Letters

The Following Letters Exchanged Between Aaron, Count Of Pantona and Lady Athena Dugarry, Commader of The Royal Guard, on the occasion of his return to Pantona to lay to rest the remains of his late father.

Dear Athena,

When we rode from Pantona to Dovetail, was the land so infernally flat once we got away from the valley? Did I not notice because I was looking at you? Who can say, but may my ancestors curse me, the scenery is dull. The ride is going well, and Mother is better, I think. I don’t think I’d realized how much she really dislikes Dovetail. Martin caught up with us today, and told me about Brayton’s fall. How is Lisette taking it? I know she won’t tell me the truth, but I trust you to.

I’ll sleep now, and even promised Martin I would train with him in the morning, so I won’t be completely useless to you on my return.

Aaron,

Yes it has always been flat, but pretty in the spring. Too bad it’s autumn and late autumn at that so you won’t even see the colors.

Brayton has largely recovered and Lisette still refuses to order the execution. It’s caused quite a rift between her and Marina. Tristan is back in her bed (Lisette, that is, Lefty has begun courting Marina in earnest, and she’s absolutely a changed person for it.) and I worry it will all end in disaster. I’m glad Mother is better. (Are you proud of me? I’m trying it in writing first!)

Good that you’re training and do not let him go easy on you.

Missing You,

Athena

Beloved Athena,

We arrived in the village today. I have never been happier to see William. I realized when we were having a meal in the Inn that he’s my oldest friend besides Lisette. Quite strange to think about since I never liked him much.

Duke Lestat and Martin have taken to sniping at one another. I thought about how vital my father must have been to keep them on track. I see him everywhere, now that we’re here. In every tenants face, in every field and brick in every building.

I miss you. I see you everywhere too. The lake especially. I want you. All day, all night, it consumes me. I want to kiss you and I want to be in you, and hear you call my name. I want to be so overwhelmed that we can’t help ourselves like that first night by the lake.

But instead you’re so far away. And I will fall asleep dreaming of you. As I will every night until you’re in my arms again.

Your Aaron

Aaron,

Come back soon. That last letter left me so frenzied I nearly followed Harran to his bunk.

Athena

Athena,

You could do worse. Tell me about this courtship of Marina. I can tell you her father disapproves heartily of the Phanians. Seems there’s some bad blood between him and the king.

Cheer me up with some silliness, love, it is dark here.

Your Aaron

Dearest Aaron,

I want to be with you, more than you could know. To cheer you up. Instead I will tell you about Marina and Lefty. She giggles when he walks into the room, and his eyes never leave her. Whenever we spar he tells me how he’s never met another woman like her.

She hums, while she works or studies, I have known her since I was five, Aaron, I can assure you, Marina San Pierre never hummed. It’s a delight. Tristan hates it. He’s still with Lisette but he watches her more. Without you to talk to about the whole mess I feel at a loss. Elodie has organized a pool as to when Marina and Lefty will sleep together. Mercy thinks the deed is done. Do you have thoughts?

Yours In Delight

Athena

For, To, My Darling,

William has come over to comfort me in my grief after we buried my father. It was awful, but he brought a fine Rastani spirit of some kind. I’m really very drunk. He sends his best.

And he assured me, if it helps with your bet that when he left Dovetail the deed was not done. I return to you soon.

Aaron

Aaron,

Please write drunk again. I very much enjoyed it. I’m counting down the moments until you return. We’re very busy here, there’s going to be a winter ball. I hope you’re back in time.

Your Athena

Athena,

See you tonight, I can see the city walls.

Aaron

Reconciled

After training I did my best to find Aaron, but he wasn’t anywhere in the palace. That was when I remembered that he didn’t really have a home in the palace, he’d been staying with me, but he had his townhouse.

I walked swiftly past the market, hoping no one from my family saw me. I didn’t want to lose any time. I arrived at Bano House, which belonged to Olivia’s father, technically, Olivia and Caleb lived here when they were in the city, but they never spent much time there.

I ran in the door to the surprised look of a butler who quickly bowed and directed me to the study. Aaron was sitting quietly on the couch swirling a whiskey in a glass.

“You found me,” he smiled sadly.

“Of course,” I said quietly and sat down. He looked at me. “I’m sorry,” I whispered.

“Me too,” he said and took my hand. “I keep trying to decide if I want to live here.” I nodded.

“If you want to, we can,” I said softly. “Or perhaps your mother,” I drifted off.

“She said no,” he asked. We looked at each other. “I always assumed I would stay in Pantona.”

“I know,” I said quietly. “And if you still want to,” I drifted off. This was the final question between us. I would let him go if he really truly wanted a quiet life in the country. I couldn’t give him that, not ever. It might break me entirely, but I would do it.

“No,” he said softly, “not without you.” I smiled. “I love you, I want you.” I nodded and kissed him. “What brought about this apology?” I sighed and rolled my eyes.

“You might not understand this,” I said and ran my hands over his chest, “but watching someone get his heart broken over and over again from when I was ten on did not provide me with much basis for trust.”

“So I can blame Martin for this outburst?” He grinned. “Good to know.” I rolled my eyes and kissed him. “I’ve promised you that I’m yours, that won’t ever change.”

“I want to believe you, I really do,” I said, “and I am trying.” He kissed me.

“I know love,” he said. “What are you going to do about the Dream?” I frowned.

“I can’t do much until Lisette decides to move,” I sighed. “I understand her need to get settled, but well, won’t that be easier after The Mandate is fulfilled.” He laughed.

“I suppose it would be,” he said, “kiss me again and let’s put the whole thing to bed.” I grinned and kissed him and he pulled me close.

The Dream

I fell into The Dream and looked out over the landscape in front of me. It was flat and barren, the land cracked with sun.

“Westran,” I mumbled.

“So it is,” Cornan appeared beside me, he sounded amused, “hm, I didn’t recognize it before.” I stared at him. “Well, you’ll tell my sister’s girls won’t you?”

“Of course,” I said, “is that where you are?”

“Different from Cammadan,” he said, “that’s all I know. Far from the sea, which she hates.” I nodded. “So much power though.” I looked at him. “The battle will be hard, my champion.”

“I’m ready for it,” I straightened my shoulders. He closed his eyes.

“Yes,” he said, “you’d say so. I am tired now.” I understood and awoke gasping, and Aaron carefully brushing my hair off my face.

“It’s alright darling,” he whispered. I swallowed and pressed my head against his chest. “Was it bad?”

“No,” I said, “just, well, odd. He was distracted, confused.” He nodded. “I think they’re in Westran, Aaron, the gods.” He sighed.

“That’s complicated,” he muttered. “Couldn’t they be in Failor? Clarence is practically begging for Lisette to come and search. OR Rastan? If Lefty and Eric are to be believed they’re so obsessed with protocol they’d still be bowing when she raced of to do what needed to be done.” I laughed. “But Westran, the tribes don’t want us pushing past the border, Harran’s the only one who trusts her.”

“I know,” I said softly. “We knew it was going to be awful.” I muttered. He groaned and rolled onto his back.

“I can’t leave,” he said.

“We can’t go through this again,” I said softly, “you have to. You’ll come back and frankly, the gods have waited nearly a century, they can wait a few months.” He laughed at that. “Besides, I don’t know how helpful you’d be.”

“I’m a good fighter” he said, “and people like me.” I shrugged and kissed him.

“Yes, but you’re not Chosen, love,” I teased. He sighed and shook his head. “When you do come back, we should set the date. Grandfather will be somewhat occupied with Tristan, but not enough that he won’t keep insisting until our vows are said.”

“I would sooner die than antagonize your grandfather,” he smiled. I laughed. He slid a hand behind my head and pulled me close. “Do you need to go see Lisette?”

“It will keep until the morning,” I mumbled and kissed him again. He was leaving in a week, and I wasn’t going to waste a moment when I could be with him.

“Aaron,” I whispered, a few moments after we were done, he looked at me, “when you’re away, I mean, I know, that, well, since we’ve been together we’ve never been apart,” I trailed off.

“Yes,” he said, “though, and I hate saying it, but I imagine it won’t be the last time.”

“Yes,” I smiled, “and, as we’re neither of well, innocent,” he nodded, “I don’t want you to feel,” he pulled back and shook his head. “Aaron,” I whispered.

“Athena, I am not going to be with other women, even when I’m away from you,” he said, I nodded, “I’d appreciate fidelity in return.” I looked at him and pulled him close.

“I didn’t mean that,” I said, “but, well, I mean, Carlton is gone, and Warren is, well, Warren,” he nodded, “and you’re going to Pantona, and Kathy,”

“Athena,” he whispered, “I love you, and yes, I am going to have to deal with Kathy eventually, but I can assure you that it will not end with her in my bed.” I nodded. “My darling, please trust me, I’m begging you.” I sighed.

“I do,” I said softly, “I just, want you to know that should anything happen, I would forgive you. I don’t want to lose you.” He smiled.

“I understand, Thena,” he whispered and drew his hand to my heart, “I just thought we were past it, I thought you’d finally let me in.” He stood up and dressed. I swallowed and leaned back against the pillows as he left. I didn’t want to fight.

As the sun rose I walked to the training field. Martin was standing there, waiting for me.

“Early for you,” I said, as he tossed me a staff.

“Had some trouble sleeping,” he said. I nodded. “Did you Dream?”

“Yes,” I said softly, “did you?” He nodded. “When was the last time, before this?” He sighed and leaned against the staff.

“The day your parents died,” he said softly, “he told me I needed to take you both in hand. He hadn’t decided yet.” I nodded. “I tried communing a few times after that, but he was silent. Cornan’s a stubborn bastard.” I laughed.

“He’s in Westran,” I said softly, “and he’s weak.” He nodded. “What did he say to you?”

“He was pleased actually,” Martin was beaming, “quite convinced you’re up to scratch.” I nodded. “You’re concerned?”

“No,” I said, “not about that, I’ll speak to Marina and Lisette about it, they ought to know, it’s,” I frowned, “was I always hard?”

“Hard?” He asked. “You weren’t a difficult child. Headstrong, I suppose, but your mother handled it well enough, John was too soft with you,” I love the look on his face when he talks about my parents, he can’t keep the mischief out of his eyes.

“I didn’t mean that,” I said, “here,” I said put a fist to my heart. He frowned.

“Do you remember Dorian Forend?” He tried. I cocked my head to the side. “When I ended things with Trey, I took up with him briefly. It didn’t go well, but he did dote on you.”

“There were a lot of them,” I pointed out, “and they all doted on us. At least the ones we met.” He nodded.

“You seem to have reached the point.” He said, “I did my best by you both, but I don’t think I modeled love particularly well.” I smiled softly. “Aaron is a good man, better than me. He won’t hurt you, or leave, or drive you away.”

“He’ll get bored of me,” I said, “he’ll be away from me, we won’t be able to avoid it with our work, and he’ll meet and fall in love with someone else.” Tom cupped my face.

“Athena,” he said, “my darling, you have to let go of this.” I shook my head. “If you can’t trust him, you shouldn’t marry him.” I sighed. “I know it isn’t just him. It’s everyone, but you should trust him.” I sighed.

“And you never trusted any of them?” I asked quietly.

“Trey,” he said, “and Olivia both. I still trust them both, no matter what.” He kissed my forehead and I frowned. “Now do you want to train?” I nodded and we squared off.

Before Dreaming

“May I asked you something?” Prince Eric asked me, walking into the parlor of The Princess Tower after dinner. Lisette was out on the balcony talking with Aaron. I looked at him. “Are you ever concerned about the two of them?” I raised an eyebrow.

“How shockingly direct of you!” I said. “No, Aaron considers The Queen his sister. They’re close but it isn’t like that between them.” He nodded.

“That’s something of a relief,” he said and sat down. I smiled and shook my head. “And your brother?”

“Well, I don’t worry about Annalise and Tristan, but I could see how it might be troublesome for you,” I shrugged and sat next to him. He nodded. I looked around and noticed Tristan was in fact, gone, as was Marina. I sighed, that wouldn’t end well.

“I’m leaving,” Lefty said walking over. “Lady Athena, always a pleasure.”

“You can’t just leave,” Prince Eric said. He shrugged.

“Well, I am,” he sighed. “It’s been three nights in a row, Eric, I’m begging you.” I laughed.

“I don’t think the Countess will mind, really,” I said, “she doesn’t keep a particularly formal household.” Lefty laughed took my hand and kissed it.

“I will never forget it,” he said, “you are an angel of mercy.” I laughed as he left.

“He’d have stayed if Duchess Marina had,” Lord Raymond said. Eric shushed him. “I’m reasonably sure she noticed, Eric, he’s not subtle.”

“As opposed to you,” Eric said, “does Randolph know you’re spending most afternoons with her?” I raised my eyebrows.

“Given that I’m not interested in women, it doesn’t really effect him,” Raymond shrugged. I laughed. “Are you shocked?”

“Not terribly,” I said, “if you meant to shock me, I hate to disappoint. After my parents died I was raised by my Uncle Trey and General Martin, who were merely unmarried because my grandfather disapproved?”

“Disapproved of Trey’s orientation?” Raymond asked. I shrugged.

“Possibly,” I said, “but mostly of Thomas. They butt heads quite a bit. And Trey considers his position in the family very important.” I looked at him. “Where is he? You ought to have brought him.”

“Randolph is with the crew, but we’re not used to being able to be in the open.” He admitted. “We hadn’t realized it was, well, that we could be.”

Aaron and Lisette walked in.

“This feels distinctly more intimate,” Aaron said.

“There are still three more people than most nights of our lives,” Lisette pointed out. Aaron nodded.

“Yes, and as I thought coming to Dovetail would put an end to quiet nights where you and I stared at each other and Mother occasionally saying something witty,” he picked up a drink and sat down, “but alas, here I am.”

“Ennui doesn’t suit you love,” I said. He laughed and kissed me on the cheek.

“I hope you all know what you’re getting into with these Cammadie women, Your Highness,” Aaron said pointedly, “My Lord. They’re the most stubborn breed in the world.”

“Hush,” Lisette said with a glare, “as if growing up with the most impossible boy in the world isn’t what made me stubborn.” The Prince laughed.

“Imagine this but without the charming additional company and you will have some idea of what my past eighteen years have been like,” Countess Olivia swanned in. I am always astounded by her, but in these past few months, even more so. She’s thinner, and paler, and black does not suit her at all, but the light I always saw and was inspired by still shines.

“I can’t imagine they were so terrible, Your Grace,” Prince Eric grinned, “as children it must have been endearing. I find the way my nieces bicker the most charming thing in the world.”

“How old are the Princesses?” I asked. Raymond let out a long sigh.

“Karina is thirteen, Vanessa is nine, and Angelica is six, almost seven” Raymond said quietly, “and my sister is, if you can believe it, at her wits end.”

“I can believe it,” Olivia smiled, “I remember those ages individually and combined.” She bit her lip. “I hadn’t realized there was such a gap between Karina and the others.”

“There wasn’t,” Eric’s face darkened. “Amos died in his cradle.” Olivia nodded.

“How awful for Elana,” she said, her hand going to her own belly reflexively. I’d often wondered why Aaron was an only child. “And how difficult for you.” Eric smiled.

“More difficult for Karina, in the end I think,” he said softly. “Elana is determined that she be named heir.”

“Do you object?” Lisette asked. I knew his answer would mean everything.

“Not for moment,” he said, “I have no great desire to succeed my brother, and Karina is well suited to be Queen. Besides which, it’s something we’re woefully behind in, not allowing osur women to inherit.” I smiled and then rose and stretched.

“I’m afraid I’m finished for the evening,” I said, “Thank you as always, Your Grace.”

“I will have you calling me Mother soon enough,” she teased and kissed me on the cheek when I leaned down.

“I’ll escort you,” Aaron leaped and we walked out. We weren’t even back to the main palace when he pressed me against a wall and kissed, I giggled into it. “That was endless.”

“I like them,” I said. “Your mother did too.” He rolled his eyes.

“They’re too charming,” he said, “But I don’t want to talk about it.” We kissed again. “We’ll only argue and I leave in a week and I don’t want to spend it arguing.” I stopped.

“A week?” I said.

“Yes,” he sighed. “Mother is concerned about moving before the frost.” I sighed and pressed my head against his chest. “I know, love, and I’m sorry.” I nodded and we kept walking. I was so tired of him being sorry, I was tired of worrying about us, or Tristan, or Lisette. I just wanted him so badly.

We reached the apartment and walked in. I kissed him again.

“I just want you,” I said, “remember that night by the lake? I want you like it did then, I just want every doubt to fall away.”

“I promise,” he said softly, “I’ve never doubted, and I don’t want you to. I’ll come back to you as quickly as I can.” I smiled and we walked back into my room. Our sex was urgent but lingering.

No doubts, but then I Dreamed.

A Question Of Conversation

“How long have you been in the guard?” Prince Eric turned to me at dinner. I looked at him and swallowed the piece of fish I was chewing.

“Officially?” I said. He shrugged. “About five years, you can induct as young as twelve. But unofficially, Tristan and I have been in since we were babies.” He laughed. “What’s funny?”

“Nothing,” he said, “it just sounds familiar. It’s my life with the Navy.” I smiled and nodded. “Your parents wanted you in the guard?”

“Yes,” I said, “I mean, I suppose so, we never talked much about it. It mattered to them, they were very proud of their own work.” He nodded. “And your father?”

“I don’t remember my father at all,” he said, “but Simon, that is, Lord Lestoff, he knows the sea, he’s a ferryman, and he had high hopes for Lefty and I.” I nodded and took a sip of my wine. The food and wine are both wonderful, but they always are with Countess Olivia.

“I see,” I nodded. “Do you like the Navy? My cousins are wild about sea life, even if they’re usually stuck in offices after they take a few tours.” He laughed.

“I do like it,” he said, “I was wretched in Vacana, you can ask Lefty.” I laughed.

“I’m looking forward to the sea,” Lisette chimed in, he looked at her. “We’ll go to Brightcoast in the Spring.” Marina looked over at her, her eyes wide with joy.

“Will we?” Aaron said, “Gods, Rina, did you bribe her, or has Anya Norvine been nagging you both too much?”

“Even if you all went North,” Marina answered him sharply, “I have to go back sometime.” She stuck out her tongue at him.

“It’s not about the Duchess,” Annalise said softly, Tristan frowned. He hadn’t spoken much and I couldn’t blame him, though I was grateful he’d agreed to come. Lisette had been waffling for weeks about where the Court’s first official visit should be, but of course, Tristan’s decision to go to Dorin would mean she didn’t want to be there.

“We’ve been to Brightcoast a lot,” Lord Raymond said, “it’s really quite beautiful. Lefty knows more people there than the rest of us.” Lieutenant Lestoff choked on his food and coughed.

“Yes, I well,” he sighed, “did you know Your Grace that you have a good sized population of Pharras in your Provenance?” Marina looked at him and shook her head.

“No,” she said, “I hadn’t realized. It’s shameful, but I don’t actually know a lot about Brightcoast, my education was curtailed in many areas.”

“What a kind way of saying that Brayton tried to keep you stupid and powerful,” Tristan managed. “Do you have a special interest in the Pharras, Lieutenant Lestoff?”

“My mother was Pharras,” he explained, “so I would say so.” The looked that passed between them was icy.

“I’m a little lost,” Aaron said. “I thought that Pharras was Phanian.”

“It’s a subject of some debate,” The Prince said softly. “The Pharras certainly wouldn’t say so.”

“The island has been Phanian for so long,” Raymond explained, “but the people maintain their individual culture should allow them to be separate.”

“It sounds a lot like The Westrans,” Lisette said, “I’m hoping to unite them with us eventually, and I’d rather it not be a conquest, or for them to lose what makes them who they are.”

“A people’s own sovereignty is often a part of who they are,” Lestoff said. “Pharras is a strange case, though, I’ll admit, and I also think it would be to The Westran’s advantage to take your protection and resources.”

“Not so strange,” I shook my head, “my grandfather also often speaks about our culture and need for independence.”

“No offence meant, Lady Athena, but I think my people are at a bit of a different juncture than your grandfather,” he grinned. I laughed.

“A bit,” Tristan smiled. “But then again, imagining the world revolves around him suits him.”

“We really do need to get your Grandfather and my brother in the same room,” Prince Eric smiled. I laughed. “Countess, I apologize, you seem quiet, we’re being terrible guests.”

“It’s alright,” Countess Olivia smiled, “the conversation feels familiar, but comfortably so.” I smiled at her. “And I agree about Carland and King Daniel by the way. Their egos might block out the sun, but it would be amusing.” I smiled at her. “Your Highness, are you enjoying the lamb? I had it sent up from Pantona as it’s Lisette’s favorite.”

“It’s wonderful,” he said. I smiled. He’d done his job with Countess Olivia, she was clearly charmed.

Confrontation

We were sitting in Trey’s office, all of us, lined up on one side of the desk and Grandfather on the other. Well, Martin wasn’t sitting, he was standing leaning against the door.

“As I see it,” Grandfather began, “we have an excellent opportunity, with Tristan finally deciding to do his duty by his family,” Martin snorted, and I shot him a glare, he held up his hands. “Athena will be making her home in the Midlands, and there are several families who would be happy to expand their territory there, with daughters the appropriate age.”

“And why are we here, then?” Martin said. Trey sighed and pressed his fingers against the bridge of his nose. “If it will be so easy, I don’t see why I need to be consulted. You all know I think it’s a bad idea, that it goes against Alexia’s wishes, my wishes as his guardian,”

“Tom, everyone knows your objections,” Trey said, “but it’s Tristan’s decision.” Tristan was silent, I wanted to know what he was thinking but he wouldn’t meet my eyes, so I couldn’t even guess. “We need to know you’ll stand behind him. And you, Athena, and Count Aaron.”

“Of course Aaron and I will stand behind him,” I said. “Was that ever in question?” Tristan looked at me and his face softened.

“And his place in the guard is assured?” Grandfather said. “As it was with his father, it is a large part of his appeal. A rise in station for the girl.” Tom sighed and looked down.

“I would not dismiss Tristan,” he said, “only a fool would let go of such a soldier willingly, but as he likely told you, the decision is not entirely mine. The Guard serves at The Queen’s pleasure.” Trey nodded.

“I told them,” Tristan said, “she won’t ask me to step down.”

“For the moment, but a jealous young girl’s judgement,” Grandfather started. I stood up then. “Where are you going?”

“I won’t stand here and listen to you insult her,” I said. “She is your Queen, and would never,” I looked at Tristan, “how dare you?”

“Athena,” Trey said softly, “No one is insulting Queen Annalise, there is a concern, that she may, well, change her mind regarding Tristan’s position given they are no longer,” he waved his hand.

“She wouldn’t do that,” Tristan said, I saw him gripping the arms of his chair. “As I’ve been saying all afternoon.”

“And I think Carland is insulting her a little,” Martin said, “though I understand the idea of loyalty beyond immediate gratification is unthinkable to him.” Grandfather stood up at that.

“If I had my way Thomas Martin you’d have been,” he was seething and thought better of it.

“Always a pleasure to hear your empty threats, sir,” he said glibly, he looked over at Trey, “I genuinely thought we could get past all this.”

“Perhaps your time in Pantona will help you,” Trey said. Tom nodded.

“Speaking of you going to Pantona,” Tristan said, “I can’t leave for Dorin before Martin and Count Aaron return. I can’t leave the Queen that vulnerable.” Grandfather nodded. “You know my other stipulations for the contracts.”

“Of course,” Trey said.

“Then we’re done here,” Tristan stood up and we all three walked out. We got out into the street. “How many times has he threatened to have you killed?” Martin laughed.

“I lost count around my twentieth birthday,” he shrugged. “He’d never do it, for all our problems, Trey would never forgive him.” I smiled. “You’re sure about this?”

“I am,” Tristan said, but his voice was caught in his throat. “It worked for my parents, after all.”

“They were lucky,” Tom said softly, “and your mother was an uncommon person.” Tristan smiled. “Whoever she winds up being, you know I will welcome her.” Tristan nodded and looked at me.

“When I’m a countess,” I muttered, “I’m going to ban him from Pantona,” I said, “Trey and the Aunts may come, but if he sets foot on my land I’ll throw him in a dungeon.”

“I don’t think Pantona has a dungeon,” Tristan laughed as we started walking.

“Well then I’ll build one,” I scowled, “and throw him in it. As if Annalise would dismiss you,” I sighed, they were both laughing. “It isn’t funny,” I said.

“It’s a little funny,” Martin smiled. “I am glad to finally have you on my side though, Thena.” I looked at him and nodded, we walked back to the palace and I got to my apartment to find Aaron waiting.

“How did it go?” He asked. I sighed and straddled him on the couch and kissed him. “Oh that well?”

“I yelled at my grandfather again,” I said, “I don’t think he’ll put up with a third time.”

“Do you still want to ban all Dumanis business in Pantona?” He asked. “We can if you really want to. The tenants might be disappointed but they’ll get over not having anyone to sell animals or crops to, or buy city goods from.” I shook my head.

“No, we can’t ban the family,” I muttered, “but he insulted Lisette!” We kissed again.

“Thena,” he whispered as I moved my hands down to his waistband, “we have to go to dinner with my mother.”

“We can be quick,” I assured him. “I need you.” He smiled and ran his hands through my hair, and I pushed his pants down. His hands moved up my thighs.

“You’re the most incredible woman,” He mumbled, as I arched my back letting him into me. I writhed, riding him until we both finished. “I’m going to miss you so much.” He whispered.

“I’ll miss you too,” I said and stood up and went to clean up. “Why are we going to your mother?”

“Lisette wants her to get to know The Prince,” he sighed and leaned back.

“And this isn’t possible in the banquet room?” I frowned. It wasn’t that I didn’t love an evening with Countess Olivia, but the idea of more family time is overwhelming right now.

“According to my mother, no,” he said and stood up. I laughed. “Thena,” he said softly, “what if we got married, and you came back to Pantona with me?” I looked at him.

“I want that more than anything,” I said softly. “Really, I do.” He smiled. “But my brother,” he sighed, “and Martin and Lisette.” He nodded. “And your father, do you want us to get married before he’s at rest?” He sighed and hugged me around the waist.

“I suppose not, but if he hadn’t died we’d be married already,” he pointed out. I shook my head.

“That’s morbid, my love,” I said, “go, I have to get presentable.” He sighed and kissed me again.

“Fine,” he muttered. “See your later.” I swatted him on his way out.

Riding and War

We were riding into the valley behind the city, and I felt so spectacularly free. This kind of movement had been restricted for so long. Tristan had left to go settle things with Grandfather, and while Lisette had seemed disturbed at first, she seemed to have calmed down. She paid light attention to her cousin but mainly to Prince Eric.

“This could work,” I said, sounding more relieved than I realized I was to Aaron. His eyes were still narrowed. “Aaron, she has to marry someone.”

“I know,” he said, “I don’t have to like it though.” I laughed. “I am trying to convince myself this is better than Harran.”

“Where is Harran?” I asked. “Surely he was invited?”

“No,” Aaron said, “We thought Tristan was coming and I thought two suitors more than sufficient.” I smiled and glanced over at Marina, she looked more confident than I’ve ever seen her, glowing under the attentions of Lord Raymond and Lieutenant Lestoff.

“Did we bring food?” I asked. Aaron shook his head.

“You brought a bow, love, I assumed you’d handle it,” he teased. I laughed and spurred my horse on. I loved to hunt, I think it’s one of the gifts that the God gave me, as I’m also quite good at it. I managed to grab a few rabbits and even spotted a stag.

Maybe a hunting party at another time, a whole stage was a bit much for lunch. Returning to the party, I asked Marina to light a fire, which I had to admit was her to let her show off a bit. Lord Raymond immediately asked for her help teaching him magic. She agreed.

Once we returned to the palace, a page handed me a note.

Thena,

I think it’s settled. Come to Trey’s. Bring The General if you can convince him.

Tristan

I sighed and walked into the barracks. Martin was sitting behind his desk, working on something.

“We’re invited to dinner,” I said sitting down. He looked up at me.

“No,” he said, “you’re mother is going to torment my dreams forever for not stopping this, I won’t break bread on it.”

“It worked out alright for her,” I pointed out. “Maybe it will for Tristan.” He stood up and frowned going over to the window. “What were you looking at?” I picked up the paper. It was a report from Phania.

“He’s building an armada,” Tom said, “and recruiting land troops, solidifying the alliance with Rastan to block the North.” I swallowed.

“Prince Eric told Annalise his brother wants an engagement by the fall,” I said, my throat dry. “You think if it isn’t settled they’ll invade?”

“Daniel wants The Sword on his side,” he explained, “he always did. He thinks he can control Annalise through her marriage to Eric, but he’ll do it through fear, or domination if he must.” I nodded.

“Have you told her?” I asked. He frowned and shook his head. “You have to, she needs to know.”

“I will,” he said. “Trey’s tonight?” He sighed, I sat up and nodded. “Fine, I need to talk about this with him too. As helpful from a rallying point Duchess Norvine would be, it’ll be your family who builds our Navy.”

“Fine,” I said, “if that’s what it takes to get you there. Don’t wear a uniform, you know they hate it.” I stood up and walked out of the office and through the training yard. One of the guards, Helena, I think her name is, was supposed to be on rotation, but instead she was leaning against a pillar and Harran was pushing her hair behind her ear.

“Recruit,” I said, cause her to stop mid giggled and straighten herself, “Your highness,” I grinned at Harran.

“I’m sorry Commander,” she mumbled, “Prince Harran was asking,” she exhaled, “I’ll return to patrol.”

“You do that,” I said as she walked away. I looked at him.

“You didn’t have to ruin my fun,” he said.

“You could wait until she’s off duty,” I said. He sighed. “Aren’t you supposed to be courting Lisette?”

“So you’re on my side?” He said as we walked towards the palace. “What about your brother?” I looked at him.

“I’m on her side,” I said. He nodded. “And my brother should not figure into the equation.” He looked at me. “Dance with her tonight. If you let Prince Eric monopolize her,” I trailed off.

“Yes, yes,” he shoved me gently, “I don’t need to be told how to woo, Athena, especially not a girl I had in my hands three years ago.”

“She’s a queen now,” I said with a shrug. “Might require some rewooing.” He laughed.

Dueling The Lieutenant

I got up early, even poking Aaron to see if he wanted to get up to train with me. He grumbled and pulled the covers over his head and I laughed before getting dressed and heading down to the yard.

Tristan was waiting for me and I smiled at him. He shrugged back and pointed. I noticed Lieutenant Lestoff was standing waiting. I smirked and I saw my brother laugh as I walked over.

“Hello Lieutenant,” I said, “may we help you?”

“Lady Athena,” he said and then stopped, “Or Commander Dugarry? Which do you prefer?”

“Lady Athena,” I said, truly shocked, most people, men especially simply said what they were comfortable with. He nodded. “I heard you wanted to spar?”

“I wanted more than that,” he winked, “but having spent some time with you intended, I can see that would be hopeless.” I laughed. I liked him, almost in spite of myself. “Luckily Dovetail is not bereft of interesting women.”

“Hm,” I nodded and picked up a staff and tossed it to him. He caught it easily. “Well, as long as you’re entertained.” He smiled and bowed I return it and Tristan met my eyes.

“Flatten him,” my brother grinned. I laughed. He liked very few things more than when I beat someone new. Particularly if the new person is at all arrogant. He struck first, I blocked. Then we both pulled back and I struck.

“Tell me,” I said, “why now?” He smiled.

“Well, we couldn’t very well come while Brayton was in charge,” he shrugged, going for my legs and I jumped over the staff. “King Daniel never officially acknowledged him.”

“But she’s been here for months,” I said, landing a hit on his shoulder. He winced but then twirled the staff and reset.

“You’re new to diplomacy if you think we could run out of Rastan the moment we heard the news,” he pointed out. “Though I notice none of them are here.” I nodded and winced as he hit my ribs. But then I caught his staff with mine, disarmed him and crossed them at his neck. He inhaled sharply and then laughed.

“Yield?” I said.

“With pleasure,” he said and extended his hand, I took it and shook it. “I look forward to our ride later.” I nodded and he turned and left. “Will, um,” he inhaled stopping, “will the Duchess be joining us, do you know?” I stopped and nodded.

“I believe so,” I said.

“Oh,” he said, “well good then.” He kept moving. I heard Tristan exhale sharply.

“I can’t go,” he said. I glanced at him. “I’m going to see Grandfather, to, well, make plans.” I looked at him and then hugged him. “I’m not saying I’ll do it, but I’ll hear him out.” I nodded.

“Good,” I said, “I think it’s the right thing, Tristan, really, I do.” He nodded. “What will you tell Lisette?”

“The truth,” he sighed, “that I finally understand what she’s been saying, that we can’t be together, no matter how much we want it.”

“And Marina?” I said. He sighed and frowned.

“Marina knows, and understands, somehow, I think, she always will,” he said. “I don’t like him sniffing around her though.” I threw my head back and laughed.

“He’s a flirt, I’m sure she can handle it.” I said. He snorted. “It really is a shame I met Aaron first, because I think the Lieutenant and I could have had a great deal of fun together.”

“Oh Cornan,” he gagged. “I don’t need to know that.” I giggled as we headed back to the palace. Martin was waiting for us with his arms cross. “Morning General.”

“You,” he pointed at me, “Upstairs,” and his eyes narrowed at Tristan, “you and I are going to have a conversation.” I swallowed. “Now, Athena.”

“Thomas we aren’t children,” Tristan said.

“I am aware of that,” he said, I looked between them. “Athena, I won’t ask again.” I swallowed and walked away it isn’t as though I won’t be able to hear them. “Quiet” is not the word for when Thomas and Tristan argue.

“And what, precisely, would you have me do instead?” I hear Tristan.

“That isn’t the point!” Thomas bellows back.

“No, to you the point is merely knowing you were right and Trey was wrong, but it’s my life,” Tristan roared back. I stopped running into Countess Olivia.

“Heavens,” she said, “what is that about?” I sighed.

“Tristan proposed to Lisette but now he’s going to go to Dorin and possibly marry a girl the Dumanis picked out,” I explained. Another yell and we both winced. “The General is, not pleased.”

“I’d gather not,” she said. “Lisette is taking the Prince riding?” I nodded. “I will talk to Thomas.” I frowned. It might calm him down.

“And selling yourself to some featherheaded debutante solves the problem, how, Tristan?” Thomas yelled. I winced, and it might not.

A Bargain

This second ball isn’t nearly as fun as last night, mostly because I’m spending it entertaining my cousins. Aaron basically abandoned me to glower at Prince Eric, who I’ve noticed has made Lisette laugh at least four times.

“Athena,” Alex said sitting next to me, I smiled at him softly, “I was hoping to speak to Tristan, I had an idea, about when he comes to Dorin.”

“I wouldn’t bring it up,” I said softly. He frowned. “He’s not, quite open to the idea yet.” He sighed.

“That complicates things then,” he muttered, “do you think he’ll come around.” I glanced out on the balcony and saw him and Marina.

“It’s possible,” I said, “I hope so.” He nodded. “You have someone in mind?”

“Carolina DuKarras,” he said. I cocked my head to the side. “I’m, or I was courting her sister before I came here. Caro doesn’t want to stay in the guild, you see.”

“Making Tristan a very suitable match,” I said, “his wife would be expected to join the guard.” Alex nodded. “I’ll mention it, soon.” He nodded. As the night wore on and Annalise made a plan to go riding with the Prince in the morning I realized that Tristan was gone, and so was Marina.

“I thought we could maybe,” Alex started, and I sighed.

“I’m sorry, Alex, I have to go,” I sighed. “Apologize to your mother and to Aunt Drea?” He nodded and I rushed out of the ballroom and then up to Annalise’s apartments. I knocked on Marina’s door and she answered it looking flustered, but, well, at least she was still dressed.

“Are you feeling well?” I said, giving her the easiest out I could. “You left so suddenly.”

“It’s been a trying day,” she squeaked, I let her in on the plan for tomorrow. She nodded quickly. I sighed and pushed the door open.

“Have a lovely evening, Tristan,” I said. He looked up at me from the bed. “You should go back to your room, before you do something you regret.” After what was easily the most honest and the worst conversation with Marina ever I marched back to my rooms where Tristan was waiting.

“That was a ridiculous display,” he said practically jumping off the couch.

“Excuse me?” I said.

“What I do, what Marina does, it’s none of your business,” he said. I glared at him.

“I told her,” I said, “since you left out the fact that you asked Annalise to marry you today.” He looked at her.

“You don’t understand,” he said. “You couldn’t.” I stared at him.

“That you’re treating Marina as a consolation prize,” I said, “or worse as revenge.”

“It isn’t like that,” he mumbled, “I care about Marina, I always have, just because you didn’t understand that and thought it was all a joke.” I looked at him. I tried to remember the years we’d all grown up together, and a few pictures did enter it. Tristan laughed when I teased about Marina’s crush, but he never dismissed her, even sought her out sometimes in the evening. He did carry that damn hanky she gave him, and wrote to her the whole time we were in Pantona. He’d avoided William, staying out of her way, but I’d assumed that was about Annalise.

“Oh, Tristan,” I sighed, “what are we going to do with you?” He sighed.

“Pack me off to Dorin to marry Alex’s leftovers?” He raised his eyebrows. “Charlotte told me.”

“First of all, Charlotte talks too much,” I said, “and second of all, as far as I know Alex was after the one they want for you’s sister, not the girl herself.”

“Ah,” he said, “still, it’s Dorin, and a year of doing everything Grandfather wants, and not being with you or Martin or,” he looked out the window and we both walked over to it. We heard Annalise laughing from the courtyard.

“Or Lisette,” I said softly, “or Marina.” He nodded. “But, Carolina DuKarras wants to leave the guild.” Tristan looked at me. “That’s why Charlotta and Alex thought of her for you.”

“I’ll think about it,” he said softly, I sighed. “I will, Thena, really, I promise, but you don’t actually want me to leave do you?”

“No,” I said, “of course not, but I want Trey and the aunts to stop bothering us,” he laughed, “and I want you to be happy.” He nodded. “And if you’ll be happy with Marina, I know she’d be happy with you.” He sighed and flopped down on the couch and then Aaron walked in.

“There you two are,” he grumbled, “I just spent forty minutes following Lissette and Prince Eric around the grounds because her bodyguards had mysteriously disappeared.” He was so flustered and angry we both burst out laughing. “It’s not funny, this isn’t my job I’m supposed to lecture her about how this whole thing will infuriate the Provenance leaders, you two are supposed to make sure she doesn’t get assisnated by foreign suitors.” Tristan laughed so hard he snorted.

“I’m sorry, my love,” I said as he collapsed between us, “but I think that if Prince Eric attempted to assassinate Lisette, she could very well handle it on her own.” He looked at me and then at Tristan.

“Tristan, it’s well after midnight, she’s probably expecting you,” he said.

“She can expect away,” Tristan said and stood up, “I’m going to bed, I have a lot to think about.” He squeezed my hand and smiled at me. “Good night.”

“Good night,” I said softly. He left and Aaron rolled over and looked at me.

“I barely saw you tonight,” he said softly.

“I know, I’m sorry, Tristan was being impossible,” I said. He nodded and kissed me.

“You’ll just have to make it up to me then,” he grinned and swept me off my feet.

The Foolish Ones

I walked into my rooms exhausted. I’d heard Marina had settled the Prince’s crew in the barracks, but I was even more surprised when I saw Tristan sitting on the couch with a dazed look on his face.

“What is it?” I asked and sat down with him. “If you’re going to brood the whole time Prince Eric is here I’ll stab you, I mean it.”

“I,” he swallowed, “I think I ruined everything,” he whispered. “We were so happy last night and, I just, it just popped out.” I stared at him.

“Oh, Tistan you didn’t,” I said. “What did she say?”

“What do you think?” He said, “Do you think if Lisette and I were engaged I’d been sitting here?” He stood up. “I knew she couldn’t, but well,” he sighed. “I love her, Athena, I can’t help it. I’ve tried not to,” I looked him, saw how desperate he was.

“I know that,” I said, “but Tristan, you can’t go on like this.” I looked down, “Maybe, there’s an answer, maybe you should,”

“If you say I should go to Dorin I’ll punch you,” he muttered. “I won’t do it. Mama would have hated it, and besides,” he looked down, “it’s not like I don’t have other options here, you’ve said it yourself.”

“Don’t do something you’ll regret,” I warned him. He looked at me. “Something else you’ll regret.”

“You don’t understand,” he said softly. “You never did.” I looked at him.

“Maybe not,” I said, “but there’ll be a special room in Amina’s court for you if you hurt her now.” He glared at me and left after that. Tristan and I don’t argue often, but when we do, it’s dangerous.

“You know, Athena,” Aaron said walking in, “I think that these Phanians might not be entirely trustworthy.” I looked at him and laughed in spite of myself. “I’m serious, showing up the day after the coronation, at dawn like that? And the other two,” I looked at him. “They’re both already panting after Marina.”

“My love,” I said, “you are welcome to a brother’s protective suspicions for Lisette, I’d never deny you,” he flopped on the couch next to me, “but don’t deny Marina some fun at being chased. She never really has been, I think it will be good for her.” He laughed. He kissed me. “Tristan asked Lisette to marry him?”

“Took him long enough,” he muttered, “and terrible timing, she said no?”

“Of course she said no,” I said, “You know she can’t, he knows all the reasons, he’s just throwing a fit.” Aaron sighed.

“Mm,” he said, “we’re leaving soon.” I nodded. “Martin is coming, and Mama is going to ask Duke Lestat.”

“I see,” I said softly.

“I want you to come,” he said rolling onto his side. “It could be months, Thena and I don’t want to be without you that long.”

“I love that you asked,” I said softly, “really, but with you and your mother and Martin gone, who will look after Lisette?” He smiled.

“Marina,” he said softly, “Tristan, Elodie, Harran, the Phanians,” he kissed me between each name.

“Incompetent, all of them,” I sighed. “So sad.” He laughed. “I don’t want to be without you either, Aaron, but I can’t go, not now.”

“I know,” he said, “but I wanted you to know I wanted you there. I’ll always want you there.” I kissed him.

“Ugh,” I sighed standing up. “Who’s idea was it to have five balls? And to invite my family to all of them?” He laughed.

“Lisette’s I think,” he said, “though your family, I blame you.” I laughed. “Are you on duty?”

“No,” I shook my head. “Aunt Andrea sent us all new gowns.” I smiled, “I think you’ll enjoy mine.”

“You Aunt Andrea is a mad genius,” he said with a grin. “Every woman in the guard in her gowns and next week half the court will buy from her.” I laughed. “Thena,” I looked back at him, “we didn’t talk about it.”

“There’s nothing to say, I’m not and I wasn’t,” I shrugged.

“Are you relieved, disappointed, what?” He asked. I looked at him.

“Both,” I admitted, “I want to have your children more than anything, but the timing is not ideal.” He smiled.

“I suppose not,” he said softly. “I’ll see you later.” I nodded. He walked over and kissed my forehead. “I’m disappointed too, for the record.” I smiled at him and hugged myself close.