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.”

Tom And Trey

Since the shadow attack, Annalise is different. She’s so determined and almost grim. Even Tristan is keeping his distance from her. But we’re getting closer to Dovetail, and my heart skips a beat every time I think about it. We saw the city spires on the horizon today and I was thrilled.

“Athena,” Martin stepped into my tent, “I need your help with something.” I nodded and put down the map I was studying.

“Alright,” I said, “What do you need?” He sighed.

“I’m going to ask Trey to evacuate as much of the city as he can,” he explained. I whistled. “What?”

“That’s a big ask, Martin, and I don’t know that he’ll,” I sighed, “you want me to come with you.”

“He’s more likely to comply if you’re there,” he explained.

“We can start with if you’re asking him for a favor, using the word ‘comply,’ might not be your best bet,” I said. He laughed. “Drea’s probably North already, she’d be better than Trey.” He shrugged.

“We still have to try,” he explained.

“oh, I agree,” I said, “we leave now?” He nodded and I grabbed a few things and rode out towards the city, arriving at the gates. I was dressed as a merchant so we passed quickly and got to Market Street and slipped to Uncle Trey’s house. We went to the back door and I banged loudly.

Gordon, the butler opened it wide eyed.

“Lady Athena,” he said, his eyes glanced over to Martin. “General.” I couldn’t help giggling. “Please come in. I’ll wake him.” I nodded and we went to the parlor. I sat on a couch and Martin paced.

“I always hated this damn room,” he muttered. Uncle Trey walked in and stopped. He walked to me and embraced me.

“I was worried,” he mumbled, “when Lotte said you were in Pantona, and what else she found there,” he pulled away. “What on Earth were you thinking, sending them to the most dangerous possible place, Tom?”

“I was thinking that Athena and Tristan are Captains of The Royal Guard and the appointed protectors of the heir to the throne and they have a job to do,” he shrugged and leaned against a pillar. “It’s nice to see you, by the way, Trey.”

“Hmph,” Trey snorted and cupped my face, “You’re alright?”

“I’m fine,” I said, “but we need help. We’re marching on the city in a few days. With Annalise and,”

“We’d like to minimize casualties, and if anyone can quietly get people out it’s you,” Martin said. Trey looked at him, his eyes wide. “Trey, I’ll beg if you like.”

“I’ll do what I can,” Trey said softly. “Of course.” I nodded at him. “Stay for breakfast?” I smiled

“We can’t,” I said, “if someone saw Martin, they’ll already be looking for us.” He nodded. Martin looked at him.

“Thank you, for this,” he whispered. Trey looked at him.

“Dead people make poor customers,” he said with a gentle laugh, “someone told my father that once, even if he didn’t listen.” Martin chuckled and nodded. We moved quickly back out through the kitchen and down alleys, silently back to the camp.

“Do you still,” I tried, Martin looked at me, “now that things will be settled, and you can go back to the city, I thought maybe,” he smiled.

“The first time you asked when Trey and I would be together again you were twelve,” he said, “the situation has not changed much Athena. We’d kill each other in a week.” I smiled. “But I do miss him. I always have.” I nodded. “I hate that house.”

“We all hate that house,” I said. He laughed. “I’ve always been glad you refused to give us up to the family.” He smiled at me.

“I promised your mother,” he said, “I don’t make commitments not to keep them.”

I’m Yours

Hey All! This chapter has a new song added to the playlist!!!! Also if you haven’t checked out the playlist, check out the playlist!

As the sun went down and the fires and songs started up, I was able to find my way to the one where Aaron was sitting. He’d already collected a small band of friends. It made me happy that he was fitting in.

I walked over and sat down. He looked at me and smiled softly.

“Commander,” he said.

“Your Grace,” I nodded. The others laughed quietly. “Do you have a moment?”

“Of course,” he said and we walked away. The moon was full, it was nice. “Athena,”

“Wait,” I said, “I’m sorry. I should have told you, you were right.” He looked at me and grinned. “Do not get used to me saying that.” He laughed and hugged me. “It’s more than most people know. We were making plans to run away together.” He looked at me. “My Aunt Brie, her husband is Rastani, we were going to go to his family, at least until things were settled.”

“I see,” he said. “Do you think he was sincere?” I frowned.

“I didn’t used to,” I said softly, “I thought it was all a trick. That he was telling me what would get me to trust him enough to tell him everything.” I sat down on a rock and Aaron sat with me. “When they brought Martin out into the open, when he had to run,” I swallowed, “when I realized who he was, what he was, I still had to pretend,” I shuddered. “Until he was stationed away, I still had to be with him. Let him kiss me, and touch me,” Aaron nodded, he didn’t move to comfort me. “I hated myself for it. Every night, every kiss, every whisper.”

“Oh, Thena,” he said softly. “I’m sorry.” I swallowed. “If I’d known,” I smiled and took his hand.

“After I talked to him today,” I whispered, “I realized he meant it. He was a spy, he betrayed us, but he did love me. He did want to run away with me, he thought,” I swallowed and started crying. “He thought I would still want to, after all of this, that I would choose him and us. And god help me Aaron, I might have. If what we’d been told was true, if we’d just escorted your mother home and then went back to Dovetail and then I’d found out he actually loved me, I’d have done anything to get away from there, from Brayton.”

“But it wasn’t true,” Aaron said. I looked at him. “It doesn’t matter, Athena, don’t you see that. We’re together, we’ll always be.” I looked at him. “I love you, just let me. How many times do I have to beg?” I sniffled.

“But what if,” I started. He kissed me gently.

“No more what ifs,” he said, “if we die taking the capital, we’ll be together, if we fail and live, we’ll run away together. I like the idea of your aunt’s Rastani in laws,” I laughed. “I’m yours, Athena, forever. Can you say the same?”

“Yes,” I smiled softly. “I’m yours, forever, no matter what.” He kissed me again.

Warren

Life had settled in at camp, Lisette had proved her worth and been made a Lieutenant (officially), and Tristan a Captain to make way for her. I spent most of my days training or working with newere recruits, most of them runaways from Dovetail.

In fact it was a lovely calm morning, discussing when we would move towards Dovetail. The Count and Martin like the symbol of marching in on her birthday. Aaron thinks that’s suicide.

It’s all moot now, but it didn’t make this morning less frighting, when we heard the horns and felt the shill in the air as the shadows descended. I tried to call on my strength, on whatever blessing Cornan could give me and nothing came.

My back pressed against Tristan’s when I heard the hissing voices in my head. I’d never heard them before, just seen them, disguised as men at Brayton’s back.

You are not worthy to be called warrior. One hissed at me. You who are so we you can’t even keep you legs closed. I slashed and dispersed that one.

I would kill you, so called Champion, the next came forward, I swallowed, But my commander has asked for you as a reward.

“Commander?” I asked, and then looked over the hillside and saw him standing there. Warren Davis, clad entirely in the uniform of the black guard, his dirty blond hair slicked back. Tall, strong. I swallowed.

“No, Athena,” Tristan said, as I went towards him. “General,” he called out.

“Tristan you go,” he said. I frowned at them both. “Athena, stay with the Princess.” I frowned, but of course in moments, it didn’t matter because a blinding shock of white light shook the earth and the shadows had dispersed. Lisette ran to the edge of the battlefield and I saw Lady Marina collapsed.

“Are you alright?” Aaron asked. I nodded wordlessly. But I wasn’t. I couldn’t be. How was he so near? How was he commanding shadows? How had I been so blind to what he really was?

“You?” I asked.

“Yes,” he said. “Marina,” he muttered. I nodded. They’d connected, I wasn’t surprised. As I got to know her better, I saw how much they had in common. He ran over to Lisette, and scooped the younger girl up to carry her to camp.

“I want to interrogate him,” I said to Martin, who frowned at me. “Martin!”

“Athena, we need answers from him, we don’t need him dead.” He shook his head. I frowned. “I can feel the anger coming off of you. I don’t blame you, but you wouldn’t be able to control yourself.”

“Fine,” I said and marched away. I got back to my tent and lay down on the bed. I fell to sleep quickly. My dreams were full of memories and images. Warren cautiously sitting beside me one day at dinner. The notes I would find slipped under the door, or with my gear in the training room. His whispers of how we would get away from Dovetail, from Brayton together, his hands on me, his voice gently whispering, “Beloved,” in my ear as he entered me. I woke up then with a start. Aaron was sitting in a chair, tending to and watching a fire. “What are you doing here?”

“Everyone was busy,” he explained, “I didn’t want to be in the way.” I nodded. “Marina is alright. Exhausted, but well.”

“I’m glad,” I said honestly. He nodded. “Is something else wrong”

“Who is Warren Davis?” He asked. I swallowed and sat up.

“It doesn’t matter,” I frowned. He looked at me and shook his head.

“You know what, forget it,” he said and walked out. I stood up and followed him.

“Then you know already?” I said. He turned and looked at me. “Who told you? Tristan? The General?”

“My mother,” he said. “But don’t blame her, because she was just warning me to be gentle with you.” I suddenly swelled with affection for the countess. “But you should have told me. You were planning to marry the man and you never once mentioned,” I swallowed.

“What would you have had me say?” I said back. “That the first time a boy whispered I was pretty, I slid into bed with him faster than I could take a breath? That he made it impossible for me to trust anyone because it turned out he was a spy, and he broke my family apart and every moment I was falling in love with you, I was terrified I’d said something that would bring him back around to you, and to Lisette.” He looked at me.

“You should have told me,” he repeated, “I would have understood, at least, then why you were so,” I swallowed. “You were going to marry him.”

“I don’t need to explain that,” I shook my head. “Just because every woman you ever kissed we would see on market days.” I realized we’d walked to the medical tent.

“I wasn’t ever planning to marry any of them, Athena,” he said. His voice had shaken of it’s calm. “That was just you. I love you.”

“I was never going to marry Warren Davis,” I explained, “not when I knew what he was, but I was hurt, Aaron. I love you too.” He frowned and we turned, seeing Marina standing next to us.

“I’m glad you’re feeling better, Marina,” he said and shook his head walked away. I sighed and flopped down on one of the beds again. After talking with Marina I knew what I needed to do, but I wasn’t happy about it.

I walked over to where they were keeping him. No one tried to stop me, which was a blessing. I walked into the tent and stared at him.

“Hello Beloved,” he said softly, his hazel eyes meeting mine. I stared him down. “I was wondering when I would see you.”

“How could you?” I asked him softly. He swallowed, almost flinched. I knew him so well. Every inch of him.

“It was for us,” he explained. I snorted and crossed my arms. “Athena, what Lord Brayton has planned, what he can do, you have no idea. But I can protect you, he’s promised me. Even now, after he takes the throne, we can go away, like we always said.”

“You’ve lost your mind,” I said, “as if I’d go with you, choose you. I’d die first.” He frowned. “You’ve met her. You’ve seen.” He stared me down.

“It won’t matter,” he said. “When he has,” I cocked my head to the side. “If I tell you, what do I get?” I looked away. “So cold, My Lady. You didn’t used to be.”

“I’m sorry, Warren,” I whispered, “I’m truly sorry you traded your soul for nothing.” I turned around and left. Tristan was standing waiting for me. “Don’t start.”

“Just checking on you,” he said. “He’s insane.”

“I noticed,” I sighed. “He thinks I’m going to run away with him.” Tristan stared at me. “We did talk about it, but it wasn’t the sort of thing,” I frowned. “Aaron’s angry.”

“That, I noticed,” he said. “He’s hurt, Athena, but he’ll get over it.” I bumped him with my shoulder. “I’d kill himself if I thought it would help.” I smiled at my brother.

“I know you would.” I said. He smiled and shrugged.

Engagement

Tristan and Lisette are eating with Duke Lestat and Lady Marina, which I guess will become normal. I’m curious what Lady Marina’s reaction will be when she finds out about them. Poor thing.

Meanwhile, I sat through a desperately awkward meal with The General, Aaron, and The Count and Countess. It was almost completely silent until Aaron finally spoke up.

“I thought,” he cleared his throat and looked at me, “I thought perhaps once things are settled I might go back to Pantona in the spring.” I stopped and smiled at him.

“I don’t think it’s up to us,” The Countess smirked. “It will take getting used to being at the whim of the crown again.” Aaron snorted.

“Aaron,” The Count cautioned.

“I’ve been at Lisette’s whim since I was four, I don’t think it will be much to get used to,” he shrugged. I smiled. “What do you think, Lady Athena? About the spring.” Martin dropped his silverware, loudly.

“I like the spring,” I said, “but me going to Pantona would be a great disappointment to my grandfather. He’s always begging me to go to Dorin.”

“You might be better off going to Dorin,” Martin said. I glared at him.

“We enjoyed having Athena at Pantona,” The Countess said, her clear blue eyes meeting his.

“Oh, honestly,” The Count sighed loudly, “Aaron, yes, of course, a wedding in the spring at Pantona would be wonderful, I seriously doubt Lisette would object on any score, except she’d probably miss you both.” I pressed my lips into my mouth. “Athena, we would of course welcome you into the family, in fact, the prospect is thrilling.” I was trying not to giggle. “Thomas, Olivia, if you two could please stop thinking these two need to reenact your own history I would very much appreciate it. I am nothing like either of our fathers, and I have no intention of making my children miserable for my own ambition.” He stood up and stormed out.

“Excuse me,” I said and stood up and walked over to Count Caleb. “Thank you, for that.” He looked at me and laughed. “I didn’t think you’d disapprove of me.”

“No,” he said softly, “I very much do not.” I looked at him. “But somehow when the subject of the lot of you comes up, The Countess and General feel the need to pick at old scabs.” I nodded.

“Are you ever jealous?” I asked, thinking of pretty Kathy Sampson, who I would have to see regularly. Or Aaron’s reaction to my past. He looked at me and smiled.

“No,” he said softly. “Not for a long time.” I nodded. “Aaron wouldn’t even think to be, it’s not in his nature.” I smiled.

“No it isn’t,” I said softly. “My grandfather is going to be disappointed.” He laughed.

“I doubt it,” he shook his head, “when he arranged your parent’s marriage I think this sort of thing was exactly what he had in mind.” I sighed.

“It makes Tristan nervous,” I admitted, “me too, but don’t tell him. Grandfather having easy access to her.” He sighed.

“Don’t tell anyone but I worry about it too,” he frowned. “I have a little more faith in your uncle and aunts, but not much.” I nodded. “You don’t need to worry about these things, Athena.”

“No offense your grace, but it’s my job to protect her, so I think I do have to,” I said. He laughed and then we saw Lisette and Tristan walking back over. “Excuse me,” he nodded. “Hello you two, who did it go?”

“I’m tired,” Lisette frowned, kissed my brother and then waved and headed to bed. I smirked at him.

“That well?” I said.

“I told you so doesn’t suit you, Thena,” he frowned. “She’s going to hate me.”

“You deserve it,” I said. “You didn’t mention once in those letters you wrote her that you’d fallen in love with a princess.” I hissed out the last part. He winced.

“It didn’t seem like,” he frowned, “I didn’t know how she felt.”

“You’re an idiot,” I said. “You can congratulate me, though. I’m engaged.”

“Hm,” he nodded. “Did Martin stop sulking then?”

“No,” I grumbled as we walked along and I kicked the road. “But it isn’t up to him. You’ll write to Grandfather?” He nodded. “Do you want me to talk to Lady Marina?”

“Do you think it will help?” He said. “I don’t like the idea of her being angry with me. We’ve always been,” he stopped, “I’m an idiot.”

“Yes,” I smiled at him, “you really, really are.”

Arrival

I challenged Tristan to a race, knowing how soon we’d be arriving at camp, but he refused.

“I don’t want us to be separated on arrival,” he said. I frowned.

“But that worked out so well last time,” I grinned. Lisette giggled.

“Mm, fewer lemon groves and lost princesses in these parts though,” she teased and wrinkled her nose at him.

“And it’s all the worse for it,” Tristan smiled, “still, I think we’d better stay together.” I rolled my eyes, but nodded in agreement. Lisette is quiet, thoughtful I think.

I’m anxious, but also excited to get back to work. And another anxiety has taken root in my stomach. I don’t know what Martin will say about Aaron, having worked closely with his parents for years, he’ll most likely approve. Or maybe I’m fooling myself.

Riding into camp felt comfortable. And while we were being greeted by Lady Marina I was surprised by the change in her. She was even able to make eye contact with Tristan without blushing.

She and Lisette look extraordinarily alike. Lady Marina is darker, and her features maybe a little more delicate, but it’s eerie. Lisette seemed shy around her as well.

Aaron immediately started flirting, I’d be annoyed except I think it would simply amuse him if I was. He’d been joking about it being a fine match, Pantona and Brightcoast, the whole ride. Seeing him with her now it’s even more of a joke.

“Lady Marina,” I said, she looked over at me. “Where is the General?” She smiled.

“General Martin is in the command tent,” she said, “against my better advice I might add.” Tristan laughed. I looked at him and then at Lisette.

“Thank you,” I said and walked through camp, greeting people as I went, before arriving at the command tent and walking in. “Glad to see you alive.” A few of the guards in the tent tensed, as General Thomas Martin looked up from a map.

“Hello Athena,” he said with a sigh, “please give us a moment.” The guards nodded and left. I crossed my arms and stared at him. “I’d rather you give me a kiss hello before the lecture.”

“At the moment I don’t care what you’d rather, you’re a foolish old man who’s going to get himself killed,” I said. He sighed again. “What were you thinking fighting off a shadow attack?”

“I was thinking that I have been fighting shadows since I was younger than you, that if I didn’t Lady Marina would have been captured and turned over to Brayton, and that I was backed up by the best guard in the regiment,” he answered. I looked away. “And I am, as you can see whole, and was well cared for, so,” I continued to glare. “Athena, you cannot possibly still be angry with me.”

“Lady Marina said you should still be resting,” I countered.

“Lady Marina’s skills as a healer are quite good, but she’s still new to it,” he said, “I am fine, but if it will make you feel better, I will go to sleep as soon as the sun goes down.” I nodded. “Now, can you greet me properly my dear?” I shook my head and laughed and went to hug him.

It felt good to be wrapped in his very large arms. He kissed me on the forehead and turned up my chin.

“I did miss you,” I said. He smiled.

“I missed you too,” he said, “tell about Pantona, and The Princess.” I smiled.

“She’s exceptional, Martin,” I said, “I honestly think you’ll be impressed. She’s a better fighter than I could have imagined, smart, and,” I smiled, “I want to follow her. I’m ready to,” he nodded.

“And Tristan?” He asked.

“Tristan is quite fond of her,” I smirked. He raised his eyebrows.

“Really? Our Tristan?” He laughed. “I can honestly say I’m shocked.” I giggled. “And did you like Pantona? I haven’t been there in years, but I remember it being nice country.”

“It’s very nice,” I nodded, “I wanted to talk to you about something,” I swallowed and began fidgeting with my skirts. “The Viscount,” I swallowed, “well, he and I have gotten very close.”

“That’s good,” he nodded, “you’ll likely be working together quite a bit.” I swallowed. “I’m interested in meeting him. The Count and Countess always worry about him.”

“I don’t think they need to,” I said, “we, well, I, actually,” he met my eyes. “We’re going to get married.”

“I see,” his voice went cold. “He’s proposed?” I swallowed.

“Well, no,” I said. He nodded. “But we’ve discussed it, and, well, once things are settled, with Lisette,” he raised his eyebrows. “Annalise, The Princess, it’s a pet name, it doesn’t matter.”

“I feel like we’ve had this conversation before.” He frowned. I scowled at him.

“This is not like that,” I said, “he’s not like Warren. He wouldn’t,” I looked away. “He’s loyal.”

“I won’t stand in your way,” he said simply, “it isn’t my place to do so, but Athena, don’t make a fool of yourself.” I frowned. “If he’s anything like his father, then a girl from a merchant family, even one as extraordinary as you won’t be sufficient.”

“I’m sorry that’s how you feel,” I said and stood up. “But you’re wrong.” He nodded, I walked out and around camp.

“Lady Athena!” My friend, Elodie Whills walked over to me. I smiled and hugged her.

“Oh Elodie,” I said softly, “I’m glad to see you.” She smiled and smoothed my hair.

“And I, you,” she said. “Is it true that’s she’s here?” I nodded. “Goddess,” she exhaled. “I can hardly believe it.”

“Wait until you see her,” I said. “I swear, you’d follow her into hell.” She laughed. “I think I have to thank you, for helping the General.” She shook her head.

“It was Lady Marina,” she said, “she was with him every second he was unwell. She used magic, as well, I think he might have,” she swallowed. I nodded.

“I’m still glad you were there,” I said softly. I looked over and saw Aaron standing with a few of the guards all laughing. I smiled glad he’d made friends already.

I wasn’t surprised, but I walked over.

“Lady Athena,” one of them said, as all three stood at attention. I nodded and they dispersed.

“Socializing is going to be difficult with you around, isn’t it?” Aaron teased and put his arms around me. “They respect you.” I nodded.

“Yes,” I said softly. “Aaron,” he smiled at me, “I just spoke with General Martin,” he sighed and let go of me.

“Ah,” he said. “He disapproves of me?”

“He has concerns,” I said and we started walking. He nodded. “The promises we made were in Pantona, and here and then in Dovetail, other concerns might come up.” He nodded.

“Other concerns?” He repeated. I nodded. “Such as, ascending duchesses, and the like?” I frowned. “I shouldn’t have teased you about Lady Marina, and I shouldn’t have flirted either.”

“I don’t care about the flirting,” I sighed. “I really don’t, it’s like breathing to you, you can’t help it.” He laughed. “But I’m not,” I looked down. “I don’t think I’m what anyone would expect out of a countess of Pantona, and while I can assure you the Dumanis will be thrilled,” he stopped.

“Athena,” he looked at me, “I love you, I want to be with you. That is the beginning and end of the issue with me.” I nodded. “You are exactly what should be expected in a Countess of Pantona, in that you are the woman I want to marry, and you love my home.” I kissed him. “Does that answer General Martin’s concerns?”

“Yes,” I said softly. “I think it will.”

To The Four Of Us

We’ve been riding for a week, with apparently five more days until we make it to camp. I’ve been trying my best to grip onto the familiar on these sorts of rides. I challenge Tristan to races, I’ve taken to poking Aaron as his parent’s get lost in nostalgia.

But it was this past night when the tents had been set up and the Count and Countess had gone to bed when Aaron walked out to the fire, with a massive bottle of whisky.

“Aaron,” Lisette cautioned as he poured out four glasses.

“Don’t lecture, Your Highness,” he grinned at her, “this is the last time we four will be alone for a while, I think it’s worth commemorating.”

“With the world’s most massive headache?” Tristan grimaced, sniffing his cup. I giggled.

“Sir Tristan, I am offended,” Aaron said, “this bottle was a personal gift to me, not even to the Estate, by Prince Harran of the Westran Border Tribe, and it is very good.”

“Well then,” I said and raised my cup, “to us.”

“To us,” Annalise laughed, and nudged Tristan who chuckled and raised his cup.

“To us,” he grinned. We pressed the metal camp cups to eachother, making a satisfying clink. “To The Chosen.” He kissed Lissette softly and then met my eyes.

“To Queen Annalise,” I said, “Long may she reign.” Lisette blushed and downed her cup at that one. I took a deep sip of mine. It was good, sweet and smoky and didn’t burn.

“Careful,” Aaron said, topping us all off. “When Harran brought this Lisette nearly,” she kicked him. I laughed. “Another time maybe.”

“There is nothing to tell,” Lisette said, “Harran was a gentleman. I may ask him to council, given how respectful of a no name farm girl he was, even when she was drunk and throwing herself at him.” Tristan glowered and took a deep sip of his drink.

“So, Your Grace,” he said after that, “I feel as a man of the guilds I am honor bound to ask,” I snorted at that. “Are you intentions towards my sister honorable?”

“Completely,” Aaron said straight faced. “I intend to compose my suit in writing to you, after Athena consults with General Martin.” I smiled and stood up, sitting in his lap to kiss him.

“I may not accept,” Tristan said. I kicked him then.

“Good luck explaining to Uncle Trey and Grandfather that you refused me becoming a Countess someday,” I said. “They’d kill you where you stand.” Tristan laughed.

“Fair enough,” he said, he refilled his cup, “another to us four,” Lisette snuggled closer to him, “and to the others who will join us.” I nodded as we all drank.

I thought of our friend Elodie, who’s come to us as a starving child, an orphan of our grandfather’s lust for power and control. Of Lady Marina, likely sitting beside our mentors bedside as we spoke, caring for him. Of Prince Harran, who I’d never met, but Aaron and Lisette seemed fond of.

We weren’t alone, so soon there would be more. But I understood now, why Aaron had decided tonight belonged to us. I loved him so much for it.

I also can’t believe what a joy it was to watch Lisette get drunk. She never abstained at Pantona, but it was usually just a glass or two of wine at dinner. This was different. It was delightful.

She was confident beyond belief and giggly. She also held her liquor, and for someone so small, I didn’t expect that. Tristan was falling asleep after a while.

“Come one now, my brave knight,” she giggled helping him to his feet, “I believe it is my turn to guard you.” He beamed down at her.

“When I pledged my life, I meant it,” he said. She laughed.

“I know,” she said softly, and guided him to her tent. Aaron laughed and took my hand.

“Aaron,” I shook my head, “we’re both drunk, I don’t think it would be wise.” He sighed and kissed my neck softly.

“Wouldn’t it?” He whispered. “I suppose not. You’re distracted, not just drunk, I like you focused.” I smiled and sat up cross legged looking at him. “What are you thinking, Lady Athena?”

“I am thinking about how a few months ago I’d never even thought about you,” I said, “and now, the thought of not seeing you everyday is unbearable. I’m thinking about how the four of us are about to enter a new world.” He took my hands. “It’s like the sun going down after the most lovely summer day, and I don’t want twilight to end.”

“We’ll go back Athena,” he whispered. “I swear it.” I nodded and kissed him gently. “You’re sure.”

“Absolutely,” I said and stood up, “Sleep well.” He groaned and fell back against the ground. I laughed before slipping into my bedroll and off to sleep.