Assignments

Annalise

The three of us walked out to the courtyard, and saw the others. Tristan had joined them and he smiled gently at me. I nodded and went to Harran.

“Walk with me,” I said. He smiled and we went out of the courtyard. “I need you to go home,” he sighed.

“Of course,” he said. I swallowed. “With a specific mission, or are you just tired of me?” I laughed.

“No,” I said, “I need to you to take your father and brothers’ temperatures, I need to know they’re with me.” He nodded. “And argue for me if they aren’t.”

“That I can do,” he pressed his forehead to mine. “I’ll be called a failure, you know. Twice I’ve not managed to keep you.” I laughed.

“I’m going to miss you,” I whispered. “Not nearly as much as Athena, but still,” he laughed then.

“She might never forgive you,” he admitted. “Brea and Nika?” I bit my cheek.

“I still need them,” I said, “we have to find Brayton, and after him Amina, probably.” He swallowed and kissed me. “Harran,” I whispered.

“Lisette,” he said softly. “Gods, if I’d been bolder four years ago.” I laughed.

“You’d have had a terrified little girl in your arms,” I said, “I’m glad we waited.” He frowned.

“But I’d have had you first,” he said, “and could hold some claim on you.” I smiled. “You have a wild heart, my queen, you needn’t tame it to suit others.”

“He doesn’t want to tame it,” I said, “but it is his.” I swallowed, “you said it yourself, I can’t keep fighting fate.”

“Yes, but when I said that you weren’t sending me away,” he pointed out. “And Tristan wasn’t back yet.” I laughed. “I’ll leave in the morning.”

“Good,” I said. I walked back over to the group. Marina was sitting with Nika, their foreheads together and they were whispering, Athena and Tristan looked at me.

“You two should go to,” I paused, “I’m sure Aaron and Carolina are worried.” Athena smiled softly.

“I’m sure they are,” she said, “but you need us.” Tristan nodded.

“This is what we do, Your Majesty,” he said. I laughed. “We protect you, we fight for you.” I swallowed and threw my arms around his neck. “I’ll die for you, remember. I swore.” I nodded.

“I’d really rather you didn’t though,” I muttered. He smiled. “I don’t know, if,” he cupped my face.

“I made another promise,” he said gently, “to tell you the truth,” I nodded. “You can handle this. You were born for it.” I swallowed. “We also have a favor to ask, though.”

“Anything,” I said softly. The twins made eye contact.

“We know,” Athena said, “that whatever’s next, we have to be with you.” I nodded. “And that any plans we might have had.”

“We want to get married,” Tristan spat out. I stared at him. “As soon as possible.”

“Oh,” I said. “Well, what do you need from me?” Athena smiled.

“Permission to do it on the palace grounds, mostly,” Athena shrugged. “Marina’s already agreed to perform the ceremonies.”

“Permission granted then,” I said softly. Tristan’s face relaxed. Did he think I’d say no? “I should speak to Eric.” I walked back to the palace and found him waiting in the apartment.

“Well?” He whispered.

“Something’s starting,” I said, “I don’t know what yet.” He nodded and kissed me pulling me close. Sex would be easy right now, to just be with him, to think of nothing and no one else. “How’s Lefty?”

“Restless,” he said, “worried, but unharmed.” I nodded. “Did you catch him?”

“We let him go,” I said softly, “he’s not important anymore.” I sat down and rested my head on his shoulder. “When do you go?” He exhaled.

“A week or so, I think,” he kissed me, “I’ll come back as soon as I can.” I slid into his lap. “Anya,” he said. “What’s wrong?”

“Don’t know me so well,” I teased. He laughed darkly. “I can’t just want you?”

“You can,” he said, “but in this moment, you don’t,” I exhaled. “Tell me,” I frowned.

“You’ll be angry,” I said. He sighed. “I sent Harran home,” I whispered, “and Tristan and I,” I pressed my forehead to his, “I don’t know, Eric, I love you, I want us to be together, but I can’t not love him. And I know you’ve said you can’t live with that.” He pressed his forehead to mine.

“I never said you shouldn’t love him,” he whispered, “I said I wouldn’t share you.” I swallowed. “I still won’t, but I trust you.” I wove my hand into his. “I’ve never loved anyone else, Anya, but you have. You love so fiercely, why would I want to change that?”

“We have a week?” I whispered. He nodded. I kissed him fiercely. “What will we do with ourselves in that time?”

“I think you’ll be rather busy,” he teased, I nipped at his bottom lip. I nodded. “As will I,” he groaned as I kissed along his jaw. “There are a lot of arrangements to make.”

“Mm,” I smiled. “Are there?” He nodded and stood up, carrying me to bed. “I don’t want to lose you.” He pushed his hands over my thighs.

“You won’t,” he said, “I swear it.” I smiled.

Final Decision

Athena

Aaron and I are standing on the landing, not talking watching as something gathers on the horizon. That’s what it feels like but it’s also physically happening, there are shadows over past the cliffs gathering.

“Are you alright?” He said. I swallowed and nodded. “Do you agree with Tristan? Should we go to Marina?”

“We’d only panic her,” I said. He looked at me. “I’m panicked. Our best were guarding him, Aaron, and Anselm? This isn’t like with Phania. This wasn’t a frustrated boy who wanted to go home. We can’t talk ourselves out of Brayton bringing shadows. Marina’s power has grown, and Raymond will be helpful but we still don’t know how she summoned that light last year, or if she can do it again.” He nodded. “And Lisette is distracted. Cornan tells me to wield her, she’d his sword, I’m his champion.” I sighed, “I don’t know how to do that, I don’t know what it means, and she doesn’t listen to me anyway.”

“She listens,” he said gently, and held me close. “But she doesn’t want to be a weapon. She never did.” I smiled up at him.

“You know that’s when I started falling in love with you,” I said softly, “do you remember, that day we went for a ride in the woods? And I was teasing you, about ghosts?” He smiled.

“Ah,” he nodded, “and I thought that you were ignoring her as a person.” I nodded. “I didn’t understand then.” He swallowed, “I think I do better now. I’ve been able to forgive my father for it.” I smiled and kissed him. “She’s a person,” he said, “but she’s a symbol too, and the sword. She needs to embrace that. I think Eric is helping.”

“My Lady,” I turned as a guard ran in. “Lieutenant Lestoff is here, he’s insisting he needs to see you alone.” I frowned.

“Alright,” I said, Aaron nodded and followed the guard out, Lefty stumbled in and collapsed on the couch, his eyes wide, and full of fear. “Lefty,” I said and knelt down next to him. “What happened?” He shuddered, I shouted for the guard. “Get Captain Willis.”

“No,” he said, “no he’s back, he’s here, Athena, he has her.” I looked at him. “You have to, she’s alone with him, she’s fighting him,” I swallowed.

“Look at me,” I said, “Brayton?” He nodded. “Were there shadows?”

“No,” he whispered, “but I couldn’t breath, I couldn’t think. It was so dark.” I nodded. “He’ll kill her.”

“No,” I said, “unfortunately, it will be worse than that.” I grabbed my sword, and spear. “You need a healer, Elodie will be here presently.” He swallowed.

“I left her,” he whispered, “she said to, but still,” he was shaking. I pressed my forehead to his. “I swore I never would, and I,” he swallowed.

“It’s alright,” I said. “She’ll forgive you.” He closed his eyes. “I have to go.” He nodded. “Lefty,” I said, “we need you to tell us if you’re feeling,” I swallowed, “not like yourself.”

“I’m no shadow, Lady Athena,” he said. I nodded. “Go,” I ran out into the hall, Nika, Brea and Harran were standing waiting.

“We felt it,” Brea said, “Nika and I, The Dark Lady is awake.” I looked at Harran, who was holding large staff. “The Shadow King is here?”

“He has Marina,” I said, “Lefty just came to warn us.” Nika folded and then unfolded her hands, creating a pair of whips of pure light.

“Marina is formidable enough for The Shadow King,” Nika said, “but his army is another thing entirely and if The Dark Lady comes herself,” she exhaled.

“I’m glad you’re here,” I said, meaning it from the bottom of my heart. Annalise walked down the stairs, in full battle armor. “We’ll never hear the end of it.”

“Trust me,” she said, sheathing the dagger from Caleb, alongside her father’s sword. “I considered that.” We walked down the beach, a legion of guards at our back. “Where is he?”

“Getting Carolina safe, probably,” I said. She nodded. Brightcoast Manor didn’t look different, but I felt it. The stillness and chill I’d felt everyday for years hung in the air. Brea looked at me. She moved her hands into a triangle form, flame circling out from them. It banished the coolness in the air. “Your Majesty?”

“Remember in Dovetail,” she said softly, “when I insisted that I go alone?” I nodded. “Have them stay, I need you.” I smiled.

“Nika, Brea, Harran,” I motioned to them, “if shadows fall, you know what to do?”

“Of course,” Harran said. We stepped inside. The hall was lit by silver flames in brazier, Marina’s magic. That was a good sign, but the light felt eerie.

“Marina,” I called out, I looked up and saw her descending the stairs, in a blue dressing gown. She looked placid. Annalise was frozen next to me.

“Hello Athena,” she said, her voice was cold, flat, wrong, “Cousin.”

“Rina,” Annalise said softly, “please, tell me you didn’t,” she stepped closer to us and cocked her head to the side.

“How many times have you Dreamed this?” Marina said softly. “You must be prepared.” I squinted at her, and I didn’t hesitate, I took my sword from my belt and quickly sliced at her neck.

“Athena!” Annalise shrieked as the woman in front of us disappeared into shadow. “It wasn’t her?”

“No,” I said.

“How did you know?” She asked. I swallowed.

“I grew up around the black guards,” I said, “I know how it feels near a shadow. Come on,” we walked up the stairs and into Marina’s chamber. She was standing, a few light ropes that resembled Nika’s whips in her hands, binding Brayton to a chair. She was shaking and sweating, but hadn’t broken.

“There you two are!” She said, sounding exasperated, “what kept you?” Annalise burst into a laugh and quickly took the rope. I ran and hugged her tight. “Damian?”

“Elodie is with him,” I said. She exhaled. Brayton looked at me.

“So it’s you then,” he said. “Cornan chose you.” I frowned. “Warren send his regards. He’s waiting on my signal.”

“Is he?” I said. “He’ll be terribly disappointed. He doesn’t breathe unless you say so.” He snorted.

“He’s loyal,” he said. “I promised him you, you know.” I tightened his bindings and he flinched.

“I’m not yours to promise.” I hissed. He smirked knowingly.

“Still, it’s about the only thing that motivates him,” he said. “Just you.” I looked down.

“That’s his misfortune, then,” I said softly.

“So cold,” he said, “That’s the DuManis in you.” I exhaled. “Anselm and your best guards couldn’t hold me because Amina is through waiting, what do you three think will be different now?”

“I didn’t understand before,” Marina smiled gently, “I think I do now.” She flicked her hand and the binding fell. “I’m the one she needs Brayton, not you.” His face went ashen. “So go to her, tell her I’m ready. I’m tired of waiting too.” He ran out of the room.

“I don’t know how wise that was,” Annalise grimaced. Marina looked at her.

“I’m tired of hiding,” she shook her head. “Tired of being afraid. I don’t think she’ll like that he failed again.”

“I’d take an open fight over all of this too,” I admitted. “Though Nika and Brea think we can’t take her.” Marina set her chin stubbornly and I smiled at her.

“We’ll get ready then,” she said. “Brayton was in my bedchamber, while I was with my lover, and almost killed him, I have no interest in deferring this any longer.” I nodded.

“Good then,” I smiled and picked up my spear, “I’m going shadow hunting.”

Nobody

Marina

“I think we need to talk,” Damian said flatly.

I stook blankly looking at him. The warm feeling in my stomach churned into guilt.

“I wasn’t expecting you,” I said. “When you weren’t at the palace.”

“Weren’t you?” He said softly. I swallowed. “You’re still upset.” It wasn’t a question. I appreciated that.

“Yes,” I said gently. “Why didn’t you come tonight?”

“I didn’t trust myself,” he whispered. “I behaved badly this afternoon.” I nodded. “I do trust you.”

“It didn’t seem like it,” I spit out. He looked at me.

“I know,” he rested his forehead against mine. “I keep expecting you to realize that I’m not worth all this. I’m not worth a war. Eric should realize it, he doesn’t either.”

“Damian,” I said softly and kissed him. “Oh my love, don’t say that.” He pulled me close. “You’re worth it. We’re worth it.” He kissed me again. Was it possible that he knew? He’s usually so in my head, so in sync with me. “Come to bed.” I said gently. He touched my face.

“Not tonight,” he said gently. I frowned. “I don’t want to, while you’re angry.”

“I’m not angry anymore,” I said softly. He shook his head. “Damian, what are you holding back from me? It’s been weeks and I feel like you’re just gone.”

“So you want me to make love to you just to prove I want you?” He raised his eyebrows. I wanted to scream.

“I want you to stop being so careful,” I said. “I’m not fragile and I thought you of all people understood that.”

“What do you want to hear then?” He said. “That I see you slipping away from me? That every minute you spend avoiding war, and hunting the gods, and weaving magic with Nika or Raymond, you become even more out of my reach than you always were.” I closed my eyes. “And then today I see you in his arms. Tristan Dugarry, a hero, who knows you better than you know yourself, who you always wanted.” He ran his thumb against my jaw. “You’re magnificent, and powerful and important, and I’m nobody.” I swallowed.

“You aren’t,” I said softly. He smiled.

“It isn’t up for debate, darling,” he said, “I could disappear right this moment and the people it would matter to could be counted on my fingers.” I went to argue. “I know you’re one of them, but I worry for how much longer.” I swallowed, thinking of the charge as Nika’s lips met mine.

“Where were you tonight?” I whispered. “And the first night Franz landed. And so many others?” He sighed. “I want to trust you, I do, but I know you’re lying and,” he kissed me.

“I know what you’re accusing me of,” he said, “and I can’t even blame you. But no, I haven’t been with anyone else.” I swallowed and realized I was crying. “I walk, and sometimes I go to see Dorian and Elaine, but I usually can’t even manage that.” I nodded. “I’ve thought about it. I know it wouldn’t be hard to find someone.”

“I’m glad you haven’t,” I whispered and kissed him. He smiled. “No matter how easy it would have been.” I swallowed. “You aren’t nobody. You’re mine and I won’t give you up willingly.” He laughed. I felt guilty, for denying him pleasure and release with someone else when I was thinking about it so much. We kissed and fell back into the bed.

“Yours,” he whispered. I nodded and went for his pants. “Gods, Marina,” he whispered softly. I guided him into me. I’d missed him. He kissed me softly and I whimpered against him. We were through quickly. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to worry you.”

“I know that,” I whispered gently. “Damian,” I said.

“Mm,” he exhaled.

“I know I’ve said I don’t want to dwell on the past,” I whispered. He sat up. “But there’s never been anyone else for me,” he nodded, “and I think, sometimes,” I closed my eyes, “I’ve spent so much time wondering if you’ll be tired of me, get restless, that it never occurred to me that I might.” He sat up on his elbow.

“Are you restless?” He asked gently. “Do you want to spread your wings a little?” I swallowed.

“I don’t know,” I said, “I want you, but I see,” I exhaled, “other people, and I wonder, what if I’d met them first? What if you hadn’t overwhelmed me so much?” He smiled.

“Well, that puts one fear to rest,” he said. I wrinkled my nose at him. “If I thought you were regretting Dugarry, I might not be able to take it.” He laughed. “Are these, hypothetical people?”

“No,” I said softly. He nodded.

“Do you want to end this?” His voice was gentle, not unkind, or afraid.

“I don’t know,” I said softly, “no?” He smiled. “Not yet.” I nestled my face into his chest.

“May I request,” he kissed my temple gently, “that until you decide, we remain exclusive.”

“You’re being very very understanding,” I said.

“I love you Marina,” he said, “If I’m going to believe as you do, that we’re meant to be together, I have to trust that you’ll come back to me, if you decide to leave,” I rested my chin on his chest and looked at him. “I’ve been ready for you to leave me since you first looked at me, love.” He swallowed.

“I’ll never not want you,” I said quietly. He kissed me gently, sliding his hands to my hips. I pulled closer. “Were the others all girls?” I asked. He stopped and looked at me.

“No,” he said and looked at me, “is that what this is? Do you want me and another man at the same time?” I giggled and shoved my palm against his face. “I’m not opposed, but I repeat, not Dugarry.”

“No,” I said quietly, “it’s Nika.” Saying it out loud to him, suddenly felt like a hole in my chest was sewn up. He nodded. “We’ve been working together, and today after we argued,” I swallowed. “And now I can’t stop thinking about her. And it isn’t fair to you.”

“I don’t know,” he smiled, “thinking about you and Nika seems quite fair to me actually.” I sighed. “I’m sorry, I shouldn’t make a joke out of this. It’s scary, the first time you realize it.” I nodded.

“For you?” I asked. He nodded. “Tell me,” it was the first time I’d asked about other lovers. Besides Elaine.

“It wasn’t a grand romance,” he said, “it was while we were in training. It’s forbidden, at home, you know. That’s why Eric was so eager to get Raymond here. It’s different for me, since I like girls too, and I’m, well, me, so no one pays much attention.” I looked at him. “Rory, that was his name, and he was, well, we had a lot in common, but he often even made me feel like a stick in the mud.” I laughed.

“I can only imagine,” I said. “Why did it end?” He shrugged.

“Like most of my stories before you,” he said, “it didn’t really, he was stationed elsewhere, when we saw each other we still got together.” I wove my fingers into his.

“Franz is demanding an ambassador,” I said softly. “I’m going to ask Lisette for the post.” He exhaled.

“Don’t,” he whispered, “not for me.” I pressed my forehead to his.

“It isn’t for you,” I said, “not entirely. I think I need to go. I think Rana wants me to.” He nodded. “Will you show me Brinecliff?” I whispered, “And Pharras?”

“There’s nothing in the world I’d want more,” he said. I smiled. “You could bring Nika,” he teased. I shook my head and kissed him.

“Enough,” I said. He laughed and pulled me close.

“Well this is cozy,” A drawl came from the terrace door. We both sat up, and I gasped, “hello, Marina,” Brayton was grinning. “Lieutenant Lestoff, I haven’t had the pleasure.” Damian lept out of bed and went right for his throat but was quickly tossed aside by power. “How tedious.”

I felt frozen, I couldn’t move.

“How?” I exhaled. He sat down at the foot of the bed and smiled at me.

“We can discuss that later,” he said. Damian stood up again. “Oh, he’s resilient.” I swallowed. He flicked a hand and a large black funnel restrained him.

“Stop,” I cried out and shoved a hand at him, a blast of light coming out and shattering his magic. He looked stunned as I ran to Damian. He was gasping for breath. “Run,” I whispered to him, “try to get to the palace, tell Annalise.” He nodded, and did make it out the door while I held a wall of light up.

“Well, that is impressive,” Brayton smirked at me. I swallowed and steeled myself.

“Thank you,” I said, my voice dripping with sarcasm, “you know how I always longed to please you.” He laughed. “Now, My Lord,” I said, “please explain your presence in my home.”

Escape

Annalise

I was glad it was over, even if it wasn’t really over at all, but at least the rest didn’t have to be in public. I felt awful, for kissing Tristan, for telling him I still loved him.

I didn’t even know I felt that way. I was sure I was over him, but being so close again, it was like everything was back.

“Is everything alright?” Eric asked me as we settled in to dinner. I looked at him. He doesn’t deserve this. He’s been so patient with me.

“I,” my voice cracked, “it’s been a long day.” He nodded. “Would you be very hurt if I said I wanted to be on my own tonight?” He smiled gently.

“No, love,” he said, “of course not.” I exhaled. “You’ll talk to me tomorrow though?” I nodded. “I don’t want to crowd you, on this Anya, but please don’t blame me for being a little fragile where,” he swallowed, “well where certain parties are concerned.”

“I don’t blame you,” I said. He nodded, and I leaned across the space and kissed him. He grinned. Since Franz had come our public interactions had cooled a little. But I was too tired today, I wanted to reassure him, and myself, that I was on the right course. “Feeling less fragile.”

“Greatly,” he laughed. “Do you like her at least?” I smiled.

“I do, actually,” I said, “she suits him. She seems quite serious, which he needs, but not, well,” I sighed, “I don’t know, she’s balanced in a way that I think will help him, and us, come to that.” He nodded. “Thank you, for not pushing. I know this is an impossible situation.” He smiled gently at me.

“It is,” he whispered, “and you’re doing quite well in it.” I smiled. “I’m worried about Lefty, it’s looking more and more like we’ll have to go home, even for a little while, and I don’t think he’ll take it well.”

“You’re worried about Lefty if you go home?” I smirked. “No yourself, and not me?” He sighed.

“If I worry about you my head will explode, love,” he shook his head. “As for me, I’d leave every part of myself that matters here in your care.” I lost my breath. I don’t deserve him, his love, and his patience.

“If you have to go home,” I said softly, “we should be engaged before you do.” He nodded.

“I think that’s sensible,” he grinned. “I’ll do everything I can to make you happy, you know that.” He kissed my hand and I smiled.

“Well, then it’s settled,” I laughed. He nodded and laughed with me. “Eric,” I said, “thank you.” He smiled. “Oh, Goddess, what will Franz do?” Eric burst into a loud laugh.

“Likely insist on a coronation on the spot,” he sighed, “or something else ridiculous that even my brother and sister in law wouldn’t even consider because he’s an idiot.” I laughed. “Which is why I’d have to go home.” I nodded.

“Lisette,” I turned hearing Aaron say my name, “I think when we break up dinner, we all need to talk.” I nodded. “Your highness, you’ll excuse your lack of an invitation?”

“Of course,” Eric’s voice was tight. I frowned. It wasn’t like Aaron and him to be at odds. I looked at them both. Dinner finished quickly and we all broke up, as we usually did, and I found myself in a library, with Aaron, Athena and Tristan.

“Where’s Marina?” I asked. Athena shook her head.

“She went home,” Tristan said gently. I raised my eyebrows.

“What’s wrong?” I said. “You all look like someone died.” Athena swallowed.

“We got a report from Anselm,” Athena said gently and handed it to me. I raised my eyebrows, took it and read.

Lisette,
I do not know what happened, nor do any guards. Brayton is gone from his cell. He is not in the city. I could not tell you what happened. I’m sorry for failing you. Please warn Lady Marina. Please stay safe. I’ll be to you in a few days.

SA

“What do we do?” I whispered. Aaron shook his head.

“We warn Marina,” Tristan said, “obviously, he’ll come for her, as soon as possible.”

“Probably,” Athena nodded, “and we need the Phanians to go, quickly.”

“That won’t be hard,” I said, and sat, “Eric and I agreed to get engaged, tonight, and he wants to go home to settle things with Daniel and his mother after that anyway.” Tristan stared at me. “How did he escape?”

“He’s chosen too,” Aaron said, his voice almost gentle, he sounded more like Caleb than I’ve ever heard. “Do you think that if you, or Marina, or Athena were imprisoned, Rana and Cornan would simply let you rot? Or would they use whatever they could to free you? And as far as we know Amina isn’t bound as they are, since she did the binding.”

“Of course,” I whispered. “I’ll speak to Marina in the morning, I don’t want her panicking.”

“She should know now,” Tristan said firmly. I glared at him. “What if he comes for her tonight?” Athena rolled her eyes.

“As if we could stop him when she can’t,” Athena said, “you just want to make sure she’s not with Lefty.” Tristan glared at her.

“I am engaged, Athena,” he said. I looked down. “Fine, you all gamble with Marina’s life, I have plenty to do.” He stomped out of the room.

“He’ll be fine,” Athena said as Aaron went to speak, “if he tries for her tonight there’s not much we can do that Marina’s household guards and she herself can’t.”

“I know,” I said, “I doubt announcing my engagement will help.”

“Probably not,” Aaron said, “although, who knows? No one has ever known what to do with him.” I nodded.

“I need a minute,” I said softly. They nodded and left. I sat down on the couch and started crying. The room where we were meeting had a large portrait of my parents, I looked up at it and swallowed. “I’m sorry, I thought,” I exhaled, “I wanted to be merciful.” I wept. I didn’t know what else to do.

Captain Arrain

Athena

“Maybe Tristan was right,” I said to Martin as we watched Tristan comfort a clearly shaking Carolina, “maybe they are scary.”

“He was absolutely right,” Martin said, “they are terrifying, but he was less right about how she’d handle it. She did well.” I nodded.

“Commander Dugarry?” A man with darker blonde hair and clear icy eyes walked over to me. I smiled at him.

“Can I help you?” I said. He looked at me. “We haven’t met have we? Do you work for my Uncle? Oh, Cornan, did Carlton send you?” He blinked oddly at me.

“Athena, this is Captain Andrei Arrain,” Martin said, “he was the one who’s ship we were on, on our way down.”

“Oh,” I smiled, “of course, thank you so much for the safe delivery of my family, Captain, how may I help you?” Martin nodded and walked away.

“I wanted to speak about Miss DuKarras,” he said simply. I frowned.

“Alright,” I said. He sighed.

“I thought you should know I mean to challenge the contract,” he said, “Carolina and I had an understanding, and while nothing formal,” I laughed.

“I’m sorry,” I said, “you’re going to challenge the contract,” he nodded. “For my brother’s marriage?” He nodded. “Carland Dumanis’s grandson? The favorite of your queen? And the brother in law to be to the Count of the second largest provenance in Cammadan?”

“Yes?” He said, his voice had gone up a register.

“Well, I wish you luck but I don’t think it will go well for you Captain Arrain,” I said, “may I ask on what grounds? Beyond this vague, understanding you’ve described.”

“Her father and I had begun negotiations,” he smirked, “and I was living in the family home.” I stared at him. “With all that that would entail.”

“Alright,” I set my drink down, “but then why was my brother even introduced to Carolina as a prospect?” His face fell. “My cousin Alex was incredibly confident she was free.”

“Having not lived in Dorin, you might not be aware of how your family,” he cleared his throat, “clears their own way, as it were.” I cocked my head.

“I am more than aware of that tendency,” I said sharply. “Nonetheless, I cannot allow,” I exhaled, “whatever this crisis of yours is to stand in the way of my brother’s happiness. Or Miss DuKarras’s for that matter, as she’s made her desires more than clear, despite wherever you were, erm,” I cleared my throat, “residing.” He nodded. “But again, I wish you the best of luck regarding your challenge.” I swept past him to where my grandfather and Mr. DuKarras were standing.

“Thena,” Grandfather smiled, “you look lovely. This is quite the spectacle. And all for us.”

“For Carolina,” I corrected him, “and Tristan.” He shrugged. He’s clearly decided that Tristan has become one of them. I hate that he might be right. “Mr. DuKarras, might I steal you away for a private word.”

“Of course,” he said and followed me into one of the smaller parlors, “is something amiss, Lady Athena?”

“Captain Arrain told me he intends to challenge the contract,” I said. He laughed. “I’d be amused if it didn’t appear he had decent grounds.”

“Andrei is impetuous,” he shrugged. “But yes, we had begun negotiations.” I swallowed. “Carolina’s mother did not believe he could provide for her, however, so they were cut short. He went to Rastan to prove he could provide and in the meantime your cousin brought Tristan, and the plans changed.” I nodded.

“He was living in your home?” I said. He smirked.

“I didn’t think Caro’s virginity was something you were overly concerned with,” he said. “Given your own reputation.” I started to seethe.

“I will not gamble with my brother’s future and happiness as it appears you did with your daughter’s,” I hissed. “Fix it. Or you can explain to everyone you try to do business with why your daughter was married by her husband’s commanding officer with no contract and her dowry was rejected.” I stomped out and slammed to door behind me.

“Someone’s in a mood,” Harran said as I stepped, less than lightly into the ballroom, “Tristan’s betrothed is,” he whistled, “if I weren’t already in a tangle, I might even flirt with her.”

“Don’t add to my worries,” I grumbled. He smirked. “How is your tangle?” He growled. “Oh that good?”

“Brea has decided that she will stay as long as I do,” he muttered, “she won’t accept the truth that I don’t want her.” I looked at him.

“You did once though,” I said gently. He nodded. “So what changed? And don’t say it was Lisette, you flirted and bedded plenty before you two took up.” He sighed.

“I don’t know,” he shook his head, “I just don’t think I’d make her happy.” I swallowed. I suddenly understood something about my friend.

“I think you should let Brea be the expert on her happiness,” I said gently. He shrugged again. “I”m glad you didn’t leave,” I said. “I like when you’re here.” He smiled softly at me.

“I like being here,” he said quietly. “And I like you Athena.” I smiled.

“Well of course,” I said, as Aaron nodded to me from across the room. “Everyone likes me.”

Reunited

Annalise

“You’re very impressive tonight,” Mercy said, fastening a sash across my chest. I looked at her. “I understand it. I helped Marina pick her dress for tonight, and she might as well be Rana herself.”

“It’s mostly because between Franz and the merchants I can’t appear even human, let alone,” I swallowed.

“Sir Tristan looked well enough when I saw him,” Mercy grinned. I glared at her. “I’m only saying. And Elodie said he and Marina were practically dancing together when he came to camp.”

“You and Elodie see too much,” I grumbled. She giggled.

“Perhaps,” she said, “but neither of us have seen Miss DuKarras.” I rolled my eyes.

“Aaron said she’s perfect,” I mumbled and fidgeted with my necklace. She touched my wrist to stop me and took my hands.

“When my father used to parade me in front of his friends,” she said softly, “before I met Elodie,” I looked at her. “I made sure I couldn’t be missed. That was my armor. They would see me.” I looked at her. “I think you’re just hoping to be seen tonight, Your Majesty.” I kissed her on the cheek.

“Remind me to humiliate your father every night when we get back to Dovetail,” I said. She laughed.

“He won’t return to court,” she said, kneeling down to settle my skirts. “And I’m reasonably sure if he tried, Elodie would take a knife to him and that wouldn’t be much fun for me.” I laughed and the door opened.

“I’m sorry, I didn’t,” Tristan stopped and I turned and looked at him. “I thought you’d be dressed.”

“I am,” I said. “Thank you, Mercy.” She nodded and walked out, whacking Tristan in the arm.

“Mistress Graves,” he grimaced.

“Commander,” she said. He sighed. I held back a laugh. Mercy’s loyalty was unwavering.

“She’s never liked me,” he said. I smiled. “I wanted to,” I glanced at the bed and nodded and we stepped into the sitting room. And there she was. “Your Majesty, I’d like you to meet my intended, Miss Carolina DuKarras.”

“Oh,” I said softly. I didn’t know what I expected, but when our eyes met I felt two feet tall. She was beautiful, I’d Seen that. But she seemed to fit at Tristan’s side, he seemed to gravitate towards hers, and I wanted to hate her for it.

It was also impossible to miss that she looked terrified.

“Lisette,” he said, “Athena thought this would be be better,” he looked almost ashamed. Carolina looked at me.

“It is,” I finally managed and walked over. “Miss DuKarras, I’m so happy to meet you.” She swallowed and curtsied.

“Your Majesty,” she said, “I am honored. And I hope you’ll accept my service.” I grinned in spite of myself.

“Oh Tristan,” I shook my head, “please tell me you didn’t,” he shook his head. “Your service is accepted, please stand up.”

“What didn’t he do?” Miss DuKarras said and looked at me and then him. “Did I do it wrong?”

“You were perfect,” I said, lacing my arm through hers and walking her out onto the terrace, “when Tristan first learned who I was he dropped to one knee and pledged to die for me.” Tristan looked furious. “So clearly you two are well suited.” She burst out into a laugh.

“He didn’t tell me that!” She said and settled on a chair, “he told me about the lemon orchard in Pantona.”

“Well he comes off as a dashing hero in that story,” I shrugged, “so obviously that’s the one he’d tell.”

“He is right here,” Tristan grumbled and sat down with us. “Please don’t repeat humiliations to my bride, Lisette, she thinks I’m wonderful.”

“Hm,” she nodded, “he was rather wonderful when we were in Dorin. Though he often lost his temper when teased.”

“Oh he hates being teased,” I grinned. Tristan was flushed. “Thomas tells me you wish to enlist.” She sat up straight.

“Very much,” she said, “I want to do my part and I know as Lady Dugarry it will be expected.”

“I happily accept,” I said, “we’ll talk with Thomas in the morning about your assignment. Obviously if you and Prince Eric get on,” I stopped and looked at Tristan. “Well, I suppose we can cross that bridge when we come to it.”

“Yes,” Tristan said. “We should go downstairs,” he stood up, Miss DuKarras placed her hand on his arm.

“I’ll go,” she said, “I think you two need to talk.” I swallowed and nodded as she walked out. He watched her go and then cleared his throat.

“Lisette, I,” he started. I smiled.

“She’s wonderful, Tristan,” I said. He smiled. “You’re lucky.”

“I am,” he admitted. “I should have come to see you this afternoon, but there was so much,” I exhaled.

“I know,” I said. We were standing opposite one another. “It’s so good to see you, I was worried,” he nodded.

“Were you?” He swallowed. “Lisette, I,” I stepped closed and wrapped my arms around him. “Gods, I’ve missed you.”

“I’ve missed you too,” I said. “So much, Tristan. I was so lost sometimes, and I love Eric, I do, but, it’s not,” he lifted my chin.

“I know,” he said, “I love Caro, but it isn’t the same. It isn’t us.” I smiled.

“You must have coached her,” I laughed, “I couldn’t believe she practically, mirrored you.” He laughed.

“She didn’t promise to die for you, I still reserve that right,” he said, running a hand over my braids. “This suits you,” I smiled. “Rina almost feels like a stranger.”

“She has grown hasn’t she?” I laughed. “I’m so proud of her. Aaron and I fought and didn’t speak for weeks, did Thena tell you?”

“No,” he said, “what did you fight about?” I swallowed.

“I was,” I sighed, “well, Harran was involved.” He exhaled.

“Of course,” he said softly. I sighed. “I don’t want to,” he laughed. “This was always going to be impossible, wasn’t it?” I nodded.

“I think all of us acknowledging that it’s impossible is the first step here,” he smiled. On instinct I stood up on my toes and kissed him gently. We then passed gently pretty quickly as he pulled me close and I pulled him down onto the seat. It felt so good to be close to him again. He pulled away and sighed pressing his forehead to mine.

“And we probably shouldn’t do that again,” he said softly. I nodded.

“Yes,” I said softly, “that is absolutely the last time we do that.” He laughed and stood up. “Tristan,” I whispered and he looked at me. “I wish you’d said goodbye.”

“I wish I had too,” he said softly. “But that night, I just,” he exhaled, “I couldn’t, Lisette, I just needed to be away from you, and from Marina too. I could barely breathe, we were all so wrapped up.” I looked at him. “Why Harran?” He asked gently.

“Because Eric wanted something real, and I wasn’t ready,” I said softly. “And you weren’t here.” I swallowed. “And I wanted you, I mean, not that way.” We started walking. “I just wanted to talk to you. To ask why you loved me, why,” I exhaled. “Why I should keep trying.” He smiled.

“As if I could explain why I love you,” he shook his head, “loving you is like breathing for me, Lisette. Like I wasn’t even a whole person until we met.” I nodded.

“Don’t leave me again,” I said softly, “that’s an order.” He smiled.

“Understood, Your Majesty,” he said and opened the door and I walked past him.. He slid his hands to my waist and nuzzled against my neck. “I wanted you too, nearly every night.” I exhaled. “I dreamed about you. About us, about the first time I touched you, about your coronation night.”

“Tristan,” I whispered, “don’t,” I whimpered. “We can’t do this.” He sighed and let me go.

“I love you,” he said, “and I always will.”

“I’ll always love you too,” I said, “that doesn’t make it right.” I looked at him. “But we can’t go in circles anymore, and it isn’t just us anymore.” He swallowed. “I have to go. I have to welcome your intended to court.” I realized I was crying and I rushed away.

Brother

Athena

I sat on the bed as Tristan started unpacking his trunks. I frowned, seeing how he’d come back with four more than he’d brought.

“You travel like Alex now?” I said. He looked at me.

“You’d be amazed,” he said, “Alex is practically a minimalist compared to the people up there.” I nodded. “Most of these were gifts, Thena, from when we got engaged. Which is more about Grandfather than me.” I raised an eyebrow and he sat down. “You don’t approve?”

“It doesn’t matter, how I feel,” I said, “you seem changed, though, mostly for the better.” He looked at me. “Maybe I’m being unfair.”

“You aren’t,” he said. “I feel it too. I don’t know how I’ll fit anymore.” I looked at him. “And I have no idea what I’ll say to Lisette.”

“What did Marina say?” I asked. He frowned and stood up. “What did you do?”

“I didn’t do anything,” he said, “Lestoff showed up and she seemed rather annoyed.” I nodded.

“They’ve been arguing quite a bit,” I said. He frowned at me. “She talks to me, we’re friends now. I thought that was what you wanted.”

“I don’t want you telling me these things,” he fell back against the bed and I stood up. “Part of why it was so easy for me to let go was thinking that they didn’t,” he drifted off.

“Are you really just going to escort Carolina into that room without talking to Lisette first?” I raised my eyebrows. “You already didn’t say goodbye when you left. Just reappearing probably won’t help.” He glared at me. “And Marina is most certainly over you, though she was on her way even before you left. Lisette,” I stopped. “I don’t know that she ever will be Tristan.” He was just staring upward.

“Of course she won’t,” he said softly and I looked at him. “I won’t ever get over her either. I think that’s what you all don’t understand. How we love each other is permanent, Thena.” I frowned at him. “It isn’t that I don’t love Caro, that I don’t want to marry her, that I’m going to throw all of that away. It’s simply a fact of my life. I love Lisette and she loves me.”

“That sounds terrible,” I said.

“It really, really is.” He groaned. “I’ve been trying to tell you for a year how terrible it is, and you thought I was being ridiculous.” I laughed. “What about you?” I sighed and stretched. “Aaron said it was bad for a while.”

I sighed.

“It was,” I whispered, “it was dark, and he was wonderful about it.” Tristan smiled. “I never realized how much I relied on you, when it was bad. I’m sorry for that.”

“Athena,” he said, “it was never a burden. I was worried about you though. There were a lot of changes all at once, and that usually makes it worse.” I smiled. “Do you disapprove of the wardrobe?” He sighed.

“I don’t disapprove,” I said, “but I am going to tease you about it, forever. It used to be a struggle to get you into a clean shirt.” He laughed.

“Even when I wore some of it,” he said, “Caro didn’t like it. She likes the uniform.” I smiled.

“Oh, she and I are going to get along very well,” I said. “Come on, time to reintroduce you to the troops, Commander.” He groaned. “Unless you want to continue your hiatus. I’ll recommend whatever you want.” He followed me out the door.

“Do you know how weird it was to go up to the Fort in Dorin and see everyone and then go back to that damn house,” he said and shook his head. “I did manage to keep up some training, but I’m going to be rusty.”

“Hm,” I nodded. “Well, we’ll whip you into shape.” He laughed when we reached the hall and Marina was running in. “Oh, is it that late already?” I asked. She looked at us.

“Mercy said we have to pick her clothes at least,” she shrugged. “And then I have to change.” I sighed.

“Why don’t you get changed?” I said, “and go down into town and retrieve Tristan’s bride.” Tristan stared at me.

“I hate that idea,” Tristan said flatly. “You’ll terrify her.”

“I will not!” Marina said. “People very much enjoy me.” I giggled. “And then you’ll introduce her to Lisette.”

“Yes,” Tristan said, “that is the point of this whole evening.”

“No,” I said, “not the presentation. Take her to go see her. You’re worried Marina will terrify her. Lisette in full Sword of The Goddess, Protector of the Realm mode is the scariest thing in the world.” He frowned.

“I think she’s right,” Marina said and kissed Tristan on the cheek. “What a wonderful idea, Thena.” She bounced away. I grinned at Tristan.

“I have officially decided I do not like you two as allies.” He grumbled. I giggled.

“Come on,” I said, “we have work to do.” I pulled him outside.

Argument

Marina

I was helping to teach the healers the spells Elodie and I had come up with the weave soothing herbs in with bandages when I heard the deep clearing of a throat behind me. The healers all stood at attention and turned around.

“Tristan!” I squealed and ran over to him, “I mean, Commander,” I inclined my head.

“Duchess,” he said, bowing with dignity. “Are you very busy, or can you spare a moment?”

“Oh, I think we’ll manage,” Elodie winked. I shook my head and rolled my eyes and walked out of the tent with him.

“I’m so glad to see you,” I said and threw my arms around his neck. He laughed and he spun me around. “Are you taller? Is that possible?”

“No,” he grinned, “but you might have gotten smaller.” He put me down and I whacked him the chest. “How has it been?”

“Awful,” I sighed, “and wonderful too, but,” I shrugged. “Feels like old times.” He nodded. “Did you come alone?”

“Here? Certainly,” he said. “Carolina is at a house her father took. It was a compromise.” I nodded. “I missed you. Every day,” he placed his hand against my cheek. I swallowed and looked up at him.

“I missed you too,” I said, “so much has happened and I wanted to talk to you and I just,” he nodded and pulled me close. “Have you seen Lisette?” I whispered. I could feel his exhale against his chest.

“Not yet,” he whispered. “She’s locked in with the Phanians.” I nodded. “Why aren’t you?”

“I made up a job to get out of it for the day,” I admitted. “Elodie didn’t really need me for this.” He laughed. “Where is Carolina staying? I’d like to go see her, if you wouldn’t mind.”

“I won’t have you scaring her,” he narrowed his eyes. I shook my head.

“I’m not scary,” I said. He frowned at me. “On purpose.” He smiled then, I slid my arm through his and we started walking. “How did you like it in Dorin?”

“I actually,” he sighed, “I loved it. There would be moments when I was so angry at Martin, for keeping us away from that life. It was simple, once I learned the rules,” I smirked, “and nice, and quiet. And Caro is,” he exhaled. “It’s hard to explain how I feel about her.” I looked at him and smiled gently. He was blushing.

“You’re in love with her,” I giggled. He shrugged. “Oh but that’s wonderful, Tristan! Here I was, so worried you’d be miserable, that you’d hate her.” He blushed.

“And you?” He asked gently. “How’s Lestoff?” I sighed. I could see how annoyed he was to even be asking.

“It’s complicated,” I shook my head. “He’s unhappy. We’re,” I sighed as we kept moving. “I know it’s not me, it’s not us. But he’s wretched, and I don’t know how to help.” He looked at me.

“If anyone can it’s you,” he said softly. I nodded. “I suppose I should let you get back to work.”

“Yes,” I said softly. I didn’t want to though. I wanted to stay here, with him holding me.

“Well, hello,” I jumped away from Tristan hearing Damian’s voice. “Welcome back Captain.”

“Thank you,” Tristan said, his face instantly hard. Damian had a cool smirk on his face. “You aren’t in the negotiations?”

“We’ve adjourned so Annalise can speak with General Martin,” he said sliding his arms around my waist. Tristan nodded. “I’m surprised you aren’t with him.”

“I’ve been with my sister,” Tristan said, “and when I’d heard Marina wasn’t in the meeting,” he drifted off. “If you’ll excuse me, I should go find them.” He took my hand and squeezed it gently.

“I’m glad you’re home,” I said softly.

“I’m glad to be home,” he said. “Lieutenant,” he nodded to Damian. He walked away and the pulled away from him.

“What is wrong with you?” I said harshly and started walking away.

“What’s wrong with me?” He snorted. “I found you in another man’s arms. I’d say my reaction was justified.”

“Please,” I rolled my eyes and kept walking. “You know how hard this has been for me and yes I was taking comfort in an old friend.” He grabbed my arm and I shook him off. “Is that really something you want to condemn me for right now?”

“It’s different,” he said flatly. I laughed shortly. “I was never in love Elaine.”

“No,” I said, “and Tristan was never my lover. So I suppose it all evens out, doesn’t it?” I started walking away. “Don’t follow me!” I shouted over my shoulder. I marched to the beach, where Nika was sitting on a rock, the waves crashing against it. I turned to go, I didn’t want to disturb her.

“You don’t have to go,” she said softly exhaling out of her meditation pose. “I already sensed the storm in you.” I sighed and joined her, sliding my shoes off and dangling my feet in the waves. I already felt better. “Who did you argue with?” I laughed and shook my head.

“Damian,” I said softly. She nodded. “I don’t think I can take much more of this.” She looked at me and smirked.

“Do you require a man?” She raised an eyebrows. I blushed. “I am serious, if the queen marries she’ll likely have many children, surely you could leave your title to a younger one.”

“There are other benefits,” I pointed out. She laughed. “And I do love him.” She sighed and stretched.

“My sister says the same,” she shrugged, “of course Lefty loves you back, and Harran does not love her, so I suppose your case is less hopeless.” I sighed.

“I suppose,” I said. Our knees touched. “It feels rather hopeless, at the moment.” She slid her hand to mine and I shivered.

“The gods have a plan for you, Marina Sanpierre,” she whispered, “it’s as plain as looking at you, the path will be difficult, but,” she stopped, I realized she was blushing, and so was I. “I’m sorry I,” she paused and I swallowed.

“Please don’t apologize,” I swallowed. I stood up. “I should go find The Queen. Thank you.” I ran off then, my hand still tingling from where she touched it.

Negotiations

Annalise

“We understand your hesitancy in the matter of marriage,” Franz said pompously, “but it is difficult to understand why you still haven’t sent an ambassador to our court.” I sighed and Duchess Norvine looked at me.

“I haven’t sent any ambassadors anywhere,” I reminded him, “I’ve only been secure on the throne for a year, and it’s been a trial to even get my own provenances in line. I took Prince Eric’s arrival and considerably long stay as remark of confidence on your king’s part. Perhaps I was mistaken.” Eric grinned at me.

“Can you commit to sending an ambassador in the next year?” Franz said. The Duchess nodded at me.

“I believe, yes,” I said, “I can.” The Duchess nodded. “Duchess Norvine, your son in law had discussed wishing her could travel, had he not?”

“Indeed he had your majesty,” she grinned at me. “And Liesle has complained of the cold her whole life.” I smirked.

“Well then,” I said. Eric cleared his throat.

“I don’t know that we need name the person today,” he said gently. I sighed and looked at him and the door cracked open, a young guard slipped in.

“I apologize for interupting, Your Majesty,” she squeaked. I nodded at her. “You asked to be told when they arrived and they have.”

“Ah,” I said and stood up, “you all will accept a brief recess? I must speak with my General as he has returned.”

“Of course,” Eric smiled and stood up as I left. I walked into the throne room and saw Thomas standing waiting for me with Aaron.

“Hello Thomas,” I said and walked over. He bowed and grinned then pulling me up into a hug. “I’m so glad you’re back.” Then I looked past him. “Oh, Chancellor Dumanis, I hadn’t realized you’d join us so immediately.” Aaron shrugged.

“Your Majesty,” he said. “Of course, I assumed you wished to discuss strategy. I’ve brought nearly fifty ships.” I nodded.

“You bringing the ships was the strategy,” I explained. “There’s no open fighting yet, and I wanted to remind Admiral Franz who is on my side.”

“I see,” he said. I smiled politely at him. “Tristan and The General seemed more alarmed.” I glanced at Aaron.

“Tristan is usually alarmed, that is his nature,” Aaron pointed out. “And The General left before we had a full understanding of the situation.”

“I am unbelievably grateful for your assistance, of course,” I said with a confident smile, “but at the moment I have no further need of it.” The old man stared at me, his face bright red. “I can imagine you have a great deal to do, to settle in here? Many of your associates here in Brightcoast must wish to speak with you in person.”

“Of course,” he said and bowed, “I will see you this evening, for Miss DuKarras’s presentation?”

“Of course,” I smiled and he left. I exhaled and slid down in the throne. Thomas sighed and leaned against it. “Insufferable man.”

“Truly,” Thomas muttered. “How are negotiations?”

“So far,” I said, “they’ve demanded a full neutral stance on Pharras’s independence, Lefty was thrilled with that.” Thomas nodded. “A commitment that no husband who isn’t from a royal family would be crowned king. And today that we send an ambassador to King Daniel’s court by the end of the year.”

“Who’d you promise?” Aaron asked.

“Anya Norvine’s son in law,” I laughed. “I know they’ll want Marina and she may well want to go, but I won’t say as much in there.”

“Of course,” he said. “You won’t get rid of Carland, you know?” I sighed and stood up.

“I know,” I mumbled. “I can put him off though, at least for a while.” I fiddled with the necklace around my throat. “Can you send word to the Admiral that we will be a good deal longer? I want to get a nap in.” I kissed Thomas on the cheek. “I am glad you’re back, it will be easier with you here.”

“I’m glad to be back,” he said softly. I smiled and walked up to my rooms, slipped my dress off and flopped onto the bed.

“You make this far too easy, love,” Eric’s voice rang with a laugh from my doorway. “Half undressed and in bed already.” I sat up and looked at him.

“I’m attempting to rest,” I said, “not tempt you.” He laughed and came and lay down and kissed my neck. “I am besieged on all sides, Eric. Franz with his petty demands from your brother which could have been delivered in a letter, and now Carland Dumanis thinks he has the right to sit in on war councils.”

“Poor Anya,” he said softly, slipping his hands down my spine. “And you have to receive her tonight.” I exhaled. “I won’t pretend not to be jealous, but I can’t imagine it won’t sting your pride a little.”

“Mm,” I said softly. “I keep thinking about what it will be like to see him again. I don’t know how it’s going to feel.” He slipped his arms around my waist and turned my face to kiss me.

“Fret about it all you like,” he whispered, “but please remember you’re mine, now.” I smiled.

“Yes,” I said and rolled over to face him, “I’m yours.” He sighed. “But I do need to get some sleep, Eric. And if you’re going to be king,” he groaned.

“I wanted to slap him, when he brought that up,” he said. “You don’t need to crown me. I just want you.” I smiled and kissed him and snuggled close. “Sleep a little, my heart. I’m here with you.” I drifted off, grateful for his arms.

Greetings

Athena

I looked in the mirror and straightened my hair and uniform. Aaron looked at me with a lopsided grin.

“All this for your grandfather?” He teased. “I thought you didn’t care what he thought.” I frowned.

“I don’t,” I said, “but we need him, so now I have to.” Aaron sighed and nodded and kissed me. “Plus Tristan’s future inlaws will be there and I want to make a good impression.”

“Of course,” he said. “Come on, we should meet my mother and head down.” I nodded and we walk solemnly down into town and to where we knew the ships would be docking. Olivia looked even more nervous than I did and I realized that was terribly sweet.

“I’m sure he’s dying to see you,” I whispered to her.

“I’m dying to see him,” she sighed, “but it’s also the first time I’m seeing Trey since,” she exhaled, “one does feel a bit guilty.” I smiled at her.

“I doubt Trey blames you,” I said. She smiled softly. We stood as a gang plank was rolled out reveal the very grand party of my grandfather, Trey, Tristan, Martin, and two people I didn’t recognize, a man, who had a haughty and annoyed look on his face and a very beautiful young woman, who looked pale and nervous.

“That must be them, then,” Aaron said with a grin. “Tristan’s letters didn’t do her justice.”

“Down boy,” I said with a wink.

“I’m merely noticing, my love,” he said as they walked down. “Chancellor DuManis,” he said, using my grandfather’s guild title. A well done flattery, “Master DuManis, General, Commander.”

“Count,” Grandfather smiled and shook Aaron’s hand, “Countess Olivia, what an unexpected pleasure.” Then he regarded me. “Athena.”

“Grandfather,” I said, accepting his kiss on my cheek. “Hello Uncle,” I said and embraced Trey, “General,” I said squeezing his hands. Tristan grinned wildly at me. “You look terrible.” He laughed and hugged me tightly.

“I’ve missed you so much,” he said softly. I laughed. “Hello Aaron.”

“Hello Tristan,” Aaron laughed and hugged him. “And who is this vision?” He moved to Miss DuKarras. I sighed. “Count Aaron of Pantona.” He took her hand.

“Stop it,” Tristan said, “may I present my intended, Miss Carolina DuKarras, and her father, Mr. Angelo DuKarras.”

“Your Grace,” Miss DuKarras dipped to Aaron as he kissed her hand. “It’s an honor.”

“Yes, yes,” Mr. DuKarras said and looked at me. “We’re all quite honored. Lady Athena, I believe we have a great deal to discuss.”

“Of course you do,” Olivia said in her most graceful and welcoming voice, “but please, let us help you all get settled first.” Martin raised his eyebrows at me. “Please, Mr. DuKarras, Duchess Marina and I were quite busy finding a house for your daughter and you.” She slid her arm through his and they started walking.

“She is really good at that,” Trey sighed and laughed, Martin shook his head.

“She is,” he said. “We should follow them,” they walked on, and I took Tristan’s arm, and the four of us started walking slowly.

“How was the voyage?” I asked. “Marina and Lisette were practically throwing their jewels in the sea to appease Rana.”

“It wasn’t too bad,” he said. “Carolina wasn’t well.” I looked back at her, giggling as Aaron teased her. “Where are they?” He asked.

“Annalise is in negotiations with Admiral Franz, with Duchess Norvine representing the council,” I explained. He nodded. “Marina is with Elodie, preparing the healers in case of battle.” He nodded.

“How are the negotiations?” He asked. I shrugged.

“I don’t think it will matter in the end,” I said. “Franz isn’t seriously here to invade, he’s here to sweep Marina away.” Tristan looked at me. “He is not doing particularly well, she mostly ignores him or when forced answers him sarcastically.” He smiled.

“She’s grown up,” he said, “remember how she used to simply go pale and silent whenever Brayton would force his attention.” I smiled.

“I do,” I said. “There’s going to be a dinner at the palace tonight, to welcome Grandfather and so you can present Carolina.” He sighed.

“Right,” he mumbled, “the sooner the better, I suppose.” I looked at him.

“It won’t be bad,” I said, “she’s ready to like her, Tristan. She’s moved on.” He exhaled, I looked behind me. “Miss DuKarras,” I said bouncing over to them, “You’re to ignore everything he says.” She laughed. Aaron shook his head.

“Didn’t I say it?” He shrugged. “I’m horribly abused.” I rolled my eyes.

“Count Aaron was telling me about your plans in Pantona,” she explained. “Apparently his manager has found three houses for us to choose from. It’s awfully generous of you both.”

“It is the opposite of generous,” I said pulling her away. “These past few months have been the longest of my life and if I’m forced to live apart from Tristan again, I might explode, or Aaron will kill me.” She laughed.

“He missed you too,” she said. “He was practically vibrating with excitement all last night.” I laughed. “I hope when you speak with my father you don’t,” she sighed, “An old suitor came back into orbit recently and he’s suddenly more resistant to this match than he was. I also think he’s a little insulted you haven’t mentioned my dowry.” I stared at her.

“Oh,” I said, “I hadn’t thought of that.” She nodded. “Should I be demanding he pays us more? We don’t need it, you know! We’re Trey’s heirs and we have money from our father’s family and well,” she smirked at me and shrugged.

“It’s about his pride,” she explained, “Tristan mentioned the Count doesn’t approve of any of it, but you’re still having contracts.” I smiled.

“That’s true,” I said. “Do you care?” She bit her bottom lip.

“No,” she said, “I love Tristan and I want to marry him.”

“That was the correct answer.” I smiled as we walked up to the town house.