about that.” He swallowed.
“Are you asking me to kiss you?” He said. “Or is this a philosophical conversation?” She laughed. “Your Majesty,” he whispered as she moved closer, her gown rustling.
“Captain,” she said quietly, and then pressed her lips to his softly. He cupped his hands around her face. They broke apart. “So, what’s the verdict? Help or hurt?” He laughed.
“Too soon to say,” he smirked, “we’ll have to see how my attention moves tomorrow.” She nodded. She smiled and reclined again. She was beguiling, he realized. He’d watched the part she played in public. Their supernaturally serene girl Queen, as close to the goddess herself as they would ever see.
But she was utterly human. He as all the more drawn to her now.
“But I have it now,” she whispered. He smiled. “Your attention, that is?” He exhaled as she wrapped her arms around his neck.
“Yes, My Queen,” he exhaled and kissed her again, his hands moving to her waist. She was so small against him, and she was still overwhelming him. “You have my attention.” She smiled and slid out from under him.
“Excellent,” she said, “come to bed, Prior, I’ll return it.” He followed her into her bedroom and kissed her, falling back against her bed. He kissed down her neck. She said his name, and trembled when he touched her.
“I want you,” he whispered, “so much, it’s killing me.” She looked up at him and touched his face and kissed him again.
“You have me,” she whispered and pulled his shirt over his head. “No need for the dramatics.” He smiled. “Goddess, I will never stop loving this,” she ran her hands over his chest. He wasn’t sure what he meant but they undressed each other and made love. After, he held her and quietly kissed her hair.
“You said you’d never get tired of it,” he said. She giggled. “Of me?”
“I might get tired of you,” she teased, “but I meant this,” she ran her hands over his chest, “of what your training does for your bodies,” she kissed him. He smiled.
“Really?” He said. She shrugged.
“When I was sixteen, at Pantona,” she explained, “Tristan used to run, and he would get too hot, and inevitably disrobe to some extent.” He raised his eyebrows. “And I remember thinking I might mandate the uniform for male guards not have any shirts, just so I could look at all of you.” He laughed.
“Wouldn’t be particularly practical,” he pointed out and she giggled.
“No,” she sighed, “and everyone already gossips about me and the guards, I doubt such a change would go uncommented on.” He frowned.
“Have there been others?” He asked. “Besides me and Tristan?” She closed her eyes.
“No,” she said, “I’ve been friendly with some people, but no,” she stretched, cat like in her movements. “Despite what your uncle and some of the others think, I don’t take every man I blink at into my bed.” He nodded and threaded his fingers into hers. “Tristan, Harran, Eric, and now you.” He kissed her.
“I don’t know what I’ll tell him,” he whispered. She closed her eyes.
“Tristan and I are not nearly in a place where it’s his business,” she said. He kissed her again.
It was months and several cycles through missions and returns home, as Tristan banked a fire, settling in for a night after riding all day that they finally acknowledged it.
“Does she talk about the future?” Tristan asked. Seemingly out of nowhere. But Prior had learned that by the time his partner spoke, he’d usually had several version of the conversation in his mind.
“No,” Prior said softly. “Honestly, I expect every time we return to Dovetail that she’ll have moved on completely.” Tristan smirked at that.
“She won’t,” he said, “it isn’t her nature.” Prior swallowed and large sip of water. “I only ask because,” he shook his head. “People are going to talk, about you, about your ambition, about how worthy or not you are. And you can walk away from that, but she can’t.” Prior looked at him.
“What happened between you two?” He managed. Tristan looked at him. “Really.” Tristan shruggedd.
“We were young. We were in love with each other,” he said softly. “And it wasn’t enough. For anyone. For the council, for me, for her, for Marina, for the gods. So it couldn’t hold. I miss her,” he said softly. “But being near each other isn’t good for us. We’ve tried, a few times, and it hurts too much.” Prior looked at him. “And Carolina doesn’t like it.” Prior laughed at that.
“Your wife’s reservoir of patience is endless,” Prior said. Tristan laughed.
“It really isn’t,” he said. “But it is deep. And I’d never want to reach it’s bottom. Her father learned that lesson the hard way.” He shook his head. “But be careful.”
“I wouldn’t hurt her,” Prior said. Tristan laughed. “I see she’s more fragile than most realize, but I wouldn’t,” Tristan shook his head.
“Lisette is perhaps softer than people realize,” Tristan said, “but she isn’t fragile. And I’m not worried you’ll hurt her, my friend.” Prior looked at him. “I’m very worried you’ll get hurt.” Prior looked at him. “I loved her, and still love her, with everything in me. But she can’t give her whole self to any man, and don’t expect it of her.”
He’d meant to bring it up the next time the were together. Tristan’s concerns, what she wanted from him, from them. But instead, he saw her carrying so much weight, and refused to add to it. He instead relished the moment she let go, since it came while he wrapped his arms around her from behind, slid her braided hair of her neck and kissed it gently.
No, he couldn’t think about their future, about what it all meant, when all that mattered was after so long, wishing she would even look at him, she was in his arms. It was enough.