After dinner I stood out on the terrace with Aaron. He leaned back against the railing and we watched Prior play on the floor with Calla and Althea.
“You can’t marry him,” he said.
“Why not?” I said. “He’s everything everyone wants. He’s Cammadie, from a good family but not high up enough in that family for them to gain control through him, he’s charming and kind to me, he knows the people and the country well, better than me sometimes, I think.” Aaron sighed.
“Yes,” he said, “and of course, if you make up your mind to do this, I’ll support you, I always will.” I smiled.
“But?” I said.
“You don’t love him,” he said. I smiled. “So you won’t be happy.”
“I gave up on the idea of marrying the man I love a long time ago, Aaron,” I whispered. “And as for happiness, I think I’ll take contentment and security over whatever I have now.” He slid his arm around me and I rested my head on his shoulder.
“Oh Lisette,” he sighed. “You should come home after Westran.”
“I’ll probably have to go to Rastan,” I said. “The King is dying.” He looked at me. He nodded.
“Of course,” he said, “but you’ve been away too long.” I smiled.
“You sound like Raymond,” I muttered, “he’s always pestering us about going home.”
“Raymond is wise,” Aaron shrugged. “I’ve always said so.” I laughed. “I only want what’s best for you.”
“I know that,” I said. “I know you and Athena are worried about her future, Aaron.” He looked at me.
“We’re worried about a lot of things,” he said, “and with the new child, Athena feels she’s letting the mandate down.” I nodded. “But yes, I worry about Calla, and what her life is going to be and for the moment that is up in the air.” I nodded. “Through no fault of yours of course.”
“Of course,” I murmured. He looked at me. “I want to go home more than anything Aaron, but right now,” I shook my head.
“I know,” he sighed. “I had thought everything would be settled by now.”
“Sometimes I think it would have been,” I admitted, “if,” he looked at me.
“If Father had lived,” he said. I nodded. “I think about it too. He’d be advising you now, instead of me.”
“And you and Athena would be at Pantona, raising your children, quietly.” I said. “I’d probably have married a Rastani prince three years ago.” He laughed.
“Marina would be bored out of her skull serving as Ambassador to Phania,” he grinned. I laughed. “Tristan?”
“A house in Brighcoast or Dorin maybe?” I shrugged. He looked at me.
“Or with you,” he said. I looked at him. “If you’d taken a different course, you two could have been together.” I sighed. “Hell, five years later you’re considering marrying someone in exactly the same position he was then.”
“If you wanted to make me feel worse,” I murmured.
“If you really want to feel awful you should know Carolina’s been having an affair with William,” he shrugged. I stared at him. “My exact reaction, Athena said it was very obvious.”
“William Santino?” I said. He nodded. “My William?”
“He wasn’t really yours,” Aaron said.
“He asked Caleb if he could marry me,” I said, “and he didn’t know who I was, even, he just liked me.”
“You were fourteen and he was seventeen, in the intervening four years, even if you had been Lisette he probably would have changed his mind about it,” he teased and tweaked my ear. I laughed. “I think it’s over now, but,”
“It’s none of your business,” I said gently. He looked at me. “And certainly not mine.” He nodded. A hail of giggles poured out as the little girls came charging over. Calla’s strawberry hair and Althea’s chocolate brown stood in contrast in front of me.
“Your Majesty,” Althea curtsied and Calla copied her clumsily. I smiled and knelt down to them both. “Captain Chastain has made a suggestion.”
“Oh has he,” I glanced behind them to Prior, who shrugged.
“When I am honored to,” Calla stuttered, her shyness was endearing. I didn’t know where it could possibly come from except Tristan. “When I am your heir, which Mama said I would be, might Lady Althea be appointed my protector? Like Mama and Uncle Tristan were for you?” I smiled at her and took both girls into my arms.
“Yes, loves,” I said gently, “I think that is a wonderful idea.” I looked at Althea who was beaming with pride. “Will your Mama and Mother approve do you think, Lady Althea?”
“Mama will be very happy,” Althea straightened, “Mother might be cross though.” I laughed.
“I will speak to her,” she smiled and kissed me on the cheek, “run along now.” They giggled away holding hands. I looked at Prior, who kissed me gently. “A brilliant choice, Captain.”
“Thank you, Your Majesty.” He said. “Your Grace,” he nodded to Aaron. “I was sorry to not be at Pantona for harvest.”
“I can hardly blame you for choosing Dovetail’s charms over it,” Aaron smiled. “Lisette, we’ll speak later.” I nodded.
“He seems chilly,” Prior said.
“He’s being cautious,” I smiled. He kissed me again. “Prior,” I whispered.
“Thank you for having me join you tonight,” he whispered. I smiled. “I mean it, Annalise, it is not a small thing, what you’re thinking. I won’t have you rush it.”
“I won’t,” I whispered. “There won’t be any real decision until we’re back from Westran.” He nodded and I straightened his jacket and then played with the buttons. “But,” I smiled up at him,
“But,” he whispered.
“You wouldn’t object?” I asked. He grinned.
“To marrying you?” He said. I nodded. “No, I wouldn’t object. I’d be honored, and quite pleased.” I kissed him softly. “The Count doesn’t approve?”
“He worries,” I said softly, “it’s what he’s for.” He laughed.
Honored and quite pleased. I thought of how this had gone in the past. Tristan begging me, harshly, rashly, to keep him by marrying him. Eric’s soft happy acceptance after the most passionate night of sex we’d ever had. And Harran, sweet, a little uncharacteristically shy, wondering if the friendship we’d built would make a good marriage.
You don’t love him. I’ve had love, three men loved me and I loved them and I don’t need it. But I don’t want to be alone anymore. Prior is a wonderful companion and lover. My people like him and he’ll be a good father.
It will be enough.
It will have to be.