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.

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 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.

The Dinner

We walked quickly down the market to get to Uncle Trey’s house, and I wasn’t sure why I was so nervous.

“If he brings up the dowry, you don’t have to say anything,” I said softly. Aaron looked at me oddly. “I mean, this isn’t the negotiation.”

“I’m sorry, what?” He said. I sighed. “The dowry? Like, your dowry?” I nodded. “It’s something that’s negotiated?”

“Yes,” I sighed and straightened his jacket. “Though there isn’t much negotiation for me. My mother left the money for me, it’s not the family’s. And it’s up to Tristan and,” I paused, “well, I suppose your mother, or Lisette.” He shook his head.

“Anything else?” He asked. I smiled. “I know I’m a country bumpkin, Athena, but I do know how to be at a dinner party.” He kissed me gently and then knocked on the door. Gordon pulled it open.

“Lady Athena,” he said, “Count Pantona, please,” I smiled at him and he took my cloak and we walked into the parlor. Uncle Trey was there and my Aunt Brie. Brie’s son Alex and Charlotte, my Aunt Andrea’s daughter were also both there. My grandfather, Carlan Dumanis was standing, straight and tall, holding a glass of wine, dressed in the family colors of gold and blue.

“Thena,” Lotte smiled and stood up and embraced me. “Your Grace, I am so sorry for your loss, and please convey my respect to your mother. Your parents were uncommonly kind to me in my youth.”

“Thank you, Mistress Dufrey,” Aaron said taking her hand and kissing it. “My father was fond of you, and the horse you two chose bore our princess gloriously.” She laughed.

“Athena,” My grandfather said, I walked over and offered my cheek for him to kiss. “Count, what a pleasant surprise. Where is your brother?”

“Princess Annalise cannot be without both her body guards, Grandfather,” I laughed.

“Hm,” he said, “fine then. Tell him I expect to see him soon.” I nodded and he took Aaron’s hand. “Your Grace, as my granddaughter said, we were all saddened to hear about your father.”

“It’s kind of you sir.” Aaron said softly. “It’s hard to be too sad with such happiness in front of me though.” I looked at him, and felt myself flush.

“Ah, yes,” Grandfather smiled and we all floated towards the couches, “I received both your letter and Tristan’s, and I must say, it’s a pleasant surprise to have Athena so well settled. I thought we were going to have to drag her to Dorin to find someone appropriate.”

“Papa,” Aunt Brie said, with a slight caution in her voice, “there’s no need to discuss that now. Count Aaron, I suppose we’ll never convince you to have the wedding in Dorin?”

“I don’t believe it would be appropriate,” Trey said, winking at me. Aaron smiled. “It would have to be in Pantona.”

“I’m afraid so,” Aaron grimaced. “It would be one thing if,” I glanced at him, and he stopped. “It doesn’t matter, but it was something my father wanted.” I saw Grandfather’s face redden. I knew what he’d caught himself saying.

It would be one thing if we were noble. If Grandfather’s large house in Dorin were a proper manor, but it isn’t. So we’ll be married at Pantona.

“We had a wonderful summer,” I said softly, “Tristan too.” Grandfather nodded and the conversation changed again, to excitement about the coronation and the celebrations it would bring.

“Is it true?” Brie finally asked me. I looked at her. “About Tristan and The Princess?” I sighed and looked down. “Gods,” she leaned back.

“It’s complicated,” I said, “I think they’ve finished now, but well,” I shrugged.

“He can’t know,” she said, glancing at Grandfather. I nodded. “He has a girl picked in Dorin, and a boy for you, though that’s out.”

“Don’t tell Tristan,” I said. She shrugged. “He won’t do as he’s told, Aunt Brie.” She sighed. “And there’s Lady Marina.”

“Ah yes,” she smirked. “How is the Little Duchess?”

“They wrote to each other while we were away,” I said, “He’s more open to it than he’ll admit.” She nodded.

“I can work with that,” she said. I exhaled. Brie had always been our ally in the family. When Martin took us out of this house, when we enlisted, when I refused to come out in merchant society, she was the one who smoothed it.

Protecting Tristan, and so protecting Annalise, couldn’t be done without her.

“We need to discuss the coronation,” Grandfather said walking into the dining room beside me.

“I’ve barely discussed it with The Princess, Grandpapa,” I said simply. He sighed. “I have her trust but she has her own mind.” He frowned at me.

“Athena, I know you take your duty to the throne seriously, but your loyalty to this family must always be paramount,” he said. “We were the ones who kept your brother and you safe all these years.” I frowned at him.

“No you weren’t,” I exhaled. He blinked. “You didn’t keep us safe, Thomas did, Count Caleb and Countess Olivia did, we kept ourselves safe and Cornan watched over us. You all stayed close and quiet and bided your time. For that you will be rewarded, but I won’t let you lie about it.”

I’m Yours

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

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

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

“Commander,” he said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To The Four Of Us

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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.