Communion

I woke with a start again, for the third of fourth time this week. Aaron was already awake and staring at me. I swallowed and rolled over rather than look him in the eyes. We’re leaving soon and we’re both deeply in denial over it.

“I wish you would tell me,” he said softly. “Are they just nightmares, Thena?”

“No,” I said softly. “I don’t think they are.” He was absolutely silent. He can be eerie, when he’s like this. “But I don’t think they’re seeing Dreams either, I don’t know what they are.” I felt his arms circle around me.

“Are you Chosen?” He whispered. I swallowed. I don’t want to be Chosen. The Chosen never get to live happy lives. They never get to come back to these kinds of moments, these days.

If I’m chosen I won’t come back to Pantona with Aaron and have his children, or well, anything.

“I don’t know,” I whimpered, “we thought, when I was little, maybe, but the signs stopped. They’ve only just come back.” I rolled over, and looked at him, ready to see the pity on his face, but there was only a gentle smile.

“It’s alright,” he said softly. I smiled and kissed him gently. “We don’t have to talk about it.” I nodded. “I’m interested in what the ride will be like. I can’t imagine my mother make camp.” I laughed at that.

“Countess Olivia is an excellent camper, Aaron,” I said. He smiled and kissed me again. “I love you.”

“I love you,” he said softly. I smiled and popped out of bed. “You don’t have to train this morning, you know?”

“I do though,” I said and kissed him again, getting dressed, I rushed out to the field, with my spear over my shoulder. I saw Lisette, dressed for travel. My heart caught in my chest. “Well then,” I walked over to her. “It’s today then?”

“Yes,” she said, “I don’t think we can put it off much more.” I hugged her tightly. “I’m excited, is that wrong?”

“No,” I said, “battle is exciting. It’s frightening too, and sad, but it is exciting.” She smiled. “You’ll do fine,” I explained. She smiled at me. “I suppose I’ll start packing.”

“Would you tell Aaron?” She asked. I frowned. I knew they were disagreeing about this. “He won’t be angry at you.”

“I won’t do this with every hard conversation,” I pointed to her with my spear. She giggled. “What does Tristan say?”

“Very little,” she said. “I think he’s nervous though.” I nodded. Tristan had a good deal to be nervous about. He would, at least in part, lose her in Dovetail. Our little Lisette wouldn’t be anymore. Not to mention even if she chose him, she’d have to at least entertain suitors, and I don’t see Tristan being particularly enthusiastic about sharing. “I want you at my side the whole time, Athena.”

“It would take quite a bit to make me leave you.” I said softly. She took my hands and squeezed them. She was going to do very well. She has a quality that makes you want to follow her, and she’ll need it.

The people at camp and in Dovetail are expecting a savior, I don’t know that the Goddess herself will fully satisfying them, but I think that Lisette might be able to unite them. She smiled again and then walked back inside. I swallowed and did something I hadn’t done since my father was buried.

I sat quietly on the ground and filled my fists with dirt. I took a second breath.

“Please, Cornan, Sir,” I whispered, “I am just a soldier, yours to command.”

“I have no command for you yet,” a male voice boomed in my mind, “when it is time, I will not make myself scarce.” I swallowed. “Continue to wield my sister’s Sword for now.”

“Yes sir,” I whispered. “As you speak to me now, is this,” the lump in my throat didn’t allow me to finish. A warm chuckle filled my mind.

“Yes, Athena, this is your home soil,” he said warmly. “Do not allow the blood of your mother’s side to pull you from this. You can claim Pantona.” I smiled and released my fist and then I collapsed.

The communing had taken more out of me than I expected. But I was also relieved. I came to in my room and Tristan was standing over me scowling.

“I don’t suppose you’re going to explain yourself?” He said. I frowned at him. “No of course not.”

“I passed out, I’m fine,” I said. He scoffed. “I spoke to the god.” He looked at me wide eyed. “Don’t say anything Tristan, I’m begging you, I still don’t know what it means.”

“Well, fine,” he said, “but you have to tell Martin as soon as we see him.” I nodded. “Does Aaron,”

“He knows I’ve been having odd dreams, but nothing else.” I explained. He sighed.

“Does he know about when we were little?” Tristan asked. “About the fire and the rage?”

“He knows I’ve had the dreams before,” I said. “I’ll tell him, don’t rush me!” He laughed at that.

“Alright,” he said, “I give, but seriously, I won’t keep this secret forever.” I nodded.

The Letter

The Count is back, and they invited William to dinner to celebrate. He’s been making some very pointed remarks about the family to Tristan, which I realize is almost entirely about Lisette, but it even stings me a little, and I’m nowhere near as sensitive as he is.

He doesn’t stay, which is a blessing because then the Count can give me the letter.

Athena,

First of all, stop worrying, I am being well taken care of. Second of all, I did not rush in alone, I was backed up by the Count, Duke Lestat and your Elodie. 

Do you see how well I know you, my love?

I’ve gotten each of your reports from Pantona and I’m glad it’s gone well. I know you are probably angry at me for keeping Annalise from you. I wanted to keep you safe. And her. Your Aunt Andrea wrote again about you going there with them this winter. You cannot keep putting it off, you must decide if it’s a clear yes or no. 

The shadow injury is interesting, it’s drained my energy far more than it harmed my body, but I’ll be back to myself by the time I see you.

Your Affectionate Papa

I looked over at the Count.

“He’s alright, though?” I squeaked. He nodded.

“Lady Marina has been caring for him.” He explained.

“That does not inspire confidence,” I mumbled, “I should answer him.” I got up and left going to the courtyard and started crying in relief. He was safe, but he’d been attacked by a shadow, and the old fool calls it interesting. 

“Are you alright?” Aaron said softly and walked over. I nodded. “Athena, I’ve told you, if it’s easier for you, we can leave this.” I took his hands. “Are you in love with him?”

“What?” I laughed. He frowned. “With General Martin, you mean? No, he’s like a father to me, he’s my family. Like your father and Lisette.” He exhaled. “Besides which, he’s only ever liked one woman, it’s usually men.” He smiled. “I don’t want to leave this.” I slid closer to him. “I want this forever.” He nodded. “He’s a fool though, and reckless and it will get him killed and it will break my heart.” He touched my face. “Your friend Kathy spoke to me today,” I said. He sighed.

“Yes,” he muttered, “William said she went to him too.” I looked at him.

“What did you say to her?” I asked. “Before. What had you promised her?” He frowned.

“It doesn’t speak well of me,” he admitted. “I wanted her, and I did imply a more permanent arrangement.” I shook my head.

“Scoundrel,” I said.

“And I suppose that merchant boy didn’t think he’d have a shot at being Carland Dumanis’s in-law?” He teased. “A farmers daughter is more likely to be my mistress than you leaving the guard to run a fine townhouse in Dorin.” I wrinkled my nose.

“That’s absurd,” I said. “Carlton can’t afford his own house, and he’s under my uncle in Dovetail, not Dorin.” He laughed and we kissed again. “It’s different, and you know it.”

“It is,” he sighed softly. “I’m not proud of myself.” I nodded.

“She said something,” I whispered, “that the only girl you cared about was Lisette.” He sighed.

“I suppose that was true,” he said softly, “but it isn’t now. I care about you.” I smiled.

“It struck me because for so long I only cared about Tristan,” I said, “and Martin I suppose, but now there’s you, and Lisette, and your mother.” He sighed.

“This will all be over soon,” he said, “and I don’t want it to be. Maybe it’s selfish, but I like it here, where we can be together.” I smiled and kissed him.

“We can be together there too,” I said. “I’m going to bed. Do you want to come?”

“I have to talk with my father,” he sighed. “Sleep tight, beloved.” I kissed him and stood up and went to bed.

I dreamed of the camp, of Lady Marina sitting by Martin’s bedside reading out loud to him. I felt calm and soothed. As if someone, or something was assuring me he would be alright.

Spy

I woke up to Aaron sliding into my bed. I wrapped my arms around his neck and kissed him softly.

“I didn’t mean to wake you,” he said.

“It’s alright,” I said softly. “What did your father have to say?” He sighed and sat up and handed me the note.

Aaron,

Whatever she says, no arguments.

I sighed, it wasn’t kind or caring. It was an order. But at least it was something. It wasn’t like Martin to be out of touch this long.

“He’s wrong on this,” he muttered, “she’s not ready. She’s confused and,” I laughed.

“You’re being over protective,” I chided, “she’s ready. I would know. I’d make her an officer if she were one of my recruits.” He smiled and I snuggled into his chest.

“There’s more to it than joining the army, Thena,” he said. I smiled.

“Not yet there isn’t,” I said. “We have to win before anything else.” I kissed him softly. “But you saw the note, Aaron, no arguments.” He laughed.

“He meant with him, love,” he said, rolling me onto my back, “not with you.” I grinned and we kissed again. “He told my mother that he’d be back soon.” I nodded.

“Won’t you be glad to see him?” I asked. He frowned and picked at the sheets. “Aaron,” I whispered.

“When he’s here, I feel,” he sighed, “out of place. Like I don’t quite count,” I ran my hands through his hair. “It’s not that I don’t love my father, just,” he sighed, “there’s nothing for me when he’s here.” I pressed my forehead to his.

“There’s me, now,” I said. He smiled gently.

“Yes there is,” he smiled. “And thank the gods for that.” We made love again. This time softer. He’s sweet, like this, gentle. I didn’t expect it. I also didn’t expect to like it. With Warren everything was rushed and I wasn’t much of a consideration. With Carlton, it was hard edged, urgent and fiery. “Would you stay?” I smiled. “If I asked, if we,” I said, “could you be here?”

“Are you proposing?” I asked. He shrugged.

“Not quite,” he said, “I’m proposing to propose. If it’s not what you want, I won’t bring it up again, and we can just, have what we have, for as long as we have it.” I looked at him.

“It is what I want,” I said softly. “But there’s a lot of work to do.” He nodded. “And I want to live here, someday. I’ve been happier here than I’ve been anywhere.” He smiled.

“We have a house in Dovetail too,” he said excitedly, “although, I suppose you’ll need to be in the Palace.” I laughed and kissed him gently. “I’ll ask properly. Do I need to write to your grandfather? I know the guilds have ways of doing this,” I smiled and stretched.

“No,” I said, “Tristan’s permission will be more than sufficient for the family.”

“Will he give it?” Aaron said. I laughed.

“I think so,” I said and kissed him. “He likes you.” We drifted off to sleep. I woke up before him in the morning and got dressed and decided to go to the inn where Wilcott was. I needed an answer to something that was bothering me. Annalise trusted that innkeeper, I was pretty sure I could too. I walked down into the village.

The girl who Aaron had been arguing with saw me from a cart and walked over. I sighed.

“I don’t suppose there’s anything I can say that would please you,” I frowned.

“When you leave and go back to Dovetail or is it Dorin?” She said. “Do you think you’ll hold on to him?” I swallowed. “He gets distracted you know, and Lady Lisette is really the only girl he cares about.”

“You don’t know me,” I said simply, “I’m sorry that you got hurt. But you don’t know me.” She stepped back. “If you’ll excuse me.” I walked towards the inn, agitated, and then inside.

“Lady Athena,” William smiled. I nodded. “Can I help you with something?”

“This may sound silly,” I said, “there was a messenger, last night.” He nodded. “He mentioned he was going to another inn, and”

“If there’s something you need,” he said, “I can do my best to get it.” I looked down.

“It’s silly, I thought I’d hear from someone,” I said. He nodded.

“They were messages from the Count?” He said. I nodded. “If something serious had happened to, this person,” I smiled, “I’m sure he’d have told you.”

“You know more than you let on,” I said. He nodded.

“It helps me to be of use,” he explained, “my uncle sent me here for a reason.” I nodded. “Again, Lady Athena, if there’s something you need.”

“No,” I smiled. “Thank you.” I wandered back outside and found a spot to sit.

Beloved

After dinner, Aaron suggested a walk, which surprised me, but I smiled and nodded. It felt silly, we’d decided to go to bed, but I liked the slowness of it, the quiet, and just being with Aaron.

We walked down to the lake and sat down. I kissed him gently.

“If when we leave,” he whispered as I slid against his chest, “you change your mind, or things change between us, I just want you to know, I’ll never regret loving you.”

“Mm,” I cooed and we kissed again. “I love you too,” we kissed harder then and slid softly into the grass. I could see the stars above me as Aaron straddled me and slid my arms over my head.

“You’re sure?” He asked.

“Yes,” I nodded, “You?”

“Oh, absolutely,” he grinned and kissed me again.

I was giddy with the kisses when I slipped his vest off, and then his shirt. He grinned and undid the front laces of my bodice. He was very adept at this, which was refreshing. So few boys, no matter how experienced they thought were, actually knew what they were doing. We undressed each other as smoothly as we could and I whimpered as his fingers found their way inside me.

“Aaron,” I said softly.

“You’re beautiful,” he muttered and kissed down my body. I reclined happily as he kissed between my thighs. I gasped with pleasure and arched up into him.

“Oh gods,” I sighed happily as I finished. He smiled crawling back up onto me.

“More?” He asked and we kissed deeply. I nodded and he pressed into me. I lost track of time as we made love, lost in the pleasure of him inside of me.

He said he would never regret me, the idea that I resisted loving him. I couldn’t regret him either. We finished and he rolled off of me and we lay, content, looking at the stars. Something soft, and true passed between us as he took my hand.

“I think we did well enough,” he grinned and rolled onto his side. I shook my head.

“Always so arrogant,” I sighed and sat up, finding my shift to pull over my head.

“In such a rush, m’lady?” He teased sitting up and nipping at my neck, I giggled, “I should have known you’d abandon me once you had your way.” I laughed and kissed him.

“I expect a repeat performance in my bed once we return,” I said gently. He smiled.

“I live to serve,” he whispered and went for his pants. We dressed as quickly as we could between kisses and casual touches. He pushed my hair off my face and I smiled. “Are you alright?”

“Yes,” I said, “I love you, I just, trusting you, trusting anyone, I need to move slowly.”

“I understand,” he smiled. “But I’m glad you’re letting me in.” I smiled as we walked towards the manor and then saw a man on a horse galloping up. He was dressed in a green tunic and a black leggings. Aaron frowned and went for the dagger at his belt.

“No,” I said softly, blocking his arm, “he’s resistance.”

“You’re sure?” Aaron said. I nodded and walked up.

“Wilcott,” I said jogging up.

“Captain,” he grinned and dismounted. His eyes glances up and down me and I crossed my arms. I must have been showing my bliss, but I wouldn’t blink. He saw Aaron following after me. “Your Grace, messages, from your father. For you, your mother and the ward.” Aaron nodded and took them.

“Come in and eat something, please,” Aaron said.

“That’s alright,” Wilcott said, “it might bring too much attention. I have a room at an inn down the road a few hours.”

“Thank you, Wilcott,” I smiled. “There isn’t anything for me?” My breath was caught. He looked down.

“I’m sorry, no,” he muttered. I nodded. Something was very wrong. He remounted. “We’ll see you soon, I hope.”

“If the wind is good,” I nodded. An old written code from the resistance. He rode off. Aaron looked at me.

“I need to read this,” he sighed, “and my mother, and Lisette,” I nodded. “I’m sorry, I know,” I smiled and kissed him.

“This will always be our life,” I smiled. He laughed. I walked inside and up to my room and flopped onto the bed.

Why hadn’t Martin written me back? Something must be wrong.

Champion

After talking with Aaron I felt more at peace but I thought of the blast of light I’d shot at Carlton. Combined with the memories of those strange dreams, I couldn’t shake that the world was shifting under my feet.

And there were dreams again. They weren’t seeing Dreams, I don’t think. They were just oddly specific, times and places I couldn’t know. Martin holding a great sword I’d never seen before a charging army of shadows, and then kneeling before a boy with eyes like Annalise’s. A woman on a pure white horse, charging bareback towards the sea, with an army at her back, a golden crown on her head.

Soon, Athena, a voice echoed in my mind, You will be tested, you will be my champion.

But my days had gotten better, smoother. I’d fallen into the rhythm of life at Pantona. Up early, train with Lisette and Tristan, and sometimes Aaron. Breakfast the four of us. Write a report to send off to the resistance and Martin. Ride and inspect the farms and village with Aaron.

Kiss Aaron.

Laugh with Aaron.

Be held by and hold Aaron.

Dinner.

Sleep.

Terrifying and odd dreams.

Repeat.

There was of course that day, when I was dressing for dinner and there was a knock on the door.

“Come in,” I said, expecting Lisette, or maybe one of the servants, but instead a baffled and rumpled Tristan walked in. “Hello there,” I said. He nodded and sat down. “Are you alright, you look like you got whacked in the head.”

“I,” his throat scratched, “I think I made a mistake.” I raised my eyebrows.

“Alright,” I said, “of what nature?” He frowned and stood up and kicked the wall.

“Damnit,” he said, “with Lisette, I told her, and well, she said it first, and then we,” I sighed, understanding immediately.

“Well, I don’t understand how that’s a mistake, Tristan,” I grinned, “I’m happy for you.”  He glared at me.

“What about the family? Our duty?” He said.

“What about them?” I shrugged. “It has nothing to do with them. You love her, she loves you. Enjoy yourself for once in your life, darling brother.”

“Grandfather will want to use her,” he muttered, “like he does everybody.” I nodded. “I can’t make that easier for him.”

“Then don’t,” I said, “being close to her means we can make it easier for him or harder for him.” He nodded. “Didn’t we already discuss this? He’ll try regardless, it’s who he is. He’ll despair a good match for either of us at this point.” He looked at me.

“You’re still in play,” he said, “unless Aaron’s been much more straightforward than I realized.” I frowned. He hadn’t been. We were being so careful, taking our time. Marriage had never come up.

“I do love her,” he said, “I didn’t expect it, I just want to be around her all the time.” I laughed.

“I’ve noticed,” I said. He smiled. “I have to tell you something, it’s odd, but,” he sat down. “I’ve been having those dreams again,” he sighed. “I wrote about them to Martin but he hasn’t answered and now The Mastero left.”

“You should tell Lisette,” he said, “maybe, I don’t know, Athena, there’s something about her, it’s not just the magic.” I nodded.

“Well, yes, you lost your virginity to her, so I would imagine there’s something,” I stuck out my tongue. He snorted and pick up a pillow and tossed it at me.

“I’m never telling you anything ever again,” he sighed. “See you at dinner,” he stood up and walked out. I smiled and bit my bottom lip. I was thrilled for him. I’d never seen him so happy, but he was still Tristan, he’d find the most miserable way to be happy.

I walked downstairs and saw Aaron waiting in the hall. I suddenly realized it was time to take my own advice. I took his hands and kissed him gently, but long and deep

“That’s quite a hello,” he smiled. I giggled. “Everything alright?”

“After dinner tonight,” I said, “do you want to,” he exhaled.

“You do not have to ask me twice, Thena,” he mumbled and pulled me close. I smiled.

The Sun Came Up

The wagon where Carlton was staying was a bit of a step down from the large fluffy bed at Uncle Trey’s but we managed. More than managed, actually. I found myself lost in him.

After we finished I lounged happily, while Carlton made soft circles with his thumb against my arms.

“I missed you,” he said, “gods, Dorin was dull.” I smiled coyly at him.

“Does your intended not please you?” I teased, he groaned.

“She’s very beautiful,” he admitted, “but I think even after we’re married if I attempted what we just did, she’ll explode from scandal. Very prim.” I nodded, but he was smiling. He kissed me again and pulled me into a straddle. “Lotte says we’ll move on in a few days, but I want as much of you as I can get in that time.”

“Carlton,” I whimpered, as his hands slid to my thighs and then in between, “I really have to go, though.” He laughed.

“Come on, Athena,” he said, “I’ve been starved,” he nibbled gently on my neck.

“It isn’t like Dovetail,” I explained and tried to pull away, “they’ll actually miss me if I don’t get back.” But he held me, tighter. “Carlton, I’m serious,” he laughed.

“Darling, so am I,” he grunted. I pushed him back, a burst of strength, which lit up the cart. “What in the hell?” He mumbled.

“Don’t,” I said as he came closer. I didn’t know what the light was, but I was grateful for it. I pulled my underdress over my head and grabbed my dress and stumbled out.

“Athena, I’m sorry, I thought we were playing,” Carlton said. I turned and glared at him. And then my eyes grew wide, Aaron was standing behind him.

“I was worried,” Aaron said simply, “You don’t know the area,” my eyes filled with tears. He would hate me now, I’m sure of it. “Is something wrong, Sir?” Carlton looked at him.

“None of your business,” he said gruffly. Aaron smirked.

“No?” He said, “Lady Athena is my guest, this is my land, I’d say it’s at least partially my business,” Carlton’s eyes grew wide. “But you’re quite right, we don’t want to make a scene. I doubt Mistress Dufrey would appreciate her cousin’s distress, or me asking her to move along earlier than planned.”

“I’m sorry, Lady Athena,” Carlton said shortly and stalked off. Aaron looked at me and I swallowed.

“I know what you must be thinking,” I said, “but he didn’t, I wanted to,” I swallowed, “he’s an old friend.”

“If you say so,” he shrugged casually, “besides, it isn’t as though I’m not aware you can take of yourself.” He slid his jacket off and put it around my shoulders. I smiled at the gesture and we began walking. It was silent and the sun had started to come up. “Are you alright?” I nodded and he kissed my forehead.

“Yes,” I whispered, “you must hate me.” He shook his head. “Or think that I’m,” I sighed.

“I don’t judge you,” he said, “gods Athena, how could you think that?” I stared at him. “You seemed upset, is all. I’m not exactly a white knight, but when someone you care about is running from a large man half dressed, there’s a certain instinct.” I laughed and wiped my eyes.

“It’s silly,” I said, “I went to see him, we were together, kind of, in Dovetail. I didn’t want to,” I sighed, “you were talking about our lives changing.” I looked at him. “I don’t want,” I swallowed, “I want to let you in Aaron, I’m just, I think there’s something wrong with me.” I buried my face in his chest.

“There is nothing wrong with you,” he said softly. “You have every right to be careful with me. I should have been more careful with you.” I whimpered. “I’m serious, no matter what happens between us, we can’t just part ways. We have to work together, see each other almost every day,” he slid his hand through my hair, “but I couldn’t help myself.” I smiled at him.

“That was always perfectly obvious,” I said. He smiled and kissed me gently.

“I’m falling so very in love with you,” he said.

“Me too,” I said softly, I rested my head on his shoulder and then he leaned his head against mine.

The sun came up.

Kathy

That night after dinner we were, as usual sitting in the parlor. Tristan had excused himself to go to bed early, which seemed odd, especially since Annalise was holding a small bouquet of violets and smelling them occasionally, while dreamily staring out a window.

“Your Grace,” a footman walked in, and Aaron looked up from his book, “I apologize, there’s, well, someone wants to see you.” Aaron frowned.

“Of course,” he whispered, “thank you,” he stood up. I looked oddly at him. “Could we talk, later?”

“I,” I looked up at him, “I suppose so.” He lit up at that and leaned down and kissed me on the cheek. I closed my eyes and made a decision then. I would go see Carlton and I would tell him that I couldn’t see him again.

It wasn’t as though we were serious, and he’s getting married.

Not that I think Aaron will necessarily be serious about me. I’m sure he has other plans. The boy is made out of plans.

“I’m going to go for a walk,” I announced.

“Hm,” Lisette looked over at me. I laughed and shook my head. “Oh, all right.” I laughed and sat down with her.

“Unless you want to talk,” I asked. She looked at me.

“No,” she said, “Why would I need to talk?”

“Because my brother gave you flowers and you’re clearly, well, ” I raised my eyebrows.

“Don’t be silly,” she said, “I’m going to go to bed.” She marched away. I laughed and walked out front. I stopped when I saw Aaron with the same girl from this morning, a few steps onto the lawn.

He was holding her hands.

“Kathy, I thought we’d settled this,” he said, tenderly, almost. The tone stopped me in my tracks.

“You did, but, well, I wanted to see you and,” she said, “I thought,” she looked down, “I thought there was something between us.”

“There was, Kathy,” he said, “there is, but it’s complicated.” I stepped out then. He looked at me and exhaled.

“Oh,” the girl said softly, “oh I see. I’m sorry to have bothered you then, Your Grace. M’Lady,” she curtsied, “you’re welcome to him,” she slapped him and then stormed off. I stared at him. I didn’t know whether I was angry or hurt or some horrible combination of both, but I couldn’t speak.

“Athena,” he said, “I didn’t think she’d come here, that’s what I wanted to,” I shook my head.

“No, it’s alright,” I said, my voice shaking, “who, who is she?”

“Kathy Sampson,” he sighed, “we were, I mean, before you came,” I nodded. “Athena, it’s over, I swear it, when I realized,” I frowned.

“When you realized what?” I said. “When you realized you could get me into bed?” He sighed.

“No,” he said, “when I realized my life was going to change, and that includes you.” I looked at him.

“Will your life change?” I said. He frowned. “You still belong here, Aaron, I don’t.” He stepped closed and slid his hands around my face.

“You could,” he said, “or I could belong in Dovetail.” I looked up at him. “Or we could belong in both.”

“And what did you tell her?” I asked. “I assume she’s from the village?” He looked away.

“I don’t want to talk about Kathy,” he sighed. “I thought,” I frowned. “I didn’t know she was in love with me Thena,” he sighed, “I thought we were just, I don’t know, playing around.”

“And this,” I whispered, gods those blue eyes, holding onto mine, I swallowed. “Are we just playing around?” The endearment, shortening my name, the softness of it. How many times had he played this scene?

“No,” he said, “no, this is, something else.” I swallowed. I don’t know when I’d started crying.

“I’m sorry, I can’t,” I whispered and ran away.  I made my way to the train, which was alive in a way I hadn’t seen since I was a child.

I was used to my cousins in Dovetail now, not to traveling life. But there were the sounds of music and dancing and children laughing. I found my way through it. The familiar faces nodded and bowed lightly to me.

“You made it!” Carlton found me. I nodded, and he took my waist and kissed me. “I was getting worried.” I laughed.

“It’s awfully, crowded,” I whispered right in his ear. He grinned, and took my hand.

“I can fix that,” he led me to a small wagon and we climbed inside.

A Complication

I woke up early in the morning, now that I’m rested and comfortable here, I’m back to my old ways of being up before dawn. I headed to the kitchen to grab something quickly for breakfast and was surprised to see Aaron and the back door, talking to a pretty girl with curly auburn hair.

She was holding a basket and her eyes looked wide.

“I’m sorry, Kathy, I thought,” he said,

“I know what you thought,” then she saw me and I jumped backwards, “Never mind.”

“Kathy,” he started and then saw me, I pressed my lips into my mouth.

“I didn’t mean to interrupt,” I said, “A friend?” I tried. He frowned.

“This is not my finest moment, and after last night, it is not how I was hoping you would find me,” he admitted. “Kathy is from the village,” he explained, “we were, that is,” there’s some fun in watching him squirm, “it’s over now, regardless, it’s been over.”

“Understood,” I grabbed a roll, “I was going to train and then go for a ride, if you wanted to,” he scratched the back of his neck.

“It’s market day,” he explained, I nodded. “I have to go over the account lists with the cooks,” I grinned. “What?”

“You take it seriously,” I explained, “running this place?”

“Someone has to,” he shrugged, “my parents are busy saving the world. But when its saved, I’d like Pantona to be a part of it.” I ripped a piece of the roll off. “After your training and your ride, I’d like to have lunch with you.”

“I’d like that too,” I said and kissed him softly. I managed to clear my mind training, I went to get Rosethorn saddled when I saw Annalise and Tristan walking back, she was carrying a small bouquet.

I made a note to tease Tristan later, but Annalise went back to the house and Tristan walked right up to me.

“So are you officially courting her now?” I grinned. “Flowers and everything.” He sighed.

“Dumanis train showed up today,” he grunted. I sighed.

“Really?” I said. “Uncle Trey or Aunt Brie? Aunt Andrea is in Dovetail this time of year.”

“Just Lotte and Xander,” he muttered. “I think Lotte knows.”

“Well, Lotte’s not an idiot and if she saw her,” I shrugged. “She won’t tell.” He nodded. “I’ll go see them in a bit. Is that all?” He shifted his feet.

“It’s wrong, you know,” he said, “I should stop it.” I looked at him and shook my head, “suppose, I mean, it isn’t safe, is it?”

“She likes you too,” I said. “I think it’s good for you. And how would it be dangerous?”

“If Grandfather thinks he has an in with the crown,” he drifted off, and I grimaced. That was concerning. Our Grandfather is not a good man, he’s brutal about his control over the merchant guilds. If anyone attempts to undermine that control, his vengeance is quick and usually bloody.

“Tristan, I can assure you,” I said softly, “Grandfather is going to attempt to leverage us to get to her regardless of if you’re sleeping with her or not.” I mounted Rosethorn and galloped toward the village. Our cousin Alexander, was smirking already waiting for me.

“My Lady,” he swept into a bow.

“Master DuFrey,” I muttered with a dip. “A letter would have been nice.”

“We didn’t know you were here until Lotte spotted Tristan,” he pointed out. I rolled my eyes. “Uncle Trey didn’t say a thing.”

“I doubt Uncle Trey knows,” I sighed, “we didn’t until right before we left.”

“Hm,” he nodded. “Come on, I’ll take you to Lotte.” I nodded and we walked through the wagons.

“Hello Cousin,” Charlotte DuFrey smiled at me. She’s fourteen years older than us, and never married, rare for a merchant woman of her standing, but she was never willing to marry down in the clans, and since she’s the granddaughter of Carland Dumanis, that meant it was the nobility or nothing.

“Hi Lotte,” I smiled at her, “I can’t stay long, I’m supposed to have lunch with,” I stopped as a wagon door opened and Carlton stepped out. “Oh,” I said. Charlotte winked at me and walked away.

“Lady Athena,” he said, “I,” I smiled.

“Why aren’t you in Dorin?” I asked.

“I was,” he admitted, “for a week, and then, well, my future inlaws,” he shrugged, “they’re holdings are mostly in Brightcoast, so,”

“A week,” I said, “you make quick work.” He stepped closer to me.

“But you knew that,” he slid his hands onto my waist. “Come see me tonight?” I swallowed.

“If I can get away,” I nodded. “I have to go.” I slipped away from him and padded back up to the manor. This was certainly a mess.

 

Anessa

It’s after dinner, which, I’ve learned is the best time to talk to Annalise. It’s about the only time she’s not trying to move. 

We’re working on embroidery, which neither of us excel at, but it’s bonding.

“So, tomorrow is market day,” Lisette says and looks at me. I nodded. “I have to go to market, I mean, I don’t have to, but I usually do, it’s the sort of thing that,”

“That the orphan ward of a Count would do,” I said. She nodded. “I don’t have a problem with it.” She glanced at Tristan. “He won’t either, just go while he’s running.” She laughed.

“Is there anything you want?” She asked. I raised my eyebrows. “To eat in the next week or so.”

“Oh, um, I like rabbit?” I tried. She cocked her head. “It’s silly, but when we were little we were at Resistance camp a lot, and my mother would make,” she placed her hand on mine.

“Of course,” she smiled. “There’ll most certainly be some. Hunting rabbit and selling it to the butcher is how most of the farm children make their pocket money.” I laughed.

“I have more exotic tastes you know,” I said, she giggled.

“Well, I don’t,” she grumbled, “whenever your cousins pass through Olivia tries to introduce me to something new and it is never as good as well prepared mutton with mashed potatoes.”

“Yes, but the difference is The Countess gives you a chance to say you don’t like it,” I giggled to her, “my cousins and my especially my uncle have no interest in hearing it.” she laughed.

“I’m having tea with the innkeeper in town too, William Santino,” she explained.

“I met William,” I said. “He took care of my horse when we first got here.” She nodded. Hearing the name I saw The Viscount move his focus from his conversation with his mother to us.

“OK,” she smiled, “you could come.”  I raised my eyebrows. “I’m serious, I would love to show you the village.”

“I don’t think so,” I sighed, “I have to,” I didn’t have an excuse, “I think I just need a little time to myself,” She nodded and we both went back to our terrible embroidery. I don’t know how much time passed.

“Do you hate having to be a lady?” She asked. I looked at her.

“I’m sorry?” I asked.

“I mean, things like this,” she explained pointing to her sampler. “Or having to be pretty.” I grinned.

“This is Cammadan,” I said softly. “Anessa lay down a tradition, you’re her namesake, you must her story.” She nodded.

“I know she was the only queen to reign alone,” Lisette said and bit her thumb nail. “She had no biological heirs but left the kingdom to her wife Eliza’s children with her first husband’s children.”

I looked at Tristan. I realized to a girl like Lisette, to whom a throne felt equally like a trap and promise, Anessa’s story might be an escape at least in one part.

Anessa found heirs without giving birth to them. If Queen Annalise chose a consort who’s blood was unsuitable, she could choose other heirs.

“She was also a warrior,” I explained, “who was blessed by the gods with beauty and grace. Warrior women of Cammadan never shied from being feminine. They fought in gowns, they remained groomed, they took lovers, men and women openly,” she smiled. “Other kingdoms pushed their women to the side, or forced them to become more like men, but no, we are Cammadie, we are daughters of Anessa, we are women, and we rule and we are strong and we love and we fight.” Her eyes filled with tears and she hugged me tightly.

“Olivia told me that I used to scream for you,” she whispered. I swallowed. “‘Where is my Thena! She sleeps with me!’ I don’t remember but I can believe it.” I touched her face.

“We shared a cradle,” I explained, “we were supposed to grow up together, I was never meant to leave your side.” She nodded. “I’m close to useless on this myself,” I admitted, “but it’s something to do,” she giggled. She looked up at Tristan, who’s been writing to that twit Marina Sanpierre. When he admitted it I was surprised, it caused a bit of a tiff which ended in me marching away from Aaron.

I wish I could pin him down.

I had a talk with Lisette about it, and she didn’t defend him, but she does seem to find it all amusing. She’s preoccupied though, because my idiot brother. I stepped out of her room and saw Aaron with a candle heading to bed.

“Is she alright?” He asked. I looked at him and nodded. “I’m sorry, that you find my manner so irritating. I’ll try to keep it in check.”

“I’m sorry,” I said, “I misjudged you and I don’t like being wrong.” He smiled. “Lisette is fine. I just wanted to take a look at the knives.” He laughed.

“I see,” he said, “here I thought you were looking for an excuse.” I shook my head but took a step closer.

“And if I was,” I whispered, softly. I could play this game. I was good at this game. He put the candle down and slid his hands onto my waist. Mine moved around his neck.

“It would be a good one,” he said, “and I’d be glad, I won’t deny it.” I nodded and kissed him softly. He pulled me close and then back to the door. I exhaled when we parted. It was a very good kiss. “Gods, Athena,” he murmured.

“Lisette says you usually move on quickly,” I said, “shall we try this again in a week?”

“If that’s what you want,” he said. “I don’t see the reason to wait.” I smiled and walked away to my room. I lay half asleep with my hands under the covers and between my legs.

When it came down to it, I wasn’t sure I wanted to wait either.

Dedication

I was frustrated that The Viscount wanted to ride out with me. I don’t hate him anymore, now it’s more like a low humming annoyance. He’s still to flippant, and casual about Lisette, about the next step.

And I don’t like the way he flirts with me. But it’s his land and I couldn’t very well say he couldn’t come on this ride with me. We were rushing through the woods, when he stopped, I did too after a bit and tracked back to him.

“What’s wrong?” I asked.

“We shouldn’t go further,” he said and dismounted. I looked at him.

“Why?” I asked softly. “Are you going to tell me the woods are haunted, Viscount? That the tortured bride of one of your ancestors walks the woods?” He shook his head.

“Nothing that specific,” he said, “but we’re nearing where Brayton burned out the woods to find the King and Queen,” he looked down, “feels disrespectful, and Lisette says it’s haunted.”

“Do you believe her?” I asked.

“I’m not sure I believe in ghosts,” he admitted. “But like I said, it feels disrespectful.” I nodded. “You seem surprised.”

“No,” I swallowed. “No, why would I be surprised?” He laughed.

“Because you don’t like me,” he said. “And I can’t figure out why, have I been a bad host?”

“You’ve been an excellent host,” I said, “which is the problem. You don’t take it seriously, you make jokes and tease her, and,” he nodded. “The resistance is my whole life, your grace,” I explained, “and you’ve made it very clear you think that’s foolish.” He started laughing then, not mocking, just laughing. “I don’t see what’s funny.”

“The resistance is your whole life,” he said. I nodded. “And you think it isn’t mine?”

“Obviously it isn’t,” I said, “you want to stay here where it’s safe and comfortable.” He nodded.

“When I was about eight, so Lisette would have been six,” he said softly, “and my parents were away, in Dovetail or maybe with The Resistance, I don’t know,” he inhaled. “But it was the first time she had a Dream, at least when my mother wasn’t there.” I looked at him. “Have you ever been around a seer when they’re Dreaming, Lady Athena? It isn’t pretty. They sweat and thrash and scream bloody murder, and when the seer is a six year old girl who still has regular nightmares about her parents being murdered it’s all the worse.” I swallowed. “And none of the servants knew who she was, so there I was, eight years old, all she had, holding her, telling her it was alright, that she would be alright, that I would keep her safe.” I looked at him. “She knows who she is, what she has to do. She doesn’t need me to remind her. But I imagine it’s probably nice to have someone who treats her like a person.” His face had changed, the laugh that was usually in his eyes had been replaced by something steely, determined. “The resistance is your whole life, that’s wonderful, to have that kind of purpose. But Lisette is my life, she’s my family, and I won’t let her be used.”

“I didn’t know,” I said. He nodded.

“There are probably many things you don’t know, my lady,” he said. “I’d be happy to illuminate anything you wish.” I sighed and shook my head and remounted. “What now?”

“You couldn’t let it last could you?” I asked. He shrugged and we rode in silence back to the manor