“You’re allowed to be worried about her,” Prior said to me that night. I looked at him.

“She says she’s alright,” I whispered, “I can’t just say that she’s not. She knows her own mind.” He looked at me.

“You can still worry,” he said. “You don’t have to tell Marina that you’re worried about her.” I smiled and lay down with him.

“You’re very bad at this,” I said. He laughed.

“How so?” He whispered.

“You’re supposed to talk about how Marina is very strong and can stand on her own and doesn’t need me,” I explained.

“Ah,” he kissed me. “Noted.” I laughed. “But you know, I worry about you, nearly constantly, and I know there’s very little that you can’t handle.”

“You worry about me,” I said rolling over and facing him. He smiled.

“Oh constantly,” he whispered and kissed me. “If I valued my sanity I’d have found a woman with far less to worry about.” I whacked him in the chest. “I worry when I’m not with you, and when I am, I worry more, because I see what you carry.”

He saw so much. How had I found him?

“Prior,” I whispered.

“Annalise,” he whispered back.

“I think I’m falling in love with you,” I managed softly. He smiled and kissed me again.

“Took you long enough.” He murmured. I laughed and snuggled into his arms.

“Don’t be smug,” I whispered. “It doesn’t suit you.” I fell asleep wrapped up in him.

I Dreamed that I was standing on a pebbly beach, covered in snow and the sea was raging. Angry, heavy waves, crashing against icebergs and cliff shores around me.

“Rana,” I screamed out, “please say something!”

“What is left to say?” I turned my head and startled back seeing Brayton. He looked older, obviously, so it wasn’t a memory, this was real. He’d grown a beard and it had flecks of grey. “You’ve grown up, Cousin.”

“Where are you?” I asked. He cocked his head to the side.

“I know Caleb taught you better than that,” he tsked. “Coming right at me head on. Honestly, Lisette.”

“Don’t call me that,” I snapped. He smirked.

“Sensitive,” he said, “you’ve grown so beyond that?” I swallowed. “I’ve missed these talks of ours.”

“I somehow doubt it,” I mumbled. “Did she punish you?” He looked down.

“Yes,” he said.

“Was it painful?” I stared at him. He nodded. “Good.”

“Vindictive,” he said softly, “that’s new.” I sighed and looked at him. “I am not at fault for Eric of Phania leaving you. You have other enemies.”

“I am aware of that,” I whispered. “But you once told me that I didn’t know what it felt like when love went sour.” He looked at me. “I know that now.”

“You have a new love,” he teased, “or so I hear.” I glared at him.

“Don’t touch him,” I hissed.

“I’m not interested in Allred’s brats,” Brayton laughed. “Wyatt was always useless, I can’t imagine those boys are good for much either.” I frowned. “I hadn’t thought of using them for stud of course.”

“That’s disgusting,” I said. He shrugged.

“I’m not judging,” he said. “But it’s an interesting development.” I rolled my eyes and then woke up to Prior shushing me and stroking my hair while I thrashed and screamed.

“Annalise,” Prior whispered, “it’s alright love, it’s alright.” I realized he’d never seen me in a full Dream before and I started crying, clinging to him. “I’m here, sweetheart, it’s alright. Can you tell me what you saw?”

“No,” I said, “not yet, please just hold me,” he nodded and held me closer. I was shaking, my heart racing. I realized this was the first time I’d had this kind of Dream reaction with Prior in my bed. He was taking it well.

“I’m here, love,” he whispered and kissed my hair. “I’m here.” I looked up at him.

“I’m scared,” I mumbled.

“I’ll keep you safe,” he whispered. “Always.” Something deep in me, calmed. I believed him, all of me did.

The Dark Lady


As we ride to the first Westran camp that we’re visiting I notice a few things. Athena and Prior are both fruitlessly trying to cheer Tristan up, and most people wouldn’t notice because the difference between Tristan in a good mood and Tristan in a bad mood isn’t perceptible to most.

The other is that Brea and Lisette seem to be getting along.

“I think it’s a sign of the end times,” Aaron said to me, when Annalise laughed at something she said. I shook my head.

“They’re very alike,” Nika pointed out. “I’ve always assumed it was a matter of time before something broke and they became friends.” I smiled at her. “Or they killed each other, I never knew which it would be.” I laughed.

Nika and I seem to have found some balance, and I’m glad for it. I still miss her as my lover, but I’d also missed her as my friend and I have that at least.

“What changed?” I cocked my head to the side watching them.

“Damned if I know,” Harran sighed, “but it’s a relief.” I laughed. “I agree with Nika it was this or death.” I dismounted. “Is everything alright, Duchess?”

“I need to walk for a while,” I said. “I can’t explain it.” They nodded and I walked ahead of the group quickly. Trees were fewer and farther between, but I could feel the water rushing through each of them. But I couldn’t hear her, not even a whisper.

I wasn’t Dreaming. Normally in Westran the dreams flood in, I can barely focus, but it’s just silence, everything feels cut off and strange.

The off feelings started when I stopped hearing from Damian, and they’ve only gotten worse. I don’t know how to express it either, which is frustrating, there just seems to be something growing in my mind.

“Hello Little One,” I turned at the voice and saw Amina standing in front of me. Her pale skin and hair down around her shoulders and her tight black gown.

“Hello,” I said.

“You’re not afraid?” She smiled. I swallowed.

“Should I be?” I asked. She sighed.

“I should have claimed you,” she said, “why I let my sister,” she placed a cold hand against my cheek. “Things are shifting though.”

“Is that what I’m feeling?” I asked. She smiled.

“I hadn’t realized you were feeling anything else,” she said, “but I suppose so. We’ll speak again soon.” I blinked and she was gone.

“Marina,” Tristan ran over to me, “you shouldn’t go ahead like that, it isn’t safe.” I stared at him. “A messenger arrived, Caro got to Dorin.”

“I need to talk to Lisette,” I said, “and Raymond.” He frowned at me.

“Marina,” he said softly, and went to take my hand. I jerked back.

“Don’t touch me,” I said, “no one should, I can’t.” I walked back to the group and found Annalise sitting with Brea. “Lisette, I need,” I swallowed. She looked at me. “I just saw Amina.”

“What?” Annalise stood up.

“I was walking and I was trying to center, and I haven’t been able to lately,” I swallowed, “and then she was just there. She said things were shifting,” I exhaled. Brea sighed.

“The alarm that you all use around the Dark Lady is so tiresome,” she stood up and brushed off her robes. “She can’t hurt you, you’re alive. She’s frustrated by that fact, I am sure.”

“She touched me,” I growled. Brea’s eyes opened wide.

“Oh,” she said, “well, that is different, then.” I nodded.

“She touched you?” Annalise asked. I nodded. “And you didn’t faint? Or send out light?”

“No,” I said, “her hand felt cold, but then she disappeared.” I sighed. “I don’t know, I’ve been feeling something for ages, and I think it might be whatever this shift she was talking about is.”

“Do you think it’s got something to do with Rastan?” Annalise asked. I shrugged.

“I don’t know, I wish I did.” I sighed. “Can we stop for the day, or do we need to press on further?” Brea bit her bottom lip.

“I’ll check with Harran,” she said, “I’m sure we can rest for now.” She walked away. Annalise hugged me tightly.

“Why are you and Brea being friends?” I asked. “It’s really alarming all of us.” She laughed.

“I’ve decided if Prior and Tristan can be actual partners,” she sighed, “I can at least be pleasant.” I raised my eyebrows. “I’m going to try with Caro too, when she comes back.”

“That is big of you,” I nodded.

“I know,” she whispered. “Are you alright?” I shook my head.

“No,” I whispered. “But there’s not a lot to be done about it for the moment.” She sighed. “I’ll be fine, but I want to figure this out.” I sighed. “What if I’m hers now?” I said. She presses her forehead to mine, that confident smile of hers clear as crystal.

“I refuse,” Annalise says. “Even if she wanted you, wouldn’t the pledges protect us?”

“It should,” Raymond snuck up on us. “That pledge is strong magic. Marina would have to break it herself.”

“Don’t do that,” Annalise said. He grinned and looked at me and held out his hands.

“Hands, Marina,” he said.

“Do the Mastero vows do it?” Annalise muttered. He looked at her. “Make you into an insufferable bossy infant with no manners?” He chuckled as I lay my hands on his.

“You’re not carrying any shadow,” he said. I nodded. He knew it was what I was most worried about. Damian carried shadow with him for months after Brayton attacked him.

“Thank you,” I said softly. He nodded.

Another Move


“When is my daughter planning to tell me that you two have parted?” Chief Walkin asked settling in next to me. I looked at him.

“I don’t know,” I said, “I didn’t want to lie to you. But she didn’t want to disappoint you.” He nodded. “You must be very proud of Brea.”

“Brea will be an excellent leader at her husband’s side.” He said. “But she’s done little worthy of pride yet.” I raised my eyebrows. “I have always disapproved of your relationship with Nika and the choices it lead her to.”

“I am aware of this,” I said.

“Amina is unhappy with your queen’s troops in the desert,” he said. I exhaled.

“Amina should have thought of that before she imprisoned her siblings,” I said. He smiled and I giggled.

“She should have yes,” he leaned back. “Will Nika come home now?” He asked.

“You should ask Nika,” I said. “I don’t know her plans.” He nodded. “She does help us, quite a lot. Both of them do.”

“Hm,” he raised an eyebrow.

“Marina,” Athena walked over to me, “we need you.” She looked at Walkin. “My apologies Chief.” I nodded said goodbye and hurried behind her to a council chamber.

“What’s happening?” I asked. Annalise was seated, and Harran was leaning against a wall. Aaron and Tristan joined us quickly, Carolina following behind them.

“The king of Rastan is dead,” Harran shook his head. “Messenger couldn’t delay a day?” I sighed and sat down.

“We can’t skip the visits,” Annalise said. “It would be a terrible insult.”

“I agree,” Harran said.

“The messenger also brought a letter for you,” Aaron handed me an envelope. I sighed.

“I also got a letter from them,” Annalise said, “when I was crowned. Is Raniere allergic to the sea?”

“Hush,” I mumbled as I read it.

Duchess Marina Sanpierre,

My deepest regrets for not coming to you in person. My father’s health has prevented me from travelling as I ought to have. I would be most honored if you would join your cousin to celebrate my ascension and to discuss the possibility of a future together.

Please consider me. I have heard nothing but praise for your beauty, kindness and intelligence.

Yours, should you choose so,

Raniere, King of Rastan

I swallowed.

“It’s not the worst proposal I’ve ever gotten,” I shrugged. Tristan eyed me. “I have to go.”

“I need you here,” Annalise said.

“Lisette,” Aaron said. “Marina’s right. She can’t ignore a proposal from the King of Rastan, or dismiss it with a letter.”

“I could go,” Carolina said. We all looked at her. “While you all visit with the tribes, I could go to Rastan, stall, to give Marina time.”

“Caro,” Tristan said. She swallowed. “I thought,”

“I can help,” she whispered. “I can’t help on the visits, but I can go to Dorin first, and,”

“Alex’s father is Rastani,” Athena said. Carolina nodded. “He and Emily could go too.”

“It’s actually a pretty good idea,” Annalise mused.

“It’s a terrible idea,” Tristan growled. Carolina walked over to him and kissed him gently. “Caro, we agreed.”

“I can help,” she said. “We’ll come home together.” He nodded and she looked at Harran. “Has the messenger gone?”

“No,” Harran said softly. “I told him to enjoy the feast.” She nodded and swept out of the room. “That one’s a dark horse.” I smiled at him. “Are you going to be queen of Rastan now, Marina? You’re not grand enough?”

“I’m not accepting the proposal,” I said and sat up straight. I looked at Annalise. “Am I?”

“Of course not,” she said. “Unless you decide you want to after you meet him.” I rolled my eyes. “What’s our excuse for sending Caro?”

“Marina is nervous about leaving the country,” Aaron shrugged. I looked at him. “Given your childhood and the past few years.”

“Fine,” I said and stood up and walked out. Tristan followed after me. “What could you possibly want?” I said.

“Where are you going?” He said.

“To talk to Nika and write to Damian,” I said.

“Why?” He asked.

“Well,” I sighed, “because Nika has been lying to her family that we haven’t parted, so me leaving to answer a proposal could be embarrassing for her, and I don’t want Damian to do something stupid like try to kill the new king of Rastan when he hears he’s trying to court me.” He took my hands. “Don’t,” I said.

“She’s leaving me,” he whispered.

“Then go and talk to her about it,” I said, “I have other feelings to manage besides yours.” He frowned. “Tristan, I don’t ever expect us all to untangle this knot but let’s not make it worse. It will help us to have Caro and Alex and Emily go ahead of me to Rastan. I have to tell my lovers that a king wants to marry me and ask what they think of it.” He looked away. “If you don’t want to be parted from Caro go with her, or stay with Annalise and me. That has always been your choice. None of the three of us can make it for you.” I marched away from him and into my room.

“Rina,” Nika walked in. “Are you alright?”

“I have to go to Rastan,” I said. She exhaled. “Not right away, but, soon,” I shoved the letter at her.

“Goddess,” she mumbled reading it. “This is the biggest one, isn’t it?” I nodded. “Otto’s a crown prince, but his father is healthy.”

“And we met in person and he was as uninterested in me as I was in him,” I said. She nodded. “I have to write to Damian.”

“Of course,” she said and kissed me gently. “Are you considering it?” I swallowed and looked at her.

“I don’t know,” I said, “I know I shouldn’t be. It’s ridiculous.” I sighed. “But after these past few weeks, the idea of having a fresh start with someone who’s outside of all of my messes.” I looked down. “It’s silly.”

“I don’t think so,” Nika said softly. “Meeting you isn’t going to make him want to marry you less.” I smiled softly at her. “Oh Damian might find himself executed though. Raniere’s his friend isn’t he? He wouldn’t murder his friend.” I laughed then.

“Your father knows,” I said, “about us.” She nodded.

“Brea too,” she whispered. I nodded. “He’ll want me to come home.”

“He misses you,” I said softly. She curled up and snuggled close to me. “I’m still doing the visits.” She nodded. I threw my head back. “I hate this.”

“Me too,” Nika whispered.



I swallowed sitting beside Harran’s brothers as he and Brea exchanged their vows. He looked unbelievably happy. The blue and green gown I’d had made and the veil wrapped around my head felt itchy and like my body was rejecting it. Rian looked at me and smiled.

Harran had told me once that when he’d come to me Rian had attempted to court Brea. He seemed to be the only person besides me who wasn’t over the moon. Did he love her? Had they been together at all? Had she tried to love him and failed the way I had Harran?

Prior smiled at me and I felt my cheeks flush. He’d warned me about how he was out here, but he’d undersold it. Last night I’m surprised we hadn’t woken the whole keep with our activities in bed. And against the wall. And on the floor by the fire. And in the bath.

If Prior was at all insecure of his position in my life, he was making himself indispensable in pleasure alone.

Harran was vowing to love and honor Brea, and she was radiant, dressed in a white robe. As Nika had said, she was veiled, but it was lighly draped over her long dark hair, rather than wrapped like Nika’s or the one I was wearing.

“And so before the gods, and your tribes,” Lady Anaia said, binding their hands, “I bind you to one another. As long as your hearts beat, may you bring one another joy.” They kissed to seal the bond and we applauded.

After we were sitting at the feast and Prior came and sat beside me.

“You did well,” he grinned. “I only saw you grimace at the bride twice.”

“Most people weren’t looking at me,” I said. He leaned close to me. “Prior.”

“Everyone was looking at you,” he said, “at least everyone who’s sane.”

“You are clearly not,” I shook my head with a giggle and kissed him. “I can’t imagine you want more after last night.” He grinned. “Prior,” I said, “I can’t leave.”

“Yet,” he said, “I intend to have you every night for the foreseeable future, Annalise.” I smiled. “Now, what was that about leaving?” I rolled my eyes.

“I’ll be missed,” I said and stood up with my goblet to go have it refilled. “But if you want to go prepare for me,” he laughed and pulled me into his lap. “I need more whiskey.”

“You do not,” he pressed a kiss against my neck. “You need me.” I sighed and leaned back into him and heard Brea giggle as Harran lifted her up and music was playing. I suddenly realized what he was doing.

“Prior,” I whispered. He hummed into my hair. “I adore you for what you’re trying to do, but you cannot distract me from having feelings about this wedding with sex.” He turned my head and kissed me.

“Are you sure about that?” He whispered. I laughed.

“Yes,” I stood up. “I am.” I walked over and poured more into my goblet. Aaron walked over and looked at me. “Prior is trying to distract me with sex.”

“Well that won’t work,” Aaron said. I nodded.

“I know, I’ve outgrown that sort of thing,” I smiled.

“No you haven’t,” he snorted, “it won’t work because sex distraction is what you did with Harran.” I kicked him and he laughed. “Lisette, you’re handling this better than any of us thought you would.” I sighed.

“Thank you,” I said softly. “I don’t know how you thought I’d be handling it, because I don’t think I’m handling it well at all.” He slipped his arm around my shoulder. “If Eric announces that he’s marrying some debutante his sister in law picked out I’m not going.”

“You’ll go if you’re invited,” Aaron snorted.

“I will not,” I said. “And I’m not inviting him when I marry Prior. I’ve decided it’s cruel, to have former lovers at your wedding.”

“Mm,” Aaron nodded. “You have to invite him.” I sighed. “Well, you have to invite Elana and Daniel and then you have to welcome whoever they send. Which might not be Eric.”

“You aren’t being helpful either,” I said. “At least Prior’s tactic is fun for me.” We looked at Harran. “He looks so happy.”

“He’s in love,” Aaron shrugged.

“Not possible,” I shook my head with a smirk, “being in love doesn’t make you that happy. Being in love is torture. It’s having your heart pulled out of your chest over and over.” He looked at me and laughed. “In my experience.”

“When we were young,” Aaron said softly, “and Harran came to Pantona, I was furious with Father.” I looked at him. “It was such a risk, Lisette.” I smiled. “I was ranting and shouting about your safety and your future, and what was he thinking? And how could we trust this person?” I laughed.

“You were jealous,” I said. He shrugged.

“You were mine,” he said, “and you were following Harran around like a puppy and he liked it far too much.” I smiled. “But I remember what my father said,” I looked at him, “Aaron, we didn’t save her to keep her in a cage, we saved her so that she could live.” I smiled.

“I miss him so much,” I said softly. “He’d be so proud of you, Aaron. He’d be absurd about Calla.” He threw his head back.

“Her feet wouldn’t have touched the ground yet.” He grinned. I laughed. “We didn’t save you to keep you in a cage. But I feel like you’ve put yourself in one.” I looked at him.

“I’m not in a cage,” I said. “I do need some air though.” I rushed outside and exhaled my hand on my belly. Maybe I had had too much whiskey.

“Annalise?” I turned and saw Brea. “Are you alright?”

“I don’t know,” I whispered. She nodded and walked over. She helped me to a bench and sat me down. “Your guests.”

“Please,” she said, and waved her hand dismissively, “half the reason to marry a man like Harran is because he can handle that sort of thing.” I laughed.

“You look beautiful,” I said softly, my breath was still shallow. She nodded.

“Well, yes, I’m me,” she said. “You’re alright, keep breathing,” I nodded. “He was so glad you agreed to come. We were worried that you wouldn’t.” I looked at her.

“Really?” I said. She nodded.

“I know I’m not your favorite person,” she said. I smiled. “And I hated you for years before I ever saw you.” I laughed again. “I am absolutely serious. When he came back from Pantona all he could talk about was Lisette, this amazing girl. Ask Nika, I was furious. Who was this Cammadie girl, how dare she make him fall in love with her?” I smiled. “It took me two years to get him to see me again. And then the word came, you weren’t some farm girl who he’d shared puppy love with you were the queen. And you wanted him.” I looked at her. “I hated you for wanting him. I hated him for going to you. I hated the gods for making you queen, I hated my family for trying to comfort me.” She exhaled. “Oh and poor Rian, I hated him the most.” I looked at her. “Rian, coming to me, sitting next to me at feasts, greeting me every time we arrived. Trying to make me smile.” She exhaled. “Oh I hated him so much for that.” I swallowed. “But I’m not,” she exhaled, “I don’t get to be angry, to hate that way. I’m the shiny, bright light, I shine so that Nika can be seen.” She swallowed. “She gets to be angry and grumpy and hate people.” She looked at me. “So I smiled, and I twinkled and I hated you.” I laughed.

“I can take it,” I smirked.

“I know,” she stood up. “Meanwhile you have your own Rian to deal with.” I raised my eyebrows. “Prior Chastain is a good man, Annalise, but he isn’t the man for you.” I sighed.

“Why does everyone keep saying that?” I said.

“Because it’s true,” Brea shrugged. “And you know I’m being honest because I hate you.” I smiled. “Now come on, because I cannot allow Nika to continue this ruse that she and Marina are alright.” I stifled a laugh. “What happened there?”

“Oh nothing particularly exciting,” I said as we drifted back into the hall. “Nika found her snuggling with Tristan and reached her breaking point.”

“Ah yes,” Brea said with a nod. “I could have seen that coming.” She looked at me. “I once swore to curse Marina if she ever hurt my sister.”

“Please don’t,” I said, “trust me, loving Tristan is enough of a curse.” She laughed. “I am happy for you.” She smirked at me. “Well, I’m happy Harran is happy.”

“Try not to choke,” she grinned.

Little Witch


I was standing in the main training yard of The Border Keep, stretching. My training with Tristan had been helpful. I felt stronger and focused.

“You realize you’re being ridiculous,” Elodie said as Harran walked in, I glared at her and she rolled her eyes. “No one thinks you’re a less terrifying warrior because you’ve had children.”

“That isn’t the point at all,” I said. “I used to be the best.” Elodie looked at me indulgently. “It’s a part of who I am.”

“Well, My Lady,” she sighed, “you know his old weaknesses.”

“Of course,” I said. I’ve sparred with Harran dozens of times over the years. “And his strengths. He’s bigger than me, stronger.”

“Less agile,” Elodie nodded. “But also isn’t carrying a baby.” I frowned and looked down. I wasn’t big yet, but my belly had started to swell.

“Are you ready, Countess?” Harran grinned at me.

“Of course, Chieftain,” I smirked and struck first. “To disarm?”

“As you like it,” his block was quick and strong and he shoved me back. “You can do better than that.”

“I’m trying not to bruise your pretty face before your wedding,” I grinned. He laughed. I swerved out and landed a hit against his chest. He retaliated with two against my arm.

The fight was perfect, and I was glad that I’d spent the trip working with Tristan. Before that training I would not have been able to keep up.

“Do you think your son sees your shame?” He teased, as I fumbled my spear and recovered. John stirred in my belly.

“I know your bride sees yours,” I countered. I heard Brea laugh from the side.

“She does indeed,” she called out and winked at me when I met her eyes. “No true shame to lose to The Champion, my love.”

“Who’s losing?” Harran grinned back. I struck hard against his staff, and knocked it free, and knocked him on his back.

“Yield?” I said. He sighed.

“Yield,” he shrugged. The crowd cheered and I laughed helping him up. “It’s brutal when you do that.” I laughed.

“You shouldn’t have invoked my son,” I grinned, “he got his blood up too.” Harran laughed.

“Fierce like your mama,” he pressed his hands against my belly. “Eh, Little One?” Brea walked over. “No shame?”

“Well, some,” she grinned. “I thought you’d last a little longer.” He smiled. “Countess, your boy makes me strong. I think your girl did too.” I smiled.

“Maybe,” I said.

“She’s special, your Calla,” Brea said as we walked back towards the keep. “If she were of our people my sister and I would be training her already.” I looked at her.

“Really?” I said. She nodded. “She’s too young.” Harran looked at me and Brea shrugged.

“For your Masteros and Sisters, maybe,” she nodded. “But a witch isn’t a Mastero or a sister or even a Chosen like you or your queen, or Marina. There’s more instinct to it, so you have to learn young.” Harran looked at her.

“I’ll talk to her father,” I said. Brea nodded and they walked away. I found my way to our room and saw Aaron and Calla sitting on the bed, playing a counting game. I leaned against the frame and Aaron looked at me.

“Did you win?” He asked. I shrugged. “Oh good, you’d be insufferable if you hadn’t.” I frowned at him and came and sat with them. “What is it?” He asked.

“Calla,” I said gently to my daughter, “if Lady Nika and Lady Brea wanted to teach you things, would you want to learn?”

“What?” Aaron said. I looked at him and nodded.

“What kinds of things?” She asked. “Duchess Marina said she’ll teach me hiding places when we go back to Dovetail.” I smiled. “And Uncle Tristan taught me about horses.”

“Yes,” I smiled, “I don’t know exactly, but while we’re here and in Westran, you’ll listen closely to them?” She nodded and stood up.

“May I go find Lady Nika and ask her?” Calla said excitedly. I nodded with a smile and she rushed off. Aaron looked at me.

“What is this?” He asked gently. “Is our daughter a witch?”

“Brea seems to think so,” I shrugged. “I’d rather she learn than go around in a veil of despair and fear like Marina did.”

“There were a few other factors at play there than her not knowing her power,” Aaron pointed out, “but that’s fair.” I smiled. “I suppose it makes sense. It isn’t as though her perception ever felt like what Lisette was like at that age.” I nodded. “I’m sorry we didn’t come down to watch.”

“It’s alright,” I said. “I did well though.”

“I never doubted,” he grinned. “And John?” I laughed.

“Oh he was fierce,” I smiled. “He’ll be a warrior.”

“Hm,” Aaron sighed, “a witch and a warrior. We’ll need a third, because I really do need another farmer.” I laughed and kissed him.

“One at a time, my love,” I said. He nodded. “Did she say Marina was going to teach her hiding places?”

“Oh yes,” he nodded. “Mercy too apparently.” I sighed and shook my head. “Come here,” he whispered and pulled me into his arms. “Can you settle now?”

“I suppose so,” I said, “for a while.” He kissed my neck. “Aaron,” I mumbled.

“I am sorry I missed it,” he muttered, “I like watching you fight, Thena.” I giggled and wrapped my arms around his neck.

“Do you let me win?” I asked. He raised his eyerbows.

“Never,” he said. “I’m a terrifically bad sport, you know that.” I smiled. “I’ve never been able to beat you. I’ve come close but it’s very frustrating.”

“Mm,” I nodded, “very?” I slid my hand down and started stroking him.

“Tremendously,” he whispered. I nodded. “Almost as frustrating as a wife who’s distracted because she thinks she’s not the greatest warrior to ever live anymore. When she very clearly is.”

“The greatest,” I mumbled and kissed him. He rolled me onto my back and pressed into me.

“The greatest,” he repeated. “Fiercest, strongest, and most beautiful to ever live. Annessa herself would stand and tremble at Athena Dugarry, Countess of Pantona.” I giggled. He was teasing me but I loved him for it.



I stood beside Nika a few steps behind Harran and Brea as their parents approached. Nika had her shoulders squared, and her face was placid.

I try to be understanding about Nika’s relationship with her parents, but having been only hovered over and adored by my father, their cool treatment of her and clear favoritism of Brea has always seemed strange to me. But Nika has asked me to support her and I will.

“Chief Walkin,” Harran smiled as their father stepped forward, “and Lady Anaia,” their mother, who eyed me sharply. I looked down. “Welcome.”

“Chieftan,” Anaia said with a smile, “Brea, love,” she kissed Brea on the cheek. “And Nika,” she moved to Nika. “Duchess.” She looked at me.

“Mama,” Brea said, slipping her arm through hers, “isn’t it lovely that they got here so quickly. They only arrived this morning.”

“We had thought we’d arrive before you,” Chief Walkin said as we all moved inside the keep. Nika nodded. “You look well, Nika.”

“Thank you Papa,” Nika said, her eyes downcast. Brea was babbling about something for the wedding in a few days and Anaia was nodding along.

“Is your cousin here as well, Duchess?” Walkin asked me.

“Yes,” I said, my throat dry. “But she is resting, I think. She hates long rides in full court. I prefer them because we move slower, the faster riding is what exhausts me.”

“Rina,” Nika raised an eyebrow at me. I clamped my mouth closed. I realized I was babbling. “Her Majesty offerred to perform the ceremony but Brea insisted on Mama.” I smiled softly at her.

“I would hope so,” Walkin said and moved past us. Nika exhaled as he left. I took her hand and squeezed it.

“That wasn’t so bad,” I said cheerfully. She looked at me.

“I suppose not,” she said. “Thank you.” I nodded.

“I’m sorry I was babbling,” I sighed, “I know your father hates idle chat.” She laughed.

“It’s alright,” she sighed and we walked to our room. “I’m glad we got here before them.” She fell back on the bed.

“You should go spend time with them,” I said. She looked at me.

“They won’t notice,” she said. I lay down with her again. I kissed her softly. She wrapped her arms around me. “We shouldn’t.”

“I’m not the one who doesn’t want to,” I pointed out. She exhaled. “I love you. I can’t imagine they don’t love you too.”

“They do love me,” she whispered, “they just don’t see me.”

“I see you,” I whispered and pressed my forehead to hers.

“Nika!” Brea ran in breathlessly. “Why does everyone keep disappearing on me?” Nika sat up and looked at her sister. “Mama is insisting we go over the ceremony.”

“Why?” Nika said. “We’ve all done it a hundred time.” She rolled her eyes.

“I don’t know, it’s Mama being crazy,” she threw her hands up. She glanced at me with a smirk. “Was I interrupting?”

“Of course not,” I mumbled and straightened my gown. “Do you need any help?” Brea smiled gently at me.

“No,” she said. “Thank you though. I look forward to when you two go through this.” She grabbed Nika’s hand and pulled her up. “Come on.” I laughed as Nika groaned following her sister out of the room. I flopped back again and took a few deep breaths. Stolen kisses were becoming more common, but we hadn’t had sex since that first night she’d asked me to pretend.

I missed it. I missed touching her.

“Excuse me,” Calla’s small voice came from the door. I sat up and looked at her.

“Yes, Lady Calla,” I said. She walked over to me.

“Do you know where my Papa is? Aunt Annalise and Chieftain Harran sent me to find him, but I cannot find him.”

“Perhaps we should look for him together,” I said and stood up taking her hand. She nodded and we walked out. “How do you like the keep?” She smiled.

“There are so many hiding places, I’m guessing,” she said. I laughed. “I found some good ones today, but Lady Mercy said I oughtn’t hide from everyone now that I’m the heir.” I knelt down.

“May I tell you a secret?” I said. She nodded. “Lady Mercy knows the best hiding places at the Palace in Dovetail. When she and I were small we hid all the time. Your Uncle Tristan knows good ones too.” She giggled. “But yes, you ought to stay in sight while we’re here. The Keep is very old and has a lot of secrets.” She nodded seriously.

“When you and my mama and Uncle Tristan were small,” she said, “you hid?” I nodded.

“I did,” I said softly, “and your Uncle Tristan and Lady Mercy. But never your Mama, she thought it was stupid.” She giggled. “Why do you hide?”

“Everyone is big,” she said. I nodded. “And loud, and I want to be brave, like Mama. But sometimes,” she sighed. “It’s just scary.”

“I know,” I said softly. “But there are lots of ways to be brave. Your Mama and Aunt Annalise are brave when they fight. But don’t you think it’s scary for your Papa and Me, to take care of all the people in our Provenance, and our family?” She nodded. “It’s big, and that’s scary. But doing it is brave. So while we’re here, you’ll practice being brave.” She hugged me. “And when we get back to Dovetail, I’ll show you all the hiding places.” She nodded.

“Your Grace,” she said softly, “what if I can’t,” I hugged her close.

“You can,” she whispered. “We’re all here to show you how.” She nodded. “Come on,” I picked her up. “We’ll find your Papa now.”

The Keep


It’s been a long ride and an I’m not sure what I’m expecting when we arrive at the border keep. I’ve been here a hand full of times in the past few years, and it’s always an awe inspiring experience, it’s two stone towers rising and the wide busy courtyard are soothing after the long ride.

I couldn’t help but split my face into a grin as we rode into the courtyard and I saw Harran standing waiting to greet us. Brea was beside him, but I barely saw her. I dismounted off of Kria and walked up to him as he bowed.

“Your Majesty,” he said taking my hand.

“Chieftan,” I said. I looked at Brea who was sunk into a curtsey. “Lady Brea.”

“My Queen,” she rose up. “We are honored by your presence.” She looked past me to Marina who was standing with Nika, the twins and Prior were a few steps back, along with Aaron. “Duchess, sister.”

“Hello Brea,” Nika said stepping forward and kissing her on the cheek. “Chieftan.”

“Lady Nika,” Harran embraced her. “We’re glad to have you home.” Her eyes were closed, I looked at Marina, who swallowed. “We’re glad to have all of you here.” He looked at me. “I had thought we’d feast right away but as my lady reminds me, you prefer a rest after a long ride.” I smiled.

“I do,” I said. Prior stepped forward and took my arm as I followed Brea through to a room.

“Commander, you know your way from here?” She said, her voice twinkling. I narrowed my eyes at her.

“I do,” he said simply. She curtsied again.

“Please let me know if you need anything further, Your Majesty,” she smiled and swept out.

“She didn’t wait for me to dismiss her,” I grumbled and plopped onto the bed. Prior looked at me indulgently.

“I know you dislike her, but she does have quite a lot to do and probably wants to comfort her sister,” he said. I raised my eyebrows at him.

“Please don’t see the best in her,” I sighed. He laughed and kissed my forehead.

“I apologize, I’ll be short tempered and scowly with her,” he said. I laughed. “Are you going to tell Harran?”

“About?” I asked.

“Annalise,” he sighed.

“I will tell him,” I said. He smiled. “Perhaps not tonight, though. He’s so happy that we’re here and,” he lay down beside me. I cupped my hand against his face. “I don’t want to lose him.”

“I know sweetheart,” he whispered and kissed me. “I’ll let you rest. Several rangers arrived last night, apparently. We’re to be briefed.” I nodded and lay down to sleep for a while. My Dreams were chaotic, they always are this close to Westran. When I awoke, Calla was sitting cross legged looking down on me. “Hello Little One.”

“Chieftan Harran sent me to get you,” she said simply. “But Mama said I oughtn’t wake you. Were you Dreaming?” I sat up.

“I was,” I said. She nodded. “Shall we go to see The Chieftan?” She nodded and I followed her out to the yard. “Has Mama sparred with him yet?”

“No,” Calla said with an exhausted sigh. I laughed. She reminded me of Caleb when she sighed like that. “She said that she’ll only do it when she’s rested.” I nodded. Harran was settled in at a wide table and she ran over to him and he took her up onto his lap. “I found her, Chieftan Harran.”

“So you did, Lady Calla,” he smiled at me. “Hello Lisette.”

“Hello Your Highness,” I said. “Calla, love, where is your Papa?” Calla shrugged.

“I’ll go find him,” she popped off of Harran’s lap and went running.

“You’ve a task on your hands, turning that one into a queen,” he smirked at me.

“She’s energetic,” I said. He hugged me. “Oh, I’ve missed you.”

“I’ve missed you too,” he said. “I was worried you wouldn’t come, given your reaction last time.” I smiled at him.

“Right,” I muttered. “I was surprised.” He raised his eyebrows. “I thought,” he smirked at me, “Well, I didn’t expect you to wait around.”

“Didn’t you?” He said. I frowned at him. “If it weren’t Brea,” he tried, and I sighed.

“I could have reacted better when you told me,” I admitted. “I just,” I exhaled, “she’s so,” he laughed. “Brea.”

“I’m happy that you’ve found someone else you know.” He said. “You could be more generous.”

“I haven’t,” I muttered. He laughed then.

“Prior is far too happy for things to have not moved forward,” he said. “And I know you very well.” I cocked my head at him.

“Nika told you,” I said.

“Of course Nika told me,” he smirked. “What does Tristan say?” I sighed and stretched down onto the table. “Ah, so he’s enthusiastic?”

“He thinks I’m ruining Prior’s life,” I said. “You don’t mind?” He shrugged.

“I like Prior,” he admitted. “And if you’re happy.” I frowned. “You need to write to Eric.”

“I what?” I said. He looked at me. “No, I don’t, it has nothing to do with him.”

“Lisette,” he said. “If you’re getting married he can’t find out from spy networks, or official announcements.” I pouted at him.

“You found out from Nika,” I said.

“Yes, because Nika knows you’re a coward about this sort of thing, and she wanted me prepared,” he laughed. “I am gaining an excellent sister.” I laughed.

“You are,” I said softly. “Harran, I,” I swallowed. “Did I hurt you?” He looked at me. “I mean, what went on between us.”

“Of course you did,” he said, his voice was gentle though, “Lisette, you broke my heart. Not the first time, obviously, but two years of uncertainty followed by an outright rejection was more than a sting.” I looked away. “You wanted Eric and I was there. If your own heart has healed from losing him, I’m glad for you. But you have to tell him that.”

“I don’t know that it ever will,” I said. “Heal, I mean.” He wrapped his arm around me. “What if Prior leaves me too?”

“Is that why you want to marry him?” Harran asked. “To keep him?” I nodded. “Oh Lisette.” I rested my head against his shoulder. “I had them bottle three casks of the whiskey.” I laughed.

“Good,” I mumbled. “I’m going to need a lot of it.” He laughed and pulled me close.

“There you are,” Brea marched over to us. “My parents have arrived, are you going to greet them?” It was phrased as a question but it certainly didn’t sound like she was asking. She looked at me. “Congratulations on your engagement Annalise.” She swirled and left. Harran sighed, his face full of a dopey smile.

“That is what you have to look forward to,” I said, “for the rest of your life.”

“Yes,” he said, with a besotted sigh, “it’s wonderful, isn’t it?” I laughed and shoved him away. I’d missed my friend more than I could have possibly understood before seeing him again.



I marched into Tristan and Carolina’s tent and saw her sitting at a desk working on a letter while my brother sat cleaning his sword.

“Caro, I’m sorry to ask,” I said, she looked at me.

“Stay where you are,” Tristan said. Caro rolled her eyes.

“Honestly, the two of you,” she said. “Athena it’s none of your business.” I blinked at her. “I’m assuming you’re talking about whatever it was that happened this morning.”

“I well, yes,” I stuttered.

“Well, I’m tired as hell of talking about it,” she said. “We can all talk about it for five more years it won’t change anything,” Tristan walked over and put his arms around Carolina and kissed her gently. I realized I was seeing inside of something that I hadn’t before.

“I’m sorry,” I said softly. “But Tristan I do need to,” he glared at me.

“I’ll only be a moment,” Tristan said, and Caro sighed, “come on, Athena.” We walked out of the tent. “She’s right it’s none of your business.”

“I know that,” I said.

“It doesn’t affect you,” he shrugged, “it affects me, and Lisette. And Prior and Caro. But it has nothing to do with you.” I sighed. “I know you love me, I know you worry, but Thena, you can’t interfere in my marriage, it’s going poorly enough right now.”

“You’re right,” I sighed.

“I know I am,” he said. “Wait, what?”

“You asked to train Althea.” He nodded. “Why?”

“Because I want Calla to be safe,” he said. “And because then I could be home.”

“But what you do is important,” I said.

“What I do is important, but it’s not working and it’s what you’re supposed to do.” He shrugged. “Which is probably why it isn’t working. What’s gotten into you?” I exhaled.

“Harran has been helping,” I said. He nodded. “I’ve been doing nothing, and I couldn’t keep up with any of you today, and,” I exhaled, he smirked. “Don’t do that.”

“You think that you’re going to lose to Harran,” he said. I groaned. “And that is unacceptable.”

“Obviously,” I crossed my arms, “I lost to Annalise, she hasn’t beaten me ever. I nearly lost to Aaron last week, Tristan. Aaron.”

“Honestly, you have gotten sloppy, and he probably just let you win because he’s your husband and he loves you.” He said. I whacked him in the arm. “You want to train?” I nodded. “Just with me?”

“Martin is allowed too,” I said. He nodded and frowned. “And explain to Caro? I don’t want her thinking I’m trying to get involved in,” I gestured, “all of that. I’m on your side.” He nodded and hugged me.

“I know,” he said. “I’m sorry we jumped to conclusions. I should have assumed that it was actually all about you, it usually is.” I punched him again. “Lisette has gotten very good though. She’s always been fast, but she was like lightning today.”

“If she beats me again I’ll start taking it out on recruits,” I mumbled. My brother grinned at me.

“I have no doubt,” he said. “Good night Athena.” I sighed and returned to our tent and saw Aaron playing on the ground with Calla. She had two dolls, one dressed in a guard uniform and the other in a fine dress with a crown on.

“What have we here?” I asked bending down.

“Well,” Aaron smiled, “it seems that this guard and this princess are off to hunt shadows.”

“No, Papa,” Calla said, exasperated, “they’ve returned home from hunting shadows.” I laughed. “The Princess destroyed more of them and the guard is very put out.” I smiled. I wonder if the gods have made my daughter

“I see,” I nodded, “I think it may be time for you to go to sleep, Little One.” She yawned and nodded. I picked her up and lay her down on her cot next to the bed. “Do you like life at camp?”

“It’s very exciting,” she pondered. I nodded. “Mama, am I to live at Dovetail with Aunt Annalise now?”

“Where ever did you get that idea?” I asked tucking her in. “Of course you aren’t. You’ll be with us. Sometimes in Dovetail, and sometimes at Pantona, sometimes in camp like this.” She nodded.

“I only thought,” she said with another yawn, “as I’m her heir and the new baby.” I laughed.

“No Duck,” Aaron said sitting with her, “we are very proud of you for being so brave about become Aunt Annalise’s heir, but we’re a family, the three of us and the baby.” She nodded and snuggled in to fall asleep, her thumb in her mouth. Aaron looked at me and we walked inside.

“How is Tristan?” He asked. I looked at him.

“He agreed to help me train again,” I said softly. “What about him though?” Aaron followed my hands to my belly.

“Marina and Elodie said he was strong,” he said, “he ought to train too.” I laughed. “Have you thought of names? Do you want Alexander?” I sighed.

“No,” I said, “my father maybe? We don’t have another John.” He nodded.

“Alright then,” he said, “John it is.” I kissed him gently. “You know I want what you want.”

“I do,” I said softly. “I just wish I could decide what that was, right now.” He nodded and tightened the hug.

The Bruise


I was sitting quietly writing as we’d settled in for the night when Nika walked into my tent. She looked unsettled.

“What are you doing here?” I asked. She frowned.

“I have to ask you a favor,” she said.

“Alright,” I smiled. She was being overly serious. It made me want to tease her terribly, but I knew it wasn’t my place anymore. “What’s the favor?”

“When we arrive at the keep,” she frowned. “I need you to pretend we’re still together.” I gaped at her.

“You want to lie?” I said. She nodded. “About us? That’s not like you.”

“I know,” she said, “But I can’t do it. I can’t go through this wedding and these visits, with my sister and parents, having abandoned my people, my duty to them for a love that failed.” I stood up and went and held her hands. “So perhaps we could simply, pretend?”

“Of course,” I said quietly. “Or we could,” I choked on the words. I missed her. “We could not pretend, we could be together again.”

“No,” she whispered, “no, I can’t,” she swallowed, “I can’t do that anymore.” I nodded, trying to understand.

“I am so sorry, Nika,” I whispered, “I wish I were different, I do.” She put her hands around my face.

“I don’t,” she said, “oh, I would never wish you were different. I love you.” We kissed softly. “I just know you don’t love me, and I can’t take it anymore.” I pressed my forehead to hers. “I thought I could live with it, I really did. I thought that you wanting me, and me loving you and us having our life together would be enough.”

“I do love you,” I whispered.

“You love me as you love Annalise and Athena,” she whispered, “as your friend, and compatriot, but you don’t love me the way I love you, the way you love Lefty and Tristan.” I swallowed. “It’s alright, I made peace with it a long time ago, I just can’t do it anymore.” I nudged my nose against hers.

“Come to bed,” I whispered. She sighed. “Let me show you how I love you.”

“Sex isn’t love, Marina,” she said. “I never doubted you wanted me, or how good our sex was.” I blushed a little. “I think it might be the only way I am above the others in your estimation.” I laughed. “I mean, I have no doubt both Tristan and Lefty are both satisfactory lovers, the way you whimpered that it had never been like this our first time, was quite gratifying.”

“Alright, fine,” I sighed throwing up my hands. “Sex isn’t love, but you could still come to bed.” I took her hand and led her back.

“Rina,” she whispered.

“Nika,” I smiled and kissed her. “I miss you.” She sighed. “You won’t even talk to me.”

“I have nothing left to say,” she whispered. “What happened today?” I looked at her. “With Annalise?” I sighed.

“I suggested that you and Prior form a club,” I teased. She laughed. “Everyone saw, is all that happened.”

“Poor Carolina,” Nika said softly. I nodded. She took one of my curls around her finger. “Poor you.” I smiled.

“I’ll survive it,” I said. She nodded. “You’re wrong you know. I do love you.” She sighed and looked at me. “I’d have died without you, Nika. You saved me from despair a hundred times these past four years.” She kissed me.

“So you’ll save me this time?” She whispered. I nodded.

“I’ll be perfect,” I said and kissed her. “I might even fool you into taking me back.” She rolled her eyes and onto her back, I straddled her.

“Rina,” she warned, but there was a laugh in her voice. I grinned down at her and we kissed. “This is not going to be a regular occurrence.”

“Absolutely not,” I said, unwinder her veil and running my hands over her hair. “Only tonight.” I kissed down her neck and opened her robe, then down her breasts. “I will be perfectly behaved.”

“Mm,” she exhaled, letting her arms drift over her head. I took her breast into my mouth and sucked gently. “Oh gods,” she exhaled. I wanted to make her shake and moan, worship her body.

I traced kisses down her belly to her sex and licked and kissed gently. She inhaled and then let out a moaning sigh. She tasted so sweet. The tiny hitches in her breath, as I tasted her, pleasured her, everything about Nika is so controlled, except here, except with me.

“Marina,” she lifted her hips. “Oh, my love,” I pulled back and looked at her.

“Let go,” I whispered, working my fingers into her. “Just be with me.” I kissed her and she pulled me close as she came on my hand.

“Rina,” she mumbled as I slid beside her and held her. “We can’t.” I kissed her hair.

“I know,” I said softly. “But I want you.” She rested her head against me.

“You’re spoiled,” she mumbled. I laughed. “Getting everything you want.”

“You love me,” I whispered and then kissed her.

“Unfortunately for me,” she rolled over in mock submission. “Yes, I do.” I slid into her arms and she pulled me close. “It hurts, so much, Rina.”

“I know,” I said. “I want to make it stop hurting.”

“You can’t,” Nika said gently. “You’re the bruise and being with you is just pressing on it.” I understood now.

“You’ll have to tell them eventually,” I whispered. She sighed. “Brea might even guess.”

“Brea will not guess,” she said, “Brea won’t be able to see five feet in front of her. Brea is about to marry Harran, which is everything she’s wanted since she was five years old. That this is the only thing that matters to Brea right now.” I laughed.

“She once told me that she knew many curses that would make me wish I’d never been born,” I said softly, “if anything ever happened to you, if I ever hurt you.” She looked at me.

“Really?” She said. I nodded. “Brea doesn’t actually know any curses.” She paused. “I don’t think so at least.” I laughed and kissed her.

“I’d really rather not risk it,” I smiled. She pulled me into her lap.

“Then stop hurting me,” she grinned. I sighed.

“I am trying,” I whispered and kissed her again.

“I know you are,” she said. “You’ll do this for me?” I nodded. “Thank you.”



We’d be riding for a week or so, with full court. It had been a while since we’d done this going anywhere but Brightcoast and I’d forgotten how tedious it was to move with so many people.

It was made a little more pleasant by the fact that I was slowly getting court used to Prior. He was riding beside me, which we’d never done before and he was just as pleasant there as he was everywhere else. He chatted and challenged and made me smile. And at night we shared a tent and his skills as a lover relieved me from the long days.

He could be my husband. This could be the rest of my life, I realize as I wake up to sun peaking through the flaps of the tent and he’s pressed against me.

He adores me. I’d be happy.

“Mm,” he stirred, “Annalise, go back to sleep.” I shook my head.

“You can,” I said and kissed him. He nodded, and rolled over and I slipped out, my swords on my hips. Thomas was already waiting for me.

“You and I need to have a conversation,” he said.

“Can we have it while sparring?” I asked brightly. He frowned at me. “Thomas, what could you possibly be this worried about right now?”

“Do you think this trip is going to yield anything?” He asked. I sighed.

“It will at least keep the tribes happy,” I pointed out. He nodded. “I thought you were going to lecture me about Prior.” He snorted.

“Absolutely not,” he said, “that is a part of your life I have never wanted any control of.” I smiled. “Are you happy?” I nodded. “Good. Now, you want to spar?” I nodded. We were eventually joined by the twins and Prior. I never get tired of watching Athena spar with people, she moves so effortlessly, like a dancer. Tristan matches her each step, and the group that’s joined around them.

“What do you think, Your Majesty?” Tristan smirked at me. I grinned and went for him, sliding down towards his legs, he jumped and landed before I could take out his knees. “You’re wily, but I know that one.” I rolled my eyes and stood back up and engaged him. One strike on his sword, then two. My swords carefully caught his blade and our eyes met.

We hadn’t been this close in along time. Even if it was a fight it felt right. He raised his eyebrows.

“Yield?” I said. He nodded and bowed.

“Yield,” he said. I smiled. “You’ve gotten better.”

“You’re rusty,” I grinned and sheathed my swords. “Or getting slow in your old age.” He laughed and swung around his sword pausing right at my throat.

“Slow?” He said. I glanced over at the crowd that had formed. Both Prior and Carolina were among them and I lifted my swords and clanged against his again and we moved closer. “I am not slow.” I was breathing heavily with his face close to mine. “Yield?”

“Yield,” I said and pulled back. This is why we can’t be close. Because now all day my mind will be full of Tristan. Of memories and fantasies of his hands on me, of kissing him, of him inside of me. Of his smile and his scowl and his body and chat (as little of that as there is.)

And all the while Caro’s kind smiling eyes will be watching me, knowing what I’m thinking and it’s horrible.

It’s why I can’t be close to Tristan. I looked over and saw Prior, our eyes met and then he looked away.

“Lisette,” Tristan said softly, so that only I could hear.

“Don’t,” I said. “It was a good fight.” I sheathed my swords and walked off the practice field.

“Annalise,” Prior followed after me. “Annalise,” I looked at him. “What was that?”

“Sparring?” I tried. He raised his eyebrows. “That was me and Tristan.”

“I’ve seen you and Tristan,” he said softly.

“Apparently you haven’t actually.” I said. He frowned. “It was stupid, we should have known better.”

“Than to spar?” He asked. He seemed actually angry. I’ve never seen him angry. “You two can’t spar?”

“No,” I said and crossed my arms and shrugged. “We can’t spar, or dance or ride or be alone together, or anything.” He nodded. “I thought you knew.”

“I didn’t,” he whispered. “Now, I do.” I swallowed. “Are you still in love with him?”

“It’s more complicated than that,” I said softly.

“I don’t think it is actually,” he said, “I was willing to be your second choice. The convenient one, with Prince Eric gone.” I looked away. “I understood that. But this,” he said, “he’s my friend, Annalise, my partner.”

“I know,” I said sharply. “He’s also married and in love with my cousin, and the only person who’s ever seen all of me and it is complicated.” He looked wounded. “I’m not choosing you over him, which is what you’re about to ask me. Eric did too. But he isn’t a choice. Tristan is simply a fact and one I do what I can to avoid making a problem. I thought you understood that.”

“Whatever you’re doing,” he said, “it isn’t working. This is a problem, Annalise.” He walked away.

I exhaled and walked back to my tent. Marina was sitting, with her small loom working on her bandages.

“That was interesting,” she smirked at me.

“You of all people don’t get to lecture me,” I said and plopped next to her.

“I actually came to see if you were alright,” she said. I shrugged. “Perhaps Prior and Nika can form some sort of society or club.” I laughed. “I bet Harran would join too. Maybe Caro. Certainly Damian, though I think Eric would be above it.” I shook my head.

“That was reckless,” I muttered, “I’m normally better about keeping distance.” She looked at me. “It’s easier to pretend when I’m not right near him.”

“I know,” Marina whispered. “You’re stronger than I am in that regard.” I looked at her.

“It isn’t my strength, Rina,” I whispered. “He wants you. So he’s less able to stay away.” She sighed.

“I thought I wanted him,” she said softly. “But now I just,” she exhaled. “I want Nika. I miss her.” She rested her head on my shoulder. “It’s all so broken.”

“I know,” I whispered. “I don’t love Prior.” She nodded.

“I know,” she said.

“I asked him to marry me,” I mumbled, “but I don’t love him. I’m terrible.”

“Prior knows you don’t love him, Lisette,” Marina said gently. “I think he just, didn’t realize how you felt about Tristan.” I looked at her. “I can’t blame anyone for not wanting to be a part of that. Especially not someone who loves you both as much as he does.”

“As much as you do,” I said. She looked at me.

“As much as he does,” she whispered. “Harran and Eric could wish Tristan away, when they saw you keeping your distance. They could cut him out,” she looked down. “Prior can’t do that. He loves Tristan. Tristan is his friend. He loves you, and wants to be with you. Until today I don’t think he thought the two things were incompatible.”

“We make it work,” I said.

“We’re different,” she said. I looked at her. “You know that. You know it’s different.” Tristan walked in. “You two need to talk.” She stood up and kissed him on the cheek. He pressed his hand to her wrist. Everything they do is so intimate, it’s impossible to ignor.

“Are you going to marry him?” he asked. I sighed. “Lisette.”

“I don’t know,” I said. “I want to.”

“Did you want to before you realized that you were attending the wedding of your former lover to a woman you can’t stand?” He asked. “It doesn’t feel at all, say jealous or opportunistic?”

“You sound jealous,” I said, “and it’s an interesting moment for that as well.” He scoffed. “For a year you’ve showed no interest in my relationship with Prior.”

“For a year I didn’t think you’d completely lost your senses but I’ve been wrong before,” he said. “Five years ago I asked you to marry me,” I swallowed, “and you said it was impossible. What’s different now?”

“You know that answer,” I said. He stared me down. “I am supposed to remain miserable until Daniel makes a damn decision and I can have what I actually want? It may never happen.” He sighed.

“Lisette,” he whispered, “don’t do it. It isn’t fair.”

“To who?” I said. “To you? You left me five years ago, Tristan. You married someone else.” He sighed.

“It isn’t fair to Prior,” he said. “Or to you, frankly, but as you’re the one with less to lose, it’s more to him.” I looked at him.

“I’m sorry that you and Carolina are unhappy but that doesn’t mean,” I started and he wrapped his arms around me.

“It does, actually,” he said, “I was never going to be happy without you,” he whispered, “and I dragged Caro down with me and it was wrong. Don’t do it.”

“I’m not you,” I said. He nodded. “You barely know me anymore.”

“Lisette,” he said softly. “I know you,” he kissed me then. I was surprised but it was so clear, so familiar, “I know you more than anyone ever will. And you made me swear to always tell you the truth. So let me tell you.” I pressed my forehead to his. “You’re hurting yourself and him, and I care too much about both of you to let it happen without saying so.” It had been so long since he’d held me, or kissed me. I hadn’t even realized I missed it. Missed him.

“You’d have said the same about Eric,” I said. He smiled.

“No,” he whispered, “I don’t like it, but he’s right for you. The short time I saw you together you were so strong, and sure of your course, my love,” I closed my eyes tightly. “You’re lost, and I don’t blame you for looking for a light, and Prior is a damn good one.” I sniffed. “But you’ve fought so hard, why give up now?”

“I do care for him,” I whispered. He nodded. “And I’m so tired. I’m sorry you’re unhappy.” He sighed.

“We had our chance to go another way,” he admitted, “we didn’t take it.” I looked at him and nodded. The door opened and Prior walked in. “Is that all, your majesty?” Tristan said, clearing his throat.

“Yes, Commander, thank you,” I smiled gently, “as always.” He nodded and left. Prior looked oddly at me.

“What did he want?” He asked. I exhaled and looked up at him. “Annalise,” he said, “Talk to me, please.” I swallowed. “I shouldn’t have walked away before, I was just,” he shook his head. “I thought it was over.”

“It is,” I pulled away. He sighed. “Except that it never will be, if that makes sense.” He nodded. “And now, he’s worried, about you. Because he loves you.”

“Was Tristan telling you he thinks that you marrying me is going to destroy my life and leave me a hollowed out miserable shell of a man?” He said. I turned and stared at him aghast.

“Nearly exactly,” I nodded. He laughed. “He’s brought this up before?”

“He’s extremely worried about it in point of fact,” he said, flopping into a chair. “He is very protective, as you know.”

“Well,” I blinked, “yes, but I thought he was grumpy about it all because well, you’re a man, who’s not him.” Prior smiled gently.

“Darling,” he walked over and cupped my face, “Tristan is quite confident in your abilities to annihilate me emotionally, and walk away unscathed.” I laughed.

“Truly?” I whispered.

“Mm,” he nodded and kissed me. “I thought I was made of sterner stuff, but after this morning, well, I’m less condfident.” I looked down.

“Prior,” I whispered.

“Yes, My Queen,” he smiled.

“Take me to bed,” I grinned. He laughed.

“Of course,” he said and swept me off my feet. He placed me on the mattress and kissed me. “What do you think, Annalise? After this week, we’re moving into my territory.”

“Mm,” I smiled as he touched me. “Are you suggesting the ranger is a different lover than the courtier?” He grinned down at me.

“Something like that,” he whispered and kissed me. “And the ranger,” he slid my gown down my shoulders, “is far less patient,” we kissed, “a good deal less obsequious,” and he pushed into me, “and much rougher.” I exhaled in a groan.

“I look forward to meeting him.” I moaned. It felt good, to be lost in the oblivion of sex. He finished. “Prior,” I whispered, and he touched my face gently. “I wouldn’t be unscathed.” He pressed his forehead to mine.

“Well that’s a start,” he mumbled. I giggled.