We’d be riding for a week or so, with full court. It had been a while since we’d done this going anywhere but Brightcoast and I’d forgotten how tedious it was to move with so many people.
It was made a little more pleasant by the fact that I was slowly getting court used to Prior. He was riding beside me, which we’d never done before and he was just as pleasant there as he was everywhere else. He chatted and challenged and made me smile. And at night we shared a tent and his skills as a lover relieved me from the long days.
He could be my husband. This could be the rest of my life, I realize as I wake up to sun peaking through the flaps of the tent and he’s pressed against me.
He adores me. I’d be happy.
“Mm,” he stirred, “Annalise, go back to sleep.” I shook my head.
“You can,” I said and kissed him. He nodded, and rolled over and I slipped out, my swords on my hips. Thomas was already waiting for me.
“You and I need to have a conversation,” he said.
“Can we have it while sparring?” I asked brightly. He frowned at me. “Thomas, what could you possibly be this worried about right now?”
“Do you think this trip is going to yield anything?” He asked. I sighed.
“It will at least keep the tribes happy,” I pointed out. He nodded. “I thought you were going to lecture me about Prior.” He snorted.
“Absolutely not,” he said, “that is a part of your life I have never wanted any control of.” I smiled. “Are you happy?” I nodded. “Good. Now, you want to spar?” I nodded. We were eventually joined by the twins and Prior. I never get tired of watching Athena spar with people, she moves so effortlessly, like a dancer. Tristan matches her each step, and the group that’s joined around them.
“What do you think, Your Majesty?” Tristan smirked at me. I grinned and went for him, sliding down towards his legs, he jumped and landed before I could take out his knees. “You’re wily, but I know that one.” I rolled my eyes and stood back up and engaged him. One strike on his sword, then two. My swords carefully caught his blade and our eyes met.
We hadn’t been this close in along time. Even if it was a fight it felt right. He raised his eyebrows.
“Yield?” I said. He nodded and bowed.
“Yield,” he said. I smiled. “You’ve gotten better.”
“You’re rusty,” I grinned and sheathed my swords. “Or getting slow in your old age.” He laughed and swung around his sword pausing right at my throat.
“Slow?” He said. I glanced over at the crowd that had formed. Both Prior and Carolina were among them and I lifted my swords and clanged against his again and we moved closer. “I am not slow.” I was breathing heavily with his face close to mine. “Yield?”
“Yield,” I said and pulled back. This is why we can’t be close. Because now all day my mind will be full of Tristan. Of memories and fantasies of his hands on me, of kissing him, of him inside of me. Of his smile and his scowl and his body and chat (as little of that as there is.)
And all the while Caro’s kind smiling eyes will be watching me, knowing what I’m thinking and it’s horrible.
It’s why I can’t be close to Tristan. I looked over and saw Prior, our eyes met and then he looked away.
“Lisette,” Tristan said softly, so that only I could hear.
“Don’t,” I said. “It was a good fight.” I sheathed my swords and walked off the practice field.
“Annalise,” Prior followed after me. “Annalise,” I looked at him. “What was that?”
“Sparring?” I tried. He raised his eyebrows. “That was me and Tristan.”
“I’ve seen you and Tristan,” he said softly.
“Apparently you haven’t actually.” I said. He frowned. “It was stupid, we should have known better.”
“Than to spar?” He asked. He seemed actually angry. I’ve never seen him angry. “You two can’t spar?”
“No,” I said and crossed my arms and shrugged. “We can’t spar, or dance or ride or be alone together, or anything.” He nodded. “I thought you knew.”
“I didn’t,” he whispered. “Now, I do.” I swallowed. “Are you still in love with him?”
“It’s more complicated than that,” I said softly.
“I don’t think it is actually,” he said, “I was willing to be your second choice. The convenient one, with Prince Eric gone.” I looked away. “I understood that. But this,” he said, “he’s my friend, Annalise, my partner.”
“I know,” I said sharply. “He’s also married and in love with my cousin, and the only person who’s ever seen all of me and it is complicated.” He looked wounded. “I’m not choosing you over him, which is what you’re about to ask me. Eric did too. But he isn’t a choice. Tristan is simply a fact and one I do what I can to avoid making a problem. I thought you understood that.”
“Whatever you’re doing,” he said, “it isn’t working. This is a problem, Annalise.” He walked away.
I exhaled and walked back to my tent. Marina was sitting, with her small loom working on her bandages.
“That was interesting,” she smirked at me.
“You of all people don’t get to lecture me,” I said and plopped next to her.
“I actually came to see if you were alright,” she said. I shrugged. “Perhaps Prior and Nika can form some sort of society or club.” I laughed. “I bet Harran would join too. Maybe Caro. Certainly Damian, though I think Eric would be above it.” I shook my head.
“That was reckless,” I muttered, “I’m normally better about keeping distance.” She looked at me. “It’s easier to pretend when I’m not right near him.”
“I know,” Marina whispered. “You’re stronger than I am in that regard.” I looked at her.
“It isn’t my strength, Rina,” I whispered. “He wants you. So he’s less able to stay away.” She sighed.
“I thought I wanted him,” she said softly. “But now I just,” she exhaled. “I want Nika. I miss her.” She rested her head on my shoulder. “It’s all so broken.”
“I know,” I whispered. “I don’t love Prior.” She nodded.
“I know,” she said.
“I asked him to marry me,” I mumbled, “but I don’t love him. I’m terrible.”
“Prior knows you don’t love him, Lisette,” Marina said gently. “I think he just, didn’t realize how you felt about Tristan.” I looked at her. “I can’t blame anyone for not wanting to be a part of that. Especially not someone who loves you both as much as he does.”
“As much as you do,” I said. She looked at me.
“As much as he does,” she whispered. “Harran and Eric could wish Tristan away, when they saw you keeping your distance. They could cut him out,” she looked down. “Prior can’t do that. He loves Tristan. Tristan is his friend. He loves you, and wants to be with you. Until today I don’t think he thought the two things were incompatible.”
“We make it work,” I said.
“We’re different,” she said. I looked at her. “You know that. You know it’s different.” Tristan walked in. “You two need to talk.” She stood up and kissed him on the cheek. He pressed his hand to her wrist. Everything they do is so intimate, it’s impossible to ignor.
“Are you going to marry him?” he asked. I sighed. “Lisette.”
“I don’t know,” I said. “I want to.”
“Did you want to before you realized that you were attending the wedding of your former lover to a woman you can’t stand?” He asked. “It doesn’t feel at all, say jealous or opportunistic?”
“You sound jealous,” I said, “and it’s an interesting moment for that as well.” He scoffed. “For a year you’ve showed no interest in my relationship with Prior.”
“For a year I didn’t think you’d completely lost your senses but I’ve been wrong before,” he said. “Five years ago I asked you to marry me,” I swallowed, “and you said it was impossible. What’s different now?”
“You know that answer,” I said. He stared me down. “I am supposed to remain miserable until Daniel makes a damn decision and I can have what I actually want? It may never happen.” He sighed.
“Lisette,” he whispered, “don’t do it. It isn’t fair.”
“To who?” I said. “To you? You left me five years ago, Tristan. You married someone else.” He sighed.
“It isn’t fair to Prior,” he said. “Or to you, frankly, but as you’re the one with less to lose, it’s more to him.” I looked at him.
“I’m sorry that you and Carolina are unhappy but that doesn’t mean,” I started and he wrapped his arms around me.
“It does, actually,” he said, “I was never going to be happy without you,” he whispered, “and I dragged Caro down with me and it was wrong. Don’t do it.”
“I’m not you,” I said. He nodded. “You barely know me anymore.”
“Lisette,” he said softly. “I know you,” he kissed me then. I was surprised but it was so clear, so familiar, “I know you more than anyone ever will. And you made me swear to always tell you the truth. So let me tell you.” I pressed my forehead to his. “You’re hurting yourself and him, and I care too much about both of you to let it happen without saying so.” It had been so long since he’d held me, or kissed me. I hadn’t even realized I missed it. Missed him.
“You’d have said the same about Eric,” I said. He smiled.
“No,” he whispered, “I don’t like it, but he’s right for you. The short time I saw you together you were so strong, and sure of your course, my love,” I closed my eyes tightly. “You’re lost, and I don’t blame you for looking for a light, and Prior is a damn good one.” I sniffed. “But you’ve fought so hard, why give up now?”
“I do care for him,” I whispered. He nodded. “And I’m so tired. I’m sorry you’re unhappy.” He sighed.
“We had our chance to go another way,” he admitted, “we didn’t take it.” I looked at him and nodded. The door opened and Prior walked in. “Is that all, your majesty?” Tristan said, clearing his throat.
“Yes, Commander, thank you,” I smiled gently, “as always.” He nodded and left. Prior looked oddly at me.
“What did he want?” He asked. I exhaled and looked up at him. “Annalise,” he said, “Talk to me, please.” I swallowed. “I shouldn’t have walked away before, I was just,” he shook his head. “I thought it was over.”
“It is,” I pulled away. He sighed. “Except that it never will be, if that makes sense.” He nodded. “And now, he’s worried, about you. Because he loves you.”
“Was Tristan telling you he thinks that you marrying me is going to destroy my life and leave me a hollowed out miserable shell of a man?” He said. I turned and stared at him aghast.
“Nearly exactly,” I nodded. He laughed. “He’s brought this up before?”
“He’s extremely worried about it in point of fact,” he said, flopping into a chair. “He is very protective, as you know.”
“Well,” I blinked, “yes, but I thought he was grumpy about it all because well, you’re a man, who’s not him.” Prior smiled gently.
“Darling,” he walked over and cupped my face, “Tristan is quite confident in your abilities to annihilate me emotionally, and walk away unscathed.” I laughed.
“Truly?” I whispered.
“Mm,” he nodded and kissed me. “I thought I was made of sterner stuff, but after this morning, well, I’m less condfident.” I looked down.
“Prior,” I whispered.
“Yes, My Queen,” he smiled.
“Take me to bed,” I grinned. He laughed.
“Of course,” he said and swept me off my feet. He placed me on the mattress and kissed me. “What do you think, Annalise? After this week, we’re moving into my territory.”
“Mm,” I smiled as he touched me. “Are you suggesting the ranger is a different lover than the courtier?” He grinned down at me.
“Something like that,” he whispered and kissed me. “And the ranger,” he slid my gown down my shoulders, “is far less patient,” we kissed, “a good deal less obsequious,” and he pushed into me, “and much rougher.” I exhaled in a groan.
“I look forward to meeting him.” I moaned. It felt good, to be lost in the oblivion of sex. He finished. “Prior,” I whispered, and he touched my face gently. “I wouldn’t be unscathed.” He pressed his forehead to mine.
“Well that’s a start,” he mumbled. I giggled.