Rising Darkness

“I’m stunned,” Aaron said that evening, as he fastened a necklace on me. I shook my head. “Flabbergasted in fact,” he kissed my neck softly. I rolled my eyes. “It’s almost like no one saw this coming, oh wait, hmm,” I elbowed him lightly in the ribs and he laughed. “You’re upset?”

“A little,” I admitted. “It’s complicated.” He shook his head. “Aren’t you?”

“Not really,” he said, “it could be worse, and she’s happy. I like Tom.” He chewed the inside of his cheek. “I can be angry if you want me to be. How dare she dishonor my father, and all that noise.” I laughed and shook my head.

“No,” I sighed, “you’re right, I just,” I shrugged. He nodded. “I think Harran is going to get serious, he seemed annoyed this afternoon.” Aaron smirked as we started walking down to dinner. “What?”

“You like him too much,” he said. “You’re not seeing the situation clearly.” I sighed. “Westran is important, but we can’t alienate Phania.” I shook my head.

“Whatever you say,” I shrugged. We made it through dinner without arguing, and Martin kept glancing at me. I was avoiding his eyes, because I just wasn’t ready. Aaron was chatting with a few of the other leaders and Prince Eric was looking miserable.

I swallowed, I’d seen Annalise be subtle, if clumsy before. She and Tristan weren’t a secret, by any means, but they were discreet. She was not being subtle tonight. I glanced at Aaron and saw the frown and worry on his face.

This was what he meant that I liked Harran too much. I was thinking of my friends, not of the very careful rope she had to walk right now. I thought of the map that Martin had been looking at, the new Phanian Navy, ready to deploy at any moment. And what I was looking at now was the enacting of a fourteen year old girl’s fantasy.

A young girl, might be fickle. I hated when they were right. I hated it so much.

I wanted Tristan. I missed him so much. I wanted my brother to listen to me scream and then laugh at me for it and hug me. After dinner I found my out to the beach and paused seeing Lefty walking back up from his night out with Marina.

“Early for you,” I said, “you make quick work.” He sighed and sat down next to me.

“I messed up tonight,” he said. I nodded. “What are you doing out here, shouldn’t you be glaring at the new guards and then giggling in Aaron’s ear.” I looked at him.

“I wish I disliked you more,” I narrowed my eyes at him. He laughed. “I need you to tell me the truth, Lefty. If she sends him away,” he looked at me.

“The ships will come,” he said. “You know it, Athena.” I nodded and hugged my knees. “Whether they’d attack or just come intimidate, I can’t say. But they’ll come.” I closed my eyes. “You don’t have a navy.”

“We don’t,” I said, “my grandfather does.” He laughed darkly. “She’s with Harran tonight. She wasn’t flirting, I’ve seen that,” he exhaled. “You know him best, could he forgive it?”

“Eric doesn’t have a temper,” he explained, “he lets things sit, and simmer, he doesn’t act until he can’t help it.” I nodded. “I had a feeling that might hurt him with her.” I sighed. “I don’t know if he could forgive it, but he won’t act rashly. He’ll make sure that she’s as safe as she can be before he walks away.” I nodded. “He loves her, though, which is new. That’s never been the case before.”

“How did you mess up tonight?” I said. “I was under the impression that Rina thought you hung the moon?” He smiled.

“Moon hanging aside,” he smiled, “she needed some space tonight. I can’t lose her.” I looked at him.

“Did you really come here hoping to bed me?” I asked.

“I most certainly did,” he grinned. “We spent a good deal of time in Dorin, stories about you spread and I was intrigued. I’d seen your portrait at your grandfather’s so I knew you were beautiful,” he sighed. “Admit it, if you weren’t with Aaron we’d have had fun.” I laughed.

“If you hadn’t still been entranced by Marina’s doe eyes, that is,” I said. He smiled. “So love got in the way of our fun.” I shrugged.

“Inconvenient, that,” he grinned. I laughed. “I’ll do my best to smooth things with Eric.” He leaned over and whispered in my ear. “I don’t want to leave either.” I smiled as he stood up and walked away. I leaned back and took a deep breath.

How had we come so far in a year? I swallowed and stood up and walked back inside. Aaron was waiting with a smile when I got to bed. I nestled my head into his chest.

“I wish you’d tell me what’s going on,” he said softly. “I get it if you can’t, but I’m here.” I looked up at him.

“There’s this darkness inside of me,” I said quietly, “and I don’t know, I can usually beat it, but it seems to be winning lately.” He lifted my chin.

“I don’t see that,” he said, “I see your light, every day, my love. I won’t let you lose it.” I smiled. “What do you need from me?”

“Just this,” I said, softly, “us.” He nodded. I snuggled close to him and pressed my forehead against his chest. And fell asleep.

I kept dreaming of entering a dark cave, seeing the wheel and the bindings, hearing Tristan calling my name behind me. I woke with a start. I didn’t know what it meant.

Wallflowers

Carolina

“I heard he cut off Lord Brayton’s head himself, even after Her Majesty ordered he live,” I heard Cassidy Mainer whispering to Annabeth Weirs, two girls my age, as we walked into the Manor ballroom, “and that’s why he had to leave Dovetail.”

“I heard she found him in her cousin’s bed,” Annabeth giggled. I pressed my lips into my mouth. “And insisted he be dismissed from the guard.” Tristan was standing beside his grandfather, looking what to most probably seemed stoic, but I knew was likely him trying to mask awkwardness. “Not that I blame her.”

“The Queen or her cousin?” Cassidy giggled.

“Both,” Annabeth said, “or either. Gods, he’s perfection.” We reached the room and I made eye contact with Tristan.

“Caro!” Emily exclaimed running excitedly up to me. “Come on, Alex said Sir Tristan is going to open the dancing.”

“With Mistress DuFrey and you, surely,” I said. It was what made the most sense. I was fond of Charlotte Dufrey, for all that she was ten years older than us, she was always kind. Tristan walked over and smiled at me. Cassidy looked at him. “Sir Tristan,” I curstsied.

“Miss DuKarras,” he bowed, “I apologize, perhaps I should have sent a note?” I smiled at him. “I’m being unspeakably rude. Commander Trisstan Dugarry,” he nodded to Cassidy and Annabeth.

“Oh,” I said, “this is Miss Cassidy Mainer and Miss Annabeth Weirs. What would this note have entailed?”

“That I’d like to dance with you, first, if you don’t mind,” he explained, “Charlotte isn’t feeling well and retired early.” I smiled.

“I’d be honored,” I said softly. He nodded.

“Ladies,” he bowed to Cassidy and Annabeth, and quickly departed. They both looked at me.

“Are you serious?” Annabeth’s voice was so high pitched I could barely hear it. I shrugged as non chalantly as I could. Cassidy’s mouth was still hanging open in disbelief. “How do you know him?”

“Alex came by to call on me,” Emily explained, “and Sir Tristan came with him. Then we came to dinner here last night.” She looked deeply proud, “I should find Alex, at that.” She bounced away.

“Is he courting you?” Cassidy managed. Unlike Annabeth’s shriek this was more of a disbelieving hiss.

“It isn’t that serious yet,” I said shaking my head. “From my understanding he’s quite shy is all, so because we were introduced,” I shrugged again. “Excuse me.” I walked over to the front of the room, feeling like I had clouds under my shoes. Tristan smiled at me. “How did you know to do that?”

“Oh,” he said, “well, I saw you standing there, looking absolutely lovely, by the way,” I blushed, “and I saw those two whispering and I know the type.” He looked down. “You seemed to need a rescue.”

“They’re furious,” I admitted. He chuckled. “I was certainly not supposed to be the one you noticed first.” He looked at me and then back across at Annabeth and Cassidy. “Are you prepared for jealousy and rumors as part of our little game here?”

“After nearly a lifetime under Brayton,” he offered me his hand as the music started, “I think I can handle it.” I smiled as we danced. “I plan to pump them for information about you when I’m forced to dance with them.”

“Mm,” I nodded. “You will be deeply reassured that I’m nothing special. Also, that I’m shy and snobbish,” I shrugged.

“Well, then we have lots in common,” he said. “I am stoic and stand offish, and have been instructed many times to remove the stick from my,” he cleared his throat and I giggled. “Regardless, I’m happy to be of help.” I looked at him.

The music started, and he took my hand and started the simple steps. Emily giggled as Alex danced with her. I looked over at Cassidy and Annabeth. Cassidy was still staring daggers at me, while Annabeth had started scanning the room for open partners.

“Can I call on you?” He asked as we finished. “Alex tells me this is what I’m supposed to do next.” I smiled and nodded.

“It is, and you certainly can,” I said, “what would be next in Dovetail?” He grinned sheepishly at me.

“My experience was atypical,” he admitted. “But it amounts to the same,” he kissed my hand, “spending time together.” I nodded.

“You should see to your other guests,” I said and started walking away.

“Carolina,” he called after me, I turned, “Do you have a favorite flower?” I smiled widely.

“Yellow roses,” I said softly. He nodded. I stepped out onto the balcony and pressed my hands against my face, which felt unbearably hot.

“So I’ve done well,” I rolled my eyes seeing Alex appear next to me. “Grandfather is thrilled.”

“We all live to please your grandfather,” I said. He nodded. “You shouldn’t neglect Emily.”

“Emily couldn’t possibly care if I spend five minutes on you,” he pointed out. I frowned. “Is Tristan not a big enough sacrifice to absolve me?” I looked at him.

“I forgave you a long time ago, Alex,” I said. “Now you just irritate me,” he smiled and leaned against the railing.

“I kissed you here,” he smiled.

“I remember,” I said softly. “I was so embarrassed.” He nodded. “Don’t break my sister’s heart, Alex.”

“For you,” he whispered and pushed a hair off my forehead. “Anything.” I swallowed and looked away and walked inside. Tristan had been swarmed. I giggled as he sent me a pleading look.

“Miss DuKarras?” A page walked over.

“Yes,” I said. He handed me a small box and I opened it, revealing a clearly hastily cut yellow rose with a white ribbon ties around it. “Thank you,” I whispered. He nodded and left. I smiled and stuck the flower into my sash. It didn’t quite go with the soft pink of my gown, but I couldn’t bring myself to care.

Worth The Wait

Annalise

“What brought about this metamorphosis?” Harran asked, as we sat beside one another in the large and very opulent dining hall. If the palace in Dovetail is a marvel, The Summer Palace in Brightcoast is a delicate gem. Everything feels deliberate and luxurious and beautiful, if there’s anyone who looks out of place there it’s certainly Harran, who still wears his simple leggings and loose fitting tunics.

“I’m not sure what you mean,” I said and took a sip of my wine, a light pink vintage that it turns out the region makes loads of. He shook his head. “Do you mind?”

“Not a bit,” he said sipping his own. We both glanced down the table to Eric who was glancing over occasionally. “I didn’t think I’d get to spend any time with you, frankly.” I smiled.

“I’m sorry about that,” I said, “my priorities have been skewed. Can I make it up to you?” He smiled.

“I think we can come to some understanding,” he whispered, his voice low and husky. Suddenly I’m fourteen in the parlor at Pantona again, desperate for his attention, for him to kiss me, tell me I’m special, touch me. “If you’re interested,” his hand slipped to my thigh.

“Yes,” I said softly, “I am.” He grinned and carefully fingered the light silk of my dress.

“You’re sure?” He said. I nodded. “I’ll come to you tonight then.” I smiled.

“I look forward to it,” I said and took another long sip of wine. After we ended dinner people broke off to go to various places. Probably my favorite thing about this summer court is how casual it is. There is of course traditional coffee and some music in the parlor, and whiskey, cards and conversation in the library. But as many people adjourn for long walks on the beaches, or nights in the town, or just go to their rooms. In Dovetail it’s not nearly so easy, with the long banquets, the entertainment staying in the hall and everyone asking for access. Tonight I made a brief appearance in each of the main gatherings before heading towards the grand staircase to go to bed and not alone.

“If you’re looking to punish me, you could be more subtle about it,” Eric called out from an alcove, walking out, holding a bottle and then taking a big swig. I looked at him and sighed.

“Are you drunk?” I asked as he stepped closer to me. He shrugged. “That’s not like you, Eric.”

“I thought you liked this sort of thing,” he said and wrapped his arms around my waist. I looked up at him. “You do look lovely, Annalise,” he whispered. “And if the flirting was to make me jealous, it worked.”

“And if it wasn’t about you at all?” I said sharply. He laughed.

“Then it wasn’t,” he said, “and I’m still jealous.” I broke away from him.

“You didn’t have to be,” I said, “so you can comfort yourself with that.” I turned away and rushed up the stairs and then after turning the corner and being sure he hadn’t followed I slowed down and reached my room and took a deep breath and turned the knob. Harran was already waiting and I smiled nervously.

I felt shy all of a sudden. But he stood up and took my hand and then kissed me gently.

“I’ve wanted this for so long, Lisette,” he whispered. “But if for a moment you aren’t feeling good,” his hands slid gently down my sides lingering on my breasts, “I need you to tell me. I want to make you feel so good, Beautiful,” he kissed my ear then and I exhaled gently as he moved to my neck and we moved in unison past the threshold of the sitting room to the bed and falling back onto it.

I grabbed the back of his head and kissed him deeply. He grunted and slid the straps of the gown down and slipped it past my breasts tearing as he did, he paused.

“It’s alright,” I said and pulled his shirt over his head, “don’t stop, please.” He smiled and pulled the rest of it off.

“Marina might kill me,” he said with a cheeky grin. I laughed and slid my hands over his chest which was so perfectly sculpted I thought I was dreaming.

“I promise she’ll understand,” I said, “I’m reasonably sure that was the desired effect of the thing.” He grinned and slid one hand to my hip and used the other to spread my thighs, before moving one finger into me, I whimpered and threw my head back.

“It was very effective,” he whispered, and then a second finger, “you walked in and I was hard.” I groaned and bucked against him. “Oh you like this, hm?”

“Yes,” I mumbled, “oh yes,” he laughed and kissed me. I moaned more as he kept moving his fingers into me, feeling and pinching. His mouth moved down me and found my nipple as he sucked and played with me I closed my eyes and was lost in it. In him. I groaned and whimpered, running my hands down his back and then I felt myself finish, letting out an involuntary moan and then, “oh Harran, gods.” He moved to be on his knees over me.

“I’m glad to have pleased you, majesty,” he whispered. I was panting and giggled up at him. I propped up on my elbows and smiled and kissed him.

“You have pleased me,” I said. “But we aren’t through yet.” He laughed as I pulled down his pants and then kissed him. He drew down and into me and then I exhaled, my legs wrapped around him. He pumped in and out of me and moaned my name softly. I needed to be closer to him, even then and grabbed onto his shoulders. He took the hint and took my thighs.

He’s so different from Tristan. Somehow he’s more attentive and yet seems to be thinking about it less. He’s hard and strong and doesn’t seem to be shying away from using that strength to move us. In fact he even lifted me up to ride him a while before grunting and finishing in me. After, resting his forehead on my chest.

“Gods,” he muttered, “that was worth the wait, I’d say.” I laughed and fell away from him back against the pillows as he rolled over and looked at me.

“I think so,” I said and brushed his hair off his his face and kissed him. “Harran,” I said softly.

“Yes, Lisette,” he said softly.

“Do you mind that I don’t love you?” I asked. He smiled.

“No, darling, I don’t think I do,” he said, “it’s enough for me that you want me.” I smiled and snuggled close to him, falling asleep feeling terribly safe.

Addisons

Marina

I think Damian is at least a little bit right about how I’ve been insulating myself. But after sixteen years of being insulated by others it is a hard habit to change. As we walk through town the life of the place even puts the market in Dovetail to shame. Everything is lit by torches and magic and there are people calling to one another, and there’s music spilling out and delicious food smells coming from cafes.

And more than anything, there are probably more dark skinned people around than I’ve ever seen in my life. Some much darker than I, and others lighter.

“Are you alright?” He asked. I nodded. “Come on, it’s right here.” I laughed as he enthusiastically took my hand and pulled me inside a door. What was inside stunned me. The ceiling was round dome, held up by what seemed like magic, and the there were two floors of balconies swirling around a large open floor.

And people were dancing. The music was festive and loud and I didnt’ recognize the tune, but the dancing was fast and lively. It was overwhelming but in the best way.

“Can you teach me the dances?” I stood on my toes to reach his ear and yell over the music. He grinned and nodded.

“Of course,” he said, “but let’s get a drink first.” He took my hand and pulled me through the crowd to the bar and the girl working behind it, saw us and lit up.

“I was wondering when we’d finally see you,” she said leaning forward and then pulling him close by his shirt. “The Glory’s been in port for weeks.” He cleared his throat and then she noticed me. “Ah,” she nodded and pulled back.

“I’m sorry for your anxiety,” he teased, “May I present Duchess Marina Sanpierre, and Rina, this Elaine Addison. Lainey and I have known each other since childhood.” She sent him a look and rolled her eyes.

“Welcome, My Lady, we’re glad to have you,” she smiled softly, “be careful of this one, hm?” Damian laughed and I felt immediately small and insecure. The way she’d grabbed him had been intimate, and not friendly. I thought of how early on Raymond had made jokes to him about Brightcoast. She quickly poured two drinks and headed to another end of the bar. I scowled at him as he handed me the cup.

This was new. I wasn’t used to feeling jealous around him. I glanced back down at Elaine. Why was I jealous at that? She’s not beautiful, not unattractive, but her nose is a little off center and her hair is covered so I can’t judge that. And I knew he had a past, but having to see it is piercing.

“Lefty!” A man called out and walked over, “one more night and we were going to send out a search party!” He stopped and looked at. “Glora’s wing,” he shook his head, “I beg your forgiveness, Duchess,” he bowed, “I ought always to greet a lady first.” He wedged himself between us. “My name is Dorian Addison and I am your and Her Majesty’s humble servant.” I smiled and offered my hand which he took and kissed.

“I accept your service gladly, Mr. Addison,” I said, “on my own and my cousin’s behalf.” He smirked.

“I’m grateful to have you in my establishment,” he said, “though I have to admit my surprise at seeing you here with this lowlife.” He nodded to Damian.

“The lowlife can hear you,” he said, playfully pulling Addison away. I laughed.

“You own this place?” I asked. He looked young for it, his hair in long twists down to his shoulder. “It’s wonderful, regardless.” He laughed.

“Prince Eric owns it proper if you must know,” he said, “but only in that he gave me the money I needed, paying him back as I can. Hoping when he’s king he’ll just forgive the debt.”

“Hush, Addison,” Damian said, circling my waist protectively. “You’ll scare her off with political talk.”

“Do you mean King of Phania or Cammadan?” I jested back, ignoring Damian. “You should know Lisette is by no means certain, but by law he’ll inherit the island.” Addison laughed loudly.

“Lisette, you say? I thought you were Brightcoast, not Pantona!” He gestured and then called out. “Lainey, three more!”

“You aren’t the first flattering barman I’ve encountered since her restoration,” I shrugged. Damian twitched at that. Let him. Addison laughed and cupped my chin and then flicked it playfully.

“Any man would be foolish not to try to flatter you,” he said.

“If my brother tries to turn your head,” Elaine said walked over with a bottle and pouring the drinks, “ignore him.” I looked at her again. “Damian, will you sing?” I turned to him taking my second cup.

“You sing?” I said. He sighed.

“Only when provoked,” he said and kissed me. I was drunk enough to not fight him on the kiss.

“If I want to hear you sing, will you indulge me?” I whispered. He shook his head.

“Which would you prefer?” He whispered back, “to dance or hear me screech a Pharras folk tune you’ll hate?” I met his eyes.

“I want to dance with you,” I said softly, “Only you.” He smiled.

We did dance and dance some more after someone pulled him away I found myself back at the bar.

“You look like you could use some water,” Elaine said and poured mine. I nodded, realizing I must be flushed. I took a sip. “We don’t often get,” I held up a hand.

“I don’t often get to either,” I said, “never actually, it was different, in Dovetail.” She nodded, I swallowed. “I’ve never seen him this,” I tried to find the right word, “comfortable, I guess.” She nodded.

“It’s nearly home,” she pointed out. I looked at her and nodded. “He’s never brought anyone here,” she swallowed, I looked down, “I just want you to understand that.” I smiled.

“I see,” I said, “I didn’t know,” I exhaled, “Raymond,” I whispered, “he mentioned friends, never anything else.” Elaine rolled her eyes.

“I’m not surprised,” she said. She exhaled. “He’s the best man I know, My Lady.” The understanding that passed between us felt deeply familiar.

Images of that first night at Camp, when I’d idiotically thought Tristan’s accepting of my invitation was because he wanted to see me. Of William’s eyes following other girls as they entered court. Girls who wouldn’t stop him when his hands moved to his fly. Girls who didn’t worry about what came next. Only Damian, who’s love overwhelmed me, got me over that fear, and I was only one in a line to him.

“Excuse me,” I said softly and walked out.

“Marina,” Damian said, having followed me, “you shouldn’t have, run off, it isn’t exactly safe,” he looked around. I swallowed. “What did Lainey say to you?” I looked down.

“Nothing” I said, “only, it’s very clear that there is something between the two of you, and,” I looked down, “you belong here, and I don’t, and,” I sighed. “Who is she to you?”

“Lainey is an old friend. Our mother’s grew up together, we were together a lot as children.” He explained breathleslly, I nodded and his face fell. “And that wasn’t what you were asking.” I blushed and looked down. “We weren’t in love with each other, Marina,” he said gently. “It just became, a sort of habit when I was here or she was in Brinecliff.” I swallowed.

“You probably should have warned me,” I pointed out. He sighed wistfully took my hands and kissed them both. I giggled.

“You’re right,” he nodded, “I’m desperately sorry and beg forgiveness.” I sighed. “You didn’t deserve an ambush. And I shouldn’t have abandoned you.”

“I forgive you,” I said softly. He smiled. “And I did like them.” He smiled.

“I’m glad,” he said with a gentle smile. “Someday you’ll see the island, my love, and be overwhelmed.” I kissed him. “They are all counting on Eric being King of Cammadan though.”

“Even if they marry she might not make him king,” I pointed out. “Mariah wasn’t a Queen after all.” We’d begun walking back toward the beach and the manor.

“But Marie was,” he said softly. “I think you all don’t appreciate what she meant to the Pharras and the Phanians living here. What Annalise does, what you do.” I kissed him again softly this time. “They came here because there was no place at home for them, because the dream that life here might be better.”

“A dream of a better world,” I said, he nodded. “Aaron and I used to talk about it, before we took Dovetail back. We wanted to lead for her, build a place where everything we believed in could matter.” I closed my eyes and felt the breeze. “I never saw it, Damian.” I admitted. “Because it didn’t matter. As long as I wasn’t in the palace, at Brayton’s mercy, the world was better.” He gently circled his arm around me and rubbed my shoulder. “He could have named the day, and I had no power to stop him.”

“Look at me,” he whispered and I turned. “You are amazing, Marina,” he cupped my cheek. “That you survived and came out kind and true,” he pressed his forehead to mine, “you could be bitter and angry and not a soul could blame you.” I pressed my forehead to his chest.

“Do you love me?” I asked softly, “or do you love what they see me as?” He exhaled.

“I love you,” he said, “if you said you wanted to burn it to the ground and run into the Westran desert, I’d go with you.” I wrinkled my nose.

“I doubt the desert would suit my father,” I said, “and I can’t run away without him, he’d forget to eat.” Damian laughed.

“Fair,” he said, “Although I didn’t realize we’d be bringing your father.” I shrugged. He pulled me close. “I don’t want to lose you, Rina.”

“You never will,” I said.

The Manor

Carolina

“Red, I think,” Mother said, as a maid nodded going into my wardrobe as she herself tightened my corset. “It sets off your hair, and he won’t be used to it. As I understand it everyone in Dovetail wears blue and green.” I sighed.

“Mother,” I said, “I don’t want you to invest too much in this,” I didn’t want to. It was too much to hope for. A path away from the guilds.

“Nonsense,” Mother said taking the red satin dinner gown from the maid and sliding it over my head. “Your father already spoke to Trey Dumanis about the whole business.” She turned me and looked me in the glass. “You’ll be Lady Dugarry by midwinter, darling.” She kissed me on the cheek. “Hair up,” she instructed the maid sharply. “Her neck is her best feature.” She walked out. I slid my hand to my throat.

Arriving at The Dumanis House, a large palace like mansion on a promontory above Dorin city proper always feels like an occasion, even if this time it’s only for a small family dinner. We stepped out of the carriage and Emily giggled squeezing my hand. I nodded and went to follow after her when I felt my father’s hand circle my upper arm.

“Do not embarass me, Caro,” he whispered. I nodded. We walked in and were greeted and then escorted to one of the many parlors. Alex quickly swept Emily away to a corner. I looked around, it really was just us and the family. I took a drink off a tray and quietly sat down in an arm chair.

He wasn’t even here. I sipped lightly on my drink when Trey Dumanis walked over and sat down with me.

“You look lovely Miss DuKarras,” he said. I nodded. “And disappointed?” I blushed. “Tristan should be on his way. He had to go to the fort and pay his respects to the Garrison Commander.”

“Oh,” I said quietly. “I suppose that makes sense.” We didn’t mix much with the guards.

“He takes his responsibility very seriously,” Trey said, there was more affection in his voice than I’d ever heard from a member of The Dumanis. “Even if he is supposed to be on hiatus for his stay here.”

“I didn’t mean to assume,” I muttered, but Trey simply laughed.

“It wasn’t an incorrect assumption,” he said, “as much as we are very happy about that Alex has settled on well, anyone, and we especially like your sister, this particular honor is very much about making sure you and Tristan get to know one another.” I blushed again. “And speak of the devil.”

My next breath caught in my throat. He’d seemed attractive that afternoon in his travelling clothes, but walking into this stuffy room, in his simple, well cut guard uniform, it was impossible not to look at him. He looked how I imagine Cornan himself to look.

“Grandfather,” he walked over and cautiously bowed to Carland Dumanis, “I apologize, Commander Varys was enthusiastic for me to see her whole operation. I didn’t want to insult her by running off.”

“Of course, my boy,” Carland grinned and glanced over at me and winked. Tristan looked embarased and walked over.

“Hello Uncle Trey,” he said. “Miss DuKarras.” He took my hand and kissed it again. This I could get used to. “I’m very sorry for keeping you waiting.”

“It’s alright, really,” I said softly. He smiled and sat down next to me. “Your Uncle was saying you’re on Hiatus from the Guard?” He sighed and shook his head.

“An unfortunate stipulation of my grandfather’s,” he said, “and General Martin. If I were to stay active in The Guard I’d have to be residing in the fort, which was unacceptable.” I laughed at that. “It will be strange, it’s been my life since I was ten.”

“Ten?” I said. He nodded. Trey excused himself, with a cough then. “That is quite young. Is it normal?”

“No,” he said, “and yes. If Annalise hadn’t been,” he paused, “if things were as they were meant to be we might have been even younger. The protectors usually grow up with their charge.”

“Then why ten?” I asked.

“That was when my parents died and Trey and The General took us,” he explained. I looked at him. His face didn’t betray anything. Not grief, or regret.

“Why didn’t you come here?” I asked softly. He looked at me.

“Because,” he said, “I am a part of this family, but I’m also a Dugarry, and we serve Cammadan.” He smiled sadly. “And Athena would have murdered someone by now, probably. She carries a lot of aggression.” I laughed.

“It must have been lonely though,” I said. He shrugged.

“I had Athena,” he pointed out. I smiled. “And we had a job to do.” He looked down. “And my mother didn’t want this for us. I keep thinking she’d be very disappointed in me.”

“As someone who is a deep disappointment to her parents,” I smiled nodding towards mine, “I somehow doubt it.” He laughed.

“Tell me about you,” he said softly. I looked at him and sighed, a bell rang and we all stood up to go into dinner.

“There isn’t much to know,” I whispered, “I’m not that different from every debutante in Dorin.” He nodded, and pulled out my chair so I could sit.

“But that’s the thing,” he said, “I’m not from Dorin, the last time I was here I was seven.” I laughed. “So I am going to find everything you do endlessly fascinating and novel.”

“Or unbearably dull in comparison,” I pointed out. He grinned. “I read, and I go to parties and dinners like this one. I pick out clothes. You’re used to queens and warriors.” The grin stayed but his eyes became sad. “Is it true?” I managed.

“Yes,” he said, “I mean, I don’t know how much or what the stories,” he sighed, “but yes, we were. She, I,” he stopped, “it’s complicated.”

“Well, the only boy who ever showed interest in me moved on nearly instantly to my younger sister, so obviously, I understand complicated,” I stabbed a fork into the salad that had come been served. He nodded. “Not that I begrudge them, they’re much more suited than Alex and I.” He smiled. “Are you in love with her?” He looked me in the eyes then, and I swallowed, the intensity of his gaze is something else. He looked as though he were sizing me up, trying to decide if I could handle his answer.

“Yes,” he said simply, “I am.” I nodded. “Is that,” he frowned. “Does it matter to you?” I bit my lip.

“I don’t know,” I admitted. “I don’t think so. But I’m glad you were honest.” He nodded. “And it really doesn’t make to much of a difference as my father and your uncle have already discussed the situation.”

“I’m sure they have but my uncle isn’t my negotiator,” he said. I looked at him.

“It isn’t my business, but you should not trust Alex with that job,” I said softly. “He isn’t, well, reliable.” He laughed.

“No,” he said, “my sister.” I looked at him. “I’m negotiating for her too. Though hers isn’t particularly complicated. Her first born inherits Tumona, and the weapons are to be evenly distributed and if our grandfather ever sets foot in Pantona he is to be arrested on sight.” I laughed.

“And The Count’s demands?” I asked. He smiled.

“To and this is a direct quote, ‘stop being bothered about this nonsense Tristan, I mean it, I don’t want to hear it again,'” he shrugged. “The nobility considers the contracts passé. Especially the inner circle. Anton and Marie had a love match and it’s now unfashionable to claim anything else.” I looked at him.

These people were myths to me. Stories I’d heard third hand. They were his family, his whole world. He said Inner Circle like it was something he was outside of and yet told casual stories about The Count of Pantona and called the King and Queen who’d died when we were children by their first names.

Before this morning I’d expected to be the old lady who my sister’s grandchildren whispered about and threw pastries at at parties.

He couldn’t actually want me. It isn’t possible. But the way he’s looking at me and smiling feels earnest.

“I’m used to being unfashionable,” I said. He nodded and smiled awkwardly, then I paused. “Did you say that your sister is concerned about the weapons in her dowry?” He shrugged.

“The Dugarrys have been in the guard for nearly two hundred years,” he explained. “There are a lot of weapons.” I laughed again, mid sip of my wine and it went up my nose. My mother sent me a glare and I swallowed.

Revelation

Athena

“You’ve gotten sloppy,” Harran teased me as he pressed his staff to mine. I rolled my eyes and pushed him back. “Back in Dovetail, you wouldn’t have let me get this close.”

“Tell me, your highness,” I said, flipping hands and solidly landing on both feet, “do the tribes know their future chief loses to a woman so regularly.” He smiled.

“The women of the tribes would laugh at you, My Lady,” he taunted, “As they kicked you into the mud.” I focused but he’d already gained too much of an advantage and he disarmed me. “Yield?” He asked.

“Yield,” I muttered as he helped me up. We glanced over as we heard people walking past us in the field. It was as it turned out, a furious Annalise, clearly soaked, and a beleagured Eric not far behind her. “Hm,” I grinned, smugly, “apparently their sail did not go well.”

“Apparently,” Harran shook his head. I looked at him. He wasn’t smiling.

“Have you changed your mind?” I asked. He shrugged. “I don’t want to pressure either of you if it isn’t,” I drifted off. If it wasn’t what? What they wanted? It isn’t what Lisette wants. She wants Eric. Or perhaps Tristan though she seems to have let him go at last.

“No,” he muttered, “no it isn’t that. I just don’t want her to be hurt. I care about her, I always have.” I nodded. “It’s frustrating. I think we’d do well together, and I think I may have pushed away my only chance.”

“You were still children when you saw her last,” I pointed out. He shook his head.

“Not at Pantona,” he muttered, “it isn’t important. I won’t press her.” I rolled my eyes and picked up my staff.

“Then you don’t know her at all,” I said, catching his as he tossed it to me. “She isn’t intuitive about this sort of thing. If you want her, really want her, not just to flirt,” I shrugged, “make yourself known. Even if she sends Eric away, it’s only matter of time before the Rastani send one those boys or the leaders scrape together an appropriate nephew.”

“You don’t believe the leaders have put together their best,” he grinned. I punched him in his arm. “I appreciated the Lord of Gerran insisting on her sitting next to him while we stayed there on the ride down. A sixty year old king with four sons already would suit Cammadan fine.” I shook my head.

“I understand twenty years of war and starving out crippled us, but it is pathetic,” I mumbled. He shrugged.

“My brothers will be happy to fill in any gaps I can assure you,” he winked at one guards as we walked passed.

“You’re incorrigible,” I shook my head.

“Don’t know the meaning of the word,” he said. I rolled my eyes again. We stopped as we approached the palace and heard a laugh. I paused and rounded the corner anyway, and froze.

Countess Olivia and Martin were the ones laughing, that wasn’t the shocking part, the shocking part was the way they were holding eachother, and the very clear fact that this was not too old friends sharing a casual embrace.

“Athena,” Martin said, seeing me, his eyes wide. The Countess nearly jumped away. I wanted to do something. Make a joke or something. But I just stared at him. “Prince Harran,” he managed.

“I,” Olivia managed to finally squeak out, “this is not how we intended for you to find out about this.” I nodded, still mute and then my gaze went back to Martin. He wouldn’t make eye contact with me.

“I’m happy for you,” I managed. “Excuse me,” I swallowed and ran away. Why was I angry?

They were both free. And why should she be alone?

I’d told Aaron last night that he would have told me, but I’m sure he has his reasons for not doing it wasn’t that. Harran hadn’t followed me, and I was grateful as I shut my door and took deep breaths.

This was real. It wasn’t some young man who would be gone in a month or two. This wasn’t a tavern dancer or some other distraction.

She was the love of his life, he’d never lied about it. But somewhere, deep in my heart, I’d expected him to find his way home to Uncle Trey. That we’d all be a family again.

And when he grew restless, like he always did, my new family would be just as shattered.

“Athena,” Martin’s voice boomed through the door.

“Go away,” I shouted back. He opened it and walked in. “I didn’t say come in.”

“Don’t be snotty,” he said and sat down. I crossed my arms and stared at him. “Thena, I can tell the difference between your astonishment and anger, so don’t try to,”

“I am angry,” I stopped him. He exhaled, “why shouldn’t I be? I,” I paused. He looked down.

“We didn’t mean for it to happen, Love,” he said, “we’re aware that it’s inconvenient.”

“Inconvenient?” I stared at him, the inadequacy of that word. He nodded. “I had thought, you and Trey,” he exhaled.

“No,” he said simply, “no unfortunately Tristan’s decision drove the final nail in,” I looked at him.

“Why didn’t you tell me?” I asked. He shrugged. “That isn’t an answer, Martin.” He sighed.

“Olivia wasn’t ready to explain it to Aaron and Annalise,” he explained, “and I didn’t want to burden you with a secret from them.” I looked down. “And I knew you’d disapprove.”

“I don’t disapprove,” I mumbled. “I want you to be happy.” He nodded. “But I won’t keep it secret from Aaron, you’re right about that that.”

“Olivia is going to speak to him today,” he said. I nodded. “You’re afraid I’ll hurt her.”

“Or get hurt,” I said. “How long?”

“It started while we were at Pantona,” he said. I nodded.

“Couldn’t you have fallen in love with someone who meant nothing to me,” I asked. He laughed.

“I believe I tried that,” he pointed out. “Many times.” I sighed and looked at him. “I don’t expect you to be happy about it darling, but you aren’t a child anymore.” I closed my eyes.

“Does Tristan know?” I asked. He sighed.

“I didn’t tell him,” Martin said, “but well, Tristan often sees me more clearly than I like.” I nodded. He kissed me on the forehead.

“No more secrets,” I said. “And even if it ends badly,” I swallowed, “I’ll need you.”

“I would die before leaving you behind, Athena,” he said. I looked at him and started crying and he held me close. He was right of course, I wasn’t a child anymore, but in that moment I desperately wished I could be.

The Cave

Annalise

I woke up early and walked down to the beach where Eric was waiting with a small boat. I smiled at him, as he worked through the rigging.

“Athena said I had to make sure you weren’t trying to kidnap me,” I raised my eyebrows. He flipped down and laughed.

“I am not,” he said and pulled me close. “But I’m surprised she didn’t try to come along.” I kissed him.

“She knows better,” I said as he helped me on board. “Where are we going?” He winked.

“A surprise,” he said. I sighed and we sailed around the cliffs. It felt nice and there was something wonderful about watching Eric sail. He’s so at home in it. He keeps looking back at me and smiling, and he finally stopped the boat and I looked at him.

“It’s a cliff,” I said looking up.

“We aren’t there yet,” he shook his head. I looked around. “Can you swim?”

“We had a lake at Pantona,” I said, “and a Sea Goddess has chosen me as her vessel in this world, so I think I can manage.” He grinned and then stripped off his shirt and pants, revealing only a pair of tight shorts. I looked down at my own overdress and skimpy shift.

“Are you coming?” He asked. “You’re welcome to stay.” I sighed and shook my head pulling off the overdress and shift, leaving only my linen underthings and a thin chemise. He looked me up and down. “Even better than I imagined, Your Majesty.” He dove off the boat and I quickly jumped in to join him. “You’re going to have to hold your breath.”

“Alright,” I said and we both inhaled deeply, diving down, I followed him below the water line and saw an under water cave we emerged and I took a gulp of breath. I swallowed and paddled close to Eric.

“Look around, Annalise,” he said softly. I glanced up and saw a glimmer of sky above us and but it wasn’t at all dark, just glowing. The stone was glowing. It was absolutely beautiful.

“Oh,” I said softly.

“You see why I wanted you to see it?” He asked. I nodded. He swam closer to me and kissed me. I pulled myself into him. “Anya,” he whispered. I smiled and noticed a small ledge. I swam to it and got pushed out, he followed me and we kissed again. I was desperate for him.

“Eric,” I mumbled, as he lay down next to me and traced a finger down my side. We kissed more, and I wrapped my leg around him.

“You’re so beautiful,” he said. “Gods, how are you so beautiful?” I reached down to grip him. “Not here.” I frowned and sat up.

“Why did you bring me here, then?” I said and dove back into the water.

“I wanted you to see it,” he said, “I thought, I don’t know, you’d enjoy yourself.” I lowered myself below the water.

“I was,” I said. He dove in after me. “If you don’t want me, I don’t know what else to say.”

“Of course I want you,” he said, “Goddess, Annalise, how could you think,” I sighed. “I thought you understood, though.”

“I understand that every time we get close you make an excuse,” I said. “It’s never the right time or place, Eric, but do you want me?” I swam close to him and wrapped my arms around his neck.

“More than anything,” he whispered, “but well,” I looked away.

“You still don’t trust me,” I said.

“It isn’t a matter of trust,” he insisted. “I don’t want to ruin this.”

“Fine,” I said. “I think we should go back.”

“Anya,” he sighed.

“Don’t call me that,” I said and dove under the water swimming back out to the boat. We sailed back in silence and I gathered my clothes, redressing and heading back to the palace without speaking to him. I glanced at the training field and hugged myself.

If Eric didn’t want me, that was fine. It wasn’t as though I didn’t have other options.

“How was your sail?” Marina said walking in. She looked at my face. “Oh dear, what did he do?” I rolled my eyes as she pulled out a dinner gown and held it up for me. I shook my head.

“It’s what he didn’t do,” I muttered, “I’m tired of trying with him.” She sat down with me.

“So stop trying,” she said softly. I looked at her. I knew it broke her heart. If Eric left that meant Lefty would leave too. “I don’t want you to be miserable Annalise.” She went back to the wardrobe and pulled out a soft satin gown, a light grey color, more tightly and low cut than most of the others. “But maybe even letting him see what he’s missing could help?” I grinned.

“Funny, I had the same thought,” I said. She nodded and handed it to me. I walked over behind a screen to change. “Can you see that Prince Harran is seated with me tonight?” She laughed.

“Of course,” she said. “I’ll brush out your hair too, if you’d like. No braids.” I closed my eyes and sighed. We’d both been adopting more Phanian styles as we’d been south. I’d become particularly attached to my tight, long braids.

“No,” I said, “I like them.” I stepped out and she gasped. “I haven’t really worn it, it’s good?”

“It’s phenomenal,” she said. “And these,” she clasped a set of pearl bracelets, one on each wrist, and then a small delicate silver chain around my neck. I sit down as she coils my braids into an impressive knot on top of my head and then set an array of diamond clips shaped like stars as a crown around it.

“You know that you’re way too good at this, I don’t know how I’m going to get by when I have to give someone else a turn as Lady In Waiting,” I said. She shook her head and put her chin on my shoulder.

“I’ll be a dragon training them.” she grinned. I laughed. “Come on, time for you to dazzle.” I looked at her.

“You aren’t dressed.” I frowned.

“I’m going to town with Damian,” she said, “with your permission of course.” I nodded. “You’ll be wonderful.” She squeezed my hands. I walked down the hallways and then the stairs and stopped in the hall to the mumbles and curtsies.

“Well look at you,” Harran smiled walking up to me. I grinned. “I’m told we’re sitting together.”

“Yes,” I said softly. “If you don’t mind?” I offered my hand and glanced over my shoulder, seeing Eric talking with Duchess Norvine and starting to walk over. I made eye contact with him and he stopped, Harran took my hand.

The Office

I was happily sitting in my office in Brightcoast Manor when Damian walked in and I looked up at him and he smiled.

“May I help you?” I asked. He walked over and kissed me.

“Are you expected at the palace this evening?” He asked. I raised my eyebrows.

“I’m expected at the palace every evening, but I doubt I’ll be missed if I send excuses,” I stood up and he put his arms around my waist. “Why?”

“I want to take you into town,” he said. I bit my lip. “This is your home, Rina, you should know it.” I smiled and nodded.

“Alright,” I said, “but will it be safe?” He laughed and stepped back.

“No one would dare hurt you.” He said. “And if they even tried I’d kill them.” I rolled my eyes. “We’ll have fun, my darling, I promise.”

“I have no doubt,” I said. He smiled and I looked at him. “What?” I mumbled.

“Are you very busy?” He asked and kissed my neck gently. I giggled and shook my head as he back me up against the desk.

“I am quiet important,” I muttered. He nodded and kissed me gently. “Damian,” I muttered as his hands slipped up, moving my skirts to my thighs. Since coming to Brightcoast we’d been less able to have sex. He was living at the palace and me at the manor for one thing. The other was that I was busy. Aaron had warned me that running a Provenance wasn’t a joke, and I don’t know how Papa did it from so far away for so long.

“I’ve missed you so much,” he said and slipped his fingers gently inside of me teasing me open. I whimpered happily. “Oh, that’s nice,” he smiled, “you’re ready for me?” He knew the answer, he knew my body so well at this point but I nodded.

“Don’t stop,” I whimpered, as he lifted me onto the desk and pushed into me. We went quickly, but it didn’t make it less amazing. I’ll be tired of him. We finished, panting his face resting on my chest. “And is that you wanted to show me?” He laughed.

“No,” he said with a gentle chuckle. “But I want to show you the Pharras neighborhood,” I swallowed and bit my lip and nodded. “Love,” he said, “they’re your people, they should know you, and you should know them.” I nodded.

“They likely resent me,” I said, “Papa and I have been gone so long.” He sighed and kissed me gently.

“No one resents you,” he said, “as far as I know, at least. They were all curious about you, why the manor was quiet, why you’re back now,” he kissed my palms. “why no one has seen you unless they work in the palace.”

“Everyone I know is at the palace,” I said defensively, “and a lot of my work.” He laughed. “Not all of us serve discarded second sons who don’t care if we spend our evenings in slum brothels.”

“Oh,” he grinned, “I’m telling Eric you think he’s a discarded second son,” I rolled my eyes. “And I learned a lot in those brothels that you seem to be enjoying.” I blushed.

“Regardless,” I said softly, “I need to check with Athena. If she thinks I need protection.” He laughed.

“I can protect you,” he said and pulled me close. I sighed. “Live a little, Duchess, I promise it won’t hurt.” I nodded. “Good.” I sighed as he started to leave.

“What does one wear, wherever it is we’re going?” I asked. He sighed.

“I hadn’t thought of that,” he said, “I suppose something you’d wear when you’re healing.” I frowned. I hadn’t thought of the plain blue dresses lately. But I had packed them, and they were clean and simple enough. I didn’t know if I would get much more work done so I slipped out of the office and down to the beach.

Raymond was sitting, focusing and gathering water into a small tide pool. He’d been so settled since we got here, spending a lot of time in the old seminary, channeling his power and reading and studying. I join him when I can. Ever since Athena had her Dream that the gods are in Westran he’s trying to figure out how we’ll bring the sea to the desert.

“Good afternoon,” he said serenely making a small whip of water dance around me. I laughed and pushed it back to him, making it sputter in his face. He stuck out his tongue at me.

I regret so many things taken from us, but I think a lot about the thread of time where my father was able to get us back to Phania, and Raymond, Lisette and I could have been children together.

“Good afternoon,” I said and kicked off my shoes and sat down, rolling my stockings down and off and let the waved lap onto my feet. “It’s good. How is isolating it going?”

“Not so good,” he sighed and joined me. “But unlike Lisette, I’ve never been good with fresh water. I think I need her help.” I raised my eyebrows. “I know, a long shot, but I’ll ask her tonight. You’ll back me up?”

“Mm,” I shook my head, “I’m not going tonight. Damian wants to bring me into town.” He groaned. “What?”

“To meet the Pharras, here?” He asked. I nodded. “How much time have you spent in taverns, Marina?” I swallowed.

“Well, none,” I said, “once when I was nine, I was allowed to go to a fair the Dumanis held, but even then I was flanked by Black Guards.” I hugged my knees. He frowned and put an arm around my shoulder.

“I think we all forget sometimes,” he said softly. I looked at him. “You might have fun, but you should be prepared for the smell.” I laughed and kissed him on the cheek.

A New Hope

Carolina

I sat at my vanity brushing my hair. I was already tired and the season was only just starting. 

“Caro,” my sister Emily bounced into her room. “Alex is downstairs.” I rolled my eyes at my sister. We’d both once harbored hope that the Dumanis heir would propose and while I’d been disappointed, Alex seemed genuinely attached to Emily.

I’m trying to be happy for them, which I think would be easier if everyone’s faces didn’t turn to pity every time I walked in a room.  

“Tell him I’m not seeing people today,” I said. I was too tired, too bored, to sit listening to him crow about his recent trip to Dovetail.

“He’s not alone,” Emily said and bounced on the bed. “His cousin is with him.” I turned in my seat. “He did tell you that Sir Tristan DuGarry was coming, didn’t he?”

“Yes, but Alex says a lot of things,” I stood up. Emily giggled. “What does he look like?” I asked, as Emily stood up and grabbed my hands and spun me in a circle.

“Like all of them,” Emily shrugged, “Tall, fair, though he seems more, well, you’ll see.” Emily giggled and skipped out of the room. I shook my head and looked in the mirror.

I wouldn’t make the best impression, but I’d do. I wasn’t expecting to do anything but maybe read today. I walked downstairs to the parlor. Emily was chattering quickly and I heard Alex’s laugh. I walked in and Emily smiled at her.

“Carolina,” my mother said, standing up and encouragingly placing her hand on my lower back to push me forward. “Master DuCray and Sir Tristan can’t stay but they invited us to the house tonight for dinner.”

“Always an honor, Mr. DuCray,” I said to Alex who smiled at me. It was then that I noticed the other young man in the room, he was standing awkwardly, as if he’d risen from the chair he was beside quickly when I entered.

“Goddess, where’s my manners,” Alex said and stood up, “Miss Carolina DuKarras, this is my cousin, Sir Tristan Dugarry.” I curtsied.

“It’s a pleasure, Miss DuKarras,” he said and walked over, taking my hand. I expected him to look like Alex, and he does a little. He’s tall and blonde, he has the same narrow nose, but his eyes are a striking green color, offset by his guard uniform. He was also more broad than his cousin, and I realized it was likely because the sword on his hip wasn’t worn for fashion like most of the boys I knew.

“That’s kind of your Sir Tristan,” I said softly, “or do you prefer Master Dugarry?”

“If you’re going to be formal,” Alex said teasing, “it’s Captain Dugarry now, isn’t it?”

“Commander, actually,” Tristan grimaced and sat down. “Lis-that is Queen Annalise promoted my sister and I after her coronation but Tristan is fine.” 

“What’s she like?” Emily breathed out. I sighed and tried not to roll my eyes at her. I also realized Mother had slipped out. She was good at that.

“Who? My sister?” Tristan said. “Infuriatingly stubborn, The Queen couldn’t spare her obviously, and her betrothed, the Count of Pantona had an opinion too. This is the first time we’ve lived apart, it’s very odd for me.”

“I think my sister meant Queen Annalise,” I smiled. I liked how nervous he was, he met my eyes. “Although I am disappointed we won’t meet your sister. From what your cousins tell us, she seems very interesting. You both do.”

“Right,” he said, “The Queen is,” he stopped, like he was looking for the right words, everything about him softened, “well she’s not like anyone else. She’s very intelligent and dedicated to her duty and the people she loves.” He stopped. “She’s decided to go South this year instead of come North, which is probably for the best. The Prince of Phania is visiting so Brightcoast is the logical choice.”

“How disappointing for us,” I said and sipped my tea, “I’d hoped to meet her, and it’s always nice to see Prince Eric and Lieutenant Lestoff, they’re quite popular.”

“Are they?” Commander Duggarry’s voice went flat. “They must be very congenial then, they’re well liked in Dovetail too.” I suddenly got the impression that neither man was popular with Commander Dugarry himself.  Alex cleared his throat. 

“Emily,” he said, “perhaps we should take a turn in the gardens.” Emily nodded and followed him outside. I realized then that we were alone. 

“I’m sorry if I said something,” I started and he shook his head. 

“You didn’t,” he sighed, “I’m just, awkward in new spaces.” I nodded. “I don’t know the rules here, and don’t say there aren’t any, there are always rules.” I smiled.

“Well,” I shrugged, “yes, but I think you’re sufficiently grand that no one will take note when you break them.” 

“Exciuse me?” He laughed.

“Well,” I said, “first and foremost, this is Dorin, and you’re a Dumanis. You could slap every man in every room across the face as you entered and then insult their mother’s and they’d thank you and ask after your grandfather.” He laughed. “And you’re a personal,” I cleared my throat, “friend of the Queen’s, that doesn’t mean nothing.” We weren’t so disconnected from the real world that I hadn’t heard the rumors of the extent of Commander Dugarry’s relationship with the queen. 

“I see,” he said. “So asking for your help would be useless?” I smirked at him. He was good. “I don’t like games, Miss DuKarras.” 

“Then I’m afraid you’ve certainly come to the wrong place, Commander,” I said softly. “It’s all a game.”

“Do you intend to win?” He asked.

“I intend to stop playing, however possible,” I said. “I don’t particularly like this game either.”

“I’m glad we agree then,” he stood up. “There’s going to be some sort of ball or party tomorrow night at my grandfather’s. My Aunts are arranging it, but I would be very disappointed  not to see you.” I stood and offered my hand again.

“We’ve only just met,” I said softly, “but I would very much hate to disappoint you.” He took it and kissed it and then left almost silently. I sat back down almost in shock.

Alex hadn’t been lying. He was here to take me away. 

“Well,” Emily rushed back in. “What do you think?”

“I think that,” I looked at her and smiled, “I think that I’m going to be getting out.” 

Not Quite In The Mood

Athena

“What is happening with them?” Aaron’s eyes narrowed on his mother and Martin. I rolled my eyes and pulled him close as the music started.

“Nothing,” I said and kissed him gently. “He’d have told me.” He nodded. “And them?” I nodded to Annalise and Harran.

“I don’t know,” he frowned. “She needs to decide soon.” I looked at him. “Tristan wrote me.” I fiddled with the buttons on my costume.

“He’s been busy,” I said. “He wrote to Marina and me too.” He laughed. “What do the Provenance leaders think about Harran?”

“They’d prefer Emmett,” he pointed to a young man, only barely a young man at that, standing quietly in the corner. “But since he’s never said two words to her, and he’s four years younger I doubt there’s much hope there.” I laughed. “Harran’s better than Eric, who they completely object to.” I frowned. “Frankly, your brother is looking damn near prudent at this point.”

“Maybe she won’t marry,” I said and sipped on my drink. He looked at me. “It would be good for us. Our children would be in the running as heirs.” I gasped. “Trey would throw a parade.” He laughed and kissed me.

“I’m neglecting you, I’m sorry,” he said. I shrugged. “We should have gone home.”

“She needs us here,” I said softly. He frowned. “Aaron,” I whispered, “we’ll be home soon enough.” He pulled me close.

“Thena,” Lisette bounced over holding Prince Eric’s hand. “Eric is taking me sailing in the morning.” I raised my eyebrows.

“She insisted that you be checked with,” The Prince said to me. I nodded.

“The coast has been clear since our arrival,” Aaron noted, “and Brayton is still in his cell in Dovetail.” I looked at him.

“Your security assesment is appreciated love,” I muttered. Lisette giggled and they ran off. “I thought you said,”

“I said the leaders don’t like the match,” he pointed out, “but I like the side he brings out of her.” I sighed and walked outside. Raymond was sitting out on the terrace and I sat with him. He looked at me.

“Are you all going to kill her?” I asked. He laughed.

“No,” he said, “they’d have sent more competent team for assassination, I can assure you.” I laughed. “Aaron has come around and your brother is gone so I suppose someone has to be the paranoid one.”

“I resent that,” I said. He shrugged. “Where is Randolph tonight?” He frowned. “He didn’t want to come?”

“No,” he said. “It doesn’t matter.” I looked at him. “I want a life here, I thought he did too, but,” I nodded, understanding. I also loved someone who seemed to want something so different from me. “You don’t want us to stay, though.”

“That isn’t true,” I said, “I like you, and I think that Lefty is good for Marina,” he smiled. “You are very good at getting people to talk to you.” He smiled. “You could stay even if the others go.”

“I suppose so,” he said softly. “It would seem ungrateful though.” I shook my head. “Why didn’t you go to Dorin?” I frowned.

“I hate it there,” I finally said out loud. “My Mama used to take us when we were little. And the house was like a tomb. And everyone bowing and scraping to my grandfather,” I shook my head. “Besides we can’t both leave her.” He nodded. “You feel the same way?” He nodded.

“If Lefty stays but Eric goes,” he shrugged. I nodded. “You’ll be a Countess then so what do you care.” I laughed.

“Can I tell you a secret?” I said. He raised an eyebrow sardonically at me. “We’re not going back to Dovetail. Aaron and me, we’re staying in Pantona after the wedding.” He looked at me and nodded.

“That’s quite the secret,” he muttered, “she doesn’t know?” I shook my head.

“We want to make sure that she’s settled, or close to it,” I said. “Eventually, we have to work towards the mandate but I want to be Aaron’s wife, I want to be Athena, not Commander DuGarry.”

“I waited my whole life to be Raymond,” he said, “not Her Majesty’s brother, not the freak or outcast. I can understand the impulse.” I looked at him and nodded. “We should both get back to the party.” I nodded and went back to the ballroom.

“I lost tonight,” Harran walked over. I rolled my eyes.

“You’ll lose tomorrow morning,” I said, “training?” He grinned.

“I’ve missed beating you,” he stuck his hands in his pockets. “See you in the morning.” I laughed and went to Aaron.

“Hello my love,” he said, I pulled close.

“Let’s get back to the palace,” I said. He grinned. “I’m tired and I want you.”

“Alright,” he said and kissed me softly. “I have to say goodbye to Lisette and my mother, I’ll meet you out front.”

“And Marina,” I said, “I’ll come with you,” he nodded and took my hand as we circulated. I tried to suss out what he was seeing between his mother and Martin. Something seems settled between them, but I can’t intuit what. I will absolutely be asking him about it.

The last thing I need is him doing his whole love and leave business with The Countess. I don’t need to watch her float stoically past him as he sighs longingly. I really do not.

“I’m glad you came,” Marina said and hugged me tightly. “I know you didn’t want to.” I laughed.

“It was wonderful,” I said softly, “you were born for this.” She sighed and nodded. We quickly moved outside and walked up the beach to the palace, which was lit up in white light. “What did Tristan write to you?” He shook his head and laughed.

“I think it’s going well enough,” he shrugged. “And he misses you but doesn’t want to worry you.” I smiled. “I wrote him that you miss him but don’t want to worry me.”

“I do miss him,” I said, “and I don’t want to worry you.” He ran his hands through my hair.

“You’re welcome to,” he said softly. “I’ll always worry about you, I can’t help it.” I laughed and we made it back to the palace and fell back into bed.

No matter how else I was feeling, being with Aaron always soothes me.