With All Due Respect

Marina

I started to get undressed when I felt Damian’s lips against my neck. He undid my necklace clasp and then began unlacing me.

“I’ve been thinking,” he said softly.

“Mm,” I closed my eyes.

“I may resign my post,” he said, “and go to work for my father. Then I could live here, but still sail.” I turned around and kissed him deeply. “Nothing’s final, love.”

“That you’re even considering it is my victory,” I whispered and he walked me back to the bed. “Damian,” I said gently, “let me undress.”

I want to undress you,” he said softly, pulling my gown down. “I hate that you ever wear clothes.” I giggled as he kissed me.

“I’m sorry M’Lady,” a guard ran in. I sat up and pulled my dress, “Commander Dugarry is here.” I stood up.

“Did she say why?” I asked. He shook his head. I exhaled. “We’ll be right down.”

“Meaning no offense,” he mumbled, “She’s requested Lieutenant Lestoff remain here.” I looked at him worried, but he nodded.

“Alright,” I said and walked downstairs. Athena was staring at me. “What is it?” I said softly. “Thena,” I said softly. “Why didn’t you want Damian to come?”

“The ships are here,” she said, her voice dry. I stared at her wide eyes. “Some admiral has already come ashore to speak to Lisette.” I stared at her. “I’ll speak to Lefty, but he can’t leave, Eric and Raymond are sequestered at the palace too.” I swallowed.

“And the others?” I said.

“At the barracks, the same situation,” Athena said softly, “until we know more, we can’t risk.” I nodded. “Do you want to tell him?”

“He’ll want to go to Eric,” I whispered. She nodded. “Can’t we escort him?” She shook her head.

“No, I’m sorry, these are the orders,” she looked so sad. It’s moments like these that I remember that she’s a soldier, first and foremost. “Marina,” she said, “be quick about it.” I nodded and hurried back upstairs.

“What’s wrong?” Damian looked at me. “Rina,” I swallowed.

“There are ships,” I said softly, he exhaled, “I have to go to the palace, Athena said you have to stay here until we know more.”

“You don’t think,” he whispered, “Marina,” I swallowed. “I didn’t send for anyone.”

“No one thinks that,” I said, “but Athena has orders.” He exhaled. “I’m sorry, I know.” He pressed his forehead to mine. “I have to go.”

“I know,” he whispered. “I love you.” I nodded and grabbed a cloak and Athena and I moved quickly up the beach to the palace and into the throne room. Annalise had changed. I smiled. The Crown of The Goddess was on her head, and she was in her green battle dress.

“Where is he?” She asked Athena.

“Being held in the dining room,” Athena said simply, “we wanted everyone here first.” I walked over and kissed her gently on the cheek.

“Are you alright?” I said. She nodded. “You can do this.”

“Right,” she mumbled and settled in on the dais. Martin, Athena and I flanked her, Aaron standing vaguely off to the side. The guards opened the doors, and a man in a highly adorned Phanian navel uniform.

He was tall, and dark skinned. His hair was twisted into dread locks and he had an almost arrogant smirk on his face.

“Your Majesty,” he said, “my apologies if I disturbed your sleep.” Annalise had her steely Sword Face, as I’d come to call it, on. “I am Admiral Kieran Franz.” I swallowed and looked at him, trying to get any sort of read, but he felt blank. “I am here as an emissary from King Daniel.”

“You are welcome Admiral,” she said, “I am confused, though, is King Daniel unhappy with his current emissaries? I can’t believe that the prince and my honored cousin were somehow lax in their duties here.” I glanced at him, seeing if he would call the bluff, that Raymond and Eric were both conspicuously absent. “And if you’re an emissary, why is there a fleet of war ships blocking my harbor?”

“This isn’t a blockade,” he said, “should anyone wish to enter the harbor they will be allowed to pass.” Athena snorted. “Of course Lady Athena, that would be a concern of yours?”

“I’d be curious to see you try to stop my grandfather, sir,” Athena said. I looked at her with caution. “However, yes, it is good to know.”

“Of course,” he smiled. “Regardless, we haven’t come to disrupt, but we believed there was some cause for concern when it came to Prince Eric and Lord Raymond.” Annalise’s eyes narrowed. “Where are they, now, come to think of it?”

“I didn’t feel the need to wake them,” Annalise said. His face flattened. “But of course we can send for them.” She nodded to Aaron who walked out of the room. I swallowed, but my throat was dry. Something was very wrong.

“Oh, good, it’s you, Franz,” Eric smiled walking in. He looked amused, which made me nervous. “Here I thought my brother was serious about an invasion.” The Admiral scowled at him. “You’ll have to forgive Lord Raymond, he’s been spending a good deal of time at the University and isn’t in the palace at all this evening.” I exhaled, relieved. “Your Majesty,” he smirked at Lisette. “I hope you’re well.”

“Well enough,” she said gently. “And yourself?” He grinned.

“Eminently satisfied, thank you,” he smirked. I looked at Athena who rolled her eyes.

“Your Highness,” The Admiral cleared his throat, “The King And Queen had concerns,” Eric’s eyes narrowed at him.

“You are suggesting that my brother and sister in law sent a flotilla of war ships because they were concerned about me?” He said. “I’d rather you not insult me, or Queen Annalise with such pretense.” I inhaled, I’d never really seen Eric be royal before, it was a bit mesmerizing. “I assume there’s at least a letter?” The admiral nodded. “Good then, when I know what my brother wants of me, and what I intend to do about it, I will inform you.” He looked at him. “You’re dismissed.”

“I outrank you, boy,” The Admiral growled. “You’re barely a captain, I won’t be dismissed.” That’s when Annalise stood up. She was practically floating.

“This is my kingdom, Admiral,” she said, “you’re in this room, your men on that beach on my permission.” She glanced at Martin and Athena. “May the gods have mercy on you if you think two of Cornan’s champions can’t handle you.”

“Of course, Your Majesty,” he said and bowed. “I’ll take my leave and await an answer.”

“Do that,” she said and he turned and left. She sighed and collapsed into Eric’s arms. He laughed. “He seems pleasant.”

“Oh very,” Eric nodded, “always liked me too.”

“I missed something,” I said.

“From not speaking to happily in love in an evening,” Martin sighed, “I am very grateful to not be young anymore.” Eric looked at me.

“Is Lefty alright?” He asked. I sighed.

“I don’t know,” I said, “I ran over here.” He sighed and looked at Martin.

“You think Lefty’s the one who got us here?” He said. Martin sighed and shrugged.

“Believe it or not your highness,” he said gently, “I don’t rule out anything when there’s half an armada on our doorstep.” Then he looked at me. “Athena, please send a few guards to the manor and to the university. I think it will set everyone’s minds at ease if Lieutenant Lestoff and Lord Raymond are here.” Athena nodded. “Your father too?” He asked.

“No,” I croaked. “No, I don’t think that will help.” This was my father’s greatest fear, I realized. I swallowed and sat down, dazed.

If war was coming, I didn’t know what would happen next.

Invasion

Annalise

I felt entirely limp as Eric propped himself up on his elbow and grinned at me. I’ve never felt like this, so spent and full of pleasure and happiness at the same time.

“You don’t need to look so smug,” I said. He laughed and pushed my hair off of my face. “This isn’t because of you, necessarily, I like sex.” He laughed.

“So I could see,” he said and kissed me gently. “I like you like this,” he said. I arched an eyebrow at him and he kissed me again. “You’re more vocal than I expected.”

“You’re more forceful than I did,” I said. He kissed me. “I’ve wanted this for so long.” He smiled and kissed me again, moving to my neck.

“So what now, my love?” He asked. I sighed.

“Marriage, I suppose,” I stretched. “If you’ll have me.” He grinned and pulled me close.

“It doesn’t have to be tomorrow,” he said softly, “if you aren’t ready.” I kissed him gently again. “I don’t want to wait forever though.”

“Of course not,” I said. “But perhaps a bit? We should get used to each other, and,” I looked at him, “well, I’d like to meet your mother and sister.” He laughed and rolled onto his back.

“Oh, they’d like to meet you too, I’m sure,” he said softly. “I’d like to bring Katrin here, honestly, to live.” I looked at him. “It’d be better for her, I think.”

“Why is that?” I asked quietly. He frowned.

“She’s in Princess Karina’s household now, which is fine,” he sighed. “But I don’t want the court to get it’s hooks into her. She’s special, that would be allowed here, not so much at home. But until something more permanent can be arranged, under Elana’s care is as close to safe as possible.” I kissed his neck softly. “The only thing I’d regret about us is bringing my family’s mess to your door.”

“I don’t know that my family is any better,” I laughed and straddled him. His hands slid up my body. “Marina is practically losing her mind, I’m reasonably sure that Uncle Les’s is long gone, Olivia and Aaron would rather live out their days half a continent away and Brayton wants me dead.” He laughed.

“When you put it like that,” he said, “we really are perfectly suited.” He kissed me. I whimpered as his hands slid onto my hips and positioned me. “But I believe we both reached that conclusion earlier.”

That’s when there was a frantic knock on the door, not like Athena’s gentle knock earlier. No this was urgent. I sighed and quickly slipped a robe on. I opened the door.

“Thomas?” I said, seeing Martin standing in front of me. “What is it?”

“If I could have a word,” he mumbled. I nodded and stepped into the parlor. “There’s no easy way to say this.” I swallowed. “There are at least twenty Phanian warships in the bay and a small landing party is on the beach.”

“What?” I said. “That’s, that’s not possible.” He looked at me. “What do we do?”

“Is he in there?” He asked, raising an eyebrow. I nodded. “Damn, and Raymond is at the university and Lestoff already at the manor. It would be easier if they were all together.” I swallowed.

“Thomas, you don’t think,” I exhaled, “he wouldn’t betray me.” He looked at me.

“I haven’t ruled anything out yet,” he said softly. “But I also haven’t even begun to reach a place where I could make an accusation.” I nodded. “Annalise,” he said softly, “we don’t know what this is yet. But you need to tell him, and Elodie is going to guard him here. Mercy will dress you, do you understand me?”

“Yes,” I croaked. He kissed my forehead and went to leave. “Thomas,” I said softly, he stopped. “What would my father have done?” He exhaled.

“He’d have trusted my judgement,” he said softly, “but that got him killed, so I can’t push you to do that.” I nodded. “You’ll be fine.” I swallowed and walked back into the bedroom.

“I heard most of it,” Eric said softly and pressed his forehead to mine. “What do you need from me?”

“Please swear it wasn’t you?” I said. He nodded. “I know you’ve been angry and,” he swallowed.

“I didn’t,” he said, “I didn’t even write my mother that we were arguing because I was worried that this might happen.” I kissed him gently. “But I’ll stay put until I’m called for.” He cupped my face. “Highlight the Goddess in your dress, whoever it is, they’ll likely be a pious idiot.” I laughed.

“Thank you,” I whispered. “Goddess, I was mostly just worried about what I was going to tell Harran.” He laughed. “I don’t want war.”

“I know,” he said. “Go get dressed, I’ll be a good boy.” I smiled gently and walked back out into the main room. Elodie and Mercy were waiting. Mercy dressed me quickly, my green uniform gown laced up quickly and the crown of the Goddess on my head. We walked down to the throne room and I walked in and saw Aaron looking at me.

“You’d be well within your rights to say you told me so,” I said. He shook his head.

“This isn’t quite how I wanted to win the argument,” he said. “I’m sorry. I was an ass.”

“I’m sorry too,” I sighed, “I was reckless.” He shrugged. “Friends.”

“Always,” he hugged me. “Are you ready? Athena went to fetch Marin.” I nodded and settled on the throne, trying my best to gather my dignity.

Romance

Athena

After dinner I suggested that we walk on the beach, because Aaron is so on edge, and barely speaking to Lisette still. He was so there when I was dark and I want to be there with him, too. But he’s sullen and edgy and I miss his sparkle and laugh.

“They seemed nice,” he said softly, “Brea and Nika? Do you like them?” I smiled.

“I like Nika,” I said, “or at least I think so. Brea seems a little more high handed, and she wants to take Harran away and I can’t forgive that.” He laughed.

“Mm,” he sighed, “yes, you’re too protective of your friends.” I looked at him. “I was glad to see Eric at dinner.”

“Me too,” I said softly, “I don’t know that it will amount to much. Marina seems to think he doesn’t have it in him to forgive her.” He nodded. “Do you?” He sighed.

“I think I have already,” he admitted. “I’m just punishing her now,” I laughed. “And I miss her.”

“I can tell,” I said. “I got a letter from Tristan today. Carolina DuKarras accepted him. They’re planning to be married in Dovetail, after us.” He smiled.

“After us?” He said. I nodded. “I’ll pressure William about the place in Pantona for them. And she’s joining the guard?”

“That seems to be the plan, though I suppose it’s up to Lisette,” I shrugged, “and Martin.” He nodded. “Are you going to enlist?” He laughed.

“No, darling,” he said, “I don’t think I will, if you can forgive it.” I laughed.

“Of course,” I said softly and kissed him gently. “If it comes to war though,” he exhaled.

“I’ll fight beside you,” he whispered, “and her, always, but knowing I can walk away,” he drifted off. “And I can’t pledge more to her, if these past few weeks have shown me anything it’s that I can’t,” he sighed. I smiled softly at him.

“I know,” I whispered. He looked at me. “This is very romantic, by the way,” he laughed and kicked the sand.

“We’ve been a little pathetic on the romance front lately, haven’t we?” He smiled. I laughed as he pulled me close. “Better?”

“Oh, much,” I nodded. He kissed me. “Aaron,” I muttered.

“Yes, Athena,” he said softly. He traced my jaw gently with his thumb. I exhaled.

“The game you and Lisette used to play, if she was really Lisette,” I said softly. He nodded, “What would we be in that world?”

“I can’t imagine I wouldn’t have dropped everything to pursue you the minute I met you,” he smiled. “Without Lisette between us, it might have taken me longer to get your guard down.” I laughed.

“It certainly would have,” I said with as much dignity as I could muster. He laughed. “But I can’t imagine not softening to you eventually.”

“Mmm,” he nodded and kissed me.

“I don’t understand why you sent for me, then,” we both slunk back behind a pillar hearing Brea, following after her was Harran.

“Because I needed to know I could trust whoever it was,” he said, “and I trust you.” She snorted, Aaron looked at me.

“You needed someone with the sight and you knew Nika wouldn’t come without me,” she said, “I guess I was fooling myself, thinking that you actually wanted to see me.”

“Brea,” he said gently, “what am I supposed to do?”

“I don’t care what the elders say,” she straightened up, “or even you, I won’t marry Rian just because you changed your mind.”

“I never made up my mind,” he hissed. “You made it up for me, but things changed.”

“Yes, obviously,” she said. “And I’m just supposed to bow and smile at the woman who’s ruined my life, how excellent.” She marched back into the palace.

“I know you two are there,” Harran called out. We stepped out. “Does Lisette know?”

“I think she guessed,” Aaron grimaced, “though I doubt she thought you were celibate between leaving us in Pantona and getting into her bed three weeks ago.” He sighed. “You might have warned both of them, though, for your own sake.”

“Brea wasn’t wrong, though,” Harran sat down and looked at his feet, “I knew we needed Nika and she’s not likely to do anything without her sister. It wasn’t really fair to her.” I looked at him. “She should marry my brother though, she’s being stupid about that.”

“Maybe she is,” I said softly. I left the rest unsaid. He was being stupid too, he knew Lisette didn’t love him, and wouldn’t keep him with her for the long term. Aaron looked at me. “Nika seems game though.” Harran laughed.

“I think Nika will do well here, honestly,” he admitted, “She never quite fit with the tribes. The Witches are always a bit on their own, but Nika,” he shook his head. “She was exceptional, which made her lonely.”

“No wonder I like her,” I smiled, “I’m exceptional too.” He laughed and I heard Aaroon snort derisively.

“Athena,” Marina walked out. “I have to get Papa home, but I made Lissette a sleeping drought, could you bring it to her?”

“I’ll bring it,” Harran said. Marina stared at him.

“Did she ask for you?” She said softly. He frowned. “She was upset today, I wouldn’t press.” He sighed.

“You’re right,” he mumbled and slunk out, probably back to his own rooms.

“Our little diplomat,” Aaron smirked. Marina sighed and shrugged.

“I know Eric went to speak to her,” she said, “I can’t imagine Harran showing up to help her to bed would help that conversation along.”

“No,” I said. “I don’t imagine it would.” I inhaled. “The kitchen will have it?” She nodded. “I’ll bring it. Although, isn’t it Mercy’s job, technically?”

“Technically,” Marina shrugged, “but she and Elodie disappeared ages ago and you’re right here.” I laughed.

“The lady has a point,” Aaron sighed, “if we’d adjourned to bed immediately instead of taking a walk maybe you’d get out of it.”

“Hm,” I sighed, and kissed him. “I’ll meet you there then.” He grinned. I walked inside and up to Annalise’s apartments. The two guards at the door let me past, as I held the pot of tea that Marina had brewed up.

“Lisette,” I said, gently but loud enough to penetrate the door, as I knocked. There wasn’t even much of a sign of Eric, which was a little worrying. “Lisette, Marina sent me with the potion for you.”

She opened the door, looking flushed and wrapped in a sheet. I cocked my head to the side.

“I don’t know that I’ll need it after all,” she said and took the pot. “But thank you, and I’ll thank Marina later.”

“Of course,” I said, “should I send Mercy up?”

“I’m alright,” she said softly. “Really.”

“Hello, Commander,” Eric walked over and hugged her from behind. “Is everything alright?”

“Your Highness,” I said. “Yes, just doing my job.”

“I’m fine,” Lisette said, “we can speak in the morning.”

“We certainly will,” I raised my eyebrows and sighed as she closed the door.

Resolution

Annalise

I don’t know that I’ve ever sat at a dinner this awkward. Everything is being done formally, which Olivia saw to, not something we’ve done since coming to Brightcoast. Since we’re honoring Brea and Nika they’re sitting on either side of me, and Harran walked in with Brea on his arm.

I’m trying to will myself to be jealous, but it simply won’t rise in me. It’s more annoying, that he has another demand on his time and a bit frustrating that he didn’t tell me that he’d sent for someone he had a history with.

And as if it wasn’t enough to have her staring daggers at me, and Harran not meeting my eyes, Eric’s decided to return to being seen in public tonight. My heart stopped in my chest when he walked in, he didn’t look terribly well, better perhaps than when we last talked, but it was clear that anger didn’t suit him at all.

I found myself longing for a smile and wink from him to get me through the night. It wouldn’t come, I knew that much.

“Your Majesty,” Nika said softly and I turned to her, “I think we all got off on the wrong foot this afternoon.”

“Yes, I think we did,” I said softly. “I’m sorry, I often feel pulled in ten different directions.” She smiled and nodded. “We do need your help though, rather desperately. Marina and I have something of an adhoc magical education. Mastero Anselm did as well as he could on his own for me, and I think the sisters in Dovetail went as far to the line as they could safely with her.” Nika nodded. “But it was lonely, and we’re often simply muddling through.”

“Of course,” Nika nodded. “And we are here to help.” She sighed. “Are you really sure, about the gods?” I nodded.

“Reasonably,” I sighed. She made a quick sign against evil. “Harran said you serve Amina, or at least, don’t shy from her realm?”

“The Dark Lady is as much a power as her siblings,” she shrugged, “she must be honored for that, her realm is crucial to any balance in this world.” I looked at her. “Have you ever seen a ghost, Majesty?”

“I used to hear my mother,” I admitted softly, “her voice, screaming as she died.” Nika nodded.

“Our time honoring the dark lady is about helping shades and ghosts cross over,” she explained, “it’s about them, not about her. But she’s vain, she likes tribute.” I laughed.

“I suppose she and I might have more in common than I initially gave her credit for.” I smiled and Nika laughed.

The final course was served and some music started, there was dancing, but it wasn’t formal, I put my foot down at a full formal ball. There was one planned for high summer in a week. I stepped out of the room onto the terrace and breathed in the air.

“If you keep carrying the weight of the world you’ll break in half,” I turned and saw Eric, leaning against the door. “And you’re so tiny, Anya, how will you manage?”

“I have to, if you’ll recall,” I shrugged, “Sword of The Goddess, and all.” He nodded and made a soft affirmative noise. “Eric,” I whispered as he stepped over to me. He pressed his forehead against mine. “I’m sorry.”

“I know,” he said, “I accept your apology, I do, I don’t know if I can forgive you.”

“Yet?” I whispered. He sighed.

“Yet,” He mumbled, “or ever.” I swallowed. “I wish I loved you less. Then I think I could let it go, for everyone’s good. But Gods, Annalise I love you, and I want you to love me. Maybe it’s unfair that I want you to only love me.” I swallowed. “But I can’t change that. I won’t share the parts of you I don’t have to. You’re already a queen and hero, there’s already such a small part of yourself that you even can give to a lover.” I swallowed. “And I want it to myself.”

“But I do only love you,” I said. He sighed. “I just can’t be as cautious as you, it’s not who I am.” He kissed me and pulled me close. “Eric,” I whispered, he was holding me so close.

“I want you so badly, my darling,” he said, “I’m sorry if you ever felt like I didn’t.” I looked up at him.

“What do you need from me?” I asked. “If my saying it can’t convince you, what do you need me to do?” He sighed and pulled away. “I can,” I swallowed, “I can send him away, if you,” he looked at me.

“No,” he shook his head, “no that’s clearly not the answer. Tristan’s gone, after all, and that didn’t fix anything.” I swallowed, “I won’t leave, I’m not giving up on you, on us,” I nodded.

“Hold me again,” I said gently. He smiled sadly and pulled me close. “I’ve missed you so much.”

“I’ve missed you too.” He said and lay a gently kiss against my neck. “I should go.” He went to pull away and I pulled on his shirt to keep him close. He exhaled and looked down at me. “Anya,” he whispered, his voice thin, but he was smiling.

“Kiss me again,” I said. He kissed me deeply. I arched into him. “I’m aching for you.” I whispered.

“Your bed is a bit crowded at the moment, isn’t it?” He said. I swallowed. He ran a single finger across my jaw, then down my neck. “Are you aching for me, or simply aching?” I looked at him. “This is what I can’t forgive, Annalise, I know it’s unfair, but if you wanted me, and not just sex, you wouldn’t have continued with Harran.” I stared at him.

“I’m sorry that I’m not the perfect pure little princess who you dreamed and fantasized about,” I said sharply. “I’m sorry that I’m a flesh and blood woman who wants to be satisfied. I’m sorry that I fell in love before I ever even saw you, and then that choosing you wasn’t ever enough.”

“That isn’t what I meant,” he snapped back. “Goddess you’re the most infuriating woman I’ve ever met.” I smiled softly at him.

“Again, all apologies, your highness,” I said. As if he wasn’t infuriating either. “If you’ll excuse me.” I walked back inside and thought about looking for Harran, and then my heart sank. I didn’t want him. Well, I did because I knew it would feel good, to go to my room and wrap myself around him and be lost in the bliss of his touch, his kiss, him inside of me.

But it wasn’t Harran I wanted. Not really.

“Are you alright?” Marina walked up to me. I swallowed.

“I think I need to go to bed,” I said softly. “Make my excuses?”

“Of course,” she said softly. “I’ll bring you something to help you sleep if you like.” I nodded. “Lisette,” she said as I walked past her, “it’s going to be alright.” I exhaled and walked up to my room and undressed quickly and climbed into bed.

I tried to sleep even without whatever Marina would bring me, but sleep wouldn’t come. I wondered if even without my asking for him Harran would be here. Probably not. He hadn’t before, we always had to make plans. I sat up hearing a knock.

“Marina, just come in,” I said and stood up. I walked and opened the door, Eric was standing there. “Not Marina.” I said.

“No,” he whispered and pulled me close and kissed me. I exhaled. “We weren’t finished.” I looked up at him.

“Weren’t we?” I said, he shook his head, the look on his face was one of wicked amusement.

“We were not,” he said, I swallowed. He’d been in my apartment before but never my bedroom. “I shouldn’t have brought Harran into it. It isn’t about that, it isn’t about you and other men at all.” I sat down on the bed. He walked over. “I don’t simply want to be a place holder because you hate to be alone.”

“I do hate to be alone,” I said softly, I sat up on my knees and wrapped my arms around his neck. “But I don’t want just anyone, I want you.” I kissed him again. He pushed me down under him onto the bed.

“I can see that,” he teased as his hands slid up my thighs, “or feel it, as it were.” I exhaled as his fingers brushed gently against me.

“Eric,” I mumbled, “don’t stop,” he did though and moved up my body, sliding my plain white shift over my head. The way his fingers felt sliding up, gently brushing my skin. “If you try to leave now, I’ll have you executed.” He chuckled.

“I thought you wanted to avoid war,” he mumbled, he was sitting up and unfastened his pants. I giggled. “Killing me would ensure it.”

“Frustrating me further will ensure your destruction, Your Highness,” I said leaning to sit up. He grinned and pushed me down again, this time gripping my wrists. “Eric,” I squirmed against his hold.

“You’ve accused me of being cold,” he said, “of not wanting you.” I swallowed and he kissed me. “I know that if you choose me, what my place will be.” I exhaled. “Besides you, behind you, kneeling to you first and always.”

“Yes,” I said, squirming more as he continued to hold me trapped under him. He was pressing against me, hard, and hot. I knew I should say more, but I couldn’t. I was so stimulated, I just wanted him\

“But perhaps that’s not what you want here, hm?” He whispered in my ear. “In bed you don’t have to be a queen or a hero, you can be a woman.” I exhaled. “My woman.” He met my eyes. “I’m going to take you now, Anya, as many times as I like.”

“Please,” I managed before he kissed me, his tongue tasting my mouth and then pushed into me. I groaned. He wasn’t big, I realized, but I didn’t care, he fit, beautifully and fully, as he thrust into me. I arched into him, thrusting up as he moved down. “Eric, Goddess, Eric,” I screamed as he moved his mouth to my neck. I cried out as he finally released my wrists, I grabbed onto his shoulder. “Don’t stop, please, don’t stop,” he slowed his stroking in and out of me then and pulled out. “Why did you stop?” I whispered. He grinned wickedly.

“Don’t give me orders,” he said. “Everywhere else, every other facet of our lives, I’ll be your consort, your humble servant, and do exactly as you say,” he rolled onto his side, and I followed him, “But here,” he kissed and then nipped my neck, I whimpered, “here, I’ll do as I like.” I swallowed and whimpered again as he turned my face and kissed me again. “Shall we continue?”

“Yes,” I said softly, “yes please.” He bit my bottom lip gently.

“Good,” he pulled me close. “I love you.” I smiled softly, but was quickly lost in the bliss of him inside of me.

Reception

Athena

We haven’t had any official receptions since getting to Brightcoast and I’d forgotten how tedious they are. But today we’re receiving the witches. Two sisters who Harran sent for, near our ages, which should be nice, having more people around.

The two girls who walked into the throne room were rather impressive, actually. They were both dressed entirely in black, and the taller one had long shiny straight hair, a round friendly face and a genially bounce in her step, the smaller one had her hair veiled, and a thinner face, and everything about her seems much more serious. They’re both brown skinned and have deeply arresting almost amber colored eyes.

“Your Majesty,” Harran said stepping forward. “May I present the honorable Brea and Nika Averran, Witches of The Westran Border tribe, and old friends of mine.”

I heard a sharp inhale from Marina, who was standing next to me. I wondered if she was feeling the same thing I was. It wasn’t as pronounced, as full, but the sisters’ presence seemed to add the same chill to a room that The Black Guards used to.

“Welcome,” Annalise said, stepping off the dais, “I appreciate your speedy arrival.”

“We are at your majesty’s disposal,” the taller one, Brea, said while curtseying deeply. “And honored that The Heir thought of us.” Harran looked down, almost blushing. I grinned.

“I trust your journey was comfortable?” Lisette asked.

“Very,” the smaller one, Nika spoke. “It was nice to see more of Cammadan, we’ve always stuck to the northern coast, for safety.”

“Of course,” Annalise said, but I’d noticed another shift in Marina’s body. I caught her eye and mouthed. “But I’m sure it was long, and you must be tired, please, follow me and I’ll show you to your quarters.”

Her? Marina had Dreamed a witch. She nodded sharply at me. I exhaled, I didn’t know if that was a good or bad sign. I followed after our honored guests and stood at the door as the reached the apartment.

“Is a soldier necessary?” Brea said, glancing at me. Harran snorted. “We aren’t a threat to you.”

“Lady Athena isn’t just a body guard,” Lisette said simply, “she’s also one of my closest advisors.”

“And The Champion of Cornan,” I said, Brea’s spine stiffened. “But by all means, Brea, was it? I can leave you all be.”

“Don’t be nasty,” Marina chastised me, I sighed, “Athena’s an acquired taste, for most of our lives she thought I was an idiot. But we’re good friends now.” I laughed and sat down next to her.

“I didn’t think you were an idiot,” I said. “I thought you were weak willed, silly and overly fixated on my oblivious brother.” I paused, “I was right about the one.”

“Sorry,” Raymond ran in, holding three very thick books. He looks so much better these days. He’s gaining weight and he’s always a little bit disheveled and busy, and suits him. “I’m sorry I missed the reception.”

“This is our cousin,” Annalise said with a gentle smile, “Sir Raymond Quents of Tumona.” Nika looked at him with her eyes narrowed.

“I was under the impression we were here to advise you,” Nika said, she was staring directly at Annalise, in a way that was probably unsettling, “not be a part of a council.”

“Nika,” Brea said softly. “My sister is correct, we’re not accustomed to,”

“Unless my father has changed a great deal in the past year,” Harran said, “I doubt this set up is unfamiliar to you, since Anders, Rian and I have basically been ruling for him for the last decade.”

“We thought that perhaps the vital young queen had things a bit more in hand than your father,” Brea said with a casual shrug.

“You were mistaken then,” Lisette sighed, “or at least misinformed, since as you can see, ruling is about as straightforward as herding cats.”

“My sister doesn’t mean to be disrespectful,” Nika said, “only, well, what is expected of us?”

“I dreamed you,” Marina blurted out, I looked at her, “I hadn’t Dreamed in months and then I had one, and you were in it, and well, I wasn’t sure it was you until I saw you today but you clearly are supposed to be here.”

“And I’ve been Dreaming that the Gods are imprisoned on tribal lands,” I said, “we have a feeling the two things are connected.”

“I’ve also been called several times by the Dark Lady and am not sure how to handle that,” Raymond said. I sighed and pressed my fingers against my nose. Brea laughed then.

“The Dark Lady would find you useful,” she sighed, “she’s never had much of a foothold in Phania. Too orderly and much to dedicated to Rana.”

“Brea,” Harran said softly, “please, be serious.”

“Of course,” she said, “but as I see it, you are actually extraneous here.” He glanced at Lisette.

“If the situation doesn’t suit you,” Lisette said, “you are welcome to return home,” she stood up, “but we do need your help, and I appreciate you coming.” She stood up and left, I followed after her as did everyone else. I could see the storm cloud over her head and decided to stay clear, I went down to the training field and went through some basic excercizes and was surprised when I saw Nika standing near me after a few moments.

“I feel like I should apologize,” she said. I looked at her.

“You barely spoke,” I shrugged. She smiled.

“Yes, but,” she shrugged, “my sister is,” she bit her bottom lip, “The Duchess called you an acquired taste?” I laughed. “Brea is the opposite, too sweet and then you find yourself sick from it.”

“I’m familiar with the type,” I said.

“It will be worse here,” she frowned. “She and Harran,” she sighed. I nodded.

“I picked up on that,” I said. She frowned, and picked up a staff. “Do you spar?” She smiled.

“Yes,” she sighed, “but not well enough to challenge you, I think.” I shrugged.

“How do you expect to get better?” I moved into battle stance. She smiled and move into hers and struck out at me, I blocked. “Agressive, that’s good.” I moved against her and she blocked me. “And quick.” I reversed her block and disarmed her but then felt a pressure push me away like wind. “Oh you have to teach me that.” I said as she pulled me up. She laughed.

“I don’t know if I can,” she admitted.

“Ugh, useless to me,” I winked. She blushed and looked down. “Not as bad as Marina, who isn’t even a Warrior and was given Battle Magic and Cornan told me it isn’t his gift to give.” She laughed.

“Does he speak to you directly often?” She asked as we made our way back to the palace.

“Not so often,” I shook my head. “I haven’t been able to commune anywhere but Dovetail or Pantona, certainly not here, and the Dreams are fewer and farther between.” I sighed. “We’re reasonably sure they’re weakening.” She nodded. “You fight well.”

“We’re all trained,” Nika shrugged. “Witches often have to travel from camp to camp, holdfast, even to cities, unlike many of our people. And warriors can’t always be spared to accompany us. Or so the Chieftain says.”

“Harran’s father?” I said. She nodded. “He mentioned something about his brothers and marrying witches.” Nika snorted. “No?”

“My sister would perhaps accept Rian,” Nika said, “but she wanted Harran.” I looked at her. “I’ve convinced her to stay, mostly because I want to.”

“I’m glad of it,” I said, “if only because you will be teaching me that move with the wind.” Nika laughed. “I’m familiar with having to navigate life with a difficult sibling.” She cocked her head. “My brother is,” I paused, realizing I hadn’t missed Tristan in a while. I’d been busy, with the wedding, with Lisette and Harran and containing the fallout from Eric. “Well, he can be difficult, though he’s apparently improving.”

“Apparently?” Nika grinned, “is he not here?”

“No,” I shook my head. “He’s in Dorin. I miss him.”

The Plan

Marina

I was still angry with Annalise when I got home that night after dinner. I’d sent Mercy to help her get dressed and done little more than nod and smile at dinner. When we got home I started going up to go to bed.

“Rina,” Papa said, stopping me, “I think we need to talk.”

“Alright,” I said and followed him into the library. “What is it that you want to talk about?” He sighed and sat down.

“Aaron said today you’re considering going to Tumona?” He said. I sighed.

“I knew you’d object,” I said. He frowned. “I want to see where you’re from, and furthermore, I think you should go with me.”

“I won’t go back there,” he said. I sighed. “If I didn’t go back when it could have spared us all,” he closed his eyes, “why would I go now?”

“Because I can’t go alone,” I said softly. He looked at me and sighed. “Because I might have to spend the next year lying and maneuvering in a place I don’t know. A place I do know won’t be safe for me.” He looked at me.

“What are you planning?” He asked. I sighed.

“If Annalise refuses the prince, or if he decides he can’t take her,” I shook my head, “well, her anymore, I’ll go back with them. I’ll present myself for the alliance,” he wrinkled his brow.

“And your Lieutenant doesn’t mind this plan?” He said. I pressed my lips into my mouth. “Don’t misunderstand me, it’s not a bad plan. It’s actually quite a good one. Daniel could always be distracted by something new and shiny.”

“Damian doesn’t love the idea,” I admitted. “But he understands it.” He nodded. “The excuse of visiting Tumona, well, that simply makes the most sense to get me there.” I sat down. “I do want to go though. I want to see Vacana, see the temple. It feels important.” He smiled.

“Marie and I left for good reasons,” he said softly, “they’re not,” he exhaled, “it’s not a good place, for girls like you. The sisters there, the temple,” he shook his head, “it’s cold, and detached. They don’t want Seers to be human, to feel.” I looked at him. “I don’t want to see you hollowed out.” He was sitting on the couch now, he looked exhausted. I knelt in front of him and took his hands.

“Papa,” I whispered, “I won’t be hollowed out, I’m not,” I looked at him. “We don’t have to be afraid.” He pressed his forehead to mine. “I’m strong, you raised me strong. The Goddess made me strong.” He smiled softly. “And it may not happen at all.”

“Oh my sweet girl,” he said softly.

“Besides which, surely Queen Elana has changed a few things?” I said. He snorted. “She’s your cousin and Raymond seems human enough to me.”

“He got out young,” he said, “and he’s a boy.” I laughed. “My cousin,” he exhaled. “Her mother, even more so, will take kindly to my returning to the island.” I smiled.

“You’re overthinking this,” I said, “I promise.” I kissed his forehead. “I’m going to bed.”

“You can tell Lieutenant Lestoff he can simply escort us home, rather than slip in through the servants quarters,” he smiled coyly at me. I blushed.

“I have told him that,” I explained, “but he still thinks you don’t like him for some reason.” He laughed. “Good night.”

“Good night,” he said. I walked upstairs and undressed and tried to stay awake waiting for Damian, but instead fell almost instantly to sleep, and even more importantly, for the first time in what felt like ages, I dreamt.

I was standing on a beach. Not our beach, one covered in rocks, the sea in front of me had drifts of ice. A large wave was forming, and a girl was standing next to me. She was dressed all in black, even veiled in it, except for her very vivid brown eyes, which met mine.

“You see how unsettled they become?” She said, her tone was even, calm, as if we were finishing a conversation we’d been having for a while. “The Dark Lady will fill the vacuum of chaos, as is her right.”

“But if she rises,” I choked out against the cold air. The other girl shrugged.

“Who can say?” She said. “But hurry, will you? I’ve grown bored.” The wave crashed taking me with it and I tried to scream but instead found myself choking on sea water.

“Marina,” Damian’s panicked voice called me back as I woke up, gasping for breath, and screaming, shaking, and sweating, “Marina, please, calm down, love,” I met his eyes and sobbed, and he pulled me close. “Oh my darling,” he sighed, “was it bad?”

“Awful,” I said. “I saw,” I swallowed and realized I couldn’t tell him. Something about, her, felt like a betrayal. “I can’t remember, but it ended with a wave taking me.” He nodded and stroked my hair, I rested my cheek against his chest. “I tried to wait for you.”

“The Dream didn’t want to wait,” he said with a dark chuckle. I missed him. “And you were busy today, plotting.” I looked up.

“You’re angry with me,” I said. He looked at me again and kissed me softly.

“No,” he said, “I’m angry at Eric, for thinking he could ignore Annalise’s desires because of his own insecurities. I’m angry that I’m the son of a ferryman and whore so I’m dependent on him to give you what you deserve. I’m angry that Daniel is rash and stupid and would rather force unhappiness on all of us than acknowledge his daughter’s fate and ability.” I kissed him gently. “But I’m not angry with you.”

“We’d be together in Phania,” I said quietly. “It would have to be secret, but,” he laughed, softly this time, but still that humorless dark laugh.

“Maybe,” he said, “but more likely they’d keep me busy, away from you. They likely know about us by now, and if you’re there for Eric,” he sighed, “they won’t want me near you.” I looked at him. “And that would be worse than leaving you here, being close enough, just out of your sight. Or even worse in the same room but not able to touch you, or talk to you.” He sighed. “Torture.”

“War would be worse,” I said softly.

“I know,” he said. “Maybe they’ll make up.”

“Maybe,” I said softly. “I hate this.” He exhaled. I kissed him gently. “My father said you don’t have to slip in, you know.” He smiled.

“It will be good practice.” He teased. I swallowed and clung to him until we were both sleeping.

A Great Man

Athena

Aaron slammed the door behind him when he walked in, and I jumped and looked at him.

“What’s wrong?” I said.

“It’s like she stopped thinking the minute they put that crown on her head,” he growled, “promising Lefty our naval command without even discussing,” he poured himself a glass of whiskey and downed it.

“Aaron,” I said softly, he grunted, “Love, look at me,” he stopped and turned. “Who promised what?”

He sighed and sat down.

“Lisette is being,” he shook his head, “I don’t want to talk about it, but what can you tell me about the invasion possibilities?” I pressed my lips into my mouth.

“Well,” I sighed, “I’d want to evacuate the city, and fortify the guard here, and at the manor, plus on the cliffs in between. We don’t have much naval power, except what my grandfather offers, but if they try to come ashore, I think we’d be able to keep them from rolling further inland.” He sighed and pressed his fingers to the bridge of his nose. “We may all be over reacting.” He looked at me.

“You don’t really believe that,” he mumbled.

“No,” I sighed, “but you should go home,” he looked at me, “I think it’s why you’ve been so edgy. Go home and prepare for harvest, I’ll come when I can.” He smiled. “She’ll get by, she did when you went last time. I might lose my mind a little, but you like it when I’m crazy.” He kissed me gently.

“After what we’ve talked about these last few days,” he shook his head, “I won’t leave you alone. Last time I went, Tristan was there, remember?” I grinned. “And he won’t be at Pantona until the wedding.”

“I didn’t tell you,” I said excitedly, running to the desk and grabbing a letter, “Carolina DuKarras’s father wrote back. They are coming to the wedding, and he expects to negotiate, then.” Aaron snorted.

“I thought you were keeping all the weapons for our children,” he said.

“He seems awfully proud,” I mumbled, looking over the letter again, “and he’s offering a good little sum for her to bring with her. I’m going to offer a spot in the guard and Trey’s house as inheritance.”

“Are you authorized to will away Trey’s house?” Aaron raised his eyebrows. I waved my hand and exhaled out my nostrils.

“Bah, he wants this as much as DuKarras does,” I said. “And it isn’t as though I’ll need it, and Alex will be in Dorin.”

“True enough,” he said and kissed me. “I could give them some land, if you think it would help.” I frowned.

“No,” I said. “Maybe a house though, in Pantona?” He nodded. “Something in the village maybe?”

“You just want him close by,” he said and kissed me. I smiled. “But I think an appropriate place can be found. I’ll write to William.” I nodded.

“Now, your turn,” I said. “This can’t just be about Annalise and Harran.”

“It is though,” he muttered, “she’s not thinking past single moments, she refuses to see the bigger picture, fine, but then trust me to handle it, but she won’t do that either.” He sat down. “She’d have trusted my father.” I looked at him.

“You can’t spend your whole life comparing yourself to him,” I whispered gently. “I loved your father, he was a great man, but you aren’t him, and you don’t have to try to be.” I kissed him softly. “You’re a great man too.” He smiled. “Aaron, look at me,” he did. “I started falling in love with you when I saw how fiercely you loved her, how big your heart is.” He kissed my hand then. “But you can’t keep living your life for other people,” I whispered. “Unless of course other people is me. You can live for me.” He laughed.

“How you manage to give me hope and be ridiculously cynical,” he said, “is truly a feat.” I grinned. “You really ought to write to Tristan.”

“He’s busy,” I insisted, “he’s wooing. Alex and Lotte have been updating me. It’s apparently going quite well. He’s hasn’t thrown himself off a balcony, or inappropriately fixated on any of her relatives. So, for Tristan, really, aces.” He snorted. “We’ll all be together again soon,” I said softly. “At home.” He exhaled. That seemed to calm him down.

Consequences

Annalise

Aaron has never yelled at me like that before. We’ve argued, but it’s usually over silly things, and we make up quickly. He won’t even see me, right now. I could order him to, but I know that would just make him more angry.

But I needed to talk to someone, and my gut said who so I hurried quickly to the apartment I needed. I knocked on the door and Raymond opened it and sighed.

“He’s not really, uh,” he started, “well, I doubt he’d want to see you.” My face dropped.

“Of course,” I mumbled, “but you’ll tell him.” He nodded. I turned to leave and then paused. “Raymond,” I said softly, “what can you tell me about the wheel?” He sighed, smirked and shook his head.

“Tricky,” he mumbled, “come in.” I laughed and we sat down at the long table near the windows, it was covered in books and papers.

“Lefty and Eric must love this,” I grinned. He rolled his eyes.

“Lefty is barely ever here, he’s usually at the manor,” he pointed out, “and Eric has had other things on his mind.” I nodded. He pulled out a large book. “I took this from the university library.”

“You aren’t enrolled yet,” I chastised him.

“Hm, yes, that’s true,” he mumbled, flipping through it. “Here,” he slid it to me. “The wheel is theorized, or visualized a number of ways, but it’s most likely closer to a spinning wheel than a cart wheel.” I nodded.

“I know that,” I said.

“And now we know it’s in the Westran Desert, most likely,” he said. I nodded. “But that’s not the most interesting part.” I wanted to giggle, seeing him so excited. “When The Sword Of The Goddess,”

“Present,” I mumbled. He nodded.

“Frees the gods,” he continued. “Threads of time will be cut off.” I nodded. “That means some fates will be changed, some left with only one path to walk.” I swallowed. “Not all, obviously, but some.”

“Oh,” I said. “So I’ll be dooming people to fate, removing their will?” He exhaled.

“I didn’t think of it that way,” he said.

“No,” I said softly, “you were thinking theoretically, which is exciting, but well.” He nodded. “Are you alright?”

“Randolph has decided to go back to Phania,” he mumbled, “I didn’t think,” I bit my bottom lip. “I can’t go back, I have a future here.” I smiled gently at him.

“I’m sorry, Raymond,” I said softly. He shrugged. “But I am glad you’ve decided to stay.” The door cracked open.

“Ray,” Eric called out weakly, and staggered, he looked a little pale, and certainly more disheveled than I’d ever seen him, “do you have more of that ginger stuff,” he stopped seeing me. “What are you doing here?”

“Visiting my cousin,” I said. He nodded. Raymond stood up and walked to another table and grabbed a bottle handing it to him. “You’re not feeling well?”

“A penetrating insight,” Eric muttered, “the fate of the gods is clearly in the right hands.” I frowned.

“There’s no reason to be nasty,” I mumbled.

“I think I have every reason to be nasty,” he said. “I’m going back to bed. Thanks for the potion, Raymond.”

“Sure,” Raymond said softly as he left. I collapsed on the chair. “He’ll get over it. He wouldn’t be this upset if he didn’t actually care about you.” I frowned at him. “I should tell you something.”

“Regarding?” I raised an eyebrow.

“I’ve been having Dreams,” he said. I nodded. “From Amina.” I exhaled.

“Oh,” I said softly. “What did she promise you?”

“It doesn’t matter,” he said, “I know it’s a poisoned promise.” I smiled at him. “But I thought you should know.” I put my hand on his.

“Raymond,” I said softly, “what did she promise you?” He swallowed. “Me it was Caleb,” he turned and looked at me, “whole, and alive again. At my side, helping me, like I thought he always would.” He looked down.

“Karina,” he said softly, “on the throne, and I’d be by her side, trusted, not tolerated.” I nodded.

“You have that here,” I said softly. He smiled and nodded.

“I know that,” he said, “that’s why I’m telling you.” I laughed. “Do you know what it was for Brayton?”

“Not precisely,” I said softly, “but my mother probably. And then Marina after her.” I received weekly notices from Mastero Anselm regarding Brayton in Dovetail. His health was improving, he still seemed sharp and vaguely amused by his circumstances, as if he knew they were temporary.

“Amina loves chaos, it fills her realm,” he said softly, “playing on people’s personal desires, that plays into that.” I swallowed and nodded. “You’ll be fine, Annalise, it will all happen as it’s supposed to go.”

I stood up and walked carefully back to my rooms. Harran was already waiting for me. I knew it was wrong but I fell into him and then my bed, it felt safe and comfortable.

Council

Marina

Aaron is pacing nervously and I shook my head.

“You’re doing the thing,” I said. He frowned at me. “You’re doing the thing where you’re thinking as her overprotective brother rather than her advisor.” He rolled his eyes. “Aaron, she’ll be fine. This will all be fine.”

“I think you’re taking your soothing spiritual leader role a little too personally,” he said. I rolled my eyes at him. “If Eric decides to leave, it’s bad Rina.” I nodded.

“I know,” I said and straightened my skirt. “And I’ve been thinking about that, probably more than anyone.” He sighed and sat down next to me.

“Of course you have, I’m sorry,” he said. I looked down.

“I’d go with them,” I whispered. He stared at me. “Not permanently, but,” I exhaled, “I’d go to Tumona, go home.”

“This is your home,” he said, “and we need you here, Marina!” I exhaled.

“We need to keep King Daniel happy,” I said. He nodded. “Or at least, convinced we’re still serious about a real alliance.”

“Yes,” he said, his tone careful. I looked down.

“Well, Annalise isn’t the only one available for that sort of arrangement,” I said softly. He exhaled.

“Marina,” he whispered, “I can’t ask that of you,” I stood up and walked over to a small portrait of my aunt, it really was like looking in a mirror. “And I doubt Lefty and Eric,” I looked over my shoulder.

“They’ll play along,” I said softly, “they don’t want war anymore than we do.”

“So you go South,” he said. I nodded. “Athena and Annalise go west to hunt for the gods?” I nodded again. “And if they need you?” I sighed.

“I don’t know,” I said, “I do know we’ll get nowhere with the mandate while fighting off a Phanian invasion of Brightcoast.” He sighed. He kissed my forehead.

“We don’t deserve you,” he said, “you know that, hm?” I laughed and patted his hand carefully.

“I know,” I said softly. “I love you though, so that makes you worth it.” He laughed sadly. “So I hear you’re going to have a stepfather.” That lead to a bark of laughter.

“Athena is not pleased,” he said. “Meanwhile, I’m just glad my mother is happy.” I smiled.

“Athena is protective of her people,” I said, “that now includes your mother as well as The General, I can’t imagine it’s an easy equation for her.” He nodded. “I think it would be good for my father, to go back.”

“If you think so,” he nodded. “It always seemed to me he was happy to never go back.” I swallowed. “And if Eric doesn’t leave?”

“I might still go,” I said softly. “Damian wants me to see it,” I admitted, “and Pharras. I want to, too.” It was the first time I’d said it out loud. I did want to. I felt at peace here in Brightcoast, but I knew there could be no real peace until we free the gods, so I was building in restlessness. Or maybe it was real. Who could say?

Rana had been frustratingly quiet lately. Lisette said the same. Raymond too. Though he was more concerned with the whispers in his sleep from Amina. I couldn’t tell Aaron about that, though I desperately wanted to. It wasn’t my secret to confide.

“Ah,” Duchess Norvine walked in with the others trailing behind her, “Duchess Brightcoast, nice of you to join us for a change,” I blushed.

“I apologize for my absence,” I muttered taking my seat. “As it turns out the people my father had in charge were less than reliable.” She nodded. Harold Friers scowled at me. He’s less than thrilled with our treatment of his son, but it can’t be helped that he’s too young and too shy, and frankly, if the way his eyes follow Raymond are to be believed he’s probably even less interested than we are.

“Will Queen Annalise be joining us?” Friers said. Aaron looked at me.

“She was alerted to the meeting’s importance,” he said, “I’m sure she’s on her way.”

“The matter of her marriage needs to be settled,” Duchess Norvine said, “or at least addressed. If she’s set on the Phanian or he border tribes boy, that’s all well and good, but if she hasn’t someone needs to reach out to Rastan.” She glanced at me. “They can’t be ignored forever.”

“If this is literally another meeting where we discuss nothing but whether Annalise is going to get married soon,” Aaron groaned, “I’m leaving. Harvest is coming, I should be in Pantona supervising.”

He looked miserable I realized. He was listening to this group squabbling about Lisette’s love life, when all he wanted was to be home, doing the thing he was good at.

Lisette walked in then, looking regal and confident and took her place at the head of the table as everyone rose.

“I was told this was a very important meeting of this council,” she said, her eyes never leaving Aaron’s, I so often wondered what passed between them. “What could be so urgent?”

Duchess Norvine cleared her throat.

“My people managing in Dorin are confident that The Dumanis will be on your side given any need for naval intervention,” she said simply, “if that’s still something you want.” She nodded.

“It is,” she said. “For now, at least. In the future, however, I’d like the crown to be as independent of the guilds as possible.” She glanced at me and I nodded. “And as we’ll be intimately connected with Phania, I don’t see building and training our own navy as terribly difficult.”

“You’ve decided then,” Friers said. She looked at him.

“I haven’t decided anything,” she shrugged. “Lady Marina however,” I swallowed.

“I, well,” I stuttered as they all stared at me. I wanted to murder her. “Lieutenant Lestoff and I have discussed a few possibilities, of course, but, well,” I was flushed. She thought she was helping, that was the worst part.

“Let’s move on,” Aaron said, sending a sharp look around the table. “Before you came in I mentioned harvest, and from most of the midlands, wheat looks particularly strong this year.” Friers began talking about his orchards then and I zoned out. We provided fish, and it was going well for the summer, this was known. After we adjourned everyone left except the three of us. “What were you thinking?” He hissed at Lisette.

“What?” She said, “We’ve talked about it, and I thought you were settled,” she paused.

“She’s not settled,” Aaron snapped, “I thought we got through to you this morning, Lisette, nothing is settled until you are. Everything hinges on you. Marina’s future, Tristan’s life, Athena and my marriage,” I swallowed. I’d never seen him this angry. “I understand you hate it, but it’s what it is.” She stared at him.

“Marina will you excuse us?” Annalise said softly.

“No,” Aaron said, “forget it, Marina stay, I’ll excuse myself.” He gathered his things and stopped in the doorway. “That is with your permission?” He was so sarcastic the room got colder. She nodded tersely.

“He’s not wrong,” I said softly, “we just came up with an elaborate feint to keep the Phanians at bay if Eric decides he’s had enough.” She looked at me. “And you may have just destroyed any chance of it working.” She closed her eyes and nodded. “He’s never asked me,” I whispered. “Not once, because he knows I can’t say yes, and I don’t think his pride could take it.”

“I’m sorry,” she said softly. I nodded. “I’m going to talk to Eric.” I nodded.

“You do that,” I said and walked out of the room. I found my way to the small apartment that Papa and I had here. We didn’t use it much, Papa really never. Damian was waiting for me, balancing a pen between his knuckles, I sat down next to him and put my head on his shoulder.

“Good morning to you too,” he smiled. “It went that well, hm?” I looked at him.

“Is Eric angry?” I said softly. “I hate using you as a go between, but, well,” I sighed. He nodded.

“Eric is, at the moment,” he snickered, “indisposed. When I got to our rooms last night, he was falling down drunk, and he’s unable to do much but vomit.” I laughed and kissed him gently. “What’s Annalise thinking?”

“I barely got to speak to her,” I said, “But I think she wants you to train any navy we might build.” He leaned back and looked at me.

“Hm,” he nodded. “That’s interesting.” I laughed and kissed him again. “Are you still upset with me?”

“I was never very upset with you,” I said softly. He smiled. “I’m glad you introduced me to them, really, Damian, I want to be a part of your life.” He cupped my face.

“You are my life, now,” he said softly, “I hope you know that.” I curled into him. He kissed my hair.

“If you leave, I’m going with you,” I said. “I can’t bear the idea of being without you.” I felt him tense around me.

“We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it, love,” he whispered. “But I’m glad to hear it. I don’t want to be without you either.”

Hearts And Politics

Athena

I was feeling better in the morning, particularly when Lisette found me, a little shaken but still flushed and glowing. The two of us hadn’t sparred in a while, and it felt good.

“You’re rusty,” I said as my spear met the twin short swords she’d taken to wearing recently. Something between the sword she carried into the siege and the knives she’d grown up using.

“I’ve been busy,” she said. I laughed. “Are you alright?” I relented and nodded. “Aaron said you weren’t thrilled about Olivia and Thomas.”

“I wasn’t,” I frowned, “I’m not. But, it’s not my business, I guess.” She looked at me. “I just worry about him, he doesn’t always think these things through and it’s other people who get hurt. And this time I don’t want Olivia to be collateral damage.”

“Are you going to lecture me about Harran too?” She asked. I sighed.

“No,” I said, “I actually think it will be good for you, but you went about it in a monumentally stupid way.” She smiled. “How was it?” I grinned. “If how he fights is any indication, I’d imagine it was athletic, forceful?” She blushed.

“Intense,” she exhaled, “he was very focused.” She paused. “He kept asking what I wanted, and I didn’t always know how to say it, but then he found the way there anyway.” I smiled. I did like this for her. After the grief and complication of her time with my brother, it was worth the cost for me to see her simply, content. “After this morning, though, that was more awkward.” She exhaled. “Olivia says he’s in love with me.”

“He most certainly is,” I smirked. “I didn’t see it at first either. I thought he just liked to flirt, but he’s in love with you.” She frowned.

“I wouldn’t have,” she admitted, “I thought we felt the same way, that we wanted each other, but that we were friends.” She exhaled and pushed her hair off her face. “And I have to tell Eric. He’ll leave, and I couldn’t blame him.” I looked at her, and I was suddenly tremendously glad that I went to sleep with Aaron each night, and that his expectations of me were so straightforward. “I don’t know, I think about it a lot, if I was actually Lisette.” I smiled. Tristan told me she did this sometimes. “I think I’d have run away with him. I thought about it, all the time, that year. Maybe I’m still trying to run away.” I looked at her.

“Before we came to Pantona,” I said softly, “I was involved with one of Trey’s apprentices, it wasn’t serious, and he’s kind of an idiot, but he was ambitious, and I used that. I was after all, raised in the house he was trying rise in, and it was fun. After I’d been so hurt and used, to be treated like I mattered, like I was important, it was intoxicating.” She looked at me.

“He was the one that Aaron found you with?” She said. I snapped my neck over and looked at her, surprised that she knew that. “You were upset, and he was unnerved by it.” I smiled. I loved that man so much. “I’m not using Harran.”

“I didn’t say you were,” I whispered, “I just think that if I hadn’t been with Carlton, after everything that happened with Warren, I don’t think I would have been able to be with Aaron, to see him properly.” She looked down.

“So your suggesting what?” She said. “I use Harran until Tristan is out of my system?” I rolled my eyes.

“I’m certainly not suggesting Tristan be in the conversation at all.” I sighed. “By all means, if you’re still missing him and need to shake it off.” She bit her bottom lip.

“I do miss him,” she said softly. “I miss what we had, and I miss his calm.” She exhaled. “I don’t miss what a mess it was at the end. I don’t miss hearing Marina cry while she hides it from, I don’t miss him refusing to admit he was jealous.” I smiled. “But I miss him, a part of me always will, even when he’s right next me again, it won’t be the same.” I exhaled as she rested her head on my shoulder. “Thena, I don’t know what to do anymore.” She sighed. “I haven’t had a Dream in ages, and The Leader’s are insisting on a marriage sooner than later, but they don’t like the idea of it being Eric because then we’ll become too Phanian but Harran would be a threat because if any of the tribes don’t like it then it could be civil war, and what is wrong with that nice Emmett Friers anyone, Your Majesty?”

“Ah yes, a fifteen year old boy who’s said ten words to you,” I raised my eyebrows, “obviously your perfect match.” She laughed. “You know my opinion, take the politics out of it, Cammadan is better if you’re happy, if someone who’ll support you is at your side. Who is that?” She closed her eyes and exhaled.

“I don’t know,” she said softly. “Thank you though, for listening.” I nodded and back up to our apartment where Aaron was sitting at the desk in the sitting room.

“Oh, there you are,” he stood up, “I didn’t want to go to this meeting without seeing you.” I ran over and threw my arms around him and kissed him deeply. “Well, hello to you too.” He laughed.

“I love you,” I said. He smiled. “Seriously, I do.”

“I love you too,” he laughed. “What happened?” I shook my head.

“Lisette and I just had a long talk is all,” I said softly, “be gentle with her today. She knows she’s put everyone in a tough spot.” He nodded.

“Of course,” he said and kissed me again. “I have to go, I wanted to check in with Marina first.” I nodded. “I love you.”