The Chosen

I woke early one morning and made my way to the dungeon. The guards looked concerned but they didn’t stop me.

I guess no one will ever stop me again. How odd. I walked up to Brayton’s cell. His hair had grown out a little and there were bags under his eyes.

I’m glad he was suffering though it still didn’t feel like quite enough.

“Your highness,” he smirked at me, “what have I done to deserve such an honor?”

“When you spoke to me in my mind the night you were captured,” I said softly. “You said you could teach me.” He smiled.

“My my,” he said, “what would Dear Caleb say?” I looked away. “Why me?”

“You’re chosen,” I said softly. “I don’t have anyone else who is.” He laughed.

“Thomas Martin is,” he said. I frowned. “Or he was, I suppose, Cornan isn’t terribly tolerant of failure. I’ve wondered who he’d choose next. Your Tristan is a worthy candidate, inflexible, powerful.”

“Stop it,” I snapped, “you’ll make me regret  this.” He smiled.

“Goddess,” he sighed, and leaned back against the wall, “you sound like your father. I look at your face and see my Marie, but then,” he frowned seeing the fury in my face I suppose.

“If you loved her,” I said, “why did you kill her?” He shook his head.

“You’re so young, Cousin,” he whispered, “you’ve never lost love, never seen it grow or change, or gods forbid curdle.” I thought of Tristan, how he couldn’t meet my eyes anymore, how he spoke through clenched teeth. “Marie’s death was avoidable, she knew it. I asked her to stand with me, she chose otherwise.” I swallowed.

“And Marina?” I asked. He smirked.

“Mm,” he exhaled, “Marina is mine. In ways she doesn’t even know, we’re bound. I nourished her power, saw it honed and trained. I know her, and she me, and this scares you I think.” I swallowed. “Fear isn’t natural to you.”

“No,” I said softly. “But you’re insane, so there’s that.” He laughed.

“Not insane, Your Highness, not that,” he sighed. “I wish sometimes, it might make the part I have to play easier.” I frowned. “That can be our first lesson I think, the gods choose us to play parts. A King, or queen in your case, a priest, a devil, a champion.” I frowned. “A sword. The wheel turns, Annalise, there’s no stopping it.”

“You stopped it,” I said.

“I cut a thread,” he sighed, “so we landed on another. We’re bound to the wheel and to fate.”

“I had a vision that you fell,” I said. He smiled.

“A false vision,” he said, “I didn’t fall. Amina requires me, so I cannot.” I looked at him. “Are these chats going to become regular, Annalise?”

“I don’t know,” I said. He nodded.

“What about Lady Marina?” He asked. I frowned.

“No,” I whispered, “no you won’t see her.” I swept out of the room and back up to the sunlight. Being around him sometimes makes me feel like the sun is gone forever.

“Lisette!” I heard a voice calling my name. I turned at the sound. It wasn’t Aaron or Athena so hearing the name shocked me and then I smiled seeing William walk towards me. “I mean, Your Highness!” He bowed. I laughed and hugged him.

“You came,” I said, “I’m so glad.”

“I told you I would,” he pointed out as we walked towards the palace. “Besides, General Martin sent out recruiters. I’ve been recruited.” I grinned at him.

“Well then,” I said, “you’re going to join the guard? We could find other work for you.” He shook his head.

“I think the guard is best.” He said. Aaron walked up to us from the hallway.

“Then you’ll have to talk to Tristan,” I said. William’s face fell. “Aaron, have you seen William?”

“I knew he was coming,” Aaron nodded, shaking his hand. “How’s home?”

“In deep mourning,” William said, “I’m sorry, Aaron, really.” Aaron nodded. “I have a note for you.” He reached in a pocket. Aaron frowned looking at it. “She insisted, I tried to explain.”

“Of course,” Aaron sighed. “I’ll write her back for all the good it will do. Your highness,” he poked my arm. “Should I be presenting William here to Tristan? I think that’s part of my job as his provenance leader.”

“It is,” I smiled, and kissed William on the cheek. “I’m glad you’re here.”

Duchess Norvine

I awoke a few days later, happily in my comfortable green and blue hued bedchamber in my apartment. The Grand Apartment. The bed alone was almost the size of my chamber in Pantona, and that wasn’t a small room. I stretched and rolled over.

It still felt strange, waking in the morning without Tristan there. Since we’d arrived he’d been quiet and withdrawn. Athena tried to make up for it by constantly chatting, but it doesn’t work. I miss him, I want him and I know I can’t have him anymore. They all tried to warn me. I sighed and pulled on a dressing gown and walked out into the parlor. Athena was already there of course.

I’m convinced that she doesn’t sleep at all.

“Good morning,” she said and poured me a cup of coffee.

“Morning,” I grumbled.

“Duchess Norvine came last night,” Athena smiled, “you’ll like her, I think, very no nonsense.”

“An heir?” I asked. I’d spent the past three nights smiling, nodding and pretending to laugh at the jokes of Provenance Heirs. They’re nice men and boys for the most part, but not what I want, and they’re all trying far too hard to ingratiate themselves.

“No, thank Cornan,” Athena sighed. “Her heir is her daughter, who is married and pregnant, you’re safe. No one’s going to betroth you to an unborn baby.” I smiled and sipped on the coffee. “At least I hope not, the Rastani might try, but they have ten others to throw at you first.”

“Yes, I got the letter,” I groaned and stretched. “Anything from Phania, yet?” She pressed her lips into her mouth.

“You have to stop asking at council,” she said, “the others,” the Provenance leaders other than Aaron and Uncle Les, that’s who she means by that, “are worried. I don’t think they understand.”

“Why should they, I barely do?” I snapped. “I’m sorry, I’m cranky.” She shrugged. “Have you seen Marina?”

“Can I help you?” Marina said stepping in. She was still wearing the nursing uniform she’d grown used to in camp. It suited her, she seemed more like the sisters at the temple of Rana than a great lady.

“I need help getting dressed,” I wrinkled my nose. She laughed and nodded following me back into my bedroom. “I feel like an infant.”

“I had a maid or one of the sisters dress me every day of my life before we left the capital,” she said, pulling my night gown over my head and a petite coat over that. “It was unusual even for my friends. We know why now.” I nodded. How Marina turned out as sweet and competent as she did when she was being groomed and trained to be Brayton’s wife amazes me. “Duchess Norvine today isn’t it?” I nodded. “This will work.” She pulled a green dress out of the wardrobe and tightened the corset. I’m always in green these days. I wonder what The Goddess thinks about it. “All done.”

“A crown, today, do you think?” I frowned.

“Just the circlet,” she smiled. “Anya Norvine isn’t fussy. She’s my cousin too, on my mother’s side.” I looked back at her over my shoulder. “I don’t know her well. She hated Brayton, so she wasn’t here much.”

“He allowed her to come and go?” I asked. She nodded.

“Papa was the only Provenance leader who wasn’t free, now that I think about it,” she said. “Caleb came and went. And Warren Corsar, and Duchess Norvine.” I nodded.

“Come with me,” I said, “to greet her.”

“I should change,” she muttered. I shook my head.

“Like you said,” I kissed her on the cheek, “not fussy.” She laughed and we walked to the throne room. A few moments later a woman, tall and proud looking woman in her mid fifties walked in.

“Your highness,” She said and dipped into a low curtsey.

“Duchess Norvine,” I said and extended my hand. She took it and kissed it. “Thank you, for returning. I imagine the northern coast is chaotic, with the change.”

“Lucky for you Carland Dumanis is fond of his grandchildren and they are loyal to you,” she said. “Otherwise, I’d be asking you to build a navy immediately.” I grinned.

“Yes, the twins are useful,” I laughed. “You know, Lady Marina, of course.”

“Of course,” she said and nodded to Marina, “I’m glad to see you free child.”

“I’m glad to be free, Lady Anya,” Marina said.

“We’re three women who rule in this land,” I said. The Duchess nodded. “We’re not unheard of, but still not common. I’m happy you’ve made your daughter your heir.”

“Your father made it the law,” she said, “although I’d have done it anyway. Leisle’s a smart girl, she married a fool, but it can’t be helped. Brayton narrowed her options.”

“I want to invite you to join my council,” I said. She smiled. “I understand if you refuse, if you’d rather return to Norvine, but I’m at a loss. Corsar is a good man but we don’t get on, and Marina and Count Aaron are as inexperienced as I.” She nodded.

“Youth is good for a country,” she said, “but I accept gratefully. I had great respect for Count Caleb, despite not knowing how much he did for all of us.” I looked at her. “I’d have helped, if they’d trusted me.”

“I expect they thought you had enough on your plate,” Marina said. The Duchess smiled. “But I will make Papa apologize. I made him apologize to me for not telling that she was alive.” The older woman laughed.

“Ah, Lady Marina,” she shook her head. “Your Papa knew his business. You were as skittish as a black cat in the palace anyway, if you’d held that big a secret you’d have jumped through the roof anytime a person said hello.” I laughed aloud at that.

“Truly, I thought Lady Athena was exaggerating.” I shook my head, “Marina I can’t imagine you so scared.” Marina blushed.

“Still, they were quite wrong about many things,” she shook her head. “Thank you, Duchess for accepting. We will need your wisdom.”

“Goddess hold you both,” she said. taking one each of our hands in both hers. I smiled, feeling safer already.

In The Palace

I was exhausted. The ride back to the city, the decision to imprison Brayton instead of execute him, and I still feel as though someone punched a hole in my chest and ripped my heart out over Caleb.

I want to go to bed, but as Olivia pointed out we even have to argue and decide over where that would be.

“Where do you all sleep?” I asked. She smiled.

“At Bano House,” she explained. I wrinkled me forehead. “The house my father left me, Lisette. Caleb and I never stayed in the palace, at least not once my father died.”

“Oh,” I sighed, “I can’t stay there?”

“No,” she said, “I suppose until it’s sorted our where in the palace you’ll live you could stay with your uncle and cousin.”

“I don’t want to impose on them,” I muttered, “where did my parents stay?”

“The reigning king stays in The Grand Apartment,” Athena chimed in helpfully, “but you’re not a king, so there’s the princess tower.”

“But she’ll only be Princess for a month or so longer,” Aaron said, “why bother moving into the tower only to move out again?”

“Did Brayton take the Grand Apartment?” I asked. Athena shook her head.

“No, like wearing the crown or sitting on the throne,” she said, “he knew he didn’t have a right to it.” I nodded.

“But I do,” I said simply, “I’ll go there.”

“One down,” Aaron smiled at me, and draped his arm over my shoulder, “something like a million to go.” I punched him in the side. “Very dignified your highness.”

“Shut up,” I said, “Have you seen Marina? This sort of thing is her job, isn’t it?”

“Officially?” Olivia asked. I shrugged. “If you’d like it to be. She’s a good choice for a Lady In Waiting. However, I think she’s gone to lie down.” I sighed.

“Of course,” I muttered, “I’d like to. But I suppose it will have to wait.” We walked into the throne room. It still felt eerie and haunted. Dark, but wrongly so. “Olivia,” I turned to her. “Were those tapestry always here?” She grinned.

“No,” she whispered. She gestured to a few guards, “please pull them back.” They nodded and did so, revealing large windows, which were murky but still shone light in. “Your father liked them too.”

“It’s much better,” I said and settled on the throne. It was too high, my feet barely touched the ground. “I suppose I should see them now?”

“If you like,” Athena shrugged, “I’d make them all sweat a few days if I were you.” I glanced at Tristan, who’d been so quiet, even for him.

“That would be cruel,” he said, “you’re going to pardon them, they should know.” I frowned, I wondered if he was talking about himself.

“Fine,” I sighed. Slowly a group of courtiers filed in. Older mostly, some even older than Olivia and Martin, who stood behind me. Each one of them stepped forward and bowed, introducing themselves, I nodded, assured them that they would not be prosecuted but were also free to come and go as they liked. I wondered how many had been compelled to stay like my Uncle and Marina had been. After it was through, Olivia whispered to me that my bed was ready.

“Alright,” I said, I stood up and walked out. Following Olivia so that I learned where I was going, Athena was chatting to me.

“Your highness,” A girl stepped in front of us. I heard Athena sighed loudly. She was pretty enough. Certainly fashionable, her light hair wrapped around her head like a crown. “My name is Mercy Graves, and my father, he,” she sighed, “he served Brayton, only, he didn’t know, so he didn’t come today.”

“Didn’t you hear her highness, Mercy,” Athena said through clenched teeth, Elodie glanced over from a corner, “every one is pardoned. Your father’s absence won’t change that.”

“Yes, but,” she stuttered, “you see, I don’t know if he’ll believe me, so perhaps, in writing?” I sighed.

“I will not be executing your father, Mistress Graves,” I said, “Or is it Lady Mercy?”

“Mistress,” she said softly. I nodded. “I’m a friend of Lady Marina’s,” Elodie walked over. “Is she alright?”

“Lady Marina is fine, Mistress,” Elodie said. Mercy looked at her and nodded. “And her highness was hoping for a nap, I believe?” I nodded, grateful to her. Once I got to the bed, I didn’t even bother to undress, I collapsed onto the bed and fell asleep.

“So he fell then?” the voice of a man, deep and full, filled a small room, lit with blue lit candles, he came into view from a doorway. He was dark, his hair long and pulled back. A woman was sitting on a stone floor, dressed in blue, breathing deeply.

“Alive still,” she said, “but fallen. Shall I write to my cousin? Welcome her back to the world?”

“Not yet,” he said, “though it’s a good development. Where is our brothers?” She smiled, a smile I knew well, it looked like mine and she stood up.

“North still, I think,” she said. “I could reach out to Raymond. Or would you rather simply write to Eric?” He sighed.

“I don’t know,” he said, “Lestat was a fool, we’d have had her by now.” She lit a long branch from a candle.

“The Goddess moves in her own time, my love,” she said. “Write to your brother, tell him to sail to Dovetail with as much haste as possible, without insulting Rainier if it pleases him, I don’t want to hurt Karina betrothal with rush.” He nodded and I woke with a start. I didn’t know who they were, the dream didn’t reveal them. But their use of “cousin” and “brother,” revealed them.

The King and Queen of Phania had plans for me.

The Question

I lay that night asleep in my tent, staring at the canopy. Tristan had moved his things, and I couldn’t blame him. I’m not an expert or anything, but I’m guessing that telling a boy you’ve been thinking about another boy who you’ve never even met, right after he has sex with you isn’t a wonderful way to keep him with you.

I closed my eyes and took a deep breath.

You’re curious I heard his voice echoing. I know it.

“This isn’t real,” I murmered. It was one of his illusions.

I can show you truth, Annalise, he said, You mourn him, which I suppose is natural, but he hid it from you.

I kicked the covers off and threw open my wardrobe. If he wanted to show me truth, he could show me truth, but I wasn’t going to let him have it on his terms. I grabbed the dress uniform that Athena and I had been tailoring for most of the summer and pulled it on.

The fit was awkward still, and when I glanced in the mirror I didn’t recognize myself, but I swallowed and held my breath for a moment.

“Why, Caleb?” I whispered. I wasn’t angry with him, I couldn’t be, anymore. He’d had his reasons for everything, I trusted that. I just wished I could ask him what to do now. But that was impossible and I knew who could help me. I walked quickly to Marina’s tent. She stirred and blinked at me.

“What are you doing here?” I looked at her. Even half asleep and exhausted she looked like an illustration in a fairy tale book. How was that fair? But maybe it was what I needed.

“Marina,” I said, softly, “get up! Get dressed!” I began rifling through her wardrobe mumbling to myself.  As we approached the tent I looked at Marina. She didn’t look afraid, but I knew she was. The whole encounter was frustrating, he didn’t answer questions, but I knew he wouldn’t.

And when Marina looking him in the eye and said, “You will die,” I was frightened, of her, of her certainty. And I knew that in the morning she would hate me. She stormed out and I looked at him.

“You can ask it of me cousin, I am Chosen too,” he said. I swallowed. “It is not an easy path.”

“You made it harder,” I said simply and left him behind. Marina stood leaning against a tree, she was shaking. I held her until she stopped and then made my way back to the tent. Tristan had decided to come back, but he was asleep. I curled up next to him.

“You were spotted,” he muttered, “couldn’t sleep.”

“No,” I whispered. He nodded and began to play with my hair. “Tristan,” I whispered.

“Mm,” he mumbled sleepily.

“I’m not going to execute him,” I whispered. He started then. “I can’t, I need him, and politically…”

“After all of this?” He said. I nodded. “What will you tell Marina?”

“I don’t know,” I sighed. “I think she’ll understand though.” He kissed me. “Do you?”

“You need to understand being Chosen, he is,” he whispered. I nodded. “And sparing him will cause a lot of the nobility, the ones that stayed at his side to exhale.” I nodded. “It’s a good plan but doesn’t sound like you.”

“It’s Caleb’s plan,” I whispered, “but I wish I could talk about it with him.” I realized I’d be saying that a lot, and that was the most terrifying thing. Knowing that I was planning to rely on him completely, that he’d lied and kept secrets from me, and that he was gone. But I fell asleep to the rhytmic sounds of Tristan’s breathing.

It was a problem for another day.

The Girl Queen

I entered the tent and Aaron and Olivia were already seated by his bedside. I sat beside them and Caleb looked over and smiled at me.

“We’ll leave you,” Olivia said softly, and they stood up. I swallowed and placed my hand on his.

“You look sad, Little One,” he said. “But you’ve had a great victory.” I smiled.

“You can’t die,” I said simply, “I refuse to allow it. I order you to live.” He smiled.

“I will try then,” he said, “Your Majesty,” he kissed my hand. “Oh my darling girl, how I’ve loved having you as mine.”

“Caleb, how can I do it without you?” I said.

“Trust the others,” he said, “they will guide you.” Not as he would have though. He hugged me. “Aaron said you spared Brayton.”

“Yes,” I whispered, “as you said to.” He smiled. “He showed me things. Visions.” He swallowed.

“In the smoke?” He said. I nodded. “An old trick, my love, you’re stronger than that.”

“I broke the spell,” I whispered. He nodded. “Caleb, my father,” I inhaled, “Olivia and my father.”

“No, love,” he shook his head, “no, it wasn’t what he thinks, it wasn’t what anyone thought. Ask her, she’ll tell you.” I nodded. “I am so proud of you, Lisette.”

“May I still be Lisette sometimes?” I asked him softly. A child’s question, what I’d asked him when he first told me who I was when I was seven.

“And Aaron must do whatever you say,” he smiled. I began crying and Olivia came back in. “Hello Livvie.”

“Caleb,” she whispered. “You’re a liar, you know, you promised to stay with me always.” He grinned.

“Forgive me then,” he whispered. “I love you.” She pressed her forehead to his and I felt his life leave him. We both stood quietly for a few moments.

“I can leave, if you’d like,” I finally said. She looked at me.

“No,” she said and stretched her hand out to me, “no stay with me.” I nodded and knelt with her beside him. “My Caleb,” she said softly. I looked at her, thinking of the scream I’d heard in my vision, her screaming my father’s name as he ran to his death.

“Where’s Aaron?” I asked.

“He went to see Athena,” she said softly. “That’s for the best, I think.” I nodded.

“I need to do something.” I said. She looked at me.

“Lisette,” she said, her voice changed, “you need to be very careful.” I nodded and went back to my tent. Tristan was waiting for me. I smiled and ran into his arms.

“It’s over?” He whispered. I nodded and pressed my face against his chest. “I’m sorry, Lisette, I will miss him.” He kissed me. “Do you want to be alone?”

“No,” I said softly, “I want you with me.” I was lying but I wasn’t unhappy that Tristan was here. His arms and his kisses were comforting, but not as comforting as sitting with Aaron and Olivia and lighting candles and whispering the names of the counts and countesses of Pantona asking them to accept Caleb into the ether. I went to the cot and lay down and he lay down with me. I curled into the space in between us. “Did Marina fix you?”

“She did,” he whispered, “she’s afraid you’ll blame her, for the Count.” I looked up at him. “Understand Lisette, this is new to her, she doesn’t know you,” he sighed, “she doesn’t know what this means for her.”

“I don’t want to talk about Marina,” I whispered and kissed him. He nodded and pulled me close. We lay there in silence, kissing, touching, until we inevitably made love.

We both knew what it was, the end of something. After, I pressed my forehead to his.

“I have to tell you something,” I whispered. He nodded. “I had a vision today.”

“A dream?” He asked. I shook my head.

“No, it was different,” I sighed, “but I Saw, well,” I sighed, “I love you, but you know,” he drew back, “you see I’ve had visions and Dreams about the prince of Phania for a long time, and I saw him so clearly today.”

“I see,” he said softly, “so before, that was what? You trying to forget it?”

“No,” I shook my head, “only, well, I don’t know what it means, and I,” I sighed, “I have to find out is all, he’s coming here, I don’t know when, but he is, and for us,” he kissed me again. “And while I figure that out I think I need, well, time, and space.” He pushed my hair off my face.

“You’re sending me away then?” He whispered. I closed my eyes.

“When I’m with you, there’s only you,” I explained, “I breath you in, I feel you, and I can’t have that and figure out what all this is.”

“What changed, in the past hour?” He asked softly.

“Caleb,” I admitted. He nodded. “He was supposed to help me with all of this, I wasn’t supposed to do it alone, I was counting on,” I choked on the tears.

“I understand,” he said, wiping my eyes, “Lisette, really,” I nodded, “but you aren’t alone, my love, you’ll never be alone, I’ll always be here.” I smiled. “Do you want me to go?”

“For now,” I whispered. He nodded stood up and left, I fell back against the pillows, and tried to sleep, but I could hear cheers and songs throughout the camp.

All Hail The Girl Queen! A few voices echoed. That had been what Caleb and Anselm had jokingly called me. I cried until I fell asleep.

 

Vision In Smoke

The palace was eerie, quiet, looming above me, just as it always had in my nightmares. Tristan and Athena flanked me, I didn’t know where Caleb and Aaron and Martin were, fighting somewhere else on the grounds probably.

I wiped my face and swallowed.

“Lisette,” Tristan said softly, “we’re with you.” I looked at him and smiled softly and nodded. Athena reassured me with a nod, and the drew her sword.

“Thank you both,” I said softly, “but no, this I have to do alone.” Athena came and hugged me tightly. “Find Aaron, he’ll need you.” I don’t know how I knew, but I did, then, suddenly. But I couldn’t let my heart break yet. She ran off and Tristan smiled at me and I kissed him. I knew what was waiting for me on the other side.

“I love you,” he said.

“I know,” I whispered. We kissed again and I entered the doors, as I’d done countless times in my dreams, I suddenly felt very alone and wished more than every that Marina was with. I was trying not to resent her fear of coming here, to think of her as a coward. But how could she not face it?

I glanced around, it was dark, I could barely see, so I conjured a small ball of light. That was when I heart the laugh.

“Welcome home cousin,” Brayton’s voice, echoed through the hall. “I had expected a Queen in all her glory, what a pity you’re alone.”

“Where are you?” I called out, and he laughed again. The room filled with smoke and I wanted to scream, maybe I did, I don’t know. I thought of Marina’s vision of the city in flames.

“Tell me Lisette,” his voice was in my mind, I was terrified. And how did he know that name? “Do you know what thread we’ve landed on?” A vision began to form around me out of the smoke.

I saw a man, handsome, tall, with red hair and light skin, and grey eyes like mine, my father, charging at a dark haired man holding a woman, dark skinned, small and beautiful, as she crumpled to the ground. It was Brayton, and my mother. I turned quickly and saw Olivia, screaming, “Anton no!” as Brayton’s sword slashed through my father.

“I should have thought you’d be in Pantona,” his voice filled my mind again. “Olivia was always so besotted with your dear father, but Caleb resented it so I thought he’d never shelter you.” I swallowed. He was wrong about so much.

Another vision formed of a ten year old girl, serious and quiet in a garden. I recognized her immediately. Marina. She was planting flowers, praying over them and they blossomed immediately.

“You see?” His voice said in awe. “She has such great power. Greater than yours.” I swallowed and found my voice.

“Enough!” I shouted and scattered the smoke, I realized then that it was out of his control and something else took hold of it. It formed another image, more immediate, in front of me.

It was a boy, near my age perhaps, dark skinned and haired, with a silver crown on his head. I exhaled.

“Eric,” I whispered, as if I knew him, and yet I knew we’d never met.

“Annalise,” he said softly and extended his hand, I extended mine and our fingers touched. It was the most natural feeling in the world. “I’m on my way,” he smirked, as if it were a joke between us, one we would both learn soon, “wait for me?”

“Of course,” I smiled back, “forever.” He nodded and the smoke dissolved to mist and then cleared. The hall was just a hall now, the spell, whatever it had been, was broken.

Eric. I would have to wait to be amazed at so clear a vision of the future. Or the present? I don’t know what that was. I made my way to the throne room.

“Well, you made it through the smoke,” he was sitting in the throne.  My throne.  My father’s throne. “I’m impressed. I would have thought the memory of Marina would break you.”

“Marina doesn’t want the throne,” I said softly, “and you’ll never touch her.” He smiled.

“So you say,” he smiled and stood up, I drew my sword. “You don’t need that cousin, though it’s nice to see it again. Who had it? Martin or Caleb? Martin probably, Anton never trusted Caleb. I did, which was foolish I suppose.” I lowered the sword. “Better.”

“I don’t understand,” I shook my head. He smiled. His smile scared me.

“No,” he said, “I could help you to though.” I grinned now. Perhaps he could. I raised the sword again and hit him over the head, knocking him out. I grabbed the rope from around my waist and tied his hands and legs. The doors swung open and Athena, Tristan and Aaron ran in.

“Dead?” Athena asked. I shook my head.

“No,” I whispered, “You’re all alright?” They nodded, but I saw that Tristan was bleeding.

“We are,” Aaron said softly, “but Lisette, Father,” he didn’t say more.

“We’ll go back,” I said. My heart caught in my throat. Goddess, not Caleb, I needed him. We walked back to camp and I saw Tristan limping as we got closer. “Go on ahead,” I said to the others. They nodded and went. “Tristan,” I said and took his hands.

“Why didn’t you kill him?” He asked. I shook my head. “Lisette what happened?”

“I can’t talk to you about it,” I said softly, “I’m sorry, I,” he nodded and kissed me. “I love you,” I whispered.

“I love you,” he said, “everything is about to change.”

“This won’t,” I said, I was lying, he knew it. “I promise, it won’t, it can’t.” He nodded and Marina walked up. I looked at her.

“Lisette, I’m sorry, Count Caleb,” she looked so pale. So drained.

“Alright,” I said quietly, “we won, I’ll be queen. That will cheer him.” Tristan squeezed my hands.

“Yes, love,” he said. Marina met his eyes. “I’m alright Marina.”

“He isn’t,” I insisisted. “You can help him?” She nodded and I left, hurrying to Caleb’s tent, praying to the god and goddesses and my father and his that he would be alive long enough that I could say goodbye.

The Farmgirl And The Merchant Boy

“I was thinking,” Tristan whispered, I lifted my chin from his chest, “about that afternoon, when we went into the village at Pantona, and met my cousins?” I laughed.

“I was furious,” I said softly, “Aaron was teasing me about being in love with you, and you were so rude to William,” he laughed.

“Athena was teasing me too,” he said, “and I wanted you so badly.” I looked at him. “I’m afraid, Lisette.” I sat up.

“Of the battle?” I whispered. He shook his head. “Of what, then?”

“Of you,” he said, I shrunk back. “You’re changed, and Marina and I,” I tucked my knees to my chest, hearing him say her name hurt. “Never mind.” I looked at him.

“I know,” I whispered, “but I can’t do this and be Lisette, I have to be the sword, after, maybe, I’ll be able to go back,” he kissed my forehead.

“Be the sword for them, for this,” he whispered, “but be Lisette with me.” I kissed him. “A farm girl and a merchant boy.”

“A farm girl took a merchant boy to a hillside,” I whispered. He laughed. “She pledged her love to him, and later it was revealed she was a queen and chosen by the gods for glory. The merchant boy took up a sword and followed her into the darkness.”

“What else could he do?” he whispered back, “when the queen pledged her love, she placed a spell on  him,” I laughed. “Will they come out of the darkness, do you think?”

“I hope so,” I whispered, “if it’s the kind of fairy tale that I loved best, they will.” He smiled and kissed me. “They’ll live happily ever after.”

“As you say,” he whispered. We fell asleep, whispering to one another.

I woke up in the morning and went to the armory, tent. Athena was already waiting, as was Aaron, I could see Dovetail below us in the valley and the army was gathered. Tristan was following behind me. Marina and I had already agreed that she would stay behind.

“Are you ready Princess,” Aaron grinned at me. I rolled my eyes at him. Caleb was standing with him too. I then ran and hugged them both.

“Where’s Olivia?” I asked Caleb. I wanted to see her.

“She begs your pardon,” he said softly, “but she can’t.” He looked in pain. I realized suddenly how very terrible today must be for her.

“Of course,” I said, I glanced at the army which would stand behind me. “And Marina, and Uncle Les?”

“Marina is with the other healers,” Aaron said, “preparing.” I nodded. A few guards brought the horses and we mounted, galloping quickly through the city. I was amazed by how quiet it was. Thomas’s evacuation had clearly worked. When we heard the first howl of shadows, we’d already reached the plaza in front of the palace.

“Duck,” Aaron yelled as one charged at me. I slashed it and jumped from horseback.

“Thomas,” I yelled, he grinned, spun his sword, “Caleb.” They both motioned to their squads and I approached the gates with Tristan and Athena and Aaron. We pushed the gates open and entered a courtyard, I saw the palace for the first time, in real life, and my heart caught in my chest.

“Lisette,” Aaron looked at me. I looked at him. “Your dreams?”

“Yes,” I said softly. We pressed carefully on when a host of shadows swirled around us. One lunged at me and Athena slashed it.

“Leave the dark one,” a hissing voice came from the center, “The Lord commands her surrvival.” I found what would likely be the eyes.

“Your lord does not command me,” I said, “and if he wants me, my companions pass as well.” The hissing started and I balled my fist, I prayed to the goddess and felt the power force a glow. The Shadows scattered and the doors of the palace creaked opened. I swallowed, knowing what would come next.

 

The March

I stood in the weapons tent, looking over what I was going to carry when we started moving. The tent parted and Caleb walked in. I locked eyes with him and he frowned.

“I don’t like this,” he said simply.

“I don’t care,” I shrugged. He sighed, and I looked at him. “Why?”

“You’re being rash,” he explained. “You can’t act without thinking things through anymore. This isn’t a game.”

“I’m aware,” I said simply. He nodded. “I knew about being the sword.”

“I assumed Anselm told you,” he shrugged, “it wasn’t for me to know or tell.” I pressed my hands against the table. “You aren’t angry with me then?”

“Not for that, no,” I whispered. He frowned. “How could you keep us apart?” He nodded. “Caleb, we could have helped each other. I could have learned,” I stopped.

“We didn’t want to,” he said softly, I scoffed. “Little One, look at me,” I stared at him in the eyes. “After your parents died, and then after Anne, Brayton wouldn’t alllow Les and Marina to leave the capital. Hell, he barely let them leave the palace, they couldn’t even live in the house the Brightcoast family usually did in the city.” I frowned. “Is there anything else?”

“No,” I muttered, “still, though.” He shook his head.

“You’re determined to march?” He asked. I nodded.

“I’m tired of waiting.” I said simply, “I know you’d prefer my birthday.” He shrugged.

“It isn’t up to me,” he said.  “You and Martin run the army, I go where you point.” I laughed.

“That won’t always be so,” I whispered. He frowned. “I’ll need you.”

“I’ll be there,” Caleb said softly, “but they’ll talk, you know. You don’t know court. They’ll say I run you. That can’t be.” I nodded. “Tell me Lisette, do you Dream, lately?”

“Yes,” I whispered. He nodded. “I see the Goddess, I see my parents, and,” I was quiet then. “It doesn’t matter, not right now.” He sighed. “Caleb, I swear, I’ll study every possible interpretation and legend around everything in every dream when we take the Capital, but I can’t focus on that now.”

“Alright,” he said. “Not Prince Eric then?” I frowned. “Will you send for him immediately, then?”

“I don’t think so,” I said, “I can’t, you’ve always said, I mean, the coronation, I suppose.” He shrugged. “Besides, not lately, anyway. Not for months.” He nodded.

“And the god?” He asked.

“No,” I whispered, “I’m chosen only of Rana, I think. Cornan needs another champion, but I don’t know who.” He nodded. “You don’t honor them.”

“No,” He admitted, “the gods are for others, my father taught me, those above us and below. We serve our family and our land, and that’s why we honor the ancestors and the soil.” I smiled. “You know this, you’re just being difficult little one.”

“Did you just come to provoke me and ask me about my dreams, then?” I asked. He shook his head.

“I’d like permission to send a healer to Davis,” he said. “He’s complaining of some ailment. I don’t see any sickness, but unless you want him to waste away.”

“Send Marina,” I said quietly. He nodded and bowed and left. He’s disappointed in me, and I know it. I’m being impatient and rash and he has to listen. I’m not Lisette, the orphan living under his roof anymore, and I think that will be as hard for him as it is for me.

“Your Highness,” Thomas said walking in after a few minutes. “You’re ready then?” I nodded. He rolled out a map and began to explain the last bits of the march to me. I smiled, knowingly. “There’s another thing.”

“Alright,” I said softly.

“When we enter the city,” he sighed, “there will be people, and there could be collateral damage.”

“I know,” I said, “but I don’t see how an evacuation could be managed.” He nodded. “You have a plan?”

“The Dumanis,” he explained. I wrinkled my brow.

“I won’t begin my rule in debt to Carland Dumanis,” I said. He smirked.

“Not Carland, but Trey might pass word along, if I asked him,” he said, “just whispers.”

“You would do that?” I asked. “It wouldn’t,” I sighed, “I know Thomas that,” he laughed.

“Years have cooled our parting, Highness,” he smiled. “Cool is the right term for it. And regardless of their father’s opinion, Tristan and Athena’s aunts and uncle have no love for Brayton. An oppressed populace is bad for bussiness.” I nodded.

“Alright then,” I said, that’s when Marina and Tristan burst in, Marina’s face a mask of fear, and Tristan flushed.

(Read what happened then here.)

The Shadows

We found the twins, and Tristan tossed Aaron a sword. He nodded and we began fighting the shadow army that had swirled.

I’d seen Dream reprsentations of the Black Guards, and Athena had told me about them but the fight felt endless, and relentless, time stopped and yet continued forever. And they just kept coming.

“Thena,” Tristan called out as she sliced two of them down with her spear, he nodded to the hill, where a knight was sitting. She stopped.

“He’s mine,” she said.

“Athena,” Thomas said riding up to her, “no.” She glared at him. “Not now.” She fumed and joined me. Then I looked over another hill and saw Marina on her way. What was she doing there? She shouldn’t be in a battle.

And then there was the light, blinding, and white and when it cleared, we were alone, the shadows were gone. I saw the light retreating towards Marina, and then she fell. I ran towards her.

“Tristan,” I heard Thomas shout, “get Davis.” I didn’t know what that meant. I assumed it was the commander. I didn’t have time for that. Tristan was frozen looking at Marina, limp and fallen.

I lifted her head as I got to her, she blinked at me.

“Annalise,” she whispered, I kissed her forehead and she lost consciousness again. Elodie was by my side then and Tristan, who quickly swooped her up, we ran, wordlessly to the medical tent.

“What was that?” Tristan asked. I looked at him. “It was magic, wasn’t it?”

“Yes,” I said softly, “and powerful.” He nodded. “She’s powerful, Tristan, scary powerful, I knew it the moment I saw her.” I looked down as she slept peacefully. “What we just saw was only a small taste of what she can do.” He leaned down and smoothed her hair.

“Rina,” he whispered, “why didn’t you ever tell me?” He looked completely betrayed. It wasn’t yours to know, something in me roared. “At the palace, she used to lead prayers, after dinner, quietly murmuring words to the goddess, candles would flicker sometimes, water swirl in glasses.” I looked at him, but he was looking at Elodie, “will she be alright?”

“Yes,” Elodie said, “she fainted is all, when she comes too, she’ll be weak, probably, and confused,” she sighed and looked at both of us. “She shouldn’t be alone.”

“I’ll stay with her,” I said quietly. Tristan looked at me. I didn’t want him to be the one she saw when she woke up.

“Alright,” he said, “I’ll check on our new prisoner. You want to question him?” I frowned t him. “His name is Warren Davis, he was a spy for Brayton and now he commands shadows, I imagine,”

“I will,” I said, “when I know Marina is out of danger.” Elodie sighed loudly.

“Your highness, she isn’t in danger, and you’ll,” she started, but I glared at her. “I’ll bring a basin and cool water, that will help.”

“Fine then,” Tristan said, “Your highness?” I looked at him.

“You’re dismissed,” I whispered and he nodded and left. Elodie followed and I began wetting her forehead. “Marina,” I whispered, “what was it?” But I knew, I’d read and heard about Queen Anessa, my name sake’s use of battle magic to recognize it. But Marina isn’t a warrior.

“She needn’t be,” I gasped looking up. Standing across from me was a woman. She was dark skinned, and dressed all in blue. She was shining too.

“My lady,” I said softly and genuflected.

“My, you were raised by a courtier, weren’t you?” The Goddess laughed. “You may stand.” I did. “So, Annalise, you have seen what I can do for you. I could do more, you know, if you’ll free me.”

“I will,” I said softly. She nodded and walked to Marina’s bedside.

“I had hoped for a more formal introduction to you both,” she sighed, brushing her hand over Marina’s curls. “My chosen champions. My brother drags his feet choosing a new one, Thomas let him down so. And Amina,” she clicked her tongue. “Well, she could have done worse, but she always had a flare for the dramatic, and deeply resented the alliance between Cornan and I that made you.” I swallowed. “So there’s Brayton. I ought to have claimed him myself, frankly, but I never had much use for the sons of this land.”

“My Lady Rana,” I said softly, she looked at me. “Where are you?” She sighed.

“If I knew, I would give you the place,” she said, “but I know not.” I nodded. “Everything is out of balance, you surely sense it?”

“Yes,” I whispered, “that’s it then, that’s my mandate. Balance?” She nodded. “But how?”

“Oh now, where’s the fun in that?” She said with a laugh and then was gone. I lurched in the chair, it was as if nothing had changed, except Marina jolted awake. We talked then. Quietly, Uncle Les, Caleb and Olivia came in and told us we were chosen.

Marina was furious, I understood why, but I wasn’t, I’d spoken with the Goddess. I couldn’t be angry. I left the tent and went to question Warren Davis. He didn’t tell me anything I didn’t know. Brayton would come, he wouldn’t be moved. Blah, blah, blah.

That night, back in my tent, Tristan lay beside me. We didn’t make love. I couldn’t, I knew I had to tell him the truth soon. I had to find Rana, and he couldn’t be a part of it. But I couldn’t let him go either. Losing him would be losing Lisette, and I couldn’t lose her.

“Come back to me,” he whispered, realizing I was somewhere else. “Lisette,” he sighed, “where are you?”

“Dovetail,” I said softly, “we have to go, and soon.” He nodded. “I’ll tell Thomas in the morning, we’ll start marching.” He pressed his forehead against mine. “Did you see anything? In the light?”

“No,” he said, “but you obviously did.” I frowned. “You’re not talking like yourself, and you’re,” I kissed him. “I’m not a fool Lisete, I’ll go if you want me to.”

“I don’t,” I said, “you swore! You said you’d stay.” He nodded and he held me. I felt like a child, but I knew I needed him.

“Then I’ll stay,” he whispered, “as long as you wish, Princess. I swore it then, and I swear it again.”

The Challenge

I woke up early the next morning ready for my challenge. I had to fight Thomas. I passed by the medical tent and got a polite nod from Marina as I headed out to the field. The guards were standing around, whispering. I glanced at Tristan, who was leaning against a tree. He winked at me and I tried not to giggle.

Athena walked over and handed me my sword, and I noticed Thomas standing, dressed in light boiled leather holding his. Caleb was next to him and he smiled at me and walked over.

“Your boot, Lisette,” he said and knelt down. It wasn’t untied. He made eye contact, and I nodded, grinning. “You didn’t forget?”

“Never,” I said. “General,” I called out. “Shall we begin?”

“As you wish, Your Highness,” he stepped over to me. “Captain,” Athena nodded, stepping out of the way. He struck once and I dodged, rather than block. Speed was my ally. “You’re afraid?”

“No,” I said and struck myself he blocked. “Not afraid, cautious.” He laughed.

“You won’t beat Brayton with caution, Princess,” he said.I dodged him again, but a swing took my legs out. “Cornan rewards a bold fighter.” I tumbled, and slid through his legs and then pulled a small knife out of my boot, I sliced his pant leg, winning the duel.

“But I am the sword of Rana, General,” I grinned up at him and he laughed, “and The Goddess likes her own to be cunning.”

“So she does,” he said and lifted me up. “A nasty trick you taught her Count.” Caleb was laughing from the side and the rest of the guard had begun cheering.

“She doesn’t have size on her side in any fight,” Caleb shrugged, “but surprise is as good an ally as any.”

“True enough,” Thomas said, “still.” I grinned and went to Tristan who took my hands.

“You were good,” he said, “faster than most.” I shrugged and we walked along. “It won’t be long now, will it?”

“No,” I said softly, “not long at all. I feel it, everything around me, I know it has to be soon.” He pulled me close and kissed me. “I’m afraid,” I admitted.

“No one would know it,” he said, “I wouldn’t even, if you didn’t tell me.” I kissed him again. “And if you need to, you can hide, and Thena and I will take care of all of it.” I giggled.

“I don’t know that she would approve of that plan.” He shrugged and kissed my palm. “And I need to be at the front of it, Tristan, I know you want to protect me, but you can’t, not from this.” He frowned.

“I know,” he sighed, “but I still wish.” I nodded and held close to him. He sensed it too, I think, in his way, that we were nearing the end.

“My darling,” I said softly. I heard a throat clear. Elodie Wills, Athena’s friend was standing beside us. “Mistress Elodie, I’m sorry,”

“No, I’m sorry, your highness,” she said, “only well, the Viscount asked me to find you.”  I nodded, she grinned at Tristan who sighed and kissed my forehead.

“Don’t keep him waiting,” he sighed. “He’ll never let us hear the end of it.” I squeezed his hand and followed after Elodie.

“Lady Athena told me some of your story, Mistress,” I said. She nodded. “I mean to keep the guilds in hand.”

“I’d always hoped so, your highness,” she said softly. “Lady Athena doesn’t quite share my view.” I nodded.

“We’re all a bit blind when it comes to our families,” I smiled. I watched Aaron stand with Marina, teasing her, and grabbing at her apron. She giggled. “And now I must see to mine.” Elodie laughed as I skipped over to them. “You summoned me?”

“Requested an audience,” Marina said simply, I laughed, “you outrank us both.”

“Ah, but to ignore the desires of my two most powerful courtiers would be ill advised,” I said, “what is that you both need?”

“I wanted to congratulate you,” Aaron said, “Athena said you did well.”

“Well, if Athena says so,” I grinned. Marina giggled. “I did in fact, I used my knife.”

“Oh, gods,” he sighed dramatically, “that damn knife.” I slid my arm through Marina’s.

“I dreamt last night, you know,” I said simply, “did you?”

“No,” she said. “I haven’t in a while.” I nodded. “What did See?” I sighed. “Prince Eric again?”

“I think so,” I said. Aaron rolled his eyes. “The ship at least. He’s north, I can tell that much, or he was, very recently.” She looked at me. “He knows it’s coming too, I think.”

“Lisette,” Aaron said softly, “does Tristan know?” I looked at him and shook my head. Marina looked away. “You should tell him, it isn’t fair.” I frowned.

“I know,” I sighed, “I know, but he’ll hate me.”

“I don’t think so,” Marina said, “I don’t think he could.” I looked at her. “I should get back to work.” She curtsied to me and Aaron took her hand and kissed it and she scrurried off.

“You shouldn’t flirt with her,” I said, “she’s young and,” he laughed.

“Marina is in no more danger of falling in love with me than you are,” he said, “we get on, that’s all.” I nodded. “She worries about you, you know.”

“Well, she never had visions of me murdering her so I think she’ll be alright.” He snorted. “I don’t think she will, now.”

“No,” he said, “I don’t think so either.” I nodded. “Lisette, I’m going to ask Athena to marry me.”

“Oh, that’s good, then,” I said. “What does Caleb say about it?” He frowned.

“We need your permission,” he explained. I laughed. “I’m serious, Lisette, it’s all part of it. She’s in the guard, she can’t without,” I shook my head,

“As if I wouldn’t give it,” I shook my head, “ask her. Marry her, be happy.” He laughed and picked me up and spun me. Then we heard the shouts, and the sky turned black.

“Shadows!” I heard Thomas calling out. “To arms!” I swallowed and looked at Aaron, he nodded and we ran quickly to the main field.