Family

Athena

I woke early and went to the training yard with Tristan and watched as the newest recruits worked. It had been a long time since we’d been here and it was crowded and full of life. Elodie saluted me from where she was stationed and I smiled back. I looked at my brother.

“I’m taking Calla to see Uncle Trey this afternoon,” I said softly, “are you coming?” He looked at me.

“Until Trey and Grandfather take Caro’s side over her father, I’m afraid I can’t,” he shrugged. I nodded. “Are Alex and Emily still there?”

“I don’t think so,” I said. “But if they are, I’ll invite them here, I know Caro would like it.” He nodded. “How is she?” I asked. He raised an eyebrow. “How are you?” I tried.

“Things are,” he exhaled, “They’ve been better, I suppose.” I looked at him. “I don’t know what to do anymore, Thena. She’s miserable and I can’t fix it.”

“You could stay put for two days in a row,” I said, “that might help.” He looked at me and sighed.

“It’s more than that,” he said, “I talked to Marina last night, and I can barely look at Lisette because I know it will upset Caro.” I nodded. “Do you think a baby would fix it?”

“She wants to be a mother,” I reminded him, “but she also wants to be your wife.” He looked at me. “It would fix her loneliness, and her feelings of purposelessness.” He looked down. “But she’s heartbroken, Tristan, I don’t think it can fix that.”

“Maybe this trip will be good for us,” he sighed, “I don’t know anymore.” I smiled softly at him. “This was all your idea, by the way.” I raised my eyebrows.

“You forming the rangers and never coming home was my idea?” I asked.

“The marriage was your idea,” he said. I smiled.

“You could have said no,” I shrugged, “spent you life mooning after Marina unencumbered by a wife.” He kicked dirt at me.

A few hours later I was standing in front of Trey’s townhouse, with my hand in Calla’s.

“Mama,” she said as I knocked, I looked at her. “Why didn’t Lady Althea come with us? Isn’t she supposed to come with me everywhere?” I laughed.

“Yes,” Athena said, “but today is so you can see Uncle Trey, I’m sure he’ll get to know Lady Althea in good time.” The door opened.

“Ah, Lady Athena,” the butler smiled. “Welcome home.”

“Thank you, Emmet,” I said and walked past him. “May I present my daughter, Viscountess Calla.”

“Your Grace,” Emmet bowed. Calla wrapped around my leg. “I see.”

“Emmet, can you see to it,” Emily DuCray waltzed through the door and her face broke into a wide smile. “Oh Athena!” She squealed and ran over and embraced me. “Oh I’m so glad you’re here. We’ve been frantic since you got to the city! I was going to send a note to Caro this afternoon.”

“Emily,” I said softly, “you know she can’t come.” She frowned. “But you and Alex must come to the palace.” She smiled sharply.

“Of course,” she said. She looked at Calla and knelt down, “Hello Viscountess, and how are you this afternoon?”

“Quite well, thank you,” Calla managed before sticking her thumb back in her mouth.

“Calla, love, this is Mistress Emily, she’s Aunt Caro’s sister,” I smiled. Calla brightened. “Is Uncle Trey available? I sent a note!”

“He and Alex and arguing over some deal with Failon,” Emily sighed, “Prince Otto claims the racing studs Lotte sent him are subpar and Lotte is insisting it isn’t her fault Otto over trained the foals and they were exhausted by the time of races. It’s a mess.” I laughed. “Would you like to see Carlo?”

“I would,” I said. “Calla, would you like to meet your baby cousin?” Calla nodded and we followed Emily into the nursery. Calla rushed to the little boy playing on the floor. Carlo was nearly a year and a half old by now, so he was hardly a baby. “He’s beautiful,” I said. Emily beamed.

“Thank you,” she sighed. “I’ll bring him when I come to the palace, I want Caro to meet him.” She shook her head. “My father is so obstinate. Not that the old man is any better, they’re both refusing to even have the fight, even though your grandfather is squarely on Tristan and Caro’s side.” I smiled.

“That’s good to hear,” I said. “I always thought the hearing of the challenge would end it.” Emily sighed.

“It has for everyone but Papa,” Emily shrugged. “Everyone in Dorin says he looks like Alex.” I smiled at her.

“So he does,” I nodded. “Everyone in Pantona says she looks like Olivia.”

“Mm,” Emily smiled. “I see it. That hair though! Not auburn like everyone else or blonde like us,” she shook her head. “Her debut will be interesting.” I snorted.

“Unless Lisette pulls herself together, I doubt the heir to throne will have the option to debut in Dorin,” I shrugged. Emily raised her eyebrows. “Council votes this afternoon, it’s done.”

“That is something,” she said, “won’t you grandfather be pleased?” I laughed.

“Oh terribly,” I muttered. “Aaron is too. It might be the only thing they agree on.” She laughed.

“Ah there they are,” Uncle Trey walked in and kissed me on the cheek, “hello Countess.”

“Uncle,” I smiled. “We were discussing Calla’s ascension.” He grinned.

“Ah yes,” he sighed happily, “Tom wrote me of it.” I nodded. “It’s quite an honor.” I looked at all of them, Emily nodded to a servant and we all walked into Trey’s office.

“What can you tell me?” I asked. Alex was leaning against the window. “Hello Cousin.”

“Hello,” he grinned. “There’s not much new. Rastan is jumpy with the king’s health. Raniere seems to want to marry as soon as possible after he’s crowned.” I nodded.

“Will he make an offer?” I said. This was more Aaron’s department but he was busy.

“Not to Annalise,” Emily shook her head. “He doesn’t want her building an empire on his back.” I exhaled.

“Marina then,” I said. Emily nodded. “Cornan’s beard, that’s complicated.”

“We know,” Trey said. “She has no reason to refuse a king, who’s the right age, who will at least claim to want a peaceful alliance.”

“Phania will hate it,” Alex said.

“Phania hates everything we do,” I shrugged, “Marina will hate it, that’s what’s trickier.”

“A delayed betrothal?” Trey suggested. I swallowed and my hand fell to my belly. “Like Queen Elana negotiated for Princess Karina.”

“Aaron won’t betroth Calla, or this one” I shook my head, “nor will I, or Annalise. It isn’t Cammadie.” Trey sighed.

“Your mother’s daughter,” he muttered, but he was smiling. “Of course, you’re right, it is not Cammadie to betroth children, but expectations are another thing entirely. This whole mess with Phania comes from Annalise and Eric being expected for each other, official betrothal or not.”

“So your suggestion, Uncle,” Emily said, “is that even should Marina refuse him, which, as it’s Marina is terribly likely, we mention the expectation of Calla for any of Raniere’s sons?”

“My daughter is not a bargaining chip,” I said. “That is end of the conversation.” I stormed out of the room and back to the nursery.

“Mama,” Calla ran over, “Cousin Carlo is a very nice baby, but might we go back now? He can’t even talk!” I laughed and scooped her up.

“Of course darling,” I said. “Would you be terribly upset by tea with some grownups first?” She sighed loudly.

“If we absolutely must.” She sighed dramatically. I suddenly understood why the protectors were usually placed so young with their charges. A friend in situations like this is invaluable. I always had Tristan, and while we didn’t get to be those people for Annalise, Aaron was. Calla is already cleaving to Althea.

I walked her into the parlor and she settled next to me. Normally I would make her be more friendly but I was frustrated with all of them. Suddenly every single moment, every barb Martin shot at Trey about our future, every protective gesture the Pantonas put over us, down to the uniform I still wear makes sense.

Trey loved us. He still would have sold us. I let him sell Tristan, it’s only Carolina’s strong heart that saved them both from becoming pawns.

Alex looks at me, and an understanding passes between us. He and Emily have to choose now. I’m finished mediating.

Examination

Athena

“This is spectacularly unnecessary,” I said sharply as Elodie shove a pillow under my back on the bed, placing me in a reclined position. “Amanda examined me and said I was fine.”

“Amanda is useless,” Marina said and placed two hands on my belly.

“You two trained her,” I reminded them, “and placed her at Pantona.”

“Well, maybe not useless,” Elodie said, “but still, you ought to have told us, My Lady.” I smiled, all these years of friendship later, when she’s feeling waspish, Elodie reverts to the shy tavern keeper’s daughter who couldn’t meet my eyes.

“I knew this would happen,” I said, “and I don’t need it.” Marina glared at me and I sighed and lifted my dress and spread my legs. “The child is fine, I’ve done this before you’ll recall.”

“Yes, everything does seem to be fine,” she said. Elodie nodded. “You’re eating?”

“Yes,” I rolled my eyes. “Most everything is staying down too.” She nodded and stepped back. “There’s some pain, but not much yet, I know I’m starting to swell.”

“They’re strong,” Elodie said, “not surprising, knowing their mother.” I laughed. “Althea is going terrorize Calla into being her friend by the way.”

“I think Calla will be much more amenable to friendship after a rest,” I assured her. Elodie laughed. “She’s grown, Althea.”

“Like a weed,” Elodie shook her head, “Mercy’s determined to make her a lady, but I think it might be a lost cause.”

“She’s a sweet little thing,” Marina said, “but she is boisterous, and Mercy and I were such quiet little mice, it’s no wonder she worries.”

“You were a mouse,” I said standing up. “Mercy was more like some kind of silent poisonous snake.” We laughed. “Calla’s taken to finding every possible nook to hide in at the manor, so I’m sure the palace will provide endless entertainment.” We walked back downstairs to the large sitting room. Annalise was flopped in a chair, and Aaron was laughing at something Raymond had said.

“Look at them,” Marina smiled, and squeezed my shoulders. “We’re so glad you’re back, Thena, really.” I smiled at her.

“Has she been very bad?” I asked.

“Unsettled,” she said softly, “but better, I think,” I nodded.

“We were surprised to hear Prior came right here,” I said. “Is she serious?”

“Not that she’s told me,” Marina sighed. “I hope not. I don’t think they’d suit in the long run.” I looked at her.

“He makes her happy,” I said softly. “The politics are good,” Marina looked at me sideways. “Aaron thinks so.”

“Aaron thinks anyone besides Eric is good politics,” Marina mumbled, “he’s wrong.” I looked at her. “Prior wouldn’t suit the mandate.”

“You’re sure of this?” I asked her. She nodded. “Have you spoken with Goddess? Or had a dream?”

“I’ve met the man,” she said simply. I laughed. “He wants her, but he wants something she can’t give. Eric and Harran understood what she couldn’t give, I think even Tristan did, though he took it the most personally. Prior,” she shook her head, “he doesn’t see it. He sees a woman, even a queen, but he doesn’t see the sword.” I nodded.

“Perhaps she needs that though,” I tried. “Aaron didn’t know I was Champion when we fell in love.” She looked at me.

“It isn’t the same,” she sighed. “I wish it was, for her sake.”

Never Tired

Athena

I’m very lucky that my mother and sister in law are good hostesses, because no matter how hard I try, how many times I watch Olivia run even the smallest of gatherings, I’m not good at it. There are plenty of other things about being Countess I’m very good at.

But hostessing is just not one of them. And tonight is worse because Carolina is willfully ignoring William, who had staring at his drink like it might offer an escape, and then left quickly after dinner. It’s so unlike her.

Tristan standing with his hand on Carolina’s lower back. I looked at Aaron who shook his head at me.

“What is it?” I whispered.

“I’m not sure yet,” he admitted, “but it’s not good.” I sighed. “I had a letter from Harran today. He sent one for you too.”

“I read it,” I smiled. “I’m excited to see him.” He smiled at me. “I was wondering if we’d bring Calla?”

“Bring her where?” Caro settling in next to me. Tristan in a chair nearby. Something was wrong

“To the border,” I explained. “I don’t know if it’s safe.” Caro smiled at me.

“I think she can handle it,” Tristan smiled. “I wrote to Lotte, we ought to get her a pony.”

“She’s three,” I said. He shrugged. “You’ll spoil her.”

“She’s going to be a Countess,” Aaron laughed, “possibly even a queen, I don’t think she can be spoiled.”

“Don’t be silly,” Olivia settled in, “you complained plenty that we spoiled Lisette.” Aaron laughed. “She should learn to ride though, she loves horses so much.”

“We were five on ponies, Thena,” Tristan said. I glared at him.

“Perhaps I want Calla’s childhood to be different from ours,” I said. Carolina looked at me. “That still leaves two years anyway, but you’re right about talking to Lotte and Drea about it.” We talked for a little longer, some about going to The Border and then Tristan’s plans with the queen in Westran after.

“Will Marina be with you?” I said. Tristan shrugged.

“I suppose so,” he said, “I know Nika will be and I can’t imagine they want to separate.”

“They’re separate more often than their together,” Aaron said, “I think it suits them, honestly.” He was looking at Caro.

“I’m sure it does,” she said, meeting his gaze. “They’re both so busy.” Tristan looked at me.

“Of course,” Aaron said. He seemed angry with her, I wish I could figure out why.

“I’m afraid I have to ask you all to leave,” I said abruptly. Olivia stared at me. “My stomach is still often unsettled, with the baby.”

“Of course,” Tristan smiled and kissed me on the cheek and then Olivia. I embraced Caro and we made our way up to bed.

What is going on with you a Caro?” I asked Aaron as we slid into bed.

“I think something is happen with her and William,” he said. “She was incredibly upset this afternoon leaving the inn, and then he seemed on a another planet.” I laughed.

“Well, yes, he’s in love with her, he has been for years,” I shrugged. He stared at me. “Oh, don’t look at me like that. You must have seen it.”

“I really didn’t,” he muttered. “She isn’t,” he exhaled, “it’s not mutual?”

“I don’t think so,” I said, “but she is often lonely. And I know that she was furious when she found out about Tristan and Marina.”

“What about Tristan and Marina?” Aaron said. I sighed. “I mean beyond the usual, stare at one another intensely and make everyone uncomfortable thing that the two of them do occasionally.”

“Before their wedding, Tristan went to her to comfort her about Lefty and they slept together,” I said. “I think Caro found about maybe a year later? She almost left.”

“And you think she was with William out of revenge?” He frowned. “That doesn’t sound like her.”

“No,” I said softly, “I think that she’s been very unhappy recently, and you know what he can be like. If something happened, I’m sure he’s not making it easy for her to step away.” He frowned. “Love,” I rested my hand on his chest. “What are you thinking?”

“I’m thinking that it is bizarre that William and Tristan like the same women, every time, nearly without fail,” he muttered, “with Lisette and Marina I could have chalked it up to their similarities, but Caro too?” I laughed. He kissed me. “Were you really not feeling well?”

“No more than is normal,” I assured him. “I’ve been having trouble keeping richer food down, but that’s why I kept it simple tonight.” He nodded and he kissed me. I exhaled.

“Are you worried about Calla?” He asked. I bit my bottom lip.

“A little,” I admitted. “Lisette hasn’t declared she’s the heir, Aaron, and she’s no nearer children of her own. Which means Calla doesn’t have a place in Dovetail. She belongs here.”

“I know,” he said, “but I always resented my parents leaving me behind, and there’s no reason for us to leave her.” I smiled. “Marina said Council will vote on her being the heir this session.” I nodded. “There’s of course a third option, beyond the guard and being Lisette’s heir.”

“Don’t even tease,” I groaned, “she’s welcome to join the guild when she gets older, but handing her over now would please my grandfather far too much.” He laughed. “I want him to die wondering if Tristan and I will ever come back.”

“That may be the most terrifying thing I’ve ever heard you say,” he laughed and kissed me. I smiled and pulled close. “And that includes every time you offhand talked about cutting off my appendages when we first met.” I giggled. He kissed me.

“I’ve grown rather fond of those appendages,” I whispered. He smirked and rolled on top of me. “Aaron,” I whispered.

“Yes, love,” he said and kissed me, pulling my shift over my head.

“Don’t stop,” I whispered. He nodded, he kissed my neck and I wrapped my legs around him. I arched into him as he pressed into me. We moved with each other, I never got tired of how he felt in me.

We finished and I fell back against the pillows. Aaron curled up behind me and snuggled close, burying his face in my hair.

“Thena,” he whispered, “what are you thinking about?” I smiled.

“I’m barely thinking at all yet,” I said, “but I suppose I’m wondering if when I’m massive with this baby you’ll still want me.”

“I wanted you when you had Calla,” he laughed.

“Mmm,” I sighed, “yes, but maybe you’ve changed in three years.” He kissed me.

“I promise to still want you,” he smiled. I laughed. “Sleep well, Countess.” Every night for four years he’d whispered this in my ear. I would never ever get tired of it.

Calla

Athena

I walked into the study and smiled hearing the shrill giggle which was quickly hiccupped out.

“Oh,” I said loudly looking about, “I had thought I might find my daughter, but it appears she is far too good at hiding.”

Another giggle.

“Ah, Athena there you are,” Martin said walking in, I looked at him. “What are you doing?”

“Well, I was hoping that a certain Viscountess would be interested in going to Dugarry House with me to see her Uncle,” I exhaled. “But it seems she’s disappeared.”

“Oh no,” Martin said with a grin, playing along, “maybe it was shadows?”

“It’s possible,” I sighed, “although I’m sure she would fight them far too fiercely.”

“Hmm,” Martin winked at me and I shook my head in a silent laugh. “Well, I will simply have to tell Grandmama that no one can eat the sticky buns that Cook made, since Calla has been captured while fighting shadows.”

“Nooo!” Calla came running out from behind a curtain, her strawberry curls, somewhere between my blonde and Aaron’s red, flying behind her. “Grandpapa, I did not get captured by shadows, I can eat them.” I laughed and scooped her up.

“I am so relieved,” I kissed her. She giggled. “Now, do you want to go see Uncle Tristan?” She nodded emphatically. “We’ll bring the sweets to him, I think, he’ll like that.”

“Yes,” she said, “I think he will.”

“And,” I said as I walked out into the hall, “you know you aren’t supposed to be in the study.”

“Papa said I could,” Calla smiled wiggling, so that I put her down.

“No,” Martin said, “your Papa said when he was there you could go in, but there are too many weapons for you to be there alone.”

“Aunt Lisette had weapons when she was little,” Calla planted her feet. I knelt down.

“Aunt Lisette was six when your Grandpapa Caleb gave her a knife,” I said, “in three years you can have one.” She nodded and ran off, likely to find Olivia.

“She is just like you,” Martin laughed.

“She’s worse,” I said, “she’s clever like her father.” He laughed. “I don’t know why Tristan’s been avoiding us.”

“I don’t think that he’s avoiding us,” Tom shook his head. I frowned at him. “Athena, Tristan has been on a mission for four months. When was the last time you and Aaron were apart from each other for longer than a week?”

“Before we were married when you buried Caleb,” I mumbled. “Well, alright, but still, it’s been four days. I’m going there.” I walked out to the hall, where Calla was standing with her arms folded, Aaron behind her.

“Mama, you are taking too long,” Calla said, Aaron looked at me.

“I apologize,” I said, “Are you coming?” He shook his head.

“Normally I wouldn’t miss it, but I’ve got a pile of reports to read before council convenes when we get to Dovetail,” he said. “How are you feeling?” I shrugged. “Athena.”

“I’m fine,” I said and kissed him gently. I moved his hand to my belly. “We’re fine.”

“Mama and the baby are fine Papa,” Calla insisted. “She said so.”

“And your Mama never lies,” Aaron grinned. I laughed. I knew I was only a few weeks from not being able to hide this pregnancy, and I also knew that as soon as we arrived in Dovetail, Elodie and Marina would be fussing over me like mother hens. They were unbearable while I was carrying Calla.

I’m going to enjoy the last of my freedom. We walked through the village to the small flower garden surrounding DuGarry House. I don’t think I’ll ever be tired of each, “Good Morning, Countess,” or “And where are we off to in such a hurry Lady Calla?”

“Auntie Caro!” Calla exclaimed as she ran down the path and I saw Carolina closing the door behind her, a basket in hand and shawl around her shoulders.

“Hello, Little One,” Caro smiled and knelt down in front of her. “Had I known you were coming, I’d have changed my plans,” Calla pouted as I walked over. “Good morning Thena.”

“Good Morning,” I said, “you’re on your own?” She rolled her eyes.

“Maybe you can make him see sense, I’ve given up,” she shrugged.

“No fair giving up after four years,” I pointed at her, “I’ve had to do it for twenty two.” She laughed. “Dinner?”

“We’ll be there,” she said, “do you need anything?” I shook my head. “Enjoy your visit with Uncle, Calla, love.” They brushed their noses together. I smiled gently and we walked in. Tristan was in his office.

“Uncle Tristan!” Calla walked over to him. He smiled at her and stood up. She saluted him, and he saluted her back.

“Recruit,” he said seriously, “is Pantona protected?”

“Yes, Commander,” she matched his tone. He laughed.

“Good, your next order is to give me a hug.” She giggled and ran into his arms. “Hello Thena.”

“Hello,” I said, “I’m sorry we missed Caro.”

“Well, she’s busy,” he said, “I delayed her long enough it would seem,” I nodded. “Can I help you with something?”

“I wanted to see you,” I said and sat on the couch, “but if you’re in a mood.” He looked at me.

“I am not in a mood,” he muttered. “I was looking forward to a relaxing respite with my wife, but that was out of the question.”

“You had three days,” I said, “and the rest of your family misses you when you’re away, you know.”

“Do you?” He managed a smile.

“Yes,” Calla nodded emphatically, “we miss you very much,” he laughed and put her down. “May I go see Elian?”

“You may,” Tristan smiled, “but listen to the grooms before petting him.” She nodded and ran off. “She’s grown.”

“She never stops,” I said, “I didn’t come for a report or anything, I really did just want to see you.” He laughed.

“I know, I’m edgy,” he sighed. I nodded. “It was a dull mission, we didn’t find anything, which is why we stayed out so long and then we went to Allred’s,” he groaned. “He’s going to try to disinherit Evan.”

“He won’t succeed,” I shrugged, “being married to The Queen’s Cousin has some benefits.” He snorted.

“Sleeping with her might have more,” he pointed out.

“Didn’t work out for you or Harran but Prior’s welcome to try, I guess,” I poked him. He laughed. “Tristan,” I said softly. He looked at me. “I’m pregnant.” He swallowed and nodded.

“That’s good news,” he said. I nodded. “Really, Athena, I’m happy for you.” I nodded. “Does Caro know?”

“No,” I said, “no one outside our house knows. It would have just wound up with Marina riding out here like mad, furious with me for letting anyone else do the examination.” He laughed.

“Who else besides us, tonight?” He asked. I swallowed.

“Anselm,” I said, “William,” he glared at me. “It wasn’t his fault, you can’t hate him forever.”

“I wonder if Marina or Annalise would agree with you,” he said. “Or Anselm?”

“Tristan it isn’t as though he walked into the cell and opened the door,” I said. “He missed the signs, we all did!” He looked at me.

“Watching the signs was his only job,” Tristan roared. “Instead of holding him here, of telling us, he gets away, and the past four years.”

“I know,” I whispered, “but he was with us. In the beginning, he was with us. And with Lisette and Aaron before that.” He frowned. “You can’t fix this, Tristan, it happened.” He looked at me strangely.

“I’m sorry I was gone so long, Thena,” he said. “But what I’m doing,” I pressed my lips into my mouth.

“Don’t talk to me about what you’re doing,” I muttered, “I know, I know it’s important. It’s what I should be doing.” I pressed my palms against my forehead. “I’m The Champion, I’m chosen.”

“And you’re The Countess of Pantona,” he shrugged, “and a mother, and a wife. Do you think that if Caro were,” he stopped, “I’d stop all of it to have a family.” I smiled at him.

“You will,” I said. He shrugged. “Tristan,” he looked at me. “You will. It will happen.”

Vows

Athena

I stood nervously as Olivia pinned a wreath of white flowers into my hair. I smoothed my gown and swallowed a lump in my throat.

“You look lovely,” she said. I looked at her. “Just like your mother.”

“Are we making a mistake?” I whispered. She shook her head.

“No,” she said, and rested her hand on my heart. “Waiting longer would be a mistake. The wheel is turning and you don’t know what’s going to happen next, but this way you’ll know this,” I swallowed. “Athena, this won’t go away. It’s solid.”

“Thank you,” I said, “how did you know that’s what,” she shrugged.

“When I married Caleb,” she said, “I thought about my father, and the conditions he put on his love, and Anton, who would be distracted by well, anyone,” I smiled, “and Tom, who couldn’t stand still long enough to build anything, and I worried, so much that this would flee from me too.” She smiled. “But Aaron’s like his father. He wouldn’t commit to anything that would falter.” I realized I was crying.

“I wish he was here,” I said softly, “I wish my parents were here,” she hugged me.

“Me too,” she whispered and wiped my eyes, “smile, darling, you’re going to be my daughter now.” I laughed.

“Are you ready?” Tristan asked, walking up to us, with Martin not far behind him. I nodded and looped my arm through his. “I suppose this means you’ll outrank me forever.” I laughed.

“Yes, I think it does,” I said, “I actually think my babies will even outrank you which is the best part.”

“You two can squabble about this all day,” Thomas said, “but you’re both still runt recruits.” We reached a courtyard, shaded by willows arching over it. A few rows of chairs had been set up and Aaron was standing at the end of the aisle, beaming at me. Marina was behind him, dressed in her simple blue healer dress, which pleased me.

I walked towards him and took his hands.

“Hello, love,” Aaron whispered to me.

“Hello,” I said softly. I glanced out at the assembled group, Annalise was standing her hand in Eric’s. Harran hadn’t left yet, and winked at me. Thomas, Tristan and Trey, Carolina and her father. Mercy and Elodie. I swallowed and looked at Aaron.

“It is my honor,” Marina began, “to unite Count Aaron of Pantona, and Commander Lady Athena Dugarry in marriage,” Aaron winked at her and she giggled. “Aaron, do you vow to love Athena, to cherish her and support her, to honor her will, joy and sorrows?” His face was serious now.

“I so vow,” he said and squeezed my hands. I smiled. Marina nodded to me.

“Athena,” she said, my eyes were fixed on Aaron’s, “do you vow to love Aaron, to cherish him and support him, to honor his will, joy and sorrow?” I swallowed.

“I so vow,” I said, though if I made any noise at all, it would surprise me.

“And do you both vow to share your home, warmth, and hearts, to build a family worthy of your ancestors?” She said.

“We so vow,” we said in unison. She them placed my right hand over Aaron’s.

“I bless you, and your union,” her voice was soft and steady. “In the name of the great god, Cornan, the holy goddess Rana, and the lines of Pantona and Dugarry. May your marriage be the greatest of all blessings.” We smiled at her and then he pulled me close and kissed me.

“What do you think Countess,” he whispered to me. “Did it suffice?”

“Perfectly sufficient,” I whispered back. “Thank you.” He laughed into my neck. “I love you.”

“You’re the best parts of me, Thena,” he said softly. I kissed him again and he pulled me close.

“You’re my home,” I said as we pressed our foreheads together. Realizing finally that I’d arrived there.

Final Decision

Athena

Aaron and I are standing on the landing, not talking watching as something gathers on the horizon. That’s what it feels like but it’s also physically happening, there are shadows over past the cliffs gathering.

“Are you alright?” He said. I swallowed and nodded. “Do you agree with Tristan? Should we go to Marina?”

“We’d only panic her,” I said. He looked at me. “I’m panicked. Our best were guarding him, Aaron, and Anselm? This isn’t like with Phania. This wasn’t a frustrated boy who wanted to go home. We can’t talk ourselves out of Brayton bringing shadows. Marina’s power has grown, and Raymond will be helpful but we still don’t know how she summoned that light last year, or if she can do it again.” He nodded. “And Lisette is distracted. Cornan tells me to wield her, she’d his sword, I’m his champion.” I sighed, “I don’t know how to do that, I don’t know what it means, and she doesn’t listen to me anyway.”

“She listens,” he said gently, and held me close. “But she doesn’t want to be a weapon. She never did.” I smiled up at him.

“You know that’s when I started falling in love with you,” I said softly, “do you remember, that day we went for a ride in the woods? And I was teasing you, about ghosts?” He smiled.

“Ah,” he nodded, “and I thought that you were ignoring her as a person.” I nodded. “I didn’t understand then.” He swallowed, “I think I do better now. I’ve been able to forgive my father for it.” I smiled and kissed him. “She’s a person,” he said, “but she’s a symbol too, and the sword. She needs to embrace that. I think Eric is helping.”

“My Lady,” I turned as a guard ran in. “Lieutenant Lestoff is here, he’s insisting he needs to see you alone.” I frowned.

“Alright,” I said, Aaron nodded and followed the guard out, Lefty stumbled in and collapsed on the couch, his eyes wide, and full of fear. “Lefty,” I said and knelt down next to him. “What happened?” He shuddered, I shouted for the guard. “Get Captain Willis.”

“No,” he said, “no he’s back, he’s here, Athena, he has her.” I looked at him. “You have to, she’s alone with him, she’s fighting him,” I swallowed.

“Look at me,” I said, “Brayton?” He nodded. “Were there shadows?”

“No,” he whispered, “but I couldn’t breath, I couldn’t think. It was so dark.” I nodded. “He’ll kill her.”

“No,” I said, “unfortunately, it will be worse than that.” I grabbed my sword, and spear. “You need a healer, Elodie will be here presently.” He swallowed.

“I left her,” he whispered, “she said to, but still,” he was shaking. I pressed my forehead to his. “I swore I never would, and I,” he swallowed.

“It’s alright,” I said. “She’ll forgive you.” He closed his eyes. “I have to go.” He nodded. “Lefty,” I said, “we need you to tell us if you’re feeling,” I swallowed, “not like yourself.”

“I’m no shadow, Lady Athena,” he said. I nodded. “Go,” I ran out into the hall, Nika, Brea and Harran were standing waiting.

“We felt it,” Brea said, “Nika and I, The Dark Lady is awake.” I looked at Harran, who was holding large staff. “The Shadow King is here?”

“He has Marina,” I said, “Lefty just came to warn us.” Nika folded and then unfolded her hands, creating a pair of whips of pure light.

“Marina is formidable enough for The Shadow King,” Nika said, “but his army is another thing entirely and if The Dark Lady comes herself,” she exhaled.

“I’m glad you’re here,” I said, meaning it from the bottom of my heart. Annalise walked down the stairs, in full battle armor. “We’ll never hear the end of it.”

“Trust me,” she said, sheathing the dagger from Caleb, alongside her father’s sword. “I considered that.” We walked down the beach, a legion of guards at our back. “Where is he?”

“Getting Carolina safe, probably,” I said. She nodded. Brightcoast Manor didn’t look different, but I felt it. The stillness and chill I’d felt everyday for years hung in the air. Brea looked at me. She moved her hands into a triangle form, flame circling out from them. It banished the coolness in the air. “Your Majesty?”

“Remember in Dovetail,” she said softly, “when I insisted that I go alone?” I nodded. “Have them stay, I need you.” I smiled.

“Nika, Brea, Harran,” I motioned to them, “if shadows fall, you know what to do?”

“Of course,” Harran said. We stepped inside. The hall was lit by silver flames in brazier, Marina’s magic. That was a good sign, but the light felt eerie.

“Marina,” I called out, I looked up and saw her descending the stairs, in a blue dressing gown. She looked placid. Annalise was frozen next to me.

“Hello Athena,” she said, her voice was cold, flat, wrong, “Cousin.”

“Rina,” Annalise said softly, “please, tell me you didn’t,” she stepped closer to us and cocked her head to the side.

“How many times have you Dreamed this?” Marina said softly. “You must be prepared.” I squinted at her, and I didn’t hesitate, I took my sword from my belt and quickly sliced at her neck.

“Athena!” Annalise shrieked as the woman in front of us disappeared into shadow. “It wasn’t her?”

“No,” I said.

“How did you know?” She asked. I swallowed.

“I grew up around the black guards,” I said, “I know how it feels near a shadow. Come on,” we walked up the stairs and into Marina’s chamber. She was standing, a few light ropes that resembled Nika’s whips in her hands, binding Brayton to a chair. She was shaking and sweating, but hadn’t broken.

“There you two are!” She said, sounding exasperated, “what kept you?” Annalise burst into a laugh and quickly took the rope. I ran and hugged her tight. “Damian?”

“Elodie is with him,” I said. She exhaled. Brayton looked at me.

“So it’s you then,” he said. “Cornan chose you.” I frowned. “Warren send his regards. He’s waiting on my signal.”

“Is he?” I said. “He’ll be terribly disappointed. He doesn’t breathe unless you say so.” He snorted.

“He’s loyal,” he said. “I promised him you, you know.” I tightened his bindings and he flinched.

“I’m not yours to promise.” I hissed. He smirked knowingly.

“Still, it’s about the only thing that motivates him,” he said. “Just you.” I looked down.

“That’s his misfortune, then,” I said softly.

“So cold,” he said, “That’s the DuManis in you.” I exhaled. “Anselm and your best guards couldn’t hold me because Amina is through waiting, what do you three think will be different now?”

“I didn’t understand before,” Marina smiled gently, “I think I do now.” She flicked her hand and the binding fell. “I’m the one she needs Brayton, not you.” His face went ashen. “So go to her, tell her I’m ready. I’m tired of waiting too.” He ran out of the room.

“I don’t know how wise that was,” Annalise grimaced. Marina looked at her.

“I’m tired of hiding,” she shook her head. “Tired of being afraid. I don’t think she’ll like that he failed again.”

“I’d take an open fight over all of this too,” I admitted. “Though Nika and Brea think we can’t take her.” Marina set her chin stubbornly and I smiled at her.

“We’ll get ready then,” she said. “Brayton was in my bedchamber, while I was with my lover, and almost killed him, I have no interest in deferring this any longer.” I nodded.

“Good then,” I smiled and picked up my spear, “I’m going shadow hunting.”

Captain Arrain

Athena

“Maybe Tristan was right,” I said to Martin as we watched Tristan comfort a clearly shaking Carolina, “maybe they are scary.”

“He was absolutely right,” Martin said, “they are terrifying, but he was less right about how she’d handle it. She did well.” I nodded.

“Commander Dugarry?” A man with darker blonde hair and clear icy eyes walked over to me. I smiled at him.

“Can I help you?” I said. He looked at me. “We haven’t met have we? Do you work for my Uncle? Oh, Cornan, did Carlton send you?” He blinked oddly at me.

“Athena, this is Captain Andrei Arrain,” Martin said, “he was the one who’s ship we were on, on our way down.”

“Oh,” I smiled, “of course, thank you so much for the safe delivery of my family, Captain, how may I help you?” Martin nodded and walked away.

“I wanted to speak about Miss DuKarras,” he said simply. I frowned.

“Alright,” I said. He sighed.

“I thought you should know I mean to challenge the contract,” he said, “Carolina and I had an understanding, and while nothing formal,” I laughed.

“I’m sorry,” I said, “you’re going to challenge the contract,” he nodded. “For my brother’s marriage?” He nodded. “Carland Dumanis’s grandson? The favorite of your queen? And the brother in law to be to the Count of the second largest provenance in Cammadan?”

“Yes?” He said, his voice had gone up a register.

“Well, I wish you luck but I don’t think it will go well for you Captain Arrain,” I said, “may I ask on what grounds? Beyond this vague, understanding you’ve described.”

“Her father and I had begun negotiations,” he smirked, “and I was living in the family home.” I stared at him. “With all that that would entail.”

“Alright,” I set my drink down, “but then why was my brother even introduced to Carolina as a prospect?” His face fell. “My cousin Alex was incredibly confident she was free.”

“Having not lived in Dorin, you might not be aware of how your family,” he cleared his throat, “clears their own way, as it were.” I cocked my head.

“I am more than aware of that tendency,” I said sharply. “Nonetheless, I cannot allow,” I exhaled, “whatever this crisis of yours is to stand in the way of my brother’s happiness. Or Miss DuKarras’s for that matter, as she’s made her desires more than clear, despite wherever you were, erm,” I cleared my throat, “residing.” He nodded. “But again, I wish you the best of luck regarding your challenge.” I swept past him to where my grandfather and Mr. DuKarras were standing.

“Thena,” Grandfather smiled, “you look lovely. This is quite the spectacle. And all for us.”

“For Carolina,” I corrected him, “and Tristan.” He shrugged. He’s clearly decided that Tristan has become one of them. I hate that he might be right. “Mr. DuKarras, might I steal you away for a private word.”

“Of course,” he said and followed me into one of the smaller parlors, “is something amiss, Lady Athena?”

“Captain Arrain told me he intends to challenge the contract,” I said. He laughed. “I’d be amused if it didn’t appear he had decent grounds.”

“Andrei is impetuous,” he shrugged. “But yes, we had begun negotiations.” I swallowed. “Carolina’s mother did not believe he could provide for her, however, so they were cut short. He went to Rastan to prove he could provide and in the meantime your cousin brought Tristan, and the plans changed.” I nodded.

“He was living in your home?” I said. He smirked.

“I didn’t think Caro’s virginity was something you were overly concerned with,” he said. “Given your own reputation.” I started to seethe.

“I will not gamble with my brother’s future and happiness as it appears you did with your daughter’s,” I hissed. “Fix it. Or you can explain to everyone you try to do business with why your daughter was married by her husband’s commanding officer with no contract and her dowry was rejected.” I stomped out and slammed to door behind me.

“Someone’s in a mood,” Harran said as I stepped, less than lightly into the ballroom, “Tristan’s betrothed is,” he whistled, “if I weren’t already in a tangle, I might even flirt with her.”

“Don’t add to my worries,” I grumbled. He smirked. “How is your tangle?” He growled. “Oh that good?”

“Brea has decided that she will stay as long as I do,” he muttered, “she won’t accept the truth that I don’t want her.” I looked at him.

“You did once though,” I said gently. He nodded. “So what changed? And don’t say it was Lisette, you flirted and bedded plenty before you two took up.” He sighed.

“I don’t know,” he shook his head, “I just don’t think I’d make her happy.” I swallowed. I suddenly understood something about my friend.

“I think you should let Brea be the expert on her happiness,” I said gently. He shrugged again. “I”m glad you didn’t leave,” I said. “I like when you’re here.” He smiled softly at me.

“I like being here,” he said quietly. “And I like you Athena.” I smiled.

“Well of course,” I said, as Aaron nodded to me from across the room. “Everyone likes me.”

Brother

Athena

I sat on the bed as Tristan started unpacking his trunks. I frowned, seeing how he’d come back with four more than he’d brought.

“You travel like Alex now?” I said. He looked at me.

“You’d be amazed,” he said, “Alex is practically a minimalist compared to the people up there.” I nodded. “Most of these were gifts, Thena, from when we got engaged. Which is more about Grandfather than me.” I raised an eyebrow and he sat down. “You don’t approve?”

“It doesn’t matter, how I feel,” I said, “you seem changed, though, mostly for the better.” He looked at me. “Maybe I’m being unfair.”

“You aren’t,” he said. “I feel it too. I don’t know how I’ll fit anymore.” I looked at him. “And I have no idea what I’ll say to Lisette.”

“What did Marina say?” I asked. He frowned and stood up. “What did you do?”

“I didn’t do anything,” he said, “Lestoff showed up and she seemed rather annoyed.” I nodded.

“They’ve been arguing quite a bit,” I said. He frowned at me. “She talks to me, we’re friends now. I thought that was what you wanted.”

“I don’t want you telling me these things,” he fell back against the bed and I stood up. “Part of why it was so easy for me to let go was thinking that they didn’t,” he drifted off.

“Are you really just going to escort Carolina into that room without talking to Lisette first?” I raised my eyebrows. “You already didn’t say goodbye when you left. Just reappearing probably won’t help.” He glared at me. “And Marina is most certainly over you, though she was on her way even before you left. Lisette,” I stopped. “I don’t know that she ever will be Tristan.” He was just staring upward.

“Of course she won’t,” he said softly and I looked at him. “I won’t ever get over her either. I think that’s what you all don’t understand. How we love each other is permanent, Thena.” I frowned at him. “It isn’t that I don’t love Caro, that I don’t want to marry her, that I’m going to throw all of that away. It’s simply a fact of my life. I love Lisette and she loves me.”

“That sounds terrible,” I said.

“It really, really is.” He groaned. “I’ve been trying to tell you for a year how terrible it is, and you thought I was being ridiculous.” I laughed. “What about you?” I sighed and stretched. “Aaron said it was bad for a while.”

I sighed.

“It was,” I whispered, “it was dark, and he was wonderful about it.” Tristan smiled. “I never realized how much I relied on you, when it was bad. I’m sorry for that.”

“Athena,” he said, “it was never a burden. I was worried about you though. There were a lot of changes all at once, and that usually makes it worse.” I smiled. “Do you disapprove of the wardrobe?” He sighed.

“I don’t disapprove,” I said, “but I am going to tease you about it, forever. It used to be a struggle to get you into a clean shirt.” He laughed.

“Even when I wore some of it,” he said, “Caro didn’t like it. She likes the uniform.” I smiled.

“Oh, she and I are going to get along very well,” I said. “Come on, time to reintroduce you to the troops, Commander.” He groaned. “Unless you want to continue your hiatus. I’ll recommend whatever you want.” He followed me out the door.

“Do you know how weird it was to go up to the Fort in Dorin and see everyone and then go back to that damn house,” he said and shook his head. “I did manage to keep up some training, but I’m going to be rusty.”

“Hm,” I nodded. “Well, we’ll whip you into shape.” He laughed when we reached the hall and Marina was running in. “Oh, is it that late already?” I asked. She looked at us.

“Mercy said we have to pick her clothes at least,” she shrugged. “And then I have to change.” I sighed.

“Why don’t you get changed?” I said, “and go down into town and retrieve Tristan’s bride.” Tristan stared at me.

“I hate that idea,” Tristan said flatly. “You’ll terrify her.”

“I will not!” Marina said. “People very much enjoy me.” I giggled. “And then you’ll introduce her to Lisette.”

“Yes,” Tristan said, “that is the point of this whole evening.”

“No,” I said, “not the presentation. Take her to go see her. You’re worried Marina will terrify her. Lisette in full Sword of The Goddess, Protector of the Realm mode is the scariest thing in the world.” He frowned.

“I think she’s right,” Marina said and kissed Tristan on the cheek. “What a wonderful idea, Thena.” She bounced away. I grinned at Tristan.

“I have officially decided I do not like you two as allies.” He grumbled. I giggled.

“Come on,” I said, “we have work to do.” I pulled him outside.

Greetings

Athena

I looked in the mirror and straightened my hair and uniform. Aaron looked at me with a lopsided grin.

“All this for your grandfather?” He teased. “I thought you didn’t care what he thought.” I frowned.

“I don’t,” I said, “but we need him, so now I have to.” Aaron sighed and nodded and kissed me. “Plus Tristan’s future inlaws will be there and I want to make a good impression.”

“Of course,” he said. “Come on, we should meet my mother and head down.” I nodded and we walk solemnly down into town and to where we knew the ships would be docking. Olivia looked even more nervous than I did and I realized that was terribly sweet.

“I’m sure he’s dying to see you,” I whispered to her.

“I’m dying to see him,” she sighed, “but it’s also the first time I’m seeing Trey since,” she exhaled, “one does feel a bit guilty.” I smiled at her.

“I doubt Trey blames you,” I said. She smiled softly. We stood as a gang plank was rolled out reveal the very grand party of my grandfather, Trey, Tristan, Martin, and two people I didn’t recognize, a man, who had a haughty and annoyed look on his face and a very beautiful young woman, who looked pale and nervous.

“That must be them, then,” Aaron said with a grin. “Tristan’s letters didn’t do her justice.”

“Down boy,” I said with a wink.

“I’m merely noticing, my love,” he said as they walked down. “Chancellor DuManis,” he said, using my grandfather’s guild title. A well done flattery, “Master DuManis, General, Commander.”

“Count,” Grandfather smiled and shook Aaron’s hand, “Countess Olivia, what an unexpected pleasure.” Then he regarded me. “Athena.”

“Grandfather,” I said, accepting his kiss on my cheek. “Hello Uncle,” I said and embraced Trey, “General,” I said squeezing his hands. Tristan grinned wildly at me. “You look terrible.” He laughed and hugged me tightly.

“I’ve missed you so much,” he said softly. I laughed. “Hello Aaron.”

“Hello Tristan,” Aaron laughed and hugged him. “And who is this vision?” He moved to Miss DuKarras. I sighed. “Count Aaron of Pantona.” He took her hand.

“Stop it,” Tristan said, “may I present my intended, Miss Carolina DuKarras, and her father, Mr. Angelo DuKarras.”

“Your Grace,” Miss DuKarras dipped to Aaron as he kissed her hand. “It’s an honor.”

“Yes, yes,” Mr. DuKarras said and looked at me. “We’re all quite honored. Lady Athena, I believe we have a great deal to discuss.”

“Of course you do,” Olivia said in her most graceful and welcoming voice, “but please, let us help you all get settled first.” Martin raised his eyebrows at me. “Please, Mr. DuKarras, Duchess Marina and I were quite busy finding a house for your daughter and you.” She slid her arm through his and they started walking.

“She is really good at that,” Trey sighed and laughed, Martin shook his head.

“She is,” he said. “We should follow them,” they walked on, and I took Tristan’s arm, and the four of us started walking slowly.

“How was the voyage?” I asked. “Marina and Lisette were practically throwing their jewels in the sea to appease Rana.”

“It wasn’t too bad,” he said. “Carolina wasn’t well.” I looked back at her, giggling as Aaron teased her. “Where are they?” He asked.

“Annalise is in negotiations with Admiral Franz, with Duchess Norvine representing the council,” I explained. He nodded. “Marina is with Elodie, preparing the healers in case of battle.” He nodded.

“How are the negotiations?” He asked. I shrugged.

“I don’t think it will matter in the end,” I said. “Franz isn’t seriously here to invade, he’s here to sweep Marina away.” Tristan looked at me. “He is not doing particularly well, she mostly ignores him or when forced answers him sarcastically.” He smiled.

“She’s grown up,” he said, “remember how she used to simply go pale and silent whenever Brayton would force his attention.” I smiled.

“I do,” I said. “There’s going to be a dinner at the palace tonight, to welcome Grandfather and so you can present Carolina.” He sighed.

“Right,” he mumbled, “the sooner the better, I suppose.” I looked at him.

“It won’t be bad,” I said, “she’s ready to like her, Tristan. She’s moved on.” He exhaled, I looked behind me. “Miss DuKarras,” I said bouncing over to them, “You’re to ignore everything he says.” She laughed. Aaron shook his head.

“Didn’t I say it?” He shrugged. “I’m horribly abused.” I rolled my eyes.

“Count Aaron was telling me about your plans in Pantona,” she explained. “Apparently his manager has found three houses for us to choose from. It’s awfully generous of you both.”

“It is the opposite of generous,” I said pulling her away. “These past few months have been the longest of my life and if I’m forced to live apart from Tristan again, I might explode, or Aaron will kill me.” She laughed.

“He missed you too,” she said. “He was practically vibrating with excitement all last night.” I laughed. “I hope when you speak with my father you don’t,” she sighed, “An old suitor came back into orbit recently and he’s suddenly more resistant to this match than he was. I also think he’s a little insulted you haven’t mentioned my dowry.” I stared at her.

“Oh,” I said, “I hadn’t thought of that.” She nodded. “Should I be demanding he pays us more? We don’t need it, you know! We’re Trey’s heirs and we have money from our father’s family and well,” she smirked at me and shrugged.

“It’s about his pride,” she explained, “Tristan mentioned the Count doesn’t approve of any of it, but you’re still having contracts.” I smiled.

“That’s true,” I said. “Do you care?” She bit her bottom lip.

“No,” she said, “I love Tristan and I want to marry him.”

“That was the correct answer.” I smiled as we walked up to the town house.

Endgame

Sorry I was a day late. I’ve been away and it threw off my schedule. In Palm Beach Florida, which if your curious, has always been what Brightcoast looks like when I think of it. Anyway, enjoy Athena!

Athena

“I know we need to do this part,” I mumbled as Aaron handed my cape to a maid at Marina’s that night, “but I’d almost rather cut right to the fighting.” He smirked.

“Yes,” he sighed, “but here we are.” I groaned and walked into the parlor. Marina had outdone herself. The room was filled with flours and lit by both candles and those magical orbs of hers. I picked up a napkin and noticed the embroidery was Brightcoast’s sigil entwined with one I didn’t know.

“It’s Tumona,” Raymond said appearing behind me. I jumped. “Sorry.”

“It’s alright,” I said, “how did you know what I was thinking?” He smirked. “You read minds now?”

“Don’t be ridiculous,” he said, “you’re the most transparent person alive.” I rolled my eyes. “Someday maybe though.”

“It’s a good idea,” Aaron said softly, “it won’t hurt to remind him that they’re Phanian.” I snorted.

“Lisette is about as Phanian as I am,” I muttered. Aaron looked at me I sighed.

“Don’t say that when Franz can hear you,” Raymond said, “he’s very patriotic.” He flopped on a couch. Aaron looked at him and at me. We’d talked about it earlier. We were worried about him. Heartbreak was making him sarcastic, bordering on bitter.

And what could come after that, for him, could be much worse.

“Oh good,” Marina came flying in, “you two are here,” a maid was flying after her, tying a sash around her waist. I laughed, she seemed overwhelmed, which was nice. It was nice to remember that she’s human. “Aaron, is you mother coming? I meant to send a note to double check, and I,” he walked over and put his hands around her face.

“Breathe,” he said, “this is our first big test, Marina, we can’t be unhinged.” I smiled and walked over. “My mother is coming, she’s with Lisette.”

“Oh,” she said softly. I looked around. “Damian isn’t here, he’s usually here well ahead of any guests.” She looked miserable. “I should check on the food.” She floated out.

“Did they argue?” I asked. Raymond shook his head.

“No, he’s just,” he sighed, “well, you’ll see.” I frowned as the door opened and Admiral Franz walked in. “Hello Admiral.”

“Lord Quents,” his lip twitched on it. “I didn’t get a chance to speak to you last night, your sister,” Raymond stared him down, “she is concerned. She hasn’t heard from you.”

“Hm,” Raymond nodded, “but my niece has, and our mother, so she really had no reason for concern.” The Admiral looked at Aaron, and then me.

“I was under the impression that there wouldn’t be military present,” he sniffed.

“Then you were misinformed,” I said, straightening my back.

“Lady Athena is here as my guest,” Marina floated back in. Her serenity as Chosen and Duchess seemed to have returned. “Not in an official capacity.” She extended her hand as he bowed and took it to his lips.

“Of course, My Lady, I am sorry,” he said. Marina smiled indulgently at him. “May I compliment your home? I hadn’t realized Cammadan contained such loveliness.” Raymond coughed, clearly hiding a laugh.

“Thank you,” Marina settled in. “It’s beginning to feel more like home, though I think Dovetail will always hold my heart.”

“Will your father be joining us, Rina?” Aaron asked. She shook her head.

“Papa has not been at all well, I’m sorry to say,” she whispered. I looked at her. She hadn’t said anything before. “I wonder what’s keeping The Queen.”

“Nothing in particular,” the door opened and Lisette walked in. We all got to our feet. Not something we do usually but we’re putting on the show for Franz. “I do apologize, Marina.”

“Not at all, Your Majesty,” Marina said rising up. “Your Highness,” she said softly, inclining to Eric, who was just behind Annalise.

“Duchess,” he smiled, “Admiral.”

“Your Highness,” Franz said, coolly. Lefty was at Eric’s right, looking more disheveled than I’d ever seen him. I understood now what Raymond was saying. “Lieutenant Lestoff, I’m glad to see you haven’t abandoned your post in protest.”

“Family and duty mean something to some of us,” Lefty said, his voice flat. But the anger in his voice was obvious. “Duchess,” he said softly. Marina looked at him, I could see she was angry. And she couldn’t show it, which likely made her furious.

“Lieutenant,” she said coolly. “Your business in town is handled?”

“Nearly,” he said. “Lady Athena, you look well, the muster is going smoothly?”

“I don’t think I can tell you that, Lieutenant,” I grinned, “you’re the enemy after all.” He barked out a laugh.

“No one is enemies her,” Annalise settled into a seat. “At least not yet.”

“Hopefully not,” The Admiral said. After what was a very awkward dinner, we split up into men and women, not something we ever did but was apparently how it was done in Phania and Marina.

“You did well,” Countess Olivia smiled at Marina who groaned and leaned her head back. “I mean it Rina, this is a good start.”

“I should be talking to them,” Annalise said looking anxiously towards the door.

“Aaron can handle it,” I said, with more confidence than I actually felt, “I do wish,” I paused. Marina looked at me. I was about to speak the unspeakable. I was going to say that I missed Tristan. That he should be here.

“Me too,” she said softly, “he’ll be here soon enough.” Annalise looked uncomfortable. “Lisette,” she said softly, Annalise looked at her. “What do you think?”

“I just don’t know,” she sighed. “I think you’re right, having Tristan here would help.” She bit her lip. “I don’t think Eric would like it.”

“He’ll have to get used to it,” Marina said, her voice hard. As if she was tired of the conversation. The Countess looked at her and tapped her knee sympathetically.

“I’m going to see your father,” she said softly, “I’m assuming he’s not actually ill, just refusing to engage.” Marina nodded. “Alright then,” she smiled and kissed her on the cheek. “You really are doing very well, my dear.”

It wasn’t long before the men came in and Aaron looked at me like he wanted to kill himself.

“Commander,” The Admiral said and sat down next to me, “I take it this won’t be the last time we speak.”

“No,” I said quietly, “I imagine it won’t be.” He smiled, he was handsome, I realized, and could probably be charming when he wanted to be. No wonder he was a favorite. “Tell me, Admiral, what is it you hope to accomplish? You know we have no power to push you out of the sea, but in the year since her ascension we’ve built a strong presence and the mountains around Dovetail mean a land invasion is nearly impossible, so why are you here?”

“Do you question every order?” He said and raised his eyebrows. “Or do you go where your Queen commands?”

“I’m an advisor,” I said, “how can I advise if I don’t know the endgame?” He laughed at that.

“Of course,” he smiled. “But what kind of leader would I be if I revealed mine?” I sipped my wine. “I met your mother once. I was young, and new in service, but she was, exceptional.” I nodded.

“She was, yes,” I smiled softly.

“Do you think she’d be proud of you?” He asked.

“I know it,” I said, standing up and then over to Aaron. “He’s slippery.”

“I noticed,” he grimaced. “I’m exhausted. Can we go?” I nodded. We said our goodbyes and our horses were waiting as we left. We rode quickly and arrived back at our apartment. “You didn’t enjoy your evening?”

“He’s going to try to court Marina,” he said quickly. I stared at him. “He didn’t say it directly but his hints were clear.”

“He was sent here for Marina?” I said. He shrugged, and poured a whiskey and took a long drink.

“He was sent here for a few reasons I think,” he sighed, “but Marina is certainly one of them.” I plopped down on the couch. “Lefty was reasonably calm, considering the circumstances.” He sat down next to me.

“Tristan wouldn’t have kept it together,” I said softly. He snorted.

“No,” he said softly, “it was probably the only time all night I was deeply grateful Tristan wasn’t there.” He looked at me. “I hate this, so much, it wasn’t supposed to be like this.” I swallowed.

“My love,” I said and kissed his hand gently, “if things were as they were supposed to be, I doubt you and I would be here together.” He laughed.

“Oh, we would have had a wonderful season together before burning out,” he grinned. “Of course before we took her in my parents intended me for Lisette.” I snorted. “Can you stay tonight?” He whispered.

“Yes,” I said, “I have to be up at dawn, but I can stay.” He pulled me close and kissed me.