“You’re allowed to be worried about her,” Prior said to me that night. I looked at him.

“She says she’s alright,” I whispered, “I can’t just say that she’s not. She knows her own mind.” He looked at me.

“You can still worry,” he said. “You don’t have to tell Marina that you’re worried about her.” I smiled and lay down with him.

“You’re very bad at this,” I said. He laughed.

“How so?” He whispered.

“You’re supposed to talk about how Marina is very strong and can stand on her own and doesn’t need me,” I explained.

“Ah,” he kissed me. “Noted.” I laughed. “But you know, I worry about you, nearly constantly, and I know there’s very little that you can’t handle.”

“You worry about me,” I said rolling over and facing him. He smiled.

“Oh constantly,” he whispered and kissed me. “If I valued my sanity I’d have found a woman with far less to worry about.” I whacked him in the chest. “I worry when I’m not with you, and when I am, I worry more, because I see what you carry.”

He saw so much. How had I found him?

“Prior,” I whispered.

“Annalise,” he whispered back.

“I think I’m falling in love with you,” I managed softly. He smiled and kissed me again.

“Took you long enough.” He murmured. I laughed and snuggled into his arms.

“Don’t be smug,” I whispered. “It doesn’t suit you.” I fell asleep wrapped up in him.

I Dreamed that I was standing on a pebbly beach, covered in snow and the sea was raging. Angry, heavy waves, crashing against icebergs and cliff shores around me.

“Rana,” I screamed out, “please say something!”

“What is left to say?” I turned my head and startled back seeing Brayton. He looked older, obviously, so it wasn’t a memory, this was real. He’d grown a beard and it had flecks of grey. “You’ve grown up, Cousin.”

“Where are you?” I asked. He cocked his head to the side.

“I know Caleb taught you better than that,” he tsked. “Coming right at me head on. Honestly, Lisette.”

“Don’t call me that,” I snapped. He smirked.

“Sensitive,” he said, “you’ve grown so beyond that?” I swallowed. “I’ve missed these talks of ours.”

“I somehow doubt it,” I mumbled. “Did she punish you?” He looked down.

“Yes,” he said.

“Was it painful?” I stared at him. He nodded. “Good.”

“Vindictive,” he said softly, “that’s new.” I sighed and looked at him. “I am not at fault for Eric of Phania leaving you. You have other enemies.”

“I am aware of that,” I whispered. “But you once told me that I didn’t know what it felt like when love went sour.” He looked at me. “I know that now.”

“You have a new love,” he teased, “or so I hear.” I glared at him.

“Don’t touch him,” I hissed.

“I’m not interested in Allred’s brats,” Brayton laughed. “Wyatt was always useless, I can’t imagine those boys are good for much either.” I frowned. “I hadn’t thought of using them for stud of course.”

“That’s disgusting,” I said. He shrugged.

“I’m not judging,” he said. “But it’s an interesting development.” I rolled my eyes and then woke up to Prior shushing me and stroking my hair while I thrashed and screamed.

“Annalise,” Prior whispered, “it’s alright love, it’s alright.” I realized he’d never seen me in a full Dream before and I started crying, clinging to him. “I’m here, sweetheart, it’s alright. Can you tell me what you saw?”

“No,” I said, “not yet, please just hold me,” he nodded and held me closer. I was shaking, my heart racing. I realized this was the first time I’d had this kind of Dream reaction with Prior in my bed. He was taking it well.

“I’m here, love,” he whispered and kissed my hair. “I’m here.” I looked up at him.

“I’m scared,” I mumbled.

“I’ll keep you safe,” he whispered. “Always.” Something deep in me, calmed. I believed him, all of me did.



I swallowed sitting beside Harran’s brothers as he and Brea exchanged their vows. He looked unbelievably happy. The blue and green gown I’d had made and the veil wrapped around my head felt itchy and like my body was rejecting it. Rian looked at me and smiled.

Harran had told me once that when he’d come to me Rian had attempted to court Brea. He seemed to be the only person besides me who wasn’t over the moon. Did he love her? Had they been together at all? Had she tried to love him and failed the way I had Harran?

Prior smiled at me and I felt my cheeks flush. He’d warned me about how he was out here, but he’d undersold it. Last night I’m surprised we hadn’t woken the whole keep with our activities in bed. And against the wall. And on the floor by the fire. And in the bath.

If Prior was at all insecure of his position in my life, he was making himself indispensable in pleasure alone.

Harran was vowing to love and honor Brea, and she was radiant, dressed in a white robe. As Nika had said, she was veiled, but it was lighly draped over her long dark hair, rather than wrapped like Nika’s or the one I was wearing.

“And so before the gods, and your tribes,” Lady Anaia said, binding their hands, “I bind you to one another. As long as your hearts beat, may you bring one another joy.” They kissed to seal the bond and we applauded.

After we were sitting at the feast and Prior came and sat beside me.

“You did well,” he grinned. “I only saw you grimace at the bride twice.”

“Most people weren’t looking at me,” I said. He leaned close to me. “Prior.”

“Everyone was looking at you,” he said, “at least everyone who’s sane.”

“You are clearly not,” I shook my head with a giggle and kissed him. “I can’t imagine you want more after last night.” He grinned. “Prior,” I said, “I can’t leave.”

“Yet,” he said, “I intend to have you every night for the foreseeable future, Annalise.” I smiled. “Now, what was that about leaving?” I rolled my eyes.

“I’ll be missed,” I said and stood up with my goblet to go have it refilled. “But if you want to go prepare for me,” he laughed and pulled me into his lap. “I need more whiskey.”

“You do not,” he pressed a kiss against my neck. “You need me.” I sighed and leaned back into him and heard Brea giggle as Harran lifted her up and music was playing. I suddenly realized what he was doing.

“Prior,” I whispered. He hummed into my hair. “I adore you for what you’re trying to do, but you cannot distract me from having feelings about this wedding with sex.” He turned my head and kissed me.

“Are you sure about that?” He whispered. I laughed.

“Yes,” I stood up. “I am.” I walked over and poured more into my goblet. Aaron walked over and looked at me. “Prior is trying to distract me with sex.”

“Well that won’t work,” Aaron said. I nodded.

“I know, I’ve outgrown that sort of thing,” I smiled.

“No you haven’t,” he snorted, “it won’t work because sex distraction is what you did with Harran.” I kicked him and he laughed. “Lisette, you’re handling this better than any of us thought you would.” I sighed.

“Thank you,” I said softly. “I don’t know how you thought I’d be handling it, because I don’t think I’m handling it well at all.” He slipped his arm around my shoulder. “If Eric announces that he’s marrying some debutante his sister in law picked out I’m not going.”

“You’ll go if you’re invited,” Aaron snorted.

“I will not,” I said. “And I’m not inviting him when I marry Prior. I’ve decided it’s cruel, to have former lovers at your wedding.”

“Mm,” Aaron nodded. “You have to invite him.” I sighed. “Well, you have to invite Elana and Daniel and then you have to welcome whoever they send. Which might not be Eric.”

“You aren’t being helpful either,” I said. “At least Prior’s tactic is fun for me.” We looked at Harran. “He looks so happy.”

“He’s in love,” Aaron shrugged.

“Not possible,” I shook my head with a smirk, “being in love doesn’t make you that happy. Being in love is torture. It’s having your heart pulled out of your chest over and over.” He looked at me and laughed. “In my experience.”

“When we were young,” Aaron said softly, “and Harran came to Pantona, I was furious with Father.” I looked at him. “It was such a risk, Lisette.” I smiled. “I was ranting and shouting about your safety and your future, and what was he thinking? And how could we trust this person?” I laughed.

“You were jealous,” I said. He shrugged.

“You were mine,” he said, “and you were following Harran around like a puppy and he liked it far too much.” I smiled. “But I remember what my father said,” I looked at him, “Aaron, we didn’t save her to keep her in a cage, we saved her so that she could live.” I smiled.

“I miss him so much,” I said softly. “He’d be so proud of you, Aaron. He’d be absurd about Calla.” He threw his head back.

“Her feet wouldn’t have touched the ground yet.” He grinned. I laughed. “We didn’t save you to keep you in a cage. But I feel like you’ve put yourself in one.” I looked at him.

“I’m not in a cage,” I said. “I do need some air though.” I rushed outside and exhaled my hand on my belly. Maybe I had had too much whiskey.

“Annalise?” I turned and saw Brea. “Are you alright?”

“I don’t know,” I whispered. She nodded and walked over. She helped me to a bench and sat me down. “Your guests.”

“Please,” she said, and waved her hand dismissively, “half the reason to marry a man like Harran is because he can handle that sort of thing.” I laughed.

“You look beautiful,” I said softly, my breath was still shallow. She nodded.

“Well, yes, I’m me,” she said. “You’re alright, keep breathing,” I nodded. “He was so glad you agreed to come. We were worried that you wouldn’t.” I looked at her.

“Really?” I said. She nodded.

“I know I’m not your favorite person,” she said. I smiled. “And I hated you for years before I ever saw you.” I laughed again. “I am absolutely serious. When he came back from Pantona all he could talk about was Lisette, this amazing girl. Ask Nika, I was furious. Who was this Cammadie girl, how dare she make him fall in love with her?” I smiled. “It took me two years to get him to see me again. And then the word came, you weren’t some farm girl who he’d shared puppy love with you were the queen. And you wanted him.” I looked at her. “I hated you for wanting him. I hated him for going to you. I hated the gods for making you queen, I hated my family for trying to comfort me.” She exhaled. “Oh and poor Rian, I hated him the most.” I looked at her. “Rian, coming to me, sitting next to me at feasts, greeting me every time we arrived. Trying to make me smile.” She exhaled. “Oh I hated him so much for that.” I swallowed. “But I’m not,” she exhaled, “I don’t get to be angry, to hate that way. I’m the shiny, bright light, I shine so that Nika can be seen.” She swallowed. “She gets to be angry and grumpy and hate people.” She looked at me. “So I smiled, and I twinkled and I hated you.” I laughed.

“I can take it,” I smirked.

“I know,” she stood up. “Meanwhile you have your own Rian to deal with.” I raised my eyebrows. “Prior Chastain is a good man, Annalise, but he isn’t the man for you.” I sighed.

“Why does everyone keep saying that?” I said.

“Because it’s true,” Brea shrugged. “And you know I’m being honest because I hate you.” I smiled. “Now come on, because I cannot allow Nika to continue this ruse that she and Marina are alright.” I stifled a laugh. “What happened there?”

“Oh nothing particularly exciting,” I said as we drifted back into the hall. “Nika found her snuggling with Tristan and reached her breaking point.”

“Ah yes,” Brea said with a nod. “I could have seen that coming.” She looked at me. “I once swore to curse Marina if she ever hurt my sister.”

“Please don’t,” I said, “trust me, loving Tristan is enough of a curse.” She laughed. “I am happy for you.” She smirked at me. “Well, I’m happy Harran is happy.”

“Try not to choke,” she grinned.

The Keep


It’s been a long ride and an I’m not sure what I’m expecting when we arrive at the border keep. I’ve been here a hand full of times in the past few years, and it’s always an awe inspiring experience, it’s two stone towers rising and the wide busy courtyard are soothing after the long ride.

I couldn’t help but split my face into a grin as we rode into the courtyard and I saw Harran standing waiting to greet us. Brea was beside him, but I barely saw her. I dismounted off of Kria and walked up to him as he bowed.

“Your Majesty,” he said taking my hand.

“Chieftan,” I said. I looked at Brea who was sunk into a curtsey. “Lady Brea.”

“My Queen,” she rose up. “We are honored by your presence.” She looked past me to Marina who was standing with Nika, the twins and Prior were a few steps back, along with Aaron. “Duchess, sister.”

“Hello Brea,” Nika said stepping forward and kissing her on the cheek. “Chieftan.”

“Lady Nika,” Harran embraced her. “We’re glad to have you home.” Her eyes were closed, I looked at Marina, who swallowed. “We’re glad to have all of you here.” He looked at me. “I had thought we’d feast right away but as my lady reminds me, you prefer a rest after a long ride.” I smiled.

“I do,” I said. Prior stepped forward and took my arm as I followed Brea through to a room.

“Commander, you know your way from here?” She said, her voice twinkling. I narrowed my eyes at her.

“I do,” he said simply. She curtsied again.

“Please let me know if you need anything further, Your Majesty,” she smiled and swept out.

“She didn’t wait for me to dismiss her,” I grumbled and plopped onto the bed. Prior looked at me indulgently.

“I know you dislike her, but she does have quite a lot to do and probably wants to comfort her sister,” he said. I raised my eyebrows at him.

“Please don’t see the best in her,” I sighed. He laughed and kissed my forehead.

“I apologize, I’ll be short tempered and scowly with her,” he said. I laughed. “Are you going to tell Harran?”

“About?” I asked.

“Annalise,” he sighed.

“I will tell him,” I said. He smiled. “Perhaps not tonight, though. He’s so happy that we’re here and,” he lay down beside me. I cupped my hand against his face. “I don’t want to lose him.”

“I know sweetheart,” he whispered and kissed me. “I’ll let you rest. Several rangers arrived last night, apparently. We’re to be briefed.” I nodded and lay down to sleep for a while. My Dreams were chaotic, they always are this close to Westran. When I awoke, Calla was sitting cross legged looking down on me. “Hello Little One.”

“Chieftan Harran sent me to get you,” she said simply. “But Mama said I oughtn’t wake you. Were you Dreaming?” I sat up.

“I was,” I said. She nodded. “Shall we go to see The Chieftan?” She nodded and I followed her out to the yard. “Has Mama sparred with him yet?”

“No,” Calla said with an exhausted sigh. I laughed. She reminded me of Caleb when she sighed like that. “She said that she’ll only do it when she’s rested.” I nodded. Harran was settled in at a wide table and she ran over to him and he took her up onto his lap. “I found her, Chieftan Harran.”

“So you did, Lady Calla,” he smiled at me. “Hello Lisette.”

“Hello Your Highness,” I said. “Calla, love, where is your Papa?” Calla shrugged.

“I’ll go find him,” she popped off of Harran’s lap and went running.

“You’ve a task on your hands, turning that one into a queen,” he smirked at me.

“She’s energetic,” I said. He hugged me. “Oh, I’ve missed you.”

“I’ve missed you too,” he said. “I was worried you wouldn’t come, given your reaction last time.” I smiled at him.

“Right,” I muttered. “I was surprised.” He raised his eyebrows. “I thought,” he smirked at me, “Well, I didn’t expect you to wait around.”

“Didn’t you?” He said. I frowned at him. “If it weren’t Brea,” he tried, and I sighed.

“I could have reacted better when you told me,” I admitted. “I just,” I exhaled, “she’s so,” he laughed. “Brea.”

“I’m happy that you’ve found someone else you know.” He said. “You could be more generous.”

“I haven’t,” I muttered. He laughed then.

“Prior is far too happy for things to have not moved forward,” he said. “And I know you very well.” I cocked my head at him.

“Nika told you,” I said.

“Of course Nika told me,” he smirked. “What does Tristan say?” I sighed and stretched down onto the table. “Ah, so he’s enthusiastic?”

“He thinks I’m ruining Prior’s life,” I said. “You don’t mind?” He shrugged.

“I like Prior,” he admitted. “And if you’re happy.” I frowned. “You need to write to Eric.”

“I what?” I said. He looked at me. “No, I don’t, it has nothing to do with him.”

“Lisette,” he said. “If you’re getting married he can’t find out from spy networks, or official announcements.” I pouted at him.

“You found out from Nika,” I said.

“Yes, because Nika knows you’re a coward about this sort of thing, and she wanted me prepared,” he laughed. “I am gaining an excellent sister.” I laughed.

“You are,” I said softly. “Harran, I,” I swallowed. “Did I hurt you?” He looked at me. “I mean, what went on between us.”

“Of course you did,” he said, his voice was gentle though, “Lisette, you broke my heart. Not the first time, obviously, but two years of uncertainty followed by an outright rejection was more than a sting.” I looked away. “You wanted Eric and I was there. If your own heart has healed from losing him, I’m glad for you. But you have to tell him that.”

“I don’t know that it ever will,” I said. “Heal, I mean.” He wrapped his arm around me. “What if Prior leaves me too?”

“Is that why you want to marry him?” Harran asked. “To keep him?” I nodded. “Oh Lisette.” I rested my head against his shoulder. “I had them bottle three casks of the whiskey.” I laughed.

“Good,” I mumbled. “I’m going to need a lot of it.” He laughed and pulled me close.

“There you are,” Brea marched over to us. “My parents have arrived, are you going to greet them?” It was phrased as a question but it certainly didn’t sound like she was asking. She looked at me. “Congratulations on your engagement Annalise.” She swirled and left. Harran sighed, his face full of a dopey smile.

“That is what you have to look forward to,” I said, “for the rest of your life.”

“Yes,” he said, with a besotted sigh, “it’s wonderful, isn’t it?” I laughed and shoved him away. I’d missed my friend more than I could have possibly understood before seeing him again.



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.



“Are you going to wear a veil?” Mercy asked as she fingered the light green material in front of her. I glanced at Nika.

“It would be respectful,” Nika said, “for the wedding itself and maybe the first meetings with each tribal leader, but I don’t think you need to be veiled the whole time.”

“Brea doesn’t wear the veil,” I pointed out. Nika smirked.

“Brea will be veiled at her wedding, Your Majesty,” she said, “quite elaborately. I’ve seen the designs and the beginning of the weaving.”

“Mm,” I sighed, “alright then, have a few made, but nothing too ostentatious.” Nika smiled at me as the seamstress left. “I hate this.”

“You’ve gotten better at it,” Mercy said. “Your first year I would sometimes cry over how hopeless you were at picking your clothes.” She looked at Nika. “She tried to wear a uniform to her coronation ball.”

“And this is bad?” Nika’s raised her eyebrows. Mercy sighed.

“Marina would understand,” she said and then stopped. “That is,” Nika rolled her eyes.

“I’m not going to fall apart at the mere mention of her,” Nika said. “I’m angry and sad not suddenly fragile.” I smiled at her. “How was the council vote?”

“Mercifully brief,” I said with a smile. “Calla is now my heir. Mercy, I do need to talk to you and Elodie though.”

“About Althea being her protector?” Mercy said. “I think it’s a very good idea.” I smiled. “You were worried I’d be resistant?”

“A little,” I said, “I assumed Elodie would be enthusiastic.”

“Yes, well,” Mercy said, “among other things it’s what Althea wants, and I’d like my daughter to grow up happy.” I looked at her and she sighed. “Children deserve that from their parents.” I smiled at her.

“Of course,” I smiled. Nika nodded. “I should wear more blue, shouldn’t I?”

“Some grey,” Nika said, “remind everyone you don’t favor any god in particular.” I glanced at her. “Annalise,”

“Amina is my enemy even if she isn’t yours,” I pointed out. “I won’t honor her, even to make the tribes comfortable.”

“I can’t imagine anyone in any tribe expecting a daughter of Anessa and Mariah to honor Amina,” Nika shook her head. “But they’d be more favorable to Rana than Cornan.” I nodded. I looked at her.

“Are you alright?” I said softly. She sighed.

“No,” she muttered, “but I will be.” I hugged her. “How did you forgive them?” I laughed.

“I met Eric?” I exhaled. She sighed. “Not particularly helpful advice, I know.”

“Carolina advised patience and acceptance,” she mumbled.

“Well,” I frowned and picked up a pieced of blue lace and wound it around my hair, “Carolina is a saint. We’re merely human.” She laughed. “The first time I found them together I went back to my room and broke a mirror.”

“You said that was a Dream!” Mercy gasped. I rolled my eyes at her.

“I lied,” I giggled. “Of course before that anytime Tristan brought up her name I made him change the subject.” Nika sighed.

“It’s odd,” she muttered, “if I found her with Lefty, I’d forgive her in a moment, but I saw her lying in Tristan’s arms and I lost my mind.”

“Of course,” Mercy said, sitting next to her, “she admits her feelings for Lefty. She’s in complete denial about Tristan.” I looked at her. “I’ve known her longer than both of you. And I loved her first.” She kicked her feet onto the table. “Nika, have you any idea how jealous I was, the first time I saw Marina kiss you? If I’d known she liked girls, well,” she huffed, “our girlhood would have been quite different, I can tell you.” I laughed.

“I had no idea,” I said. Mercy shrugged.

“I got over it,” Mercy said, “I met Elodie. But still, old wounds.” I thought of my own old wounds.

“Really?” Nika said. “You never even kissed her?” Mercy giggled.

“If you think she’s preoccupied by him now!” Mercy said. “You have no idea what it was like when we were younger. She basically a ghost unless Tristan was talking to her.” I looked at her. “But she trusted me, and that was enough. I was jealous of her, because her father wasn’t trying to marry her off to some old man who worshipped Brayton.” I looked at her. “But she was also so beautiful, just being near her,” she shook her head. “I’m just saying I don’t blame him. It was dark here, and she was a very bright light. It’s a hard habit to break.”

“Habit or not,” Nika frowned, “I’m done indulging it.” I looked at her and circled my arm around her. “I just want to go home. I want to be with my sister, and my people and,” she exhaled. “It doesn’t matter, are we finished?” I nodded. “Thank you for trusting me with this, Your Majesty.”

“Of course,” I said as she left. I collapsed next to Mercy. “If we don’t find the gods on this trip I’m going to the sea, drowning myself and asking Rana what in the hell her problem is.” Mercy laughed. I sighed. “I don’t want to go to this wedding.” I groaned.

“Maybe Harran will pull a Tristan,” Mercy raised her eyebrows. I looked at her. “Get all in his feelings and take you to bed before going through with it anyway.”

“That is terrifically unlikely to happen,” I said softly. “And if Tristan had come to my bed instead of Marina’s he would not have gone through with the wedding.” She patted me on the thigh.

“Whatever helps you sleep at night, Your Majesty.” She stood up.

I Don’t Want To Be Alone Anymore


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.

An Injection Of Chaos


“They’re here, they’re here!” Althea Graves-Willis exclaimed running into my office, followed solidly by her mothers. Mercy smirked at me, while Elodie scooped up their little girl, actually an orphan they’d adopted from Brightcoast. Althea was nearly five now, and positively doted on, not just by her parents but by most of court.

“Althea,” Mercy cautioned, “what did we say? If you could behave you could announce to Her Majesty.”

“I’m sorry Mother,” Althea sighed and wiggled out of Elodie’s arms and curtsied deeply. “Your Majesty, The Count and Countess of Pantona and their family have arrived in the city, if it would please you to greet them when they arrive at the palace.”

“Thank you, Lady Althea,” I bent down and kissed her forehead, “it does please me. As do you.” She laughed and ran off down the hallway. “You’re too hard on her Mercy,” I cautioned her. Mercy rolled her eyes.

“I won’t have her be a little savage,” she said, with a smile. “But she is excited to see Calla.”

“Of course,” I nodded, I looked at Elodie. “You’re ready to brief them, Commander?”

“Of course,” Elodie laughed, “not that Athena won’t have more questions than my briefing could possibly cover.” I smiled. We arrived on the palace steps and Marina was already waiting with Raymond and Evan. I wondered where Nika was.

“Some traders arrived and asked for a blessing,” Marina said, anticipating my question. I nodded.

“It’s downright eerie when you two do that,” Raymond grimaced. “I’m your cousin too, why can’t I guess what you’re thinking?”

“I haven’t any idea,” I said, “perhaps it’s from Mariah, not Tumona or The Goddess.” He rolled his eyes. The gates opened and I couldn’t help but grin widely as Aaron and Athena walked up in full dignity. They were followed by Olivia and Thomas, Olivia holding Calla in her arms. Tristan and Carolina were next.

“I’m going to kill her,” Marina muttered. I looked at her.

“I’m sure she had her reasons,” Elodie murmured. I exhaled, one of them was pregnant then.

“Your Majesty,” Aaron smiled and bowed, I nodded and he rose and kissed me on the cheek.

“Your Grace, Countess,” I nodded to Athena. “Countess, General,” I smiled at Olivia and Thomas, “Viscountess.”

“Your Majesty,” Calla squeaked shyly, and placed her thumb in her mouth.

“She’s rather sleepy from the journey,” Olivia smiled.

“Of course,” I said and kissed her. “I am glad you’re here, Lady Calla,” I whispered, the little girl nodded. “Commander Dugarry, Lady Dugarry,” I accepted their bow and curtsey. “Please, come in and get settled, we’re going to have a private supper tonight.”

“That sounds perfect,” Athena said cheerfully and Marina glared at her, “but I think I have to receive a lecture first.”

“Ah,” I nodded. “Congratulations,” she laughed followed me inside. “General, Commanders, if you don’t mind, Commander Willis has briefings for you.”

“Of course,” Tristan smiled at me and kissed Carolina and they walked through the hall and Carolina disappeared down the hall

“Is Mama in trouble?” Calla loudly asked. “Is it because of the baby?”

You told a child and then rode across the country without telling us?” Marina practically roared. Elodie’s nostrils were flaring.

“It’s almost as if I wanted to avoid this very interaction for as long as possible,” Athena sighed.

“The briefing can wait,” Elodie said, taking Athena’s hand and dragging her away, “we are examining you immediately.” Marina marched after her, Athena looked pleadingly over her shoulder and Aaron shrugged, barely containing his laugh.

“Your Mama is not in trouble,” I said gently. Althea nodded.

“My Mama helps all kinds of ladies with babies,” Althea said, Calla frowned. “Isn’t that right Mother?” She looked at Mercy who was laughing.

“It is indeed,” Mercy kneeled down to the two girls. Calla nodded and looked at Olivia, my heart broke.

“Come sweetheart,” Tristan picked her up, “why don’t you nap, and then you can tell Lady Althea all of your adventures on the journey from Pantona, hm?”

“I’m not sleepy,” Calla whined as he carried her away. I exhaled and moved into a sitting room and collapsed.

“I apologize for our lack of organization,” Aaron said, “I told Athena it was a bad idea to surprise the healers.” I smiled and poured tea for them.

“They’d have been hysterical no matter what,” Raymond shrugged.

“Where’s Prior?” Thomas asked. I exhaled.

“He’s leading training exercises today,” I explained. “He’ll be at dinner.” Aaron raised his eyebrows at me.

“At family dinner?” He said. “Has something changed?” Thomas shrugged. “You told them?”

“I shared some thoughts in a letter,” I said, “I haven’t decided anything. Just,” I exhaled, “considering some things.” He narrowed his eyes at me. “Much like Athena not telling Marina and Elodie she was pregnant, I was trying to avoid a lecture.”

“My father would be thrilled,” Evan piped up, “and you’d spare me and Marina.” Aaron snorted.

“Your father would put one of his horses on the throne and be thrilled,” Aaron said. “What about Calla?”

“Calla will be my heir,” I said, “until I have a child. Then she will be appointed protector, I won’t abandon her, or the new one. Or any children of Tristan and Caro’s.”

“How does Marina feel about it?” Olivia asked. I smiled.

“Relieved, I think,” I looked to Raymond who nodded, “gods know I rely on her for too much, taking one burden off her shoulders will surely help.”

“And how are your studies, Lord Raymond?” Olivia asked. Raymond preened a little.

“I’ll take my vow before we leave for Westran,” he said. I smiled at him. “I had hoped Mastero Anselm would come with you.”

“I excused him,” I said softly. “Is he doing better?”

“He’s weak still,” Olivia said gently, “but he’s improved.” I nodded. “Perhaps you can visit, that might cheer him up.” I nodded. It made me sad that my old teacher’s health was failing and I couldn’t be by his side. But the injection of chaos from my family was so welcome, I couldn’t help but feel joy fill my heart.

Thinking Politically


“And if Your Majesty would consider it,” Liesel Norvine was sitting next to me, “I know it’s difficult with the trip to Westran, but Dorin,” I nodded at her. “Mama is concerned.”

“Of course,” I sighed, “is she feeling better?”

“A little,” Liesel shrugged, “she’s frustrated to be missing Council, I’m not sure she trusts me yet.” I laughed.

“I think she just misses lecturing me,” I grinned. “I even miss the lectures.” Liesel laughed.

“You may be right about that,” she said. “Have you heard from the others?” I shrugged.

“Lord Evan is sitting for his father, Count Aaron leaves in a few days I believe, Marina is here,” I said, “we can convene soon. Is something wrong?”

“No,” she said, “just impatient, I guess.” I nodded. “Evan’s sitting for Wyatt, not Captain Chastain?” I glanced down the table at Evan and Prior. “I’m surprised.” I glanced sharply at her. “Given their own family strife I mean,” she sipped her drink, “obviously.” I shook my head. She took after her mother, sharp tongued and observant.

“I haven’t, and won’t give Wyatt cover to marginalize Evan,” I said, “unless Evan asks for it.” We’d discussed that. His disinheritance would give him a chance to become a Mastero, to go wherever Raymond decided to settle.

I’d hate to lose him on council though.

As dinner finished some musicians began playing and I got up from my seat and walked out onto the terrace. I glanced, hoping to catch Prior’s eye.

“I think I’m a disappointment,” Nika teased coming beside me. I laughed.

“Never,” I shook my head. “If only because tonight was the first time I saw Marina smile in a month.” She nodded. “Do you have news for me, Lady Nika?”

“Only to tell you that your arrival at the border and in Westran is highly anticipated,” she smirked, “my sister is beyond honored at your acceptance of her invitation.” I snorted.

“I’m sure she is,” I mumbled.

“I refuse to feel sorry for you,” Nika shook her head, “you rebuffed him enough times, he was bound to finally turn his head.” I sighed. She wasn’t wrong. For a year or so, Harran and I carried on as if nothing had changed.

Then he asked me to marry him.

Now he was marrying Brea. It was my own fault. Then I couldn’t have seen it, I was still so sure Eric would be back.

“Have you seen anything interesting?” I asked. Nika shrugged.

“No,” she sighed, “nothing new at least. The Dark Lady is quiet. Shadows gather and then they disperse. I see nothing of their king.” I nodded. “It’s as if he disappeared entirely.”

“That’s not possible,” I said. She looked at me.

“No, it is not,” she said, “he’s somewhere, but he’s hiding too well.” I looked at her. “I know Marina is unhappy, I do my best.”

“You know that has nothing to do with you,” I said. Nika shrugged. “Nika, she loves you.”

“Yes,” Nika sighed. “She does. But like anyone you love, Annalise, it won’t be enough for her.” I stared ahead at the mountain.

“Sometimes I think you see too much,” I mumbled. She laughed. “Did Raymond show you the obsidian?” She shook her head.

“Rina told me about it,” she said, “I’m going tomorrow to test it against shadow.” I closed my eyes. “It would be a powerful weapon. And maybe a way to bind without destroying to question them, or even restore their humanity.”

“I hadn’t considered that,” I mumbled. She sighed.

“I consider it every time I watch one shatter,” she whispered, “each shadow was once a person, a soul, corrupted by Amina’s false promises.” She looked down. “It’s my honor to help you, you know that, but it’s not what I’m supposed to do. I’m supposed to settle the souls of the dead, I’m supposed to mind my people,” I nodded.

“I know,” I said, “and I want to get you back to that, Nika.” She nodded. “Your sister chose not to accept my hospitality this time?” Nika snorted.

“My sister,” Nika sighed. “No, I seriously doubt she’ll come to Dovetail again.” I nodded. That was probably for the best. My relationship with Brea could be described as cold at best.

“Of course,” I said, “please let me know when you all plan the test, I’d like to be there.” She nodded and I walked back inside.

I’d done my best to emulate the more casual summer court in Dovetail too, the problem is that the palace isn’t really set up for it the same way as Brightcoast. It was autumn now, and I longed for summer. I looked over at Marina, who looked better than she had that morning, standing talking to Raymond and Evan, but she was still too pale.

“Your Majesty,” Prior appeared at my side and bowed. I smiled at him.

“Captain Chastain,” I said, offering my hand and he kissed it. “Did you speak to your cousin?”

“I did,” he nodded, “and yours.” I smiled softly. “Anya thinks you should take your uncles seat on council.”

“An honor I could do without,” he snorted. “Sometimes I think Evan and I are fighting each other to not take on those responsibilities, rather than who has to.” His eyes moved down me. “I forget sometimes that for years I only saw you like this.”

“Did you think about me much, then?” I asked as we moved into the hallways and down the stairs. He shook his head.

“I thought about you all of the time,” he said, “That you were beautiful, and mysterious.” He took my waist and pulled me close. “And my uncle hated you,” I giggled. “And I used to hope one day you’d even know my name, let alone call it out the way you do.” He kissed me. I wrapped my arms around his neck. “And that was just being here, when you were with Tristan,” I looked at him. “If I’d seen you in Brightcoast, I might have actually lost my mind.”

“What do you want?” I asked gently. “From me, from this?” He pressed his forehead to mine.

“I want you,” he said softly. “I expect nothing else.” I nodded. “Annalise, I mean it, I know what this is,” I pulled away.

“I can’t put off marriage forever,” I sighed. “Aaron reminds me every time I see him.”

“Mm hm,” he nodded and we leaned against a wall.

“Politically,” I said, “I could do worse than you.” He laughed.

“You could do better,” he pointed out, “Otto over in Failan would take you. One of Harran’s brothers, one of the Rastani princes.” I shrugged.

“Council seems to want someone Cammadie,” I said. He laughed. “They were willing to stomach Eric or Harran, I think, but now,” I shook my head.

“Are you proposing?” He asked.

“No,” I said, “no, just thinking out loud.” He nodded. “If I were, what would you say?”

“I’m at your command,” he whispered and kissed me, “I’d refuse you nothing.” I smiled.



I walked back through the tunnel from Marina’s office, to my apartment. It was a new door, to those rooms, built off of the ones to the Princess tower, which these days sat vacant more often than not. It’s still Olivia’s when she’s here, but she and Thomas are here less and less.

I understand. Pantona is safe and happy and full of life. Here it’s tedious and quiet and it feels like the clocks have stopped. I miss them and I wish that I could be with them. And Aaron. And Athena and Tristan and Caro. In Pantona, watching Calla grow and explore. Seeing her climb the lemon trees, and run through the wheat and play by the lake.

But I’m here, stuck, waiting for Eric, who can’t come back. Won’t maybe. He could. It would cause all out war, but he could come.

“Well, someone looks preoccupied,” I smirked seeing Prior already lying on my bed, his boots tossed to the side.

“You are unbearably disrespectful Captain,” I smirked. He laughed. Prior Chastain was recruited not long after my coronation and rose through the ranks quickly. He joined Tristan’s Rangers and that was when we met.

He’s easy. I’ve had too little easy in my life.

“I apologize, Your Majesty,” he sighed. “Would you have preferred a great announcement and a lot of bowing?” I walked over and slid down beside him.

“Honestly?” I said and kissed him. “Yes, I wouldn’t mind it occasionally.”

“Noted,” he said and pulled me close. “I am supposed to debrief you.” I nodded solemnly. “We encountered four shadows, and stumbled into a briar nest. It was otherwise four months of staring at a blank desert horizon.”

“Tristan would give me more details,” I teased. Prior sighed.

“Add it to the list of the ways I am not as good a man as Tristan then,” he said and rolled me onto my back and I giggled. “He is however, in Pantona with his wife, so Your Majesty must settle for me.”

“Mm,” I sighed, “a pity, that.” We kissed. “You are early.”

“I know,” he said. “It was meant to be a surprise.” I laughed. “And I missed you.” I smiled and kissed him again. We undressed and he made love to me. Not the urgent hunger of a man starved of companionship for months, but the steady calm release of someone who knew what he was doing.

Not that I expected faithfulness for Prior. Or really anything from him, beyond pleasure and discretion.

“Why didn’t you go to Pantona?” I asked. He laughed.

“While I find your family and Tristan’s utterly charming, Annalise,” he smiled, “would you believe I prefer to actually see you?” I smiled. “The detour seemed unnecessary.” I kissed him. “We did spend a day with my Uncle,” I nodded and stood up. Wyatt Allred had brought his nephew to court to make up for his son’s shortcomings, to begin with. Evan’s shortcoming’s were entirely in his father’s mind of course, he’s a wonderful young man, and he and Raymond are exceedingly happy in their little house on the University Grounds.

“Is he coming back this year?” I raised my eyebrows. “The Council gets on splendidly without him, really.” He laughed.

“He will not thank Cornan,” he sighed. “He was considering pulling Evan’s tuition. I talked him out of that.” I smiled, “no, just the usual grumblings, that you’re distracted, we were better off with Brayton, that sort of thing.” I nodded.

“If that’s all,” I said and stood up. “I am distracted, but only a mad person wouldn’t be. I’m always pulled in ten directions.” He took my hand. “Prior,” I mumbled.

“It scares me,” he said, “he could,” I shook my head.

“Wyatt is a blowhard,” I said softly. “There is no real organizing force against me in Cammadan. We’d know.” He nodded. This wasn’t arrogance. Thanks to Carolina, largely, we knew where basically all the money in the kingdom moved. Even if the old men who didn’t like me were trying to organize, they had no money to raise an army. “Is he still threatening to disinherit Evan?”

“Yes,” Prior said, “will you still deny his requests?”

“Obviously,” I kissed him. “Thank you for this, I needed it.” He smiled.

“I live to serve,” he grinned. I rolled my eyes. “Annalise,” he said softly. “Be careful, please.” I kissed him.

“I’ve faced worse,” I whispered. He smiled. “Are you coming to Westran with us?” He sighed.

“You know that isn’t up to me,” he muttered. “It could be, if you’d promote me.” I laughed.

“Oh that would certainly go over well,” I said, “and no one will question the logic behind that decision at all.” He frowned. “I can’t promote you anyway, that isn’t how the Rangers are structured.” He sighed.

“Well then by taking up with you’ve I’ve made a disastrous career decision,” he mumbled, “Tristan will never forgive me for it.” I threaded my fingers through his.

“Don’t do that,” I mumbled. He looked at me. “It’s unfair to him.” He nodded. It’s unfair to me. But I didn’t say that out loud. I know what everyone thinks of me taking up with Prior. I just didn’t realize Prior was included in everyone, himself.

The Queen has taken another guard into her bed, another potential ally, not an appropriate choice for a consort. But at least he’s Cammadie. No one’s accused him of being a spy. So that’s nice.



A week moved so quickly I could barely take it. There were a few negotiations, a lot of planning our next step and mostly just soaking up every minute with Eric that I could.

It did not help matters that Tristan was planning his wedding and Marina and Lefty were walking around like someone died.

“It’s six months,” Eric said, “at the most.” He kissed my temple as we lay in bed. “He’s acting like we’re leaving forever.”

“Does he have to go with you?” I asked. “Maybe he could stay, if it is only going to be six months.” He sighed. “I’m worried Marina might cause a hurricane or something if she gets too depressed.” He laughed.

“No, he has to come,” he sighed, “to resign his commission if nothing else. Although I hope he doesn’t, he’s too good a sailor to give it up.” He kissed me. “I don’t want to go either, by the way, but it’s necessary. Daniel will insist.” He stood up. “Only one more tide and then we go.” I joined him and wrapped my arms around his waist and pressed my forehead into his back.

“I love you,” I said. “I can’t wait to see you again.”

The next morning we all stood on the dock, I was ready, we’d said everything there was to say. It was a strange reversal, I realized.

I’d grown so used to Marina’s calm, her ability to stay neutral in public, that seeing her in Lefty’s arms weeping as they got ready to separate while Eric quietly kissed my hand and smiled at me felt wrong. I’d expected her to break down later. But that she couldn’t control it now, was breaking my heart.

I should have let her go with them. I’d said I would, and now was going back on it, and I was relying on her seeming unending reserve of compassion to forgive me.

And I thought of the Marina of my Dreams, the shadow Brayton had conjured. That was in her too, cold, and powerful and calculating, and that Marina would be my enemy, the Marina who is drained of that goodness.

We stood together and watched them sail away, and she straightened.

“Marina,” I said gently.

“Don’t,” she whispered and turned away. “Not now, please don’t.” I nodded as she walked towards the manor. I exhaled and returned to the palace. Aaron and Athena were both waiting for me.

“I’d rather you two weren’t spending every moment haunting my steps,” I said sharply.

“To be fair,” Aaron said, “that is her job.” I laughed.

“I’m fine,” I said gently. They looked at each other. “I am. If you’ll recall I’ve been left before and that was more permanent.”

“And you took it so well!” Athena said. I looked at her. “You won’t get rid of me.”

“Fine,” I said and threw up my hands. They sat down and went back to whatever they had been doing before. “When do you leave?” I asked. Aaron looked at me indulgently.

“Lisette, I have to be there for harvest, you know that,” he said. I pouted and crossed my arms. “And I’d appreciate my wife being with me.” Athena beamed at him.

“You’re both insufferable,” I said, “my betrothed just left me, and now I’m losing you too.”

“We’ll come to Dovetail after harvest,” Athena said, “Probably about in time for your wedding.” I smiled, that felt nice to think about. “How’s Marina?”

“She didn’t want to talk to me.” I said. Athena nodded. “Maybe you could try.”

“Tristan should be the one to talk to her,” Aaron said. We looked at him. “Don’t look at me like that you know I’m right.” We frowned, he really was.

“What’s he right about?” Carolina walked in. She smiled softly. She’d settled into training, and even her small apartment in the barracks remarkably well. She’s still uneasy around me, I can’t blame her.

“Do you know where Tristan is?” Athena said. She frowned. “We’re worried about Marina, and sometimes,” she drifted off.

“Of course,” Carolina said softly, “my mother and sister are due today, he’s with your grandfather, getting the last of everything settled.” I nodded. “Did the prince get off alright?”

“He did,” I said. “When you see him,” she nodded. I realized suddenly that we understood each other. I was grateful for it. She was going to love him, I could stop worrying.