Witches

Annalise

I was startled awake in the morning to Marina calling my name out and standing over my bed.

“Good morning,” she said and tossed a simple walking dress at me. Harran woke up too and bleerily rubbed his eyes. “Your Highness.”

“Duchess,” he murmured. “Is the sun even up yet?”

“Yes,” Marina said, marching over to the windows and throwing open the curtains. “Get dressed, I need to talk to you.” I stared at her in disbelief.

“So you’re speaking to me now?” I said. She sighed and rolled her eyes.

“Clearly,” she mumbled. “We need to go to the temple, and we need Raymond and Athena too.” I sighed.

“Did you Dream?” I tried. She nodded. “Bad?”

“I thought I was going to drown,” she said. Harran rubbed the back of his head and looked at her.

“Aren’t you chosen of sea goddess?” He asked. I shushed him and went and sat down with her. “I’m just saying wouldn’t that make drowning difficult?”

“I was North, I think,” she said, “at least it was cold, and the sea was,” she shuddered, “angry and out of control, and then she said that The Dark Lady would fill the chaos.”

“Who said?” I asked. “Rana?”

“No,” she whispered, “no she wasn’t,” she shook her head, “I didn’t know her. She was all in black, and veiled, but I could see her eyes,” she exhaled. Harran was out of bed and dressed now. I looked at him.

“And she called Amina, ‘The Dark Lady?'” He said. She looked at him and nodded. “Oh, she’s a witch.”

“Calling people witches is rude, Harran,” I said.

“No,” he said and kissed me, “calling you two,” he pointed at us, “witches is rude, because you aren’t. But the tribes have witches, real ones. They commune with the newly dead, and heal and perform marriage and burial and naming rites.”

“Oh,” Marina said. “And they veil their faces and dress in all black?” He shrugged.

“Sometimes,” he said. “But usually only for official duties.” I stared at him. “What?”

“And they serve Amina?” I asked.

“No,” he said, “they serve the tribes. They don’t serve any god in particular. They’re aligned with Amina in some ways because of their rites of the dead.” Marina was staring at him. “At least one of my brothers will likely marry witches, it’s quite common for them to marry into chieftan families.”

“She said she’d grown bored,” Marina said, “and she had these eyes,” I looked at her. And Harran nodded.

“They all have nice eyes,” he mused. I elbowed him. “Not as nice as yours obviously.” Marina snorted. “You didn’t get a name?”

“No,” Marina said. “She was about my height, but that’s not guaranteed in Dreams. I used to Dream this one was ten feet tall.” She nodded to me. “She seemed to know me.”

“What do you mean, they’re aligned with Amina, but don’t serve her?” I said. Harran sighed.

“We don’t see The Dark Lady the same way you do,” he explained. “It’s not about Rana and Cornan having superiority, it’s about the triad being in balance.” I looked at him. “The Witches are as much a part of that as The Masteros. Being of the tribes they were able to mostly escape Brayton’s purges, but, well,” he shrugged. “It’s been a hard decade for all of us.” I looked at him.

“Are there many witches our age?” Marina asked eagarly.

“No,” he said, “only a handful.” I looked at him again, and touched his face.

“Ah,” she nodded, and then stood up, “I need to talk to Raymond.” She swept out of the room and then backed back in. “Thanking you for your help, Harran. Lisett, I am still angry with you, but a little bit less.” She bounced out.

“I should probably go with her,” I said and stood up, “by dinner tonight she might even like me again.” He laughed and kissed me.

“We can only hope,” he said, “do you want to send for a witch?” I looked at him.

“Yes,” I said softly, “and I trust who you choose.” He nodded.

The Plan

Marina

I was still angry with Annalise when I got home that night after dinner. I’d sent Mercy to help her get dressed and done little more than nod and smile at dinner. When we got home I started going up to go to bed.

“Rina,” Papa said, stopping me, “I think we need to talk.”

“Alright,” I said and followed him into the library. “What is it that you want to talk about?” He sighed and sat down.

“Aaron said today you’re considering going to Tumona?” He said. I sighed.

“I knew you’d object,” I said. He frowned. “I want to see where you’re from, and furthermore, I think you should go with me.”

“I won’t go back there,” he said. I sighed. “If I didn’t go back when it could have spared us all,” he closed his eyes, “why would I go now?”

“Because I can’t go alone,” I said softly. He looked at me and sighed. “Because I might have to spend the next year lying and maneuvering in a place I don’t know. A place I do know won’t be safe for me.” He looked at me.

“What are you planning?” He asked. I sighed.

“If Annalise refuses the prince, or if he decides he can’t take her,” I shook my head, “well, her anymore, I’ll go back with them. I’ll present myself for the alliance,” he wrinkled his brow.

“And your Lieutenant doesn’t mind this plan?” He said. I pressed my lips into my mouth. “Don’t misunderstand me, it’s not a bad plan. It’s actually quite a good one. Daniel could always be distracted by something new and shiny.”

“Damian doesn’t love the idea,” I admitted. “But he understands it.” He nodded. “The excuse of visiting Tumona, well, that simply makes the most sense to get me there.” I sat down. “I do want to go though. I want to see Vacana, see the temple. It feels important.” He smiled.

“Marie and I left for good reasons,” he said softly, “they’re not,” he exhaled, “it’s not a good place, for girls like you. The sisters there, the temple,” he shook his head, “it’s cold, and detached. They don’t want Seers to be human, to feel.” I looked at him. “I don’t want to see you hollowed out.” He was sitting on the couch now, he looked exhausted. I knelt in front of him and took his hands.

“Papa,” I whispered, “I won’t be hollowed out, I’m not,” I looked at him. “We don’t have to be afraid.” He pressed his forehead to mine. “I’m strong, you raised me strong. The Goddess made me strong.” He smiled softly. “And it may not happen at all.”

“Oh my sweet girl,” he said softly.

“Besides which, surely Queen Elana has changed a few things?” I said. He snorted. “She’s your cousin and Raymond seems human enough to me.”

“He got out young,” he said, “and he’s a boy.” I laughed. “My cousin,” he exhaled. “Her mother, even more so, will take kindly to my returning to the island.” I smiled.

“You’re overthinking this,” I said, “I promise.” I kissed his forehead. “I’m going to bed.”

“You can tell Lieutenant Lestoff he can simply escort us home, rather than slip in through the servants quarters,” he smiled coyly at me. I blushed.

“I have told him that,” I explained, “but he still thinks you don’t like him for some reason.” He laughed. “Good night.”

“Good night,” he said. I walked upstairs and undressed and tried to stay awake waiting for Damian, but instead fell almost instantly to sleep, and even more importantly, for the first time in what felt like ages, I dreamt.

I was standing on a beach. Not our beach, one covered in rocks, the sea in front of me had drifts of ice. A large wave was forming, and a girl was standing next to me. She was dressed all in black, even veiled in it, except for her very vivid brown eyes, which met mine.

“You see how unsettled they become?” She said, her tone was even, calm, as if we were finishing a conversation we’d been having for a while. “The Dark Lady will fill the vacuum of chaos, as is her right.”

“But if she rises,” I choked out against the cold air. The other girl shrugged.

“Who can say?” She said. “But hurry, will you? I’ve grown bored.” The wave crashed taking me with it and I tried to scream but instead found myself choking on sea water.

“Marina,” Damian’s panicked voice called me back as I woke up, gasping for breath, and screaming, shaking, and sweating, “Marina, please, calm down, love,” I met his eyes and sobbed, and he pulled me close. “Oh my darling,” he sighed, “was it bad?”

“Awful,” I said. “I saw,” I swallowed and realized I couldn’t tell him. Something about, her, felt like a betrayal. “I can’t remember, but it ended with a wave taking me.” He nodded and stroked my hair, I rested my cheek against his chest. “I tried to wait for you.”

“The Dream didn’t want to wait,” he said with a dark chuckle. I missed him. “And you were busy today, plotting.” I looked up.

“You’re angry with me,” I said. He looked at me again and kissed me softly.

“No,” he said, “I’m angry at Eric, for thinking he could ignore Annalise’s desires because of his own insecurities. I’m angry that I’m the son of a ferryman and whore so I’m dependent on him to give you what you deserve. I’m angry that Daniel is rash and stupid and would rather force unhappiness on all of us than acknowledge his daughter’s fate and ability.” I kissed him gently. “But I’m not angry with you.”

“We’d be together in Phania,” I said quietly. “It would have to be secret, but,” he laughed, softly this time, but still that humorless dark laugh.

“Maybe,” he said, “but more likely they’d keep me busy, away from you. They likely know about us by now, and if you’re there for Eric,” he sighed, “they won’t want me near you.” I looked at him. “And that would be worse than leaving you here, being close enough, just out of your sight. Or even worse in the same room but not able to touch you, or talk to you.” He sighed. “Torture.”

“War would be worse,” I said softly.

“I know,” he said. “Maybe they’ll make up.”

“Maybe,” I said softly. “I hate this.” He exhaled. I kissed him gently. “My father said you don’t have to slip in, you know.” He smiled.

“It will be good practice.” He teased. I swallowed and clung to him until we were both sleeping.

Proposal

Carolina

I woke up and walked downstairs to the parlor, where Father was sitting at his desk scowling over another letter, while Mother hummed happily over her embroidery. I hadn’t seen Emily, which meant she was probably still in bed.

“Good Morning, Caro,” Mother said with a grin, “a note for you.” I smiled and took it. Tristan sent notes most mornings. I looked forward to them almost as much as his visits.

“Thank you,” I said and opened it.

Dear Miss DuKarras,

I hope this finds you well. If you’re available some time today, I would very much appreciate a private conversation, followed, if possible, by an interview with your father.

Please respond promptly. As you saw yesterday evening, I am low on patience in regards to the matter I wish to discuss.

You Humble Servant

Commander Tristan Dugarry

“Father,” I said, he looked over at me, “did Lady Athena’s most recent letter meet your standards?” I swallowed. I hoped he didn’t see how much I was blushing. At a dinner party that Cassidy Weirs threw last night, Tristan had practically bitten the head off of Galen DuTrin, who’d remarked that the commander seemed singularly focused, when surely there were other amusements available. He’d later kissed me so fiercely, I thought my gown would catch on fire.

I could easily live the rest of my life vexxing him, if it meant I could get more kisses like that.

“Yes,” he grumbled, “she’s being quite generous, a place in The Guard if you want it, a townhouse in Dorin and a place, exact location to be determined on her husband’s land.” Mother dropped her embroidery. “Is he going to propose? Or has he already?”

“He asked to see me today,” I said, “and then to speak to you after. So I think he’s going to, yes.” Father nodded.

“And you’d take the place in the guard,” he said, “I assume. I know his grandfather was hoping you’d influence him into the busissness.”

“I don’t think he has any interest in that,” I said, “but that isn’t what I asked.” He sighed, as Mother glared at him.

“I am comfortable with the terms, yes,” he said, “and if you’re going to accept him, I won’t push back.” I nodded quickly. “Are you going to accept?”

“Oh don’t be silly,” Mother said, “of course she is. The boy’s here nearly every day, and she’s been walking around with her head in the clouds.”

“I have not,” I said. She rolled her eyes. “And I do plan on saying yes.” Mother pressed her hands against her mouth.

“Whatever shall you wear?” She said exclaimed, “and we must get your hair up.” I twirled an end around my finger and thought of Tristan’s hands tangled in it.a v

“He likes it down,” I said softly. She nodded. “I hadn’t considered what to wear.” She frowned.

“I wish there was time to find something new,” she sighed. “Go wake your sister, I’ll consider it.” I nodded and ran up to Emily’s room. I was excited to tell her. I burst open the door, thinking I’d see her with the covers over her head. Instead I saw a very surprised Alex sitting up quickly, while Emily, horrified jumped to her feet.

“Good morning to you both,” I said, flouncing to and plopping in a chair. Emily swallowed.

“Oh you won’t tell Papa, will you Caro?” She said. I glanced at Alex. “We’re getting married anyway, after all, and well,” I glanced at Alex, who at least looked marginally ashamed of being caught.

“Of course I won’t tell,” I said, “but he should slip out, Mother wants to see you, we have to pick something for me to wear.”

“Ah,” Alex said, standing up and pulling his pants on. “Tristan has gathered his courage then?” I rolled my eyes.

“Tristan marched into Dovetail on the day The Queen captured Lord Brayton,” Emily said, “I’m sure he’s not afraid of Caro.”

“I’ve met Brayton,” Alex said and took my hand and squeezed it, “Caro is much scarier.” I giggled. “My love,” he kissed Emily. She smiled as he slipped out the door.

“How often does that happen?” I raised my eyebrows.

“Not often,” she said, “never really, last night we just got more carried away than usual.” I nodded. “Are you excited?”

“I am,” I said softly. She smiled. “Em,” I whispered, “I worry about my leaving though.” She looked at me. “I know you love Alex, and he loves you, but that family,” I drifted. She sighed.

“You’re marrying into that family too,” she pointed out.

“It’s different and you know it,” I said. She looked at me, slightly amused. “You could come with me, we could get away.”

“That’s what you want,” she said softly, “it’s never been what I wanted, if it was, I could have had it.” She’s right of course. “Tell mother I’ll be right in, but I think the green dress, with the gold sash. The Uniform colors. He should know where you stand.” I’m so used to my perky little sister that I forget this side of her. The merchant side, cold and calculating.

“Right,” I nodded.

After my attire was chosen, the decision was made that Tristan would come after lunch, and when things were settled we would send for Alex, and his aunts and uncles. Not the old man, who wouldn’t deign to come into this house until after the wedding.

Emily and Mother posed me on a bench under a flowering tree. The whole thing felt stupid and faked and not like Tristan and I at all, with our blunt conversations and long walks, but I’m tired of fighting with everyone. I just want him.

And when he walked through to the garden, dressed in his simple training uniform, I couldn’t help smiling. He looked so shy and yet also firmly sure of himself.

“Hello,” he said softly.

“Hello,” I managed to exhale. “You wore the uniform.”

“You like the uniform,” he said softly. I nodded. “Carolina, I,” he swallowed, “remember, when we first met and I said I didn’t like games?” I nodded. “I want to marry you, do you want to marry me.” I swallowed.

“Yes,” I said softly, “yes, I do want to marry you,” he smiled and pulled me close and kissed me. His hand slipped to my backside and then my thighs, still over my skirt, I hadn’t let him under it yet. “Tristan,” I whispered, “not here.” He sighed, resting his forehead against mine.

“I want you so much,” he said. I smiled, Emily owed me for this morning, so I knew tonight wouldn’t be a problem.

“Tonight,” I said, “but now you have to talk to my father.” He groaned.

“Tonight,” he said softly, he lips barely brushing my ear. “You promise?” I nearly relented there. But the idea of my first time with Tristan being rushed and against the tree, his hand over my mouth so no one could hear me.

“I promise,” I exhaled.

A Great Man

Athena

Aaron slammed the door behind him when he walked in, and I jumped and looked at him.

“What’s wrong?” I said.

“It’s like she stopped thinking the minute they put that crown on her head,” he growled, “promising Lefty our naval command without even discussing,” he poured himself a glass of whiskey and downed it.

“Aaron,” I said softly, he grunted, “Love, look at me,” he stopped and turned. “Who promised what?”

He sighed and sat down.

“Lisette is being,” he shook his head, “I don’t want to talk about it, but what can you tell me about the invasion possibilities?” I pressed my lips into my mouth.

“Well,” I sighed, “I’d want to evacuate the city, and fortify the guard here, and at the manor, plus on the cliffs in between. We don’t have much naval power, except what my grandfather offers, but if they try to come ashore, I think we’d be able to keep them from rolling further inland.” He sighed and pressed his fingers to the bridge of his nose. “We may all be over reacting.” He looked at me.

“You don’t really believe that,” he mumbled.

“No,” I sighed, “but you should go home,” he looked at me, “I think it’s why you’ve been so edgy. Go home and prepare for harvest, I’ll come when I can.” He smiled. “She’ll get by, she did when you went last time. I might lose my mind a little, but you like it when I’m crazy.” He kissed me gently.

“After what we’ve talked about these last few days,” he shook his head, “I won’t leave you alone. Last time I went, Tristan was there, remember?” I grinned. “And he won’t be at Pantona until the wedding.”

“I didn’t tell you,” I said excitedly, running to the desk and grabbing a letter, “Carolina DuKarras’s father wrote back. They are coming to the wedding, and he expects to negotiate, then.” Aaron snorted.

“I thought you were keeping all the weapons for our children,” he said.

“He seems awfully proud,” I mumbled, looking over the letter again, “and he’s offering a good little sum for her to bring with her. I’m going to offer a spot in the guard and Trey’s house as inheritance.”

“Are you authorized to will away Trey’s house?” Aaron raised his eyebrows. I waved my hand and exhaled out my nostrils.

“Bah, he wants this as much as DuKarras does,” I said. “And it isn’t as though I’ll need it, and Alex will be in Dorin.”

“True enough,” he said and kissed me. “I could give them some land, if you think it would help.” I frowned.

“No,” I said. “Maybe a house though, in Pantona?” He nodded. “Something in the village maybe?”

“You just want him close by,” he said and kissed me. I smiled. “But I think an appropriate place can be found. I’ll write to William.” I nodded.

“Now, your turn,” I said. “This can’t just be about Annalise and Harran.”

“It is though,” he muttered, “she’s not thinking past single moments, she refuses to see the bigger picture, fine, but then trust me to handle it, but she won’t do that either.” He sat down. “She’d have trusted my father.” I looked at him.

“You can’t spend your whole life comparing yourself to him,” I whispered gently. “I loved your father, he was a great man, but you aren’t him, and you don’t have to try to be.” I kissed him softly. “You’re a great man too.” He smiled. “Aaron, look at me,” he did. “I started falling in love with you when I saw how fiercely you loved her, how big your heart is.” He kissed my hand then. “But you can’t keep living your life for other people,” I whispered. “Unless of course other people is me. You can live for me.” He laughed.

“How you manage to give me hope and be ridiculously cynical,” he said, “is truly a feat.” I grinned. “You really ought to write to Tristan.”

“He’s busy,” I insisted, “he’s wooing. Alex and Lotte have been updating me. It’s apparently going quite well. He’s hasn’t thrown himself off a balcony, or inappropriately fixated on any of her relatives. So, for Tristan, really, aces.” He snorted. “We’ll all be together again soon,” I said softly. “At home.” He exhaled. That seemed to calm him down.

Consequences

Annalise

Aaron has never yelled at me like that before. We’ve argued, but it’s usually over silly things, and we make up quickly. He won’t even see me, right now. I could order him to, but I know that would just make him more angry.

But I needed to talk to someone, and my gut said who so I hurried quickly to the apartment I needed. I knocked on the door and Raymond opened it and sighed.

“He’s not really, uh,” he started, “well, I doubt he’d want to see you.” My face dropped.

“Of course,” I mumbled, “but you’ll tell him.” He nodded. I turned to leave and then paused. “Raymond,” I said softly, “what can you tell me about the wheel?” He sighed, smirked and shook his head.

“Tricky,” he mumbled, “come in.” I laughed and we sat down at the long table near the windows, it was covered in books and papers.

“Lefty and Eric must love this,” I grinned. He rolled his eyes.

“Lefty is barely ever here, he’s usually at the manor,” he pointed out, “and Eric has had other things on his mind.” I nodded. He pulled out a large book. “I took this from the university library.”

“You aren’t enrolled yet,” I chastised him.

“Hm, yes, that’s true,” he mumbled, flipping through it. “Here,” he slid it to me. “The wheel is theorized, or visualized a number of ways, but it’s most likely closer to a spinning wheel than a cart wheel.” I nodded.

“I know that,” I said.

“And now we know it’s in the Westran Desert, most likely,” he said. I nodded. “But that’s not the most interesting part.” I wanted to giggle, seeing him so excited. “When The Sword Of The Goddess,”

“Present,” I mumbled. He nodded.

“Frees the gods,” he continued. “Threads of time will be cut off.” I nodded. “That means some fates will be changed, some left with only one path to walk.” I swallowed. “Not all, obviously, but some.”

“Oh,” I said. “So I’ll be dooming people to fate, removing their will?” He exhaled.

“I didn’t think of it that way,” he said.

“No,” I said softly, “you were thinking theoretically, which is exciting, but well.” He nodded. “Are you alright?”

“Randolph has decided to go back to Phania,” he mumbled, “I didn’t think,” I bit my bottom lip. “I can’t go back, I have a future here.” I smiled gently at him.

“I’m sorry, Raymond,” I said softly. He shrugged. “But I am glad you’ve decided to stay.” The door cracked open.

“Ray,” Eric called out weakly, and staggered, he looked a little pale, and certainly more disheveled than I’d ever seen him, “do you have more of that ginger stuff,” he stopped seeing me. “What are you doing here?”

“Visiting my cousin,” I said. He nodded. Raymond stood up and walked to another table and grabbed a bottle handing it to him. “You’re not feeling well?”

“A penetrating insight,” Eric muttered, “the fate of the gods is clearly in the right hands.” I frowned.

“There’s no reason to be nasty,” I mumbled.

“I think I have every reason to be nasty,” he said. “I’m going back to bed. Thanks for the potion, Raymond.”

“Sure,” Raymond said softly as he left. I collapsed on the chair. “He’ll get over it. He wouldn’t be this upset if he didn’t actually care about you.” I frowned at him. “I should tell you something.”

“Regarding?” I raised an eyebrow.

“I’ve been having Dreams,” he said. I nodded. “From Amina.” I exhaled.

“Oh,” I said softly. “What did she promise you?”

“It doesn’t matter,” he said, “I know it’s a poisoned promise.” I smiled at him. “But I thought you should know.” I put my hand on his.

“Raymond,” I said softly, “what did she promise you?” He swallowed. “Me it was Caleb,” he turned and looked at me, “whole, and alive again. At my side, helping me, like I thought he always would.” He looked down.

“Karina,” he said softly, “on the throne, and I’d be by her side, trusted, not tolerated.” I nodded.

“You have that here,” I said softly. He smiled and nodded.

“I know that,” he said, “that’s why I’m telling you.” I laughed. “Do you know what it was for Brayton?”

“Not precisely,” I said softly, “but my mother probably. And then Marina after her.” I received weekly notices from Mastero Anselm regarding Brayton in Dovetail. His health was improving, he still seemed sharp and vaguely amused by his circumstances, as if he knew they were temporary.

“Amina loves chaos, it fills her realm,” he said softly, “playing on people’s personal desires, that plays into that.” I swallowed and nodded. “You’ll be fine, Annalise, it will all happen as it’s supposed to go.”

I stood up and walked carefully back to my rooms. Harran was already waiting for me. I knew it was wrong but I fell into him and then my bed, it felt safe and comfortable.

Council

Marina

Aaron is pacing nervously and I shook my head.

“You’re doing the thing,” I said. He frowned at me. “You’re doing the thing where you’re thinking as her overprotective brother rather than her advisor.” He rolled his eyes. “Aaron, she’ll be fine. This will all be fine.”

“I think you’re taking your soothing spiritual leader role a little too personally,” he said. I rolled my eyes at him. “If Eric decides to leave, it’s bad Rina.” I nodded.

“I know,” I said and straightened my skirt. “And I’ve been thinking about that, probably more than anyone.” He sighed and sat down next to me.

“Of course you have, I’m sorry,” he said. I looked down.

“I’d go with them,” I whispered. He stared at me. “Not permanently, but,” I exhaled, “I’d go to Tumona, go home.”

“This is your home,” he said, “and we need you here, Marina!” I exhaled.

“We need to keep King Daniel happy,” I said. He nodded. “Or at least, convinced we’re still serious about a real alliance.”

“Yes,” he said, his tone careful. I looked down.

“Well, Annalise isn’t the only one available for that sort of arrangement,” I said softly. He exhaled.

“Marina,” he whispered, “I can’t ask that of you,” I stood up and walked over to a small portrait of my aunt, it really was like looking in a mirror. “And I doubt Lefty and Eric,” I looked over my shoulder.

“They’ll play along,” I said softly, “they don’t want war anymore than we do.”

“So you go South,” he said. I nodded. “Athena and Annalise go west to hunt for the gods?” I nodded again. “And if they need you?” I sighed.

“I don’t know,” I said, “I do know we’ll get nowhere with the mandate while fighting off a Phanian invasion of Brightcoast.” He sighed. He kissed my forehead.

“We don’t deserve you,” he said, “you know that, hm?” I laughed and patted his hand carefully.

“I know,” I said softly. “I love you though, so that makes you worth it.” He laughed sadly. “So I hear you’re going to have a stepfather.” That lead to a bark of laughter.

“Athena is not pleased,” he said. “Meanwhile, I’m just glad my mother is happy.” I smiled.

“Athena is protective of her people,” I said, “that now includes your mother as well as The General, I can’t imagine it’s an easy equation for her.” He nodded. “I think it would be good for my father, to go back.”

“If you think so,” he nodded. “It always seemed to me he was happy to never go back.” I swallowed. “And if Eric doesn’t leave?”

“I might still go,” I said softly. “Damian wants me to see it,” I admitted, “and Pharras. I want to, too.” It was the first time I’d said it out loud. I did want to. I felt at peace here in Brightcoast, but I knew there could be no real peace until we free the gods, so I was building in restlessness. Or maybe it was real. Who could say?

Rana had been frustratingly quiet lately. Lisette said the same. Raymond too. Though he was more concerned with the whispers in his sleep from Amina. I couldn’t tell Aaron about that, though I desperately wanted to. It wasn’t my secret to confide.

“Ah,” Duchess Norvine walked in with the others trailing behind her, “Duchess Brightcoast, nice of you to join us for a change,” I blushed.

“I apologize for my absence,” I muttered taking my seat. “As it turns out the people my father had in charge were less than reliable.” She nodded. Harold Friers scowled at me. He’s less than thrilled with our treatment of his son, but it can’t be helped that he’s too young and too shy, and frankly, if the way his eyes follow Raymond are to be believed he’s probably even less interested than we are.

“Will Queen Annalise be joining us?” Friers said. Aaron looked at me.

“She was alerted to the meeting’s importance,” he said, “I’m sure she’s on her way.”

“The matter of her marriage needs to be settled,” Duchess Norvine said, “or at least addressed. If she’s set on the Phanian or he border tribes boy, that’s all well and good, but if she hasn’t someone needs to reach out to Rastan.” She glanced at me. “They can’t be ignored forever.”

“If this is literally another meeting where we discuss nothing but whether Annalise is going to get married soon,” Aaron groaned, “I’m leaving. Harvest is coming, I should be in Pantona supervising.”

He looked miserable I realized. He was listening to this group squabbling about Lisette’s love life, when all he wanted was to be home, doing the thing he was good at.

Lisette walked in then, looking regal and confident and took her place at the head of the table as everyone rose.

“I was told this was a very important meeting of this council,” she said, her eyes never leaving Aaron’s, I so often wondered what passed between them. “What could be so urgent?”

Duchess Norvine cleared her throat.

“My people managing in Dorin are confident that The Dumanis will be on your side given any need for naval intervention,” she said simply, “if that’s still something you want.” She nodded.

“It is,” she said. “For now, at least. In the future, however, I’d like the crown to be as independent of the guilds as possible.” She glanced at me and I nodded. “And as we’ll be intimately connected with Phania, I don’t see building and training our own navy as terribly difficult.”

“You’ve decided then,” Friers said. She looked at him.

“I haven’t decided anything,” she shrugged. “Lady Marina however,” I swallowed.

“I, well,” I stuttered as they all stared at me. I wanted to murder her. “Lieutenant Lestoff and I have discussed a few possibilities, of course, but, well,” I was flushed. She thought she was helping, that was the worst part.

“Let’s move on,” Aaron said, sending a sharp look around the table. “Before you came in I mentioned harvest, and from most of the midlands, wheat looks particularly strong this year.” Friers began talking about his orchards then and I zoned out. We provided fish, and it was going well for the summer, this was known. After we adjourned everyone left except the three of us. “What were you thinking?” He hissed at Lisette.

“What?” She said, “We’ve talked about it, and I thought you were settled,” she paused.

“She’s not settled,” Aaron snapped, “I thought we got through to you this morning, Lisette, nothing is settled until you are. Everything hinges on you. Marina’s future, Tristan’s life, Athena and my marriage,” I swallowed. I’d never seen him this angry. “I understand you hate it, but it’s what it is.” She stared at him.

“Marina will you excuse us?” Annalise said softly.

“No,” Aaron said, “forget it, Marina stay, I’ll excuse myself.” He gathered his things and stopped in the doorway. “That is with your permission?” He was so sarcastic the room got colder. She nodded tersely.

“He’s not wrong,” I said softly, “we just came up with an elaborate feint to keep the Phanians at bay if Eric decides he’s had enough.” She looked at me. “And you may have just destroyed any chance of it working.” She closed her eyes and nodded. “He’s never asked me,” I whispered. “Not once, because he knows I can’t say yes, and I don’t think his pride could take it.”

“I’m sorry,” she said softly. I nodded. “I’m going to talk to Eric.” I nodded.

“You do that,” I said and walked out of the room. I found my way to the small apartment that Papa and I had here. We didn’t use it much, Papa really never. Damian was waiting for me, balancing a pen between his knuckles, I sat down next to him and put my head on his shoulder.

“Good morning to you too,” he smiled. “It went that well, hm?” I looked at him.

“Is Eric angry?” I said softly. “I hate using you as a go between, but, well,” I sighed. He nodded.

“Eric is, at the moment,” he snickered, “indisposed. When I got to our rooms last night, he was falling down drunk, and he’s unable to do much but vomit.” I laughed and kissed him gently. “What’s Annalise thinking?”

“I barely got to speak to her,” I said, “But I think she wants you to train any navy we might build.” He leaned back and looked at me.

“Hm,” he nodded. “That’s interesting.” I laughed and kissed him again. “Are you still upset with me?”

“I was never very upset with you,” I said softly. He smiled. “I’m glad you introduced me to them, really, Damian, I want to be a part of your life.” He cupped my face.

“You are my life, now,” he said softly, “I hope you know that.” I curled into him. He kissed my hair.

“If you leave, I’m going with you,” I said. “I can’t bear the idea of being without you.” I felt him tense around me.

“We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it, love,” he whispered. “But I’m glad to hear it. I don’t want to be without you either.”

Stories

Carolina

I bounced out of bed the next morning. I happily sniffed the little yellow rose from the night before. I hadn’t been this excited to greet the day in a while. Everyone was shocked by it as I made my way to breakfast, Papa was eyeing me most carefully.

“Could everyone excuse Caro and I,” he said. I swallowed as Emily hesitated and Mama after her. “We need to have a blunt conversation.”

“Do we?” I said and took a long sip on my coffee. He sighed and looked at me. “What about?”

“I received a letter from Captain Athena Dugarry,” he said.

“Commander,” I corrected. He sighed.

“Whatever,” he said. “She’s an imperious one, but seems uninterested in your dowry.” He produced the paper and handed it to me. I looked down stifling a giggle. “One dinner and one dance, and we’re already here?”

“I thought you’d be happy,” I said, looking over the note. “It’s more for Emily. I don’t see Brie DuCray as an easy negotiator.” He snorted.

My understanding is that my brother and your daughter have begun a courtship. My intended and I would be thrilled if your family attended our wedding in Pantona this autumn.

“She’ll put the press on in Pantona, I assume,” he said, “regardless, do you think you can keep his attention?”

“Yes,” I said. “I mean, I think so.” He raised his eyebrows. “Papa, I don’t know what you want me to say. I barely know him.” He frowned. “What are you so concerned about? Of course she isn’t interested in my dowry, they’ve got DuManis money and she’s about to marry a count and from what I understand it’s all ceremonial down there anyway.” He nodded.

“Well,” he said, “I want to see you settled. I was thinking we were going to have to send you to Rastan.” I sighed.

“I was never going to Rastan, and I think it’s time we stopped pretending I was.” I said, “Are we through?” He nodded I stood up and marched out of the room. I landed in the library, and grabbed a book and settled in to get lost for the day. Or at least a few hours. There would probably be callers at some point.

Do you think you can keep his attention?

Could I? I think I knew what my father was asking and I resented it. I’d resented it when Alex had noticed Emily and moved me to the side. I’d resented it when for months after he brought ship captains under his supervision, many nearly twice my age to the house, all with the same silent command from him. Get their attention, keep it, however I possibly could.

The dowry would never be enough, certainly not my personality, or my looks. But a girl like me, who’d already been shunted aside as a debutante didn’t need to worry as much about her reputation. My bed was open to prospective suitors, at least as far as my father was concerned.

I tried once. Andrei was young, and dashing and had spent a decent amount of time hanging around our house trying to convince Papa he was a worthwhile business prospect in addition to a potential son in law. Papa had agreed to give him his own ship and he’d promised to send for me in Rastan when he’d settled. He obviously hadn’t.

“Caro,” Mama walked in, “Sir Tristan is here.” I nodded and stood up. “Look at you,” she cupped my face. “I’ll send him in.” I nodded went over to the mirror and primped, turning as he walked in.

“Hello,” I said softly.

“Hello,” he said, he wasn’t in uniform, for the first time, I’d seen him. Instead he was in a pair of plain dark blue pants, and simple white shirt, with a brown vest over it. He was holding now a bouquet of the roses. “I thought, the one last night was a thank you, but these are just a token.”

“Thank you,” I whispered, taking them, “They’re lovely.” He smiled. “Please sit, do you want tea or coffee, or something? I could ring for it.”

“I’m alright,” he said, “I might never eat again after this trip, my aunts have wildly overestimated my appetite.” I laughed. “How are you? I’m sorry for losing track of you last night.”

“I can’t expect you to spend every minute on me,” I said. “Your sister wrote to my father.”

“Of course she did,” he sighed, “I haven’t heard from her in weeks, but your father needed to know what was happening.” I smiled.

“She invited us to her wedding,” I said. He rolled his eyes.

“She’s showing off,” he mumbled, “but I’d be glad, if you came to Pantona.” He looked sad again. I nodded and stood up to put my book away. He followed after me.

“Good then,” I said, “did you enjoy yourself, last night?” He was closer to me than he’d ever been.

“Some of it,” he said, “I was disappointed, to not say goodbye,” his hands were holding mine. I swallowed.

“My mother is terrible about that,” I said, “and we keep having to sweep Emily away from Alex,” I babbled, “she’s still so much younger, and well, everyone knows they’ll get married but,” he pulled me close and kissed me. I melted against him.

“I hope I didn’t overstep,” he said softly, “but I’ve wanted to do that since that infernal dinner.”

“I’ve wanted you to do that since you walked in the door,” I admitted. He laughed and pressed me against the bookcase, I wove my arms around his neck. He was a very good kisser. “Is this how it’s done in Dovetail?” I teased as he moved to my neck. “You dance with a girl and then give her flowers and she’s yours?” I exhaled.

“Something like that,” he said, pulling my hips close to his. “Should I have written five letters to each of your family members appraising them of not only my intentions but every item I own, and then walked you through town a few times before I kissed you?” I giggled and kissed him again.

“The walk would have been nice,” I said. “Then there’d be less of a chance of my father finding us.” He smiled and stepped away. My father wouldn’t care. But I needed to slow down. If he’d kept kissing me, touching me, I knew how quickly we’d be in bed.

“In that case,” he said, and offered me his arm. I laughed and took it. We stepped out into the sun. “Well, this is your city, where should we go?” I looked at him. “Alex mentioned a few places but I got the feeling they weren’t appropriate to bring you.” I raised my eyebrows.

“I’m sure they weren’t,” I said, “before my sister and me, Alex had quite the reputation.” He smiled. “Most people go to the park by the harbor.” He nodded.

“And you want to show me off?” He asked. I blushed again. I did, a little. But there were also places in the park, mazes and clearings where there would be privacy. I thought of how he’d pulled my hips to his with such confidence and couldn’t think of anything else.

“You’d be better to show off in your uniform,” I said. He laughed. We arrived at Harborside Park and walked carefully down one of the paths, a few people glanced at us and said hello, and Tristan seemed distracted as I walked us into a small walled garden. Thankfully there was no one else there.

“I think I understand the appeal of the park now,” he smirked as I settled in on a bench. I giggled as he sat down next to me, and turned my face towards him. “Can I kiss you now?” I nodded and he kissed me softly again. Then harder, pulling me close. “Gods, you’re beautiful,” he muttered. I exhaled.

“Kiss me again,” I said. He nodded and obliged. “Tristan,” I whispered. He looked at me, I carefully unbuttoned the front of my dress he took the invitation and moved his mouth to my chest and then my breasts, sliding my chemise down below my nipple. I groaned softly as he began sucking on it. He moved back up to my neck, his hand staying on my breast, the other going to move my skirts. “Wait,” I said softly. He exhaled and pulled away.

“Alright,” he said confused. “But isn’t this why we came here?” I nodded. “If you’re not ready, you don’t have to stall, you can just say so. We did only just meet.”

“No, I,” I swallowed, “I am ready, that is, I was, but, well, like you said, we just met and,” I paused. He looked at me. “You’re wonderful, and I want you. But this, us,” I exhaled, “it has to work. It just has to, for me.” He pressed his lips into his mouth.

“You’ve said that,” he stood up. “And Alex was so eager for us to meet.” I swallowed. “Are you two,” he exhaled, “what happened?”

“Oh,” I laughed, “with Alex nothing. I mean, some kissing, but the problem was once he and Emily, well, you’ve seen them, it’s disgusting,” he laughed. “But to the rest of the city, well, they saw The Dumanis Heir moving past me to my younger and prettier sister, so clearly I must be deficient in some way.” I swallowed. “I wasn’t in love with Alex, but my pride was wounded, I’ll admit that. I think he’s just trying to make it up to me, for Emily’s sake.”

“I see,” he nodded.

“What about you?” I asked. I couldn’t bring myself to tell him about Andrei, not yet. He frowned. “Why did you come here? Why are you going along with any of this?”

“Last summer,” he said softly, “my sister and I were sent to Pantona to get to know Annalise,” he exhaled, “Lisette,” his voice was soft. “And she was, well, I don’t know what you’ve heard, but it’s all true, probably. She’s brilliant, and kind, and beautiful, and powerful, and,” he exhaled, “and we fell in love. We knew we shouldn’t, that it couldn’t ever last, but it didn’t matter, not then, not there.” He looked so sad, so broken, whenever he talks about her, “Anyway, we kept trying and it kept hurting us both, and then there was Marina.” He exhaled. “Have you ever had someone in your life who just, knew you?”

“I don’t think so,” I admitted, though honestly, the first person to enter my mind was Alex.

“Well, that’s who Marina is,” he whispered, “she just saw me, she always did.” He looked at me. “But I hurt her, I kept her at arms length and she moved on. I wanted to start over, and I couldn’t do that in Dovetail.”

“Oh,” I said. It wasn’t what I thought it would be. I had pictured Annalise on her throne, playing with him and then casting him aside when he wasn’t convenient anymore. Duchess Marina being almost pressed into a place as his consolation prize, or perhaps not actually figuring into things at all, just a rumor because they were a boy and a girl people liked talking about. But this wasn’t a story or rumor, it was just a mess, and a mess he was running away from.

“I know none of this is terribly romantic,” he said softly and sat down again. “I behaved horribly. I treated two people who mean a great deal to me very badly.” He looked down. “But I like you, and I want you, and I think that’s as good a place as any to start.”

“I like you too,” I said softly, “and I want you too, but today, I just,” I swallowed, “I can’t, yet.” He smiled and nodded. We kissed again.

“I should get you home,” he said, “that Annabeth girl’s mother invited us for dinner and Aunt Brie says I have to go until you and I declare ourselves officially.” I giggled. “How long will that be, by the way?”

“I’m reasonably sure once my father responds to your sister, we’re official,” I shrugged, rebuttoning my top. “It would have been easier if you would allow your uncle or grandfather to negotiate.”

“You haven’t met Athena,” he shook his head. “I can assure you, that would not be easier for me in the slightest.”

Hearts And Politics

Athena

I was feeling better in the morning, particularly when Lisette found me, a little shaken but still flushed and glowing. The two of us hadn’t sparred in a while, and it felt good.

“You’re rusty,” I said as my spear met the twin short swords she’d taken to wearing recently. Something between the sword she carried into the siege and the knives she’d grown up using.

“I’ve been busy,” she said. I laughed. “Are you alright?” I relented and nodded. “Aaron said you weren’t thrilled about Olivia and Thomas.”

“I wasn’t,” I frowned, “I’m not. But, it’s not my business, I guess.” She looked at me. “I just worry about him, he doesn’t always think these things through and it’s other people who get hurt. And this time I don’t want Olivia to be collateral damage.”

“Are you going to lecture me about Harran too?” She asked. I sighed.

“No,” I said, “I actually think it will be good for you, but you went about it in a monumentally stupid way.” She smiled. “How was it?” I grinned. “If how he fights is any indication, I’d imagine it was athletic, forceful?” She blushed.

“Intense,” she exhaled, “he was very focused.” She paused. “He kept asking what I wanted, and I didn’t always know how to say it, but then he found the way there anyway.” I smiled. I did like this for her. After the grief and complication of her time with my brother, it was worth the cost for me to see her simply, content. “After this morning, though, that was more awkward.” She exhaled. “Olivia says he’s in love with me.”

“He most certainly is,” I smirked. “I didn’t see it at first either. I thought he just liked to flirt, but he’s in love with you.” She frowned.

“I wouldn’t have,” she admitted, “I thought we felt the same way, that we wanted each other, but that we were friends.” She exhaled and pushed her hair off her face. “And I have to tell Eric. He’ll leave, and I couldn’t blame him.” I looked at her, and I was suddenly tremendously glad that I went to sleep with Aaron each night, and that his expectations of me were so straightforward. “I don’t know, I think about it a lot, if I was actually Lisette.” I smiled. Tristan told me she did this sometimes. “I think I’d have run away with him. I thought about it, all the time, that year. Maybe I’m still trying to run away.” I looked at her.

“Before we came to Pantona,” I said softly, “I was involved with one of Trey’s apprentices, it wasn’t serious, and he’s kind of an idiot, but he was ambitious, and I used that. I was after all, raised in the house he was trying rise in, and it was fun. After I’d been so hurt and used, to be treated like I mattered, like I was important, it was intoxicating.” She looked at me.

“He was the one that Aaron found you with?” She said. I snapped my neck over and looked at her, surprised that she knew that. “You were upset, and he was unnerved by it.” I smiled. I loved that man so much. “I’m not using Harran.”

“I didn’t say you were,” I whispered, “I just think that if I hadn’t been with Carlton, after everything that happened with Warren, I don’t think I would have been able to be with Aaron, to see him properly.” She looked down.

“So your suggesting what?” She said. “I use Harran until Tristan is out of my system?” I rolled my eyes.

“I’m certainly not suggesting Tristan be in the conversation at all.” I sighed. “By all means, if you’re still missing him and need to shake it off.” She bit her bottom lip.

“I do miss him,” she said softly. “I miss what we had, and I miss his calm.” She exhaled. “I don’t miss what a mess it was at the end. I don’t miss hearing Marina cry while she hides it from, I don’t miss him refusing to admit he was jealous.” I smiled. “But I miss him, a part of me always will, even when he’s right next me again, it won’t be the same.” I exhaled as she rested her head on my shoulder. “Thena, I don’t know what to do anymore.” She sighed. “I haven’t had a Dream in ages, and The Leader’s are insisting on a marriage sooner than later, but they don’t like the idea of it being Eric because then we’ll become too Phanian but Harran would be a threat because if any of the tribes don’t like it then it could be civil war, and what is wrong with that nice Emmett Friers anyone, Your Majesty?”

“Ah yes, a fifteen year old boy who’s said ten words to you,” I raised my eyebrows, “obviously your perfect match.” She laughed. “You know my opinion, take the politics out of it, Cammadan is better if you’re happy, if someone who’ll support you is at your side. Who is that?” She closed her eyes and exhaled.

“I don’t know,” she said softly. “Thank you though, for listening.” I nodded and back up to our apartment where Aaron was sitting at the desk in the sitting room.

“Oh, there you are,” he stood up, “I didn’t want to go to this meeting without seeing you.” I ran over and threw my arms around him and kissed him deeply. “Well, hello to you too.” He laughed.

“I love you,” I said. He smiled. “Seriously, I do.”

“I love you too,” he laughed. “What happened?” I shook my head.

“Lisette and I just had a long talk is all,” I said softly, “be gentle with her today. She knows she’s put everyone in a tough spot.” He nodded.

“Of course,” he said and kissed me again. “I have to go, I wanted to check in with Marina first.” I nodded. “I love you.”

Boy Problems

Annalise

I woke up still wrapped happily around Harran. I liked the way that his arms were resting at my waist and his forehead on my shoulder.

And I’d missed being held.

“Good morning,” he smiled. I stretched and blinked at him

“Good morning,” I said and kissed him. “So, is this when we talk about how we’ve made a grave mistake?” He chuckled and stretched.

“I thought this was the part where I promise to stand by you and marry you regardless of your moral frailty in this scenario.” I giggled. “Lisette,” he softly cupped my face, “this doesn’t have to be anything beyond last night.” I withdrew a little.

“Oh,” I said standing up and finding a robe and slipping it on. He sighed and looked at me.

“That came out wrong,” he said, “I meant, I know things aren’t simple for you, in general,” I looked at him, “I don’t want to be a complication.” I sat down with him. He took my hands.

“You could never be,” I said softly. He shrugged. “Harran, how could you think that?” He chuckled softly. “I mean, the leaders aren’t thrilled with anything I’ve been doing anyway, I might as well do as I like.” He kissed me.

“Lisette,” he said, “I don’t mind caring about you more than you care about me. Hell, the moment I met you, all those years ago, I was sure that was my fate, even when I thought my obstacle was simply, being a foreigner who would take you far away from home.” I swallowed. “But we shouldn’t delude ourselves either.” I sighed. He pulled me close again.

“I know what you mean,” I said. “At least, I hope so.” He kissed me gently. “Harran,” I said softly. “Are you asking?” He shook his head.

“No, love,” he whispered, “you’d say yes and it would be wrong. I’ll stay in your bed until you turn me away, but I’ll only marry you if you’re not looking at anyone else and that’s impossible.”

“Now you sound like Eric,” I muttered and pulled away. He laughed and shook his head.

“I think he’s an idiot for resisting you, but like him I don’t want to be a consolation prize,” he kissed my shoulder. “You loved Tristan, you’re falling in love with Eric. There isn’t really room for me in that equation, Lisette.” I swallowed.

“You’re here,” I said sliding back, into a straddle. “That’s where you fit. You’re the one who’s here.” He kissed me deeply.

“I can live with that,” he said softly. The for now was implied in his tone. “Are you busy today?” I nodded.

“There’s a leader’s meeting that Aaron said is very important,” I explained, “and Olivia wants to speak with me about something.” He nodded and we kissed again. “Tonight I’m yours though.” He grinned.

“Alright,” he said softly. We kissed again. I really didn’t want to leave him. The already somewhat hazy memory of last night’s intensity was drawing me in. “Lisette,” he whispered, “if you don’t leave soon, I might not be able to let you.” I giggled.

“Well,” I whispered and kissed him again. “I have a little time.” He grinned and rolled me onto my back. As he pressed into me, I groaned softly.

“Oh yes,” he whispered. “Tell me what you need.” I pushed up to take all of him. “Oh Lisette, I need you.” I sighed and moaned.

“I need you too,” I said, and I meant it. I do need him, in my life, and he’s right, there isn’t space for him there, except this. Is it wrong? It might be. We finished and didn’t talk again as we got dressed to start the day but I couldn’t help enjoying the look on his face or the final kiss to my neck as he left quickly. I smiled brightly walking down the hallway to go get breakfast with Olivia.

I was glad she’d come, I’d been ready to accept her staying in Pantona, but I was grateful she’d changed her mind. I walked in and saw her apartment, which was positioned on the east end of the building so had lovely morning light. She was sitting sipping gently on tea. Aaron was leaning against the door frame. And, oddly Thomas was here too.

“Why do I feel like I’m in trouble?” I said sitting down. “Thank you,” I said softly as a maid handed me coffee.

“Can’t imagine why,” Aaron raised an eyebrow. I sighed.

“We need to talk to you two about something,” Olivia said gently. Aaron sighed and sat down. I glanced at Thomas.

“Oh!” I said, “OH!” He laughed. Aaron looked at them. “Well, that’s nice.” I took a sip. I looked at Aaron. “Do you have anything to say?”

“I was very aware of this,” he shrugged. “I was in Pantona, in case you all forgot, and neither of you are particularly good at sneaking.” Thomas smiled. “I’m glad, but I feel honor bound to,”

“Yes, yes,” Thomas nodded, “pain of a thousand deaths if she’s unhappy for even a moment.” I laughed. “Now, why on earth would you feel you were in trouble, Your Majesty?”

“No reason,” I kicked Aaron, who snorted. I narrowed my eyes at him.

“Right,” Olivia nodded. “I think I’d rather not know.”

“I know you’d rather not know,” Aaron said. Thomas frowned. “But I think we should all talk about why Lisette is in trouble.” I glared at him.

“I’m not in trouble,” I said, “Harran understands the situation perfectly.” Olivia choked on her tea.

Harran understands perfectly?” Thomas said. I nodded, trying to be casual. “Annalise, I am not going to instruct you how to conduct your sex life.”

“Thank you?” I said.

“But,” Aaron said, “while Westran is a strategic gain,”

“As according to Athena it is where the gods are imprisoned,” I pointed out.

“Right,” Thomas nodded. “But, um, well, King Daniel is fixated on united the line of the island with the clearly Chosen line of Tumona, between your mother, and you and Marina, and frankly Raymond,” I exhaled and looked at him, “and he’s built an entire new fleet to bring Cammadan to him one or the other.”

I stopped and took a deep breath.

“Oh,” I said softly. “But as I understand it, this means if Eric leaves, his brother has an Aamanda that can lead an invasion,” I said softly. Thomas nodded. “We’re barely healing!”

“Well, yes,” Thomas sighed, “and as you were genuinely becomimg fond of Eric and you hate being told what to do, Athena and I decided it was best to not tell you about this development.” I blinked, he wasn’t wrong.

“But then you decided to be super reckless and bring Harran into your bed so now it’s all a problem,” Aaron glared at me.

Aaron,” Olivia hissed. He looked at her. “Thomas, both of you need to leave.” Thomas sighed and stood up, his palms up as he backed out the door. Aaron glared at us both. “I mean it, get out.” He looked at me. She was rarely this serious. Let alone this insistent. They left. “So,” Olivia looked at me, “you slept with Harran.”

“Yes,” I said softly. “Should I not have? You were the one who told me to have fun.” She exhaled.

“I was never playing at your level and that was about Tristan.” She said sharply. I looked down. “Don’t even pretend that you think Eric will accept you taking another lover when he refused to even consider courting you until Tristan was on the other side of the continent trying to pursue marriage to another woman.” I exhaled.

“I know that,” I said softly. She looked at me and sighed. “He’s just so frustrating. He wants me, he’s falling in love with me, but he pulls back when I try to get close.” I exhaled, “and with Harran it’s simple, it works, why am I still fighting?” She smiled.

“Because you’re not in love with Harran,” Olivia said softly. I frowned. “He’s in love with you, he always has been. Frankly, I was hoping the chiefs would send someone else, but I doubt he’d have let them.” I looked at her and swallowed. “Lisette, you can do whatever you like, there’s no reason not to, but you have to be careful,” I went to say something, “I know you hate the politics, and it isn’t fair, that you have to play politics with your heart, but it’s the reality.” I swallowed.

“I know,” I sighed. She looked at me. “I do, I’ll clean up the mess.” She nodded.

Correspondence

Marina

I woke up in the morning satisfied and a little foggy. Damian hadn’t stayed, and I was for the first time grateful for it. It had been a strange evening.

“Good Morning, my lady,” Marta, my maid who I’d hired in Dovetail came in. She’d come highly recommended by the sisters, she’d been studying herself but decided not to take vows. I sat up as she carefully set a tray down. “Is it alright?” She looked flustered.

“It’s wonderful,” I smiled. She nodded. “I think I’m going to be spending the whole day at the palace, so you don’t’ need to be working today.” She nodded again and then left. I’m still new at this. My maids had always been placed in my service by Brayton, trusting her feels strange. Along with my breakfast was a small pile of notes.

My Lady,

I thank you again for gracing our establishment with your presence yesterday night. You are as lovely as I had heard despite your poor taste in men. I hope to see you soon, though I fully understand it is unlikely.

Your Humble Servant

Dorian Addison

I laughed and composed a gracious and equally flirty response back to him, assuring him I would, in fact, return soon. The next was a quick note from Aaron scolding me for not being present the night before and noting we had a lot to talk about. That didn’t bode well. I wrote back saying that I would meet with him over lunch. He could brood all morning then and come to me with fully formed thoughts.

And then there was the long letter.

My Dearest Marina,

I woke up this morning thinking of you. There was a time when we were little that I was walking through the courtyard with my mother, and you were being minded by one of the sisters and you ran over to me and handed me a small bird. You explained that you’d found a nest but the mama was gone and they needed caring for. You were taking one and I ought to take the other.

I learned the other night that my bird is thriving in my grandfather’s aviary, and the third generation descended from her recently hatched. My mother had given her to my Aunt Brie who has always managed animals. What happened to your bird? I’m curious. I can’t stop thinking about it. Regardless, I plan to bring one of the descendants as a gift for you when I come home.

As your previous letter asked me to tell you about Dorin, I will do my best. Everyone is very pleasant, and formal, but as I understand it that is only because of who I am. Apparently, I am a very important person, if you were unaware. I am both A Dumanis and A Personal Friend Of The Queen so everyone finds me quite impressive.

I miss you. I didn’t quite expect to miss you this much. I didn’t last time.

Yours,

Tristan

I swallowed and wrote back.

Tristan,

I remember the birds fondly. Mine lived quite happily with me until a few years ago when Papa and I were moved to a new apartment and there was nowhere to put her cage where there was sun. So I gave her to the Temple. I assume she is still quite happy, but I don’t know. I look forward to my new bird when you bring her. I actually have my own aviary here in Brightcoast, though it’s empty at the moment, so it’s really just a sunroom with a very high ceiling. (I am also quite important, Thank You Very Much.)

Last night Damian took me to meet his friends and they looked at me like I was Rana herself. It was strange and heady. I imagine this is similar to the way you’re feeling with everyone treating you with extreme respect. Lisette seems to have taken to it more easily, but it just makes me nervous.

I miss you too.

Yours,

Marina

I did miss him terribly. I also realized he didn’t mention Lisette in his letter. Not once. Because he wasn’t thinking of her? Or because he was avoiding her? I didn’t know. I realized it didn’t matter. I thought of how when he was at Pantona when he wrote it was almost all about her, and now it was about us. I stood up and walked to the window and looked out at the see and then took a deep breath of the salt air.

I was happy here, settled. Maybe I would stay. Maybe I wouldn’t. I didn’t know. But in that moment I wanted my friend here with me instead of on the other side of the continent.