Tea With The Mastero

“You’re in here a lot,” I looked up from a book I was reading to see the Viscount in the doorway of the study.

“I like it in here,” I said simply and went back to my book. He walked in and sat down opposite me. “Can I help you, Your Grace.”

“Aaron,” he said, pointing to himself.

“If you say so,” I closed the book and met his eyes. They’re startlingly blue. “Can I help you,” he rolled his hand to prompt me, and I sighed, “Aaron?”

“Much better,” he smirked. “No, I was just sent to fetch you. The Mastero wishes to inspect you and your brother.”

Mastero?” I said and slammed the book shut. He nodded. “Why does he want to meet us?”

“Why wouldn’t he?” He shrugged. “He’s like you, thinks everyone is trying to kill her.” I rolled my eyes.

“I don’t think everyone is trying to kill her,” I stood up and stretched. He was watching me. Good. Let him. “You’d have struck by now, for example.” He laughed.

“I suppose I would have,” he said. “I’d be in line for King then, wouldn’t I?” I snorted.

“I think Brightcoast supercedes,” I said, “Lady Marina is very popular.” My voice was flat.

“Ah,” he nodded. “Good to know, come on,” he nodded towards the door and we walked outside. Tristan was waiting, practically vibrating anxiety. He hasn’t said anything to me, but I’ve noticed the way he watches her, how he relaxes when shes’s around.

Watching my brother fall in love has been fascinating. Being Tristan he can’t just be happy about it, I’m sure, and if I asked him he’d deny it, but it’s impossible to miss. We walked quietly through the woods down what was obviously a well worn path.

We entered a clearing with a small cottage and a lake. The air felt heavier, and I realized it was because this was a magic place.

Lisette was in the center of a ring of stones, her legs crossed and eyes closed. There were spheres of water floating and dancing around her. I lost my breath and looked at Tristan. His eyes were so soft, he was smiling fully.

“Oh!” We heard her gasp and the bubbles near her popped. “Oh, you came!” She leapt up and walked over. “I was supposed to make tea, but I lost track,” she ran into the house and then popped her head out of the window, “Come inside, I’m sorry.” I laughed. I’d come to expect this sort of thing from her, Aaron led us in.

“Aaron,” an older man said from a desk in the corner. “I didn’t expect you.”

“Am I not welcome?” He asked. The old man sighed. I liked him immediately. “Mastero Benjamin Anselm, May I present Lady Athena Dugarry and Sir Tristan Dugarry.” He glanced over.

“I made tea,” Lisette said, looking almost giddy, carrying a tray out. Tristan ran to her and took it. She beamed at him.

Oh, so it’s mutual at least, that’s nice.

“Well,” he said and stood up walking over, “Lady Athena.” I nodded.

“Mastero,” I said, “I’m happy to meet you.” He nodded and we all sat down. “My mother spoke well of you.”

“Your mother was a fine woman, your father, well,” he sighed, “he didn’t deserve her.” I laughed.

“She’d have said the same,” Tristan piped in as the tea was settled. “It’s a honor, sir.” He looked at him and nodded. “What were you doing, when we got here, Princess?” Lisette blushed.

“Just meditating,” she murmured. “But when there’s water nearby, I can get into the parlor tricks.”

“She’d do more with some discipline,” Mastero Anselm said. “Are either of you gifted?”

“No,” I said softly. “There was a time when we though I might be. It’s never been in our family though.” He looked at me.

“I see,” he whispered, “why did they think you,”

“How long have you been here?” Tristan interrupted. I nodded gratefully at him.

“I traveled with the King and Queen,” he explained, “they knew someone was going to have to teach this one,” he nodded towards Lisette who stuck out her tongue at him. “Of course the fact that she is unteachable did’t occur to anyone when she was a baby.”

“Weren’t you called back to the University?” I asked. The great institute still stood, even if it’s Masteros had been exterminated.

“Aye,” he smiled, “but I didn’t answer the call, a few of us didn’t. My brothers who went into hiding went deeply, or to Westran.” I nodded. “I am glad you’ve both finally come. Unfortunately, our visit will be short, Lisette and I have work to do.”

“Of course,” Aaron said standing up, “don’t let us keep you.” Tristan and I both stood up too. “See you at home Lisette.” We walked out with soft bows and then silently down the wood path.

“Are you alright?” Tristan asked. I nodded. I was glad he’d managed to change the flow of conversation away from a series of terrifying visions that occurred just after my parents died. “Do you think he approved of us?”

“As much as he approves of anyone,” Aaron said casually. He glanced at me. “You look pale, Lady Athena.”

“It’s nothing,” I said and marched back to the manor quickly.

You will be tested, Daughter of John, the voice had said, at ten I didn’t know what that meant, I still don’t. Or if the test came and went and I failed. I went up to my room and fell against the bed.

Coming here, meeting Lisette, has unsettled things that I thought were long buried.

I don’t like it.

First Test

“Athena,” Tristan said, shaking me awake. “Athena,” I groaned and pulled the covers over my head. “Come on, we have work to do.”

“No,” I said, “we just rode for seven days straight, and we know the manor is safe and I’m very sleepy.” He laughed and tugged on my foot.

“Hey,” he said, “I’m sorry about last night.” I sat up and rubbed my eyes. “It’s not your fault.”

“No, it isn’t,” I said. “You were never involved in the resistance leadership because you never asked to be Tristan, I didn’t block you out and neither did Martin.” He nodded and sat down.

“I know that,” he said, “I just, it was always easy between you two and it isn’t between me and him all the time.” She smiled. “So you know that they moved Marina from the capital too?”

“I do know that,” I said. “Are you relieved?” He looked away. “I know I tease you about her, and maybe I shouldn’t, if you care about her,” he shook his head. “Fine, we don’t have to talk about it, but I’m just saying if you do, I think you made a better choice than I did.”

“I think it would be almost impossible for anyone to make a worse choice than you did,” he grinned. I shoved him. “There’s nothing there, though. We’re friends, I do care about her but, I can’t even think about it,” I nodded. “And we have work to do.”

“Yes,” I said, “but today, I’m going to sleep in a bed and take a bath, like a civilized person.” He laughed.

“Alright,” he said, “I’m going to spar with her, see how behind she is.” I nodded and sank back into bed. “And since you agreed with the countess that we need to make a lady of her, maybe start with embroidery lessons.” I sprang up.

“That’s no fair!” I said, “You could teach her to dance or something.” He snorted and walked out. I sighed and rolled out of bed. Most of our things hadn’t arrived yet, they were a few days behind.

I quickly picked a green uniform dress I’d packed. I didn’t usually wear it for anything except dinners where I was on duty, but it would work for here. I peaked into a mirror and smiled.

A night in a bed had done it’s work, I felt and looked wonderful. I try not to be vain, but when you have a twin who looks just like you it’s hard not to notice when one is very attractive. And playing it down and saying I don’t feels stupid and petty.

I step outside and see the Princess Annalise stepping out of her room.

“Good Morning, Your highness,” I said. She smiled shyly at me.

“Good Morning,” she said softly. “You can just call me Lisette, you know. Everybody does.”

“Everybody doesn’t know who you are though,” I pointed out. She frowned.

“I guess not,” she said as we walked, “still though. I want us to be friends and that would be hard with you calling me, ‘Your Highness,’ all the time.” I laughed. “We were supposed to grow up together.” I nodded.

“There were a lot of supposed tos,” I said softly. She nodded. “You’re supposed to be sparring with my brother.”

“Ugh,” she groaned, “alright, I suppose we’ll go to the study.” I followed her and we met Tristan in the front hall. “Good morning.” He smiled. “Your sister says we’re going to spar.”

“If my sister says so,” Tristan winked. If I had something to drink I would have spit it out. Tristan acting like a human around someone who isn’t me, is not something I’m used to.

“I think you’ll like the study,” she said practically bouncing.

“Are we going to spar in the,” I started and then she flung open a pair of double doors. “Oooh,” I whispered. “The Study,” as she’d called it, wasn’t a small snug room, or even a grand library, but what a large hall, two stories, with an open training floor and several weapons hanging on the walls. I noticed a few battle axes, I know the Count favors them, so I wasn’t surprised. “Tristan,” I whacked his arm.

“Yes, I see,” he grinned. “Swords, Your Highness?” Lisette smiled.

“If you like,” she said, “if there’s something you like better,” she shrugged. “I’m trained on most close combat weapons. My archery needs work, but I’m still better than Aaron.” I nodded and Tristan pulled his sword off his belt. Lisette grabbed one of the practice swords and struck hard and fast. Catching him off guard, but I know my brother, he recovered quickly.

She is good, and she uses her size to her advantage, getting in close for her hits, and when she takes out his knees I actually applaud.

Tristan does not get beaten often.

Ever actually. I can’t even beat him.

“Well, it’s a start,” I said. Tristan grumbled. “I’m hungry, what’s for breakfast?”

Viscount Aaron

From just about the moment he strode in, all confidence and that clear smile, I did not like Viscount Aaron of Pantona.

“Did my mother leave you two on your own?” He asked. “That isn’t like her.”

“She was checking on The Princess,” I said. “I’m sorry your Grace.”

“Aaron,” he said. I frowned. “I’m glad you’ve come, it’s gotten very dull around here.” I swallowed.

“We’re here to protect the Princess,” Tristan said, “not for a visit.”

“Oh and she’s in so much danger here,” The Viscount retorted. “I’m not trying to undermine your mission, Sir Tristan, but I have a feeling however long you’re staying will feel more like a visit.”

“I doubt that,” I said sharply. He looked at me and smiled curiously. “We’ll have to see what she knows. Surely she doesn’t expect to just stroll into Dovetail and sit on the throne?”

“She doesn’t stroll much,” The Viscount said with a shrugged. “She runs, and trips over things, occasionally I’ve seen her skip, but strolling, no, not really her style.” He sat down on the couch and crossed his leg over his knee.

He looks so much like his father, but this arrogance, it doesn’t suit that face. Count Caleb is kind, if a little cold. I was about to say something else to shut him down when the Countess and Princess came back in and Tristan made an ass of himself pledging his life and sword to her.

I heard the Viscount cough to cover a laugh, which softened me a little.

“Oh for heaven’s sake, Tristan,” I said, breaking whatever trance he was in. He glanced over at me sheepish. The Princess was blushing. I was suddenly furious on behalf of poor, stupid, Lady Marina, who was probably spending her first night at Resistance Camp, mooning and wondering when her brave night was returning.  “Stand up, you’re making everyone uncomfortable.” He glared at me as he brushed himself off. “Countess, I think we should have tea. Tea always makes this kind of thing much less awkward don’t you think?”

“Whiskey can help too,” The Viscount winked. The Princess giggled and sat down. We started to chat a little then. She came to life when a messenger reminded her she had a magic lesson and she ran off.

“What did I tell you?” The Viscount smirked. “Not one for strolling.”

“Leave it, Aaron,” the Countess said sharply. He sunk into his chair. I like that he doesn’t argue with his mother. “Can you see that dinner will be ready on time?”

“Of course,” he murmured. He stopped. “Is there anything you would prefer, Lady Athena?” I gaped at him.

“Aaron,” The Countess said, he laughed and walked away his hands in his pockets, whistling. “I apologize. He has the manners of field hand, I should have done better.”

“They’re so,” Tristan said softly, “young.” I looked at him. I didn’t realize it at the moment but that was it exactly. They seemed so young. But Aaron was older than we were, and Annalise less than a year younger than we.

“The country is different from Dovetail,” she admitted and sipped her tea. “What are you thinking about Lady Athena?”

“What training does she have?” I asked. The countess laughed. “She can fight?”

“Quite well,” she said. “I think even you’ll be impressed.” I nodded. “I could use help making a lady of her though.”

“Does she need that?” Tristan said. I looked at him.

“Not to win,” I admitted, “but to rule, yes, she does. Unless she wants to build court from scratch but I don’t assume that’s the plan.”

“It is not,” the Countess said. “The plan, as you put it, is to take the capital as cleanly as possible, by her birthday, offer clemency where warranted and crown her.”

“Take the capital?” Tristan said. “Her birthday is at the end of the summer. We can’t take the capital by the end of summer, we don’t have the numbers!” The Countess sipped on her tea and then he looked at me. “We don’t! Do we?”

“We might?” I shrugged. “After,” I swallowed, “well you know, after, I stopped getting regular recruitment reports but before that we were near it.”

“Why were you getting recruitment reports?” Tristan asked.

“Because I asked for them,” I said. “The General would have given them to you too.”

“No,” he muttered, “he wouldn’t have.” He stormed out. I sighed.

“Excuse me,” I said and followed after him out into a courtyard, Tristan wasn’t there, but the Viscount was. “Have you seen my brother?”

“He came through with a storm cloud over his head and then asked where he was supposed to be sleeping,” he explained. I sighed and nodded. “Can I help?”

“You’re an only child so you wouldn’t understand sibling rivalry,” I said. He shrugged. “Where are we sleeping?”

“We’ve arranged rooms for you,” he said, “yours is next to Lisette’s.” I nodded. “Did you think we’d put you in the barn, Lady Athena?”

“I don’t know how these things are done in the county, Viscount,” I grinned. “I suppose I ought to find him.” I walked back inside.

Why am I flirting with him?

Countess Olivia

“She gave you a handkerchief?” I said with a loud laugh as we rode out of the city. Tristan scowled at me. “You cannot be serious? Like in a fairy tale about knights and ladies?”

“Don’t make fun of her,” he said. “Ma-Lady Marina care about me, about us, and our mission.” I sighed and rolled my eyes.

“She’s in love with you,” I said. He frowned.

“Don’t tease, it’s cruel,” he whispered.

“I’m not the one being cruel in this situation, Tristan,” I said softly. He frowned. “If you don’t have feelings for her, it’s wrong, cruel to use your word. She’s young and silly and she might be our queen one day.”

“It isn’t like that,” he said, “between us. You don’t know her, you’ve never bothered to try.” He had me there. “And maybe I do I have feelings for her.”

“If you say so,” I said and rode ahead a bit to where our charge was sitting, side saddle and serenely beautiful. “Is everything, to your liking, Your Grace?”

“Quite,” She smiled at me. I didn’t know the Countess as well as I should, after Tristan’s barb about Lady Marina Sanpierre, that stung a little. But I’d always felt an odd loyalty to General Martin, who’d raised me, to give the Count and Countess a wide berth. The Countess had chosen the Count over the General when they were young. “I’m sorry to take you away, I know your life in Dovetail is full.” I looked oddly at her. “I haven’t traveled without Caleb in a long time, it made me nervous. Thomas was kind enough to volunteer you and your brother.”

“You’re lying,” I said. She winked. “I mean, I know that’s what we told Lord Brayton, but,” she shrugged. “Is this about Lady Marina? Are we preparing to challenge,” she shook her head.

“Lady Athena, I assure you,” she said, “you’ll know everything you need to soon.” I nodded as we kept riding. I wonder sometimes about her, about her marriage and the choices she made. Lady Olivia Bano is treated almost like a legend, when people whisper about her. Like a Princess in a Story, courted by three suitors, one a king, one a hero and one a country lord. When a shadow swept over the king’s domain, and the hero felt called to defend it, the country lord swore to protect her and take her away and so she chose him. I doubted it was so simple, nothing in real life is.

“They don’t trust me anymore,” I said softly. She looked at me again.

“Oh, no, Athena,” she said, “you are not the first of us to make a mistake.” I nodded. “You loved him?”

“I thought I did,” I whispered. “But I didn’t even know him. Not really.” Warren Davis destroyed my trust, blew up my life and took my virginity. But I did not love him, if I loved him then there is something very wrong with my heart.

“I hope that you two will stay in Pantona,” she said, softly. “At least for a bit. We ought to have had you long ago.” I smiled at her.

“I wouldn’t have come,” I admitted. She laughed.

“Yes, I know,” she said, “you’ll never forgive me on Thomas’s behalf. You can forgive Trey though?”

“That’s different,” I said, “I was the reason for that.” She reached out and took my hand.

“So much your fault,” she said, “for one so young. Your Uncle’s and Thomas’s intransigence was not your doing. Your mother’s wish was that you be free to pursue your own heart. Now if that heart wants one of those pretty merchant boys your grandfather sends down to Dovetail every spring and fall, so much the better.” I giggled. “But I don’t think it is. You’re too much your father’s daughter. John knew duty, he knew Cammadan and the family,” she looked at me. “If the plan was to crown Lady Marina, would you serve her?” I looked at the Countess then.

“With every breath in my body,” I said softly. “But if in the next year we all do nothing? And I’m asked to serve Brayton, I’ll flee to Dorin so quickly your head will spin and if my grandfather won’t have me, I’ll cut my wrists.” The Countess nodded.

“And that,” she whispered, “Lady Athena, is why we trust you.”

Training

Just because we’re supposed to be leaving in a day doesn’t mean that I can rest. First of all it would give us away, and also, leaving Dovetail always makes me antsy. It has every since our parents died.

I’m out in the training yard, kicking the ass of some new recruit from the coast. He can’t keep up with me, and Tristan is looking on from the other side of the training field. He’ll say that me wiping the floor with this boy is bad for morale.

As the boy lands on on his back, he finally squeaks,

“I yield, Lady Athena,” I smile and help him up.

“You did well, Everett,” I said, “you’ve improved.” He frowned. “I’m serious, I didn’t expect the blow on the left side and the staff clearly suits you better than a sword. Keep working. You may even beat me one day.”

“I doubt that My Lady,” he said, but he was beaming. Tristan and I have different ideas about what motivates the guards.

I walk over to my brother who’s shaking his head.

“He wants to see us,” he’s grimacing. I nod.

“Well, we’re leaving,” I muttered, “I assumed as much.” He nodded. “I’m going to change.”

“You’re going to have to decide someday, Thena,” he said, “if you want to be a warrior or a lady.” I flipped my hair in his face and he sputtered it out.

“I do not,” I replied, “this is Cammadan. We have a long standing tradition of both.” He sighed loudly. “Besides, he likes me pretty, and it helps us all if we do as he likes.” Tristan grumbled something and stalked off. I went to the apartment and washed my face and glanced in a mirror.

The thing about surviving in Lord Brayton’s court is that you have to shine but not glow. Too much attention and you’re a threat, but not trying at all singles you out as well. I pulled my training tunic off and slid a simple burgundy dress over my head. I didn’t want to keep Brayton waiting, which meant anything more elaborate was out of the question. I brushed my hair quickly and slid a belt with one ceremonial guard’s dagger around my waist.

I met Tristan at the door to the throne room. He’d changed too, out of his tunic into a more casual Guard’s jacket.

“You look presentable,” I grinned. He shoved me and I laughed but steadied my face as we walked in.

The great Throne Room of Dovetail Palace was, allegedly, once a place of light and glory. But Lord Brayton and his black guards do not care for light, or transparency, or glory. Just darkness and secrets and fear. The large windows have been covered in tapestries for almost as long as I can remember.

I have a few memories of chasing a curly haired, dark skinned toddler about as the sun darted in and out of the glass, but I breath deeply to bury that. My memories of Annalise help no one. The Princess died before we could ever protect her.

“Lady Athena, Sir Tristan,” the soft, and ice cold voice of Lord Brayton Dovetail broke through the darkness. “Thank you for coming.”

“We are at your disposal,” Tristan said shortly and wish a bow. I swept into a deep curtsy as well.

“Of course,” Brayton grinned. “I worry about you both, being abandoned by the general must have been painful.” My hand twitched. It would be my death but it would be so easy to grab  my dagger and put it through his heart.

For Annalise.

For my parents.

For Martin.

“We serve the crown and the throne,” I managed, though the word choked me. “May The Princess return and sit upon it one day.”

“Yes, yes,” he said, “we pray for my cousin’s safety.” I nodded and stood. “Count and Countess Pantona have requested your services if you are willing.” I glanced over and noticed the Count and Countess, in their green clothes, their auburn hair clean and brushed, both of them too dignified for anyone’s good.

“We’d be honored,” Tristan said, glancing at the count who nodded, “to perform any service to true lords of Cammadan.” I heard a gentle squeak from behind us.

“You have something to say, Lady Marina?” Brayton purred.

“N-no, My Lord,” she managed stepping forward, “I didn’t mean to, only, Tr-Sir Tristan,” she looked down, “and Lady Athena would be so missed, here, at court.” She’s such a little fool. I know I should try to like her better, as she will, with all luck, be my queen someday but she makes herself so ridiculous.

Especially when it comes to my brother.

“Of course,” Brayton said, “they will be. None the less, I cannot deny such loyal courtiers a simple request, even for your comfort my dear.” She curtsied and stepped back. “Lady Athena, you have no objection?”

“None at all, My Lord, and why would I?” I asked. She’s an idiot but I do pity her, so I bat my eyelashes and seem as though his interest flatters me.

“Well, Commander Davis could complete his mission any day,” he said, “surely you wish to greet your intended?” My spine stiffens.

“Commander Davis and I both serve at your pleasure, sir,” I managed, not retching. “I know he will forgive my absence.”

“Of course he will,” he said, “Countess, will you accept your body guards?”

“Gladly, My Lord,” Countess Olivia of Pantona said. She winked at us and I smirked.

Early Rising

“Good morning, beautiful,” I groaned and pulled the covers over my head. “Athena, love, the sun’s coming up.” I groaned and stretched rolling over. Carlton DuJarms smiled at me. “You look like an angel.” I grinned and pulled him close and kissed him.

“But you know I’m not,” I whispered. He laughed.

“Gods, I’m going to miss Dovetail,” he moaned as I straddled him.

“Oh, do you not think that you’ll have nights like last night back in Dorin?” I whispered in his ear before nipping it. I like Carlton, he’s dumb as a rock but he knows his way around a bed. He’s decent with a sword too.

“Unlikely,” he said, “I don’t think many of the debutantes are interested in our activities.” I laughed and stood up, looking for my underdress. “You could come back with me.”

“Ha,” I snorted, “no I can’t.” I only half belong to the same world as Carlton, the world of the merchants, of clans with carefully calculated marriage contracts to maintain market dominance and balance, of complicated social rituals and long journeys.

The other half of my life, as a member of the royal guard and household was even stranger, since there wasn’t, at the moment, a royal family, and I was spending my time fighting for there to be one.

“Why not?” He said. “I know I don’t have much, but I think your grandfather would accept it.” I looked at him and smiled and kissed him.

“No, Carlton,” I said softly. “I know my grandfather would accept it. He’d be overjoyed if I moved into his house and you showed up and begged permission to court me. He’d invite every merchant in Cammadan, even the ones he hates to the wedding, but it won’t happen.” I pulled on my overdress and fastened my sword around my waist.

“So what’s the problem?” He asked. I leaned down and kissed him.

“Carland Dumanis is not my only family,” I said. “My brother, and the general need me here.” It wasn’t only that, but serving family would be something he could understand.

“Oh,” he said, “when I come back in the fall, can I see you?” I smiled.

“I’d be disappointed if you didn’t,” I said. I walked down the stairs. I was hoping to slip out before anyone awoke.

“Well, this is a nice surprise,” a low voice from the breakfast room of the townhouse called. “Good morning, Niece.”

“Good Morning, Uncle Trey,” I said walking in, this was my Uncle Tristan’s (Called Trey by the family) house, Carlton was one of his apprentices. “I can’t stay, I have to get back to the palace.” He nodded, a sly smile on his face. “He’s unharmed, but thinks he’s in love with me, I apologize for any longing you may have to deal with.”

“My dear, I would prefer you found your amusement elsewhere,” he sighed. I blushed. “I won’t lecture you, I’ll leave that to my namesake.” I groaned. “We leave in two days, I’d like to see you both before we do.”

“Alright,” I said and kissed him on the forehead and walked out the door.

I love my city, and Dovetail waking up in the morning is one of the best things about it. I nodded and curtsied to various people greeting me. “Good Morning, Lady Athena,” “Cornan bless The Princess, m’lady,” but the further I got from The Market, the greeting became more formal, a nod or salute, sometimes nothing at all.

The great Palace of Dovetail was haunted.

Inside the gates I slipped into the barracks, a large, slightly less ornate building where the royal guard stays and then into the apartment I share with my twin brother Tristan. I grabbed by sword, and blocked a blow I saw coming and then kicked my attacker in the chest.

He grabbed my arm and flipped me over onto my back. Standing over me was practically a mirror of my own face. The same thin, if a little too long nose, the same light dusting of freckles and the same emerald green eyes.

“Yield?” A light smile danced on his face.

“Never,” I hissed playfully and grabbed his ankles pulling him down. He laughed.

“You’re late,” he said. I sighed and nodded as we both stood up. “Who was it?”

“Carlton,” I said, “they’re leaving in a few days, Uncle Trey wants us at dinner before they do.”

“I don’t think that’s going to happen,” Tristan said and sat down. I narrowed my eyes. “We have a mission.”

“How?” I asked. I didn’t understand how, no one commanded us at the moment, our mentor and guardian, General Thomas Martin was exiled, and we didn’t report to Lord Brayton.

“Countess Olivia requires an escort,” he said. I groaned. “I thought you liked the Countess.”

“I do,” I said. “But escort duty?” He shrugged. “Just the Countess? Not the Count?”

“Apparently, he is staying behind,” he said.

“That is exceedingly odd,” I said. Count Caleb and Countess Olivia of Pantona rarely did anything separately, let alone travel. “Alright.”

“You know you can do better,” Tristan said. I looked at him and smiled. “Trey’s boys are all idiots.”

“You have to say that because you’re my brother,” I said.

“No, as your brother, I have to lecture you about you’re bringing the family dishonor and how dare he presume and blah blah blah,” he grinned.

“That would be if we were merchants,” I said.

“If we were merchants,” he agreed.

Heartbroken

I don’t think I’ve ever seen Marina rush through undressing me so quickly before. I have a feeling that I am about to be 30 gold pieces richer. I wish I could laugh, or tease her about it, but she’s vibrating at such a high frequency, and all I can think about is that Tristan is going away.

It’s been less than a year and the idea of life without him feels unbearable. I try sleeping, it doesn’t happen, so I do something I haven’t done since I was very small. I go to the basin that’s been set up in my bedrooom. I swept the small amount of water out, and grabbed the vial of sea water from the North Sea that Duchess Norvine gave me.

I’ve never done anything this selfish with magic before. Anselm would have been furious, and it feels somehow, dark, and wrong. I swallow and pour the water into the basin and focus, swirling it.

“Please, let me see her,” I said softly.  The image of a beautiful young woman, with long golden hair appeared. She was brushing it and humming to herself.

She was wearing a red night dress.

“I’m trying Caro,” a male voice comes from outside and she turns, her eyes narrowed. I know the voice.

“Are you, Alex?” She said and stood up and walked to a door, looking out onto a terrace and courtyard.

“Yes,” he rolled his eyes. “could have set you up in Dovetail a year ago, you know.” She frowned.

“Only until your grandfather and uncle died,” she hissed. “I don’t want any part of merchant life and you know it.”

“Tristan’s your man then,” Alex Dufrey muttered. “His wife will have to enter the guard and so will any children. If this works out you’ll be good and out, I promise.” Her face softened then.

“And he’s really coming?” She asked. He nodded.

“Leaves in the morning,” he said. “You could say thank you, Carolina.”

I smashed my hand against the water and fell against the bed. I don’t know why I thought it would make me feel better. It didn’t. I felt worse. She was using him to escape. I hated her. I hated Alex DuFrey. I hated Tristan. I hated Eric. I hated the stupid gods. I hated the crown all of it.

I started sobbing. I thought about the what if. I thought about if I was Lisette. Would I have even met Tristan? Would I have stayed in Pantona, married William and lived quietly and content running the inn? Or would I have run away with Harran?

It didn’t matter of course. It was a stupid game. Tristan and I had played it for too long and it had broken both of our hearts. It might break Eric’s. It might break the beautiful Carolina’s.

We couldn’t know how much wreckage our pretending would bring.

I cried then, for I don’t know how long and but they were bitter, angry selfish tears, I cried until I hear a horse leaving the palace and ran out to the balcony watching Tristan speed away on Elian. I hear the door creak and realize that Lefty has slipped out and Marina comes and joins me and hold me while I cry more.

Anselm Is Here

I must be spending too much time with Marina since I woke up this morning and headed straight for the library. I keep thinking about what Harran said, about the Westrans and the balance of the Triad.

I never thought of the three of them that way, I’d always thought of it as war, Cornan and Rana against Amina. Maybe I was looking for kindness where there was none for Caleb’s sake. He was buried now which gave me hope that Amina no longer held him, but still.

“Well, this is certainly a sight I never thought I’d see,” I looked up and exhaled, thrilled to see Mastero Anselm. I leapt out of my chair and embraced him, in a way I hadn’t since I was very small. “Relax yourself, Majesty,” he said and I broke away. He knelt them. “In the name of the gods, I pledge myself to your service, Queen Annalise.”

“Your service is accepted with gratitude, Mastero,” I said gravely, “please stand, I’m so glad you’re here.” He smiled and stood up. “I didn’t hear back from you so I didn’t know if you were coming.”

“I almost didn’t but then a certain newly installed Count came banging on my door and said if I didn’t come to the aid of my queen when it was requested I could find another place to die, if it pleased me,” he sighed and I giggled, imagining the scene. “I happen to like the garden I’ve built at Pantona as well my house, plus I don’t see your cousin Marina or Duchess Norvine being to my taste as a landlord, so alas, here I am.”

“Do you think there’s any chance that Amina is going to exploit my grief about Caleb’s death in order to overtake Marina and turn her against me so that she can have Brayton’s child who will be the Dark Sword who destroys me?” I blurted. He looked and me and laughed.

“My goodness, that is quite a lot of information,” he said, “you Dreamed these things?” I nodded and we walked back to the table. “The possibility of Amina trying to create a sword did not escape me, but Lisette, I assure you,” he took my hand, “your birth was the incredible event of many strands of fate intersecting. Even if Marina Sanpierre bore Brayton’s child the chances of that child being a sword,” he sighed. “Your mother was Chosen, your father was the first Prince with the sight in fifty years, they were in love, truly and deeply. And you were shaped, by Count Caleb and myself,” I smiled. “Have you been speaking to him?”

“Not frequently,” I said, “it’s complicated.”

“It is not, in fact complicated, Annalise,” he said. “I am glad I came.” We walked out onto a balcony. The Dome of The University was in plain view. “Blast, I suppose I’ll have to go there.” I looked down. “What, precisely do you hope to gain from discussions with The Shadow Lord, Lisette?”

“Insight,” I said softly. “An understanding of my mandate of what being Chosen is, what it means.” He nodded. “And he is my family, Anselm, my blood, my father’s,” I leaned against the rail.

“You have other family,” he said, “your cousins here with you, both chosen,” I went to speak up, “And Thomas Martin, who perhaps feels even more keenly the import of a mandate than anyone, having failed in his? Hm?” I swallowed. “Brayton will only feed you doubt.”

“I’m glad you’ve come,” I said. “I’m sorry too. I know you didn’t want to come.” He smiled and patted my hand.

“Well, we don’t always get what we want,” he said. “Where is Duchess Marina? I would like to hear her thougths on all this?”

“You’re going to gang up on me,” I said and he laughed following me into the palace.

 

Prince Harran

Prince Harran of the Borderlands had been spending most of his time around the barracks. It made sense, the Border Tribes were less formal than us, and Harran had been chafing at court.

I’d forgotten how much I’d liked him when he visited us at Pantona, with his easy manners and laugh. He was tall with light hair and eyes, and he was tall and strongly built.

“Your majesty,” he said, seeing me approach. He was sharpening a knife.

“Your Highness,” I said and sat down with him. He laughed and pulled his flask from his belt. “Thank you.”

“Tell me Lisette,” he said, “where have you been of late?” I frowned. “You haven’t been here with us.”

“No,” I said softly and took a drink. “Do you think I can still out drink you, Your Highness.” He laughed and shook his head.

“Perhaps,” he said, taking the flask back and drinking himself, “I don’t think we should try now.” I nodded. “So, where have you been?”

“I don’t know,” I said, “with the gods?” He laughed. “I just want to be Lisette, for a moment.”

“All right,” he nodded. “Will you marry me?” I laughed.

“Did you hear me?” I said, “I want to be Lisette. A nameless orphan girl, raised in a country manor on the kindness of some nobles. You wanted to marry Lisette.”

“I wanted to do a lot of things with Lisette,” he grinned. “She was too young, as was I.” I smiled. “Besides, I didn’t think you were nameless, I thought you were Count Caleb’s daughter, which is why I didn’t simply show up in your chamber and help myself, frankly, because it would have been a grave insult to him.”

“Harran, I don’t know whether to be insulted or flattered,” I shook my head and he smiled. “I might not have turned you away, I did think you were very handsome.” He laughed and stood up, walking over to my bench and sitting beside me. “But you didn’t want to marry Lisette, you wanted to her to bed.” He smiled.

“Hmm,” he nodded. “So I did. Still do, at that.” I swallowed. “But now I’d be worried Tristan Dugarry would chop my head off for it.”

“And now?” I said, “You were sent here by the Chieftans to court me. You’ve done poorly there.” He snorted.

“This is why I wanted you then,” he said, “you fear nothing, Lisette.” I smirked and pulled myself close.

“I don’t fear you,” I said. He nodded. “If I were Lisette, not Queen Annalise, what would you ask me?” He kissed me then and I felt almost giddy.

“I’d ask how long before anyone came looking for you,” he whispered. “But you aren’t Lisette. Lisette wouldn’t come to me like this, she was fearless about life, but shy of men.” I smiled and looked down. “Besides,” he pulled back, “I’m not interested in a woman who’s heart is full of another man.”

“So you want love from me too then,” I said. He laughed.

“No,” he said, “no, if you wanted me, really, me, even just for a night, I would not miss it. But you don’t want me, you want to escape. You want to forget who you are, forget Captain Dugarry, and darling I am not the man for that.” I smiled. “My proposal stands though. It’d be a good match. You’d be Annalise Dovetail, Queen of Cammadan, The Sword of The Goddess and Chieftess of The Border.”

“Would you expand that border?” I grinned. He laughe

“When I rise to Chieftan, Lisette,” Harran grinned, “I will conquer the west for you regardless of if you’re my wife. I will crown you Empress myself, if you wish it.”

“Good then,” I said. “I might still marry you, I haven’t decided.”

“Mm,” he smiled. “Well, I’ll write to the Chieftans and tell them I need to remain to,” he winked, “convince you.” I laughed. “If I were to leave you be, it would not be for a lesser man than Prince Eric or Captain Dugarry. I admire them both.” I smiled.

“I’m sorry, if you felt I was trying to use you, Harran,” I said, cupping my hand on his cheek.

“You are Queen,” he smiled, “to use your subjects is your right.” I smiled. “You needed an old friend, I know you’re short on those at the moment.” I nodded. “How long until Aaron returns?”

“I don’t know,” I said softly, “soon, I hope. Olivia said she might stay in Pantona, which would break my heart but I understand,” I sighed. “I miss them.”

“That’s alright,” he said, “I miss my brothers, and my father,” I smiled and we kissed again. “The gods knew what they were doing with you, I can see that.” I smiled.

“Who do your people honor?” I asked.

“The gods,” he said softly. “We exist by their grace, their balance and triad.” I pressed my lips into my mouth. “Yes, the discussion of the triad would upset you, I suppose, but Rana and Cornan’s balance cannot exist without Amina’s check. The Westerners and The Rastani understand this better than we ever could.” I nodded and stood up. “I’ve upset you.”

“You’ve restored me, Old Friend,” I said, we pressed out hands together one last time. “Thank you.”

Raymond

Marina was studying, or working on the faire or something. Tristan was in the market, with Athena, probably preparing for his departure.

We still didn’t talk about it. Ever. It hurt us both too much. I found myself longing for Aaron. I’d been so caught up in things with Eric and Tristan and my more recent dreams that I hadn’t let myself miss him.

But I wanted to talk to him about everything, about seeing Caleb in the Realm of The Dead, about watching Marina grow happier and healthier as she fell in love with Lefty, about my own swirl of thoughts and feelings with Eric.

We’d slowed things down, after that night on the couch, even the small casual touches had stopped. I didn’t miss it, because he still laughed and smiled and flirted, and I had my nights with Tristan which had only become more intense.

“Your Majesty?” Raymond stepped in to the parlor and I stood up. I’m still not fully comfortable around him. “I’m sorry, was I disturbing you?”

“No,” I shook my head. “How can I help you?”

“Marina, that is,” he looked down, “The Duchess,” I laughed and shook my head.

“We’re all cousins, Raymond,” I said, settling at the table and gesturing to a chair for him, “you can call her Marina, and me Annalise, or even Lisette if you like.” He nodded and sat down.

“Yes, well,” he cleared his throat, “she thought it might be possible for me to enter the University.”

“She mentioned the idea to me too,” I said, “it isn’t a bad one, honestly, I wish I’d thought of it.” He smiled. “What do you want to study? Besides Elementals, obviously.”

“Yes, besides that,” he said, “I don’t know. History? Maybe the mythologies, I could help with your mandate.” I nodded. I saw how badly he wanted to be useful. Eric had told me he’d been largely cast aside at home. He didn’t belong on The Prince’s Glory either, not really. Marina had decided we needed to make a place for him.

But he still made me uneasy.

“That could work,” I said softly, “I sent for Mastero Anselm, he might have a few ideas.” Raymond’s face brightened.

“Mastero Anselm is coming here?” He asked. “Truly?”

“Unfortunately,” I mumbled, “I’m out of options. He’s going to be furious with me but there’s nothing to be done.” I stopped. “What do you know about Dreams?”

“I know that when my sister has one we have to shutter the royal apartments because she shrieks like a banshee,” he said softly. “I’ve never had one myself, which is why,” he stopped.

“Why the Mothers rejected you,” I said. He nodded. “I’m sorry, for that. We’ll find something for you, you have my word.”

“Thank you,” he said, standing up and bowing, I smiled and nodded indicating he was dismissed. The conversation had been almost normal but I was still unsettled, I still wanted someone who’d known me before.

I wanted to be Lisette, even for a little while. And then I suddenly remembered that there was someone in the palace who knew me before and smiled.