Rising Darkness

“I’m stunned,” Aaron said that evening, as he fastened a necklace on me. I shook my head. “Flabbergasted in fact,” he kissed my neck softly. I rolled my eyes. “It’s almost like no one saw this coming, oh wait, hmm,” I elbowed him lightly in the ribs and he laughed. “You’re upset?”

“A little,” I admitted. “It’s complicated.” He shook his head. “Aren’t you?”

“Not really,” he said, “it could be worse, and she’s happy. I like Tom.” He chewed the inside of his cheek. “I can be angry if you want me to be. How dare she dishonor my father, and all that noise.” I laughed and shook my head.

“No,” I sighed, “you’re right, I just,” I shrugged. He nodded. “I think Harran is going to get serious, he seemed annoyed this afternoon.” Aaron smirked as we started walking down to dinner. “What?”

“You like him too much,” he said. “You’re not seeing the situation clearly.” I sighed. “Westran is important, but we can’t alienate Phania.” I shook my head.

“Whatever you say,” I shrugged. We made it through dinner without arguing, and Martin kept glancing at me. I was avoiding his eyes, because I just wasn’t ready. Aaron was chatting with a few of the other leaders and Prince Eric was looking miserable.

I swallowed, I’d seen Annalise be subtle, if clumsy before. She and Tristan weren’t a secret, by any means, but they were discreet. She was not being subtle tonight. I glanced at Aaron and saw the frown and worry on his face.

This was what he meant that I liked Harran too much. I was thinking of my friends, not of the very careful rope she had to walk right now. I thought of the map that Martin had been looking at, the new Phanian Navy, ready to deploy at any moment. And what I was looking at now was the enacting of a fourteen year old girl’s fantasy.

A young girl, might be fickle. I hated when they were right. I hated it so much.

I wanted Tristan. I missed him so much. I wanted my brother to listen to me scream and then laugh at me for it and hug me. After dinner I found my out to the beach and paused seeing Lefty walking back up from his night out with Marina.

“Early for you,” I said, “you make quick work.” He sighed and sat down next to me.

“I messed up tonight,” he said. I nodded. “What are you doing out here, shouldn’t you be glaring at the new guards and then giggling in Aaron’s ear.” I looked at him.

“I wish I disliked you more,” I narrowed my eyes at him. He laughed. “I need you to tell me the truth, Lefty. If she sends him away,” he looked at me.

“The ships will come,” he said. “You know it, Athena.” I nodded and hugged my knees. “Whether they’d attack or just come intimidate, I can’t say. But they’ll come.” I closed my eyes. “You don’t have a navy.”

“We don’t,” I said, “my grandfather does.” He laughed darkly. “She’s with Harran tonight. She wasn’t flirting, I’ve seen that,” he exhaled. “You know him best, could he forgive it?”

“Eric doesn’t have a temper,” he explained, “he lets things sit, and simmer, he doesn’t act until he can’t help it.” I nodded. “I had a feeling that might hurt him with her.” I sighed. “I don’t know if he could forgive it, but he won’t act rashly. He’ll make sure that she’s as safe as she can be before he walks away.” I nodded. “He loves her, though, which is new. That’s never been the case before.”

“How did you mess up tonight?” I said. “I was under the impression that Rina thought you hung the moon?” He smiled.

“Moon hanging aside,” he smiled, “she needed some space tonight. I can’t lose her.” I looked at him.

“Did you really come here hoping to bed me?” I asked.

“I most certainly did,” he grinned. “We spent a good deal of time in Dorin, stories about you spread and I was intrigued. I’d seen your portrait at your grandfather’s so I knew you were beautiful,” he sighed. “Admit it, if you weren’t with Aaron we’d have had fun.” I laughed.

“If you hadn’t still been entranced by Marina’s doe eyes, that is,” I said. He smiled. “So love got in the way of our fun.” I shrugged.

“Inconvenient, that,” he grinned. I laughed. “I’ll do my best to smooth things with Eric.” He leaned over and whispered in my ear. “I don’t want to leave either.” I smiled as he stood up and walked away. I leaned back and took a deep breath.

How had we come so far in a year? I swallowed and stood up and walked back inside. Aaron was waiting with a smile when I got to bed. I nestled my head into his chest.

“I wish you’d tell me what’s going on,” he said softly. “I get it if you can’t, but I’m here.” I looked up at him.

“There’s this darkness inside of me,” I said quietly, “and I don’t know, I can usually beat it, but it seems to be winning lately.” He lifted my chin.

“I don’t see that,” he said, “I see your light, every day, my love. I won’t let you lose it.” I smiled. “What do you need from me?”

“Just this,” I said, softly, “us.” He nodded. I snuggled close to him and pressed my forehead against his chest. And fell asleep.

I kept dreaming of entering a dark cave, seeing the wheel and the bindings, hearing Tristan calling my name behind me. I woke with a start. I didn’t know what it meant.

Addisons

Marina

I think Damian is at least a little bit right about how I’ve been insulating myself. But after sixteen years of being insulated by others it is a hard habit to change. As we walk through town the life of the place even puts the market in Dovetail to shame. Everything is lit by torches and magic and there are people calling to one another, and there’s music spilling out and delicious food smells coming from cafes.

And more than anything, there are probably more dark skinned people around than I’ve ever seen in my life. Some much darker than I, and others lighter.

“Are you alright?” He asked. I nodded. “Come on, it’s right here.” I laughed as he enthusiastically took my hand and pulled me inside a door. What was inside stunned me. The ceiling was round dome, held up by what seemed like magic, and the there were two floors of balconies swirling around a large open floor.

And people were dancing. The music was festive and loud and I didnt’ recognize the tune, but the dancing was fast and lively. It was overwhelming but in the best way.

“Can you teach me the dances?” I stood on my toes to reach his ear and yell over the music. He grinned and nodded.

“Of course,” he said, “but let’s get a drink first.” He took my hand and pulled me through the crowd to the bar and the girl working behind it, saw us and lit up.

“I was wondering when we’d finally see you,” she said leaning forward and then pulling him close by his shirt. “The Glory’s been in port for weeks.” He cleared his throat and then she noticed me. “Ah,” she nodded and pulled back.

“I’m sorry for your anxiety,” he teased, “May I present Duchess Marina Sanpierre, and Rina, this Elaine Addison. Lainey and I have known each other since childhood.” She sent him a look and rolled her eyes.

“Welcome, My Lady, we’re glad to have you,” she smiled softly, “be careful of this one, hm?” Damian laughed and I felt immediately small and insecure. The way she’d grabbed him had been intimate, and not friendly. I thought of how early on Raymond had made jokes to him about Brightcoast. She quickly poured two drinks and headed to another end of the bar. I scowled at him as he handed me the cup.

This was new. I wasn’t used to feeling jealous around him. I glanced back down at Elaine. Why was I jealous at that? She’s not beautiful, not unattractive, but her nose is a little off center and her hair is covered so I can’t judge that. And I knew he had a past, but having to see it is piercing.

“Lefty!” A man called out and walked over, “one more night and we were going to send out a search party!” He stopped and looked at. “Glora’s wing,” he shook his head, “I beg your forgiveness, Duchess,” he bowed, “I ought always to greet a lady first.” He wedged himself between us. “My name is Dorian Addison and I am your and Her Majesty’s humble servant.” I smiled and offered my hand which he took and kissed.

“I accept your service gladly, Mr. Addison,” I said, “on my own and my cousin’s behalf.” He smirked.

“I’m grateful to have you in my establishment,” he said, “though I have to admit my surprise at seeing you here with this lowlife.” He nodded to Damian.

“The lowlife can hear you,” he said, playfully pulling Addison away. I laughed.

“You own this place?” I asked. He looked young for it, his hair in long twists down to his shoulder. “It’s wonderful, regardless.” He laughed.

“Prince Eric owns it proper if you must know,” he said, “but only in that he gave me the money I needed, paying him back as I can. Hoping when he’s king he’ll just forgive the debt.”

“Hush, Addison,” Damian said, circling my waist protectively. “You’ll scare her off with political talk.”

“Do you mean King of Phania or Cammadan?” I jested back, ignoring Damian. “You should know Lisette is by no means certain, but by law he’ll inherit the island.” Addison laughed loudly.

“Lisette, you say? I thought you were Brightcoast, not Pantona!” He gestured and then called out. “Lainey, three more!”

“You aren’t the first flattering barman I’ve encountered since her restoration,” I shrugged. Damian twitched at that. Let him. Addison laughed and cupped my chin and then flicked it playfully.

“Any man would be foolish not to try to flatter you,” he said.

“If my brother tries to turn your head,” Elaine said walked over with a bottle and pouring the drinks, “ignore him.” I looked at her again. “Damian, will you sing?” I turned to him taking my second cup.

“You sing?” I said. He sighed.

“Only when provoked,” he said and kissed me. I was drunk enough to not fight him on the kiss.

“If I want to hear you sing, will you indulge me?” I whispered. He shook his head.

“Which would you prefer?” He whispered back, “to dance or hear me screech a Pharras folk tune you’ll hate?” I met his eyes.

“I want to dance with you,” I said softly, “Only you.” He smiled.

We did dance and dance some more after someone pulled him away I found myself back at the bar.

“You look like you could use some water,” Elaine said and poured mine. I nodded, realizing I must be flushed. I took a sip. “We don’t often get,” I held up a hand.

“I don’t often get to either,” I said, “never actually, it was different, in Dovetail.” She nodded, I swallowed. “I’ve never seen him this,” I tried to find the right word, “comfortable, I guess.” She nodded.

“It’s nearly home,” she pointed out. I looked at her and nodded. “He’s never brought anyone here,” she swallowed, I looked down, “I just want you to understand that.” I smiled.

“I see,” I said, “I didn’t know,” I exhaled, “Raymond,” I whispered, “he mentioned friends, never anything else.” Elaine rolled her eyes.

“I’m not surprised,” she said. She exhaled. “He’s the best man I know, My Lady.” The understanding that passed between us felt deeply familiar.

Images of that first night at Camp, when I’d idiotically thought Tristan’s accepting of my invitation was because he wanted to see me. Of William’s eyes following other girls as they entered court. Girls who wouldn’t stop him when his hands moved to his fly. Girls who didn’t worry about what came next. Only Damian, who’s love overwhelmed me, got me over that fear, and I was only one in a line to him.

“Excuse me,” I said softly and walked out.

“Marina,” Damian said, having followed me, “you shouldn’t have, run off, it isn’t exactly safe,” he looked around. I swallowed. “What did Lainey say to you?” I looked down.

“Nothing” I said, “only, it’s very clear that there is something between the two of you, and,” I looked down, “you belong here, and I don’t, and,” I sighed. “Who is she to you?”

“Lainey is an old friend. Our mother’s grew up together, we were together a lot as children.” He explained breathleslly, I nodded and his face fell. “And that wasn’t what you were asking.” I blushed and looked down. “We weren’t in love with each other, Marina,” he said gently. “It just became, a sort of habit when I was here or she was in Brinecliff.” I swallowed.

“You probably should have warned me,” I pointed out. He sighed wistfully took my hands and kissed them both. I giggled.

“You’re right,” he nodded, “I’m desperately sorry and beg forgiveness.” I sighed. “You didn’t deserve an ambush. And I shouldn’t have abandoned you.”

“I forgive you,” I said softly. He smiled. “And I did like them.” He smiled.

“I’m glad,” he said with a gentle smile. “Someday you’ll see the island, my love, and be overwhelmed.” I kissed him. “They are all counting on Eric being King of Cammadan though.”

“Even if they marry she might not make him king,” I pointed out. “Mariah wasn’t a Queen after all.” We’d begun walking back toward the beach and the manor.

“But Marie was,” he said softly. “I think you all don’t appreciate what she meant to the Pharras and the Phanians living here. What Annalise does, what you do.” I kissed him again softly this time. “They came here because there was no place at home for them, because the dream that life here might be better.”

“A dream of a better world,” I said, he nodded. “Aaron and I used to talk about it, before we took Dovetail back. We wanted to lead for her, build a place where everything we believed in could matter.” I closed my eyes and felt the breeze. “I never saw it, Damian.” I admitted. “Because it didn’t matter. As long as I wasn’t in the palace, at Brayton’s mercy, the world was better.” He gently circled his arm around me and rubbed my shoulder. “He could have named the day, and I had no power to stop him.”

“Look at me,” he whispered and I turned. “You are amazing, Marina,” he cupped my cheek. “That you survived and came out kind and true,” he pressed his forehead to mine, “you could be bitter and angry and not a soul could blame you.” I pressed my forehead to his chest.

“Do you love me?” I asked softly, “or do you love what they see me as?” He exhaled.

“I love you,” he said, “if you said you wanted to burn it to the ground and run into the Westran desert, I’d go with you.” I wrinkled my nose.

“I doubt the desert would suit my father,” I said, “and I can’t run away without him, he’d forget to eat.” Damian laughed.

“Fair,” he said, “Although I didn’t realize we’d be bringing your father.” I shrugged. He pulled me close. “I don’t want to lose you, Rina.”

“You never will,” I said.

Revelation

Athena

“You’ve gotten sloppy,” Harran teased me as he pressed his staff to mine. I rolled my eyes and pushed him back. “Back in Dovetail, you wouldn’t have let me get this close.”

“Tell me, your highness,” I said, flipping hands and solidly landing on both feet, “do the tribes know their future chief loses to a woman so regularly.” He smiled.

“The women of the tribes would laugh at you, My Lady,” he taunted, “As they kicked you into the mud.” I focused but he’d already gained too much of an advantage and he disarmed me. “Yield?” He asked.

“Yield,” I muttered as he helped me up. We glanced over as we heard people walking past us in the field. It was as it turned out, a furious Annalise, clearly soaked, and a beleagured Eric not far behind her. “Hm,” I grinned, smugly, “apparently their sail did not go well.”

“Apparently,” Harran shook his head. I looked at him. He wasn’t smiling.

“Have you changed your mind?” I asked. He shrugged. “I don’t want to pressure either of you if it isn’t,” I drifted off. If it wasn’t what? What they wanted? It isn’t what Lisette wants. She wants Eric. Or perhaps Tristan though she seems to have let him go at last.

“No,” he muttered, “no it isn’t that. I just don’t want her to be hurt. I care about her, I always have.” I nodded. “It’s frustrating. I think we’d do well together, and I think I may have pushed away my only chance.”

“You were still children when you saw her last,” I pointed out. He shook his head.

“Not at Pantona,” he muttered, “it isn’t important. I won’t press her.” I rolled my eyes and picked up my staff.

“Then you don’t know her at all,” I said, catching his as he tossed it to me. “She isn’t intuitive about this sort of thing. If you want her, really want her, not just to flirt,” I shrugged, “make yourself known. Even if she sends Eric away, it’s only matter of time before the Rastani send one those boys or the leaders scrape together an appropriate nephew.”

“You don’t believe the leaders have put together their best,” he grinned. I punched him in his arm. “I appreciated the Lord of Gerran insisting on her sitting next to him while we stayed there on the ride down. A sixty year old king with four sons already would suit Cammadan fine.” I shook my head.

“I understand twenty years of war and starving out crippled us, but it is pathetic,” I mumbled. He shrugged.

“My brothers will be happy to fill in any gaps I can assure you,” he winked at one guards as we walked passed.

“You’re incorrigible,” I shook my head.

“Don’t know the meaning of the word,” he said. I rolled my eyes again. We stopped as we approached the palace and heard a laugh. I paused and rounded the corner anyway, and froze.

Countess Olivia and Martin were the ones laughing, that wasn’t the shocking part, the shocking part was the way they were holding eachother, and the very clear fact that this was not too old friends sharing a casual embrace.

“Athena,” Martin said, seeing me, his eyes wide. The Countess nearly jumped away. I wanted to do something. Make a joke or something. But I just stared at him. “Prince Harran,” he managed.

“I,” Olivia managed to finally squeak out, “this is not how we intended for you to find out about this.” I nodded, still mute and then my gaze went back to Martin. He wouldn’t make eye contact with me.

“I’m happy for you,” I managed. “Excuse me,” I swallowed and ran away. Why was I angry?

They were both free. And why should she be alone?

I’d told Aaron last night that he would have told me, but I’m sure he has his reasons for not doing it wasn’t that. Harran hadn’t followed me, and I was grateful as I shut my door and took deep breaths.

This was real. It wasn’t some young man who would be gone in a month or two. This wasn’t a tavern dancer or some other distraction.

She was the love of his life, he’d never lied about it. But somewhere, deep in my heart, I’d expected him to find his way home to Uncle Trey. That we’d all be a family again.

And when he grew restless, like he always did, my new family would be just as shattered.

“Athena,” Martin’s voice boomed through the door.

“Go away,” I shouted back. He opened it and walked in. “I didn’t say come in.”

“Don’t be snotty,” he said and sat down. I crossed my arms and stared at him. “Thena, I can tell the difference between your astonishment and anger, so don’t try to,”

“I am angry,” I stopped him. He exhaled, “why shouldn’t I be? I,” I paused. He looked down.

“We didn’t mean for it to happen, Love,” he said, “we’re aware that it’s inconvenient.”

“Inconvenient?” I stared at him, the inadequacy of that word. He nodded. “I had thought, you and Trey,” he exhaled.

“No,” he said simply, “no unfortunately Tristan’s decision drove the final nail in,” I looked at him.

“Why didn’t you tell me?” I asked. He shrugged. “That isn’t an answer, Martin.” He sighed.

“Olivia wasn’t ready to explain it to Aaron and Annalise,” he explained, “and I didn’t want to burden you with a secret from them.” I looked down. “And I knew you’d disapprove.”

“I don’t disapprove,” I mumbled. “I want you to be happy.” He nodded. “But I won’t keep it secret from Aaron, you’re right about that that.”

“Olivia is going to speak to him today,” he said. I nodded. “You’re afraid I’ll hurt her.”

“Or get hurt,” I said. “How long?”

“It started while we were at Pantona,” he said. I nodded.

“Couldn’t you have fallen in love with someone who meant nothing to me,” I asked. He laughed.

“I believe I tried that,” he pointed out. “Many times.” I sighed and looked at him. “I don’t expect you to be happy about it darling, but you aren’t a child anymore.” I closed my eyes.

“Does Tristan know?” I asked. He sighed.

“I didn’t tell him,” Martin said, “but well, Tristan often sees me more clearly than I like.” I nodded. He kissed me on the forehead.

“No more secrets,” I said. “And even if it ends badly,” I swallowed, “I’ll need you.”

“I would die before leaving you behind, Athena,” he said. I looked at him and started crying and he held me close. He was right of course, I wasn’t a child anymore, but in that moment I desperately wished I could be.

Not Quite In The Mood

Athena

“What is happening with them?” Aaron’s eyes narrowed on his mother and Martin. I rolled my eyes and pulled him close as the music started.

“Nothing,” I said and kissed him gently. “He’d have told me.” He nodded. “And them?” I nodded to Annalise and Harran.

“I don’t know,” he frowned. “She needs to decide soon.” I looked at him. “Tristan wrote me.” I fiddled with the buttons on my costume.

“He’s been busy,” I said. “He wrote to Marina and me too.” He laughed. “What do the Provenance leaders think about Harran?”

“They’d prefer Emmett,” he pointed to a young man, only barely a young man at that, standing quietly in the corner. “But since he’s never said two words to her, and he’s four years younger I doubt there’s much hope there.” I laughed. “Harran’s better than Eric, who they completely object to.” I frowned. “Frankly, your brother is looking damn near prudent at this point.”

“Maybe she won’t marry,” I said and sipped on my drink. He looked at me. “It would be good for us. Our children would be in the running as heirs.” I gasped. “Trey would throw a parade.” He laughed and kissed me.

“I’m neglecting you, I’m sorry,” he said. I shrugged. “We should have gone home.”

“She needs us here,” I said softly. He frowned. “Aaron,” I whispered, “we’ll be home soon enough.” He pulled me close.

“Thena,” Lisette bounced over holding Prince Eric’s hand. “Eric is taking me sailing in the morning.” I raised my eyebrows.

“She insisted that you be checked with,” The Prince said to me. I nodded.

“The coast has been clear since our arrival,” Aaron noted, “and Brayton is still in his cell in Dovetail.” I looked at him.

“Your security assesment is appreciated love,” I muttered. Lisette giggled and they ran off. “I thought you said,”

“I said the leaders don’t like the match,” he pointed out, “but I like the side he brings out of her.” I sighed and walked outside. Raymond was sitting out on the terrace and I sat with him. He looked at me.

“Are you all going to kill her?” I asked. He laughed.

“No,” he said, “they’d have sent more competent team for assassination, I can assure you.” I laughed. “Aaron has come around and your brother is gone so I suppose someone has to be the paranoid one.”

“I resent that,” I said. He shrugged. “Where is Randolph tonight?” He frowned. “He didn’t want to come?”

“No,” he said. “It doesn’t matter.” I looked at him. “I want a life here, I thought he did too, but,” I nodded, understanding. I also loved someone who seemed to want something so different from me. “You don’t want us to stay, though.”

“That isn’t true,” I said, “I like you, and I think that Lefty is good for Marina,” he smiled. “You are very good at getting people to talk to you.” He smiled. “You could stay even if the others go.”

“I suppose so,” he said softly. “It would seem ungrateful though.” I shook my head. “Why didn’t you go to Dorin?” I frowned.

“I hate it there,” I finally said out loud. “My Mama used to take us when we were little. And the house was like a tomb. And everyone bowing and scraping to my grandfather,” I shook my head. “Besides we can’t both leave her.” He nodded. “You feel the same way?” He nodded.

“If Lefty stays but Eric goes,” he shrugged. I nodded. “You’ll be a Countess then so what do you care.” I laughed.

“Can I tell you a secret?” I said. He raised an eyebrow sardonically at me. “We’re not going back to Dovetail. Aaron and me, we’re staying in Pantona after the wedding.” He looked at me and nodded.

“That’s quite the secret,” he muttered, “she doesn’t know?” I shook my head.

“We want to make sure that she’s settled, or close to it,” I said. “Eventually, we have to work towards the mandate but I want to be Aaron’s wife, I want to be Athena, not Commander DuGarry.”

“I waited my whole life to be Raymond,” he said, “not Her Majesty’s brother, not the freak or outcast. I can understand the impulse.” I looked at him and nodded. “We should both get back to the party.” I nodded and went back to the ballroom.

“I lost tonight,” Harran walked over. I rolled my eyes.

“You’ll lose tomorrow morning,” I said, “training?” He grinned.

“I’ve missed beating you,” he stuck his hands in his pockets. “See you in the morning.” I laughed and went to Aaron.

“Hello my love,” he said, I pulled close.

“Let’s get back to the palace,” I said. He grinned. “I’m tired and I want you.”

“Alright,” he said and kissed me softly. “I have to say goodbye to Lisette and my mother, I’ll meet you out front.”

“And Marina,” I said, “I’ll come with you,” he nodded and took my hand as we circulated. I tried to suss out what he was seeing between his mother and Martin. Something seems settled between them, but I can’t intuit what. I will absolutely be asking him about it.

The last thing I need is him doing his whole love and leave business with The Countess. I don’t need to watch her float stoically past him as he sighs longingly. I really do not.

“I’m glad you came,” Marina said and hugged me tightly. “I know you didn’t want to.” I laughed.

“It was wonderful,” I said softly, “you were born for this.” She sighed and nodded. We quickly moved outside and walked up the beach to the palace, which was lit up in white light. “What did Tristan write to you?” He shook his head and laughed.

“I think it’s going well enough,” he shrugged. “And he misses you but doesn’t want to worry you.” I smiled. “I wrote him that you miss him but don’t want to worry me.”

“I do miss him,” I said, “and I don’t want to worry you.” He ran his hands through my hair.

“You’re welcome to,” he said softly. “I’ll always worry about you, I can’t help it.” I laughed and we made it back to the palace and fell back into bed.

No matter how else I was feeling, being with Aaron always soothes me.

Goodbye

After the ball Aaron and I went back to my rooms and as I started to get undressed I glanced back as he settled in at the table, two small glasses in front of him.

“What are you doing?” I giggled, tying a robe around my waist.

“Remember when I wrote to you about William?” He asked. I raised my eyebrows and sat down opposite him.

“That he didn’t deflower Marina?” I asked. He laughed. “That you got drunk?”

“Yes,” he said, “with this,” he plopped a bottle in front of us and then poured two shots. It was clear, and as I picked up the glass, ice cold.

“How?” I asked. He grinned.

“Raymond enchanted the bottle,” he said, “when I mentioned I brought it back. He said that the Rastani would never drink it warm.” I laughed and we clinked the glasses and downed the spirit. It didn’t burn like whiskey, but I could feel it going right to my head.

“Oh!” I said. Aaron nodded excitedly. “Oh that is wonderful.” He smiled. “It’s Rastani?”

“Made from potatoes, apparently,” he said, “good with juices too.” I smiled and leaned across the table and grabbed the bottle re-pouring my glass. Aaron laughed and poured his we downed the next shot. A few more and I felt floaty and giggly.

“We should go back to the party,” I said jumping up.

“No,” he said, “first of all the party is over and second of all you’re drunk,” I stuck out my tongue and looked at him. “Come to bed. I’ve missed sleeping with you.” I melted and took his outstretched hand and slid into his lap.

“Tristan is going,” I whispered. He nodded. “I wanted him to go, but now that it’s happening,” I sighed. “I don’t know who I am without him.” He slowly pushed my hair out of my face. “We’ve always been together.”

“You are amazing,” he whispered, “you aren’t one of a set, Thena. I’ll miss him too, but I promise you’ll survive.” He kissed me gently. “I want to be your family.”

“You already are,” I whispered. “But, I just,” I swallowed. Trying to explain being a twin to others is hard. It’s frustrating to be treated as two halves of a whole, but in so many ways we are.

Without Tristan I worry I’m going to be off balance. I kissed Aaron again gently and we went to bed. After sleeping for a bit I got up before dawn and slipped out to go to the stable. Tristan had just finished saddling Elian and he looked at me.

“Athena,” he whispered softly.

“Tristan,” I swallowed.

“I have to meet Alex at the gates,” he mumbled. I nodded. “I’m sorry.”

“Me too,” I said. “Don’t let them change you. If you come back as some prissy merchant boy who does everything Trey says, I’ll never speak to you again.” He laughed.

“And if I come back to a harderned warrior with a single focus,” he smiled, “I will run away terrified.” I laughed and hugged him tightly. “I love you.”

“I love you too,” I whispered. “I’ll see you soon.” He nodded and wiped the tears out of his eyes. I walked back towards the palace and entered the hall. Marina and Annalise were both standing there, looking at a mossaic of a wave hitting the mountain.

Lisette’s eyes were red from crying, but she smiled when she looked at me.

“I think it’s time for us to get to work,” she said softly.

“Alright,” I answered. Marina swallowed and took a deep breath, she drew her hands together and apart, creating a small ball of light, the same blinding white as the burst of battle magic that day with the shadows. I gasped.

“It’s not me,” she said softly, “it’s the Goddess. That was the answer.” I nodded. “Balance your hands under it,” she said softly. She looks different, sure of herself and steady, holy. I nooded and did as instructed, “Annalise,” Annalise swallowed and placed her hands on the opposite side of the orb. Marina’s hovered above it.

“What now?” I asked.

“We make a vow,” Annalise said, “do you pledge to me, Athena Dugarry, Champion of The God of Land and War, that you will aid me in my mandate to free the gods from their binding to the wheel of time?”

“I so vow,” I whispered. The next words came to me, but I’d never learned them, I just knew them. “Do you, Annalise Dovetail, Sword of The Goddess of Sea and Light, vow to lead me truly? To command with justice and hope for peace in all things?”

“I so vow,” she whispered. The orb changed shape into a beam shooting up through the ceiling to the sky. I felt calm and whole. And she smiled and me.

“It is done,” Marina said with a gravitas I didn’t know she possessed. “You are bound in your service to the gods and one another.” We all made eye contact and giggled.

“Why doesn’t she have to make a vow?” I said nodding to Marina as we walked towards a parlor. Once we got there a maid appeared with a plate of pastries and a pot of coffee on a tray.

“I will,” Marina shrugged, “once I teach Raymond the ritual. I can’t do it for myself, and Mastero Anselm says he doesn’t have enough power.”

“Hmm,” I said. “So how was it?” I leaned forward.

“The ritual?” She said. “Inredible, I’ve never felt so at peace with myself.” Annalise snorted.

“She didn’t mean the ritual.” She sighed and took a long sip of coffee.

“Oh,” Marina blushed. “I don’t want to,” she muttered.

“I imagine he knows what he’s doing,” I grinned. “I asked around The Dumanis and he has quite the reputation.” Marina sighed.

“He certainly knew what he was doing,” she said pouring her own. “Who won?”

“That would be her majesty,” I kicked Annalise who shushed me. “Are you alright?” I said. Annalise sighed softly.

“I’ll miss him” she said softly, closing her eyes. “But it’s for the best.” I nodded and took each of their hands.

“I’m very much looking forward to our quest, my friends,” I said softly.

A Winter’s Ball (Part 2)

I don’t know that I will ever get over how enchanting it is to watch Aaron in a ballroom. He is just so exceptionally good with people. And it is wonderful that every few moments he makes sure to catch my eye and smile at me.

We were in bed all afternoon. I’d missed him so much, it was so easy. But tonight we couldn’t miss. Marina worked so hard to make this winter festival special, and it really is. There have been some wonderful parties since Annalise returned but this one just sparkles. Everything is lit by candles and, with Raymond’s help, a shimmering magical net of stars over the dance floor.

“I didn’t want to interrupt earlier,” Tristan walked over to me, I glanced at him and nodded. “I’m going tomorrow.” I stopped, swallowed the sip of wine I’d just taken. “Thena, don’t.”

“Tomorrow?” I said. He nodded. “I thought you were waiting until court moved.”

“Aaron’s back now, and The Dowager Countess,” he said softly, “And Martin, she doesn’t need me here now.” I scowled and took another sip.

“Well she might not,” I muttered. He laughed. “My contract.”

“I have spoken to Aaron,” he said, “Lisette and I will write to settle it, as we both know what you want.” It was far too sensible a solution.

“Mama’s jewelry?” I said. He nodded.

“If you’ll allow me a few pieces for my own bride,” he said and took a deep sip. I nodded. “Your children will have full access to guild training should they elect for it. Though if they do, I will assume you raised them poorly.” I laughed.

“Yes,” I said, “and my oldest, girl or boy inherits Pantona.”

“That’s law in Cammadan,” Tristan said, “and Lisette of all people is unlikely to challenge it.” I laughed. “If it works, in Dorin, you’ll stand for me? Not Alex?” My eyes filled with tears and I threw my arms around his neck. “Thena,” he muttered.

“If Alex tries to supplant me I’ll stab him,” I whispered in his ear, and he laughed. “Does Lisette know?” He shook his head. “Marina?”

“I’ll tell them tonight.” He said softly. I nodded. “You wanted this, you lunatic!”

“Well, not tonight I didn’t,” I muttered. He laughed. “I’ll miss you is all.” He smiled and kissed me on the cheek.

“I’ll miss you too,” he said. Aaron bounced over to us, as the music was picking up in tempo.

“I believe I have done my duty by every young lady thrust into Dovetail after the ascension,” Aaron said, taking the sparkling wine out of Tristan’s hand and taking it down in one gulp. “But I think a dance with my intended would be preferable. If it’s allowed?”

“As far as I know,” Tristan said, “being not immersed in it yet, I think dancing with your intended is permitted.”

“Thank Cornan,” he winked and took my hand and I laughed as his other hand placed on my waist and pulled me close. “Commander.”

“Your Grace,” I said as he whirled me around in time. “Aaron, are you still sure, after being home?”

“I am even more sure,” he said. I beamed. “I’m serious, Athena, I thought I was going to die of grief and boredom without you.” I kissed him softly. “Are you alright? I know Tristan leaving is a lot for you?”

“I’ll manage,” I said softly. “It will be easier since I’ll be planning our wedding.” He laughed. “Would you like the Mastero to officiate? Or maybe a sister?”

“I thought Marina, actually,” he said. “Thought I suppose The Mastero makes sense.” I nodded. “What do The Guilds do?” I frowned.

“The head of your guild,” I said and shook my head. “If Grandfather dies before we manage it, then I would allow Trey to, but I don’t want him.” He smiled. “Is William really going to marry Kathy?”

“Possibly,” he said. “But I have a feeling that Kathy’s enthusiasm for the match will probably wane.” I looked at him. “She seemed to think,” he shook his head, “well, she seemed under the impression that as William was my manager it would give her convenient access to the manor and well, to me.” I stopped dancing and stared at him, my mouth agape. “I told her that under no circumstances would that happen.”

“I ought to throttle her,” I said. He laughed. “Oh, poor William!” I giggled. He pulled my close and kissed me again. “You didn’t even consider it?”

“No,” he said, “I don’t want anyone else.” I smiled. “We have the rest of our lives ahead of us, that’s all I think about.” I pressed my forehead against his chest.

“I love you,” I said softly. He kissed my hair gently.

The Dream

I fell into The Dream and looked out over the landscape in front of me. It was flat and barren, the land cracked with sun.

“Westran,” I mumbled.

“So it is,” Cornan appeared beside me, he sounded amused, “hm, I didn’t recognize it before.” I stared at him. “Well, you’ll tell my sister’s girls won’t you?”

“Of course,” I said, “is that where you are?”

“Different from Cammadan,” he said, “that’s all I know. Far from the sea, which she hates.” I nodded. “So much power though.” I looked at him. “The battle will be hard, my champion.”

“I’m ready for it,” I straightened my shoulders. He closed his eyes.

“Yes,” he said, “you’d say so. I am tired now.” I understood and awoke gasping, and Aaron carefully brushing my hair off my face.

“It’s alright darling,” he whispered. I swallowed and pressed my head against his chest. “Was it bad?”

“No,” I said, “just, well, odd. He was distracted, confused.” He nodded. “I think they’re in Westran, Aaron, the gods.” He sighed.

“That’s complicated,” he muttered. “Couldn’t they be in Failor? Clarence is practically begging for Lisette to come and search. OR Rastan? If Lefty and Eric are to be believed they’re so obsessed with protocol they’d still be bowing when she raced of to do what needed to be done.” I laughed. “But Westran, the tribes don’t want us pushing past the border, Harran’s the only one who trusts her.”

“I know,” I said softly. “We knew it was going to be awful.” I muttered. He groaned and rolled onto his back.

“I can’t leave,” he said.

“We can’t go through this again,” I said softly, “you have to. You’ll come back and frankly, the gods have waited nearly a century, they can wait a few months.” He laughed at that. “Besides, I don’t know how helpful you’d be.”

“I’m a good fighter” he said, “and people like me.” I shrugged and kissed him.

“Yes, but you’re not Chosen, love,” I teased. He sighed and shook his head. “When you do come back, we should set the date. Grandfather will be somewhat occupied with Tristan, but not enough that he won’t keep insisting until our vows are said.”

“I would sooner die than antagonize your grandfather,” he smiled. I laughed. He slid a hand behind my head and pulled me close. “Do you need to go see Lisette?”

“It will keep until the morning,” I mumbled and kissed him again. He was leaving in a week, and I wasn’t going to waste a moment when I could be with him.

“Aaron,” I whispered, a few moments after we were done, he looked at me, “when you’re away, I mean, I know, that, well, since we’ve been together we’ve never been apart,” I trailed off.

“Yes,” he said, “though, and I hate saying it, but I imagine it won’t be the last time.”

“Yes,” I smiled, “and, as we’re neither of well, innocent,” he nodded, “I don’t want you to feel,” he pulled back and shook his head. “Aaron,” I whispered.

“Athena, I am not going to be with other women, even when I’m away from you,” he said, I nodded, “I’d appreciate fidelity in return.” I looked at him and pulled him close.

“I didn’t mean that,” I said, “but, well, I mean, Carlton is gone, and Warren is, well, Warren,” he nodded, “and you’re going to Pantona, and Kathy,”

“Athena,” he whispered, “I love you, and yes, I am going to have to deal with Kathy eventually, but I can assure you that it will not end with her in my bed.” I nodded. “My darling, please trust me, I’m begging you.” I sighed.

“I do,” I said softly, “I just, want you to know that should anything happen, I would forgive you. I don’t want to lose you.” He smiled.

“I understand, Thena,” he whispered and drew his hand to my heart, “I just thought we were past it, I thought you’d finally let me in.” He stood up and dressed. I swallowed and leaned back against the pillows as he left. I didn’t want to fight.

As the sun rose I walked to the training field. Martin was standing there, waiting for me.

“Early for you,” I said, as he tossed me a staff.

“Had some trouble sleeping,” he said. I nodded. “Did you Dream?”

“Yes,” I said softly, “did you?” He nodded. “When was the last time, before this?” He sighed and leaned against the staff.

“The day your parents died,” he said softly, “he told me I needed to take you both in hand. He hadn’t decided yet.” I nodded. “I tried communing a few times after that, but he was silent. Cornan’s a stubborn bastard.” I laughed.

“He’s in Westran,” I said softly, “and he’s weak.” He nodded. “What did he say to you?”

“He was pleased actually,” Martin was beaming, “quite convinced you’re up to scratch.” I nodded. “You’re concerned?”

“No,” I said, “not about that, I’ll speak to Marina and Lisette about it, they ought to know, it’s,” I frowned, “was I always hard?”

“Hard?” He asked. “You weren’t a difficult child. Headstrong, I suppose, but your mother handled it well enough, John was too soft with you,” I love the look on his face when he talks about my parents, he can’t keep the mischief out of his eyes.

“I didn’t mean that,” I said, “here,” I said put a fist to my heart. He frowned.

“Do you remember Dorian Forend?” He tried. I cocked my head to the side. “When I ended things with Trey, I took up with him briefly. It didn’t go well, but he did dote on you.”

“There were a lot of them,” I pointed out, “and they all doted on us. At least the ones we met.” He nodded.

“You seem to have reached the point.” He said, “I did my best by you both, but I don’t think I modeled love particularly well.” I smiled softly. “Aaron is a good man, better than me. He won’t hurt you, or leave, or drive you away.”

“He’ll get bored of me,” I said, “he’ll be away from me, we won’t be able to avoid it with our work, and he’ll meet and fall in love with someone else.” Tom cupped my face.

“Athena,” he said, “my darling, you have to let go of this.” I shook my head. “If you can’t trust him, you shouldn’t marry him.” I sighed. “I know it isn’t just him. It’s everyone, but you should trust him.” I sighed.

“And you never trusted any of them?” I asked quietly.

“Trey,” he said, “and Olivia both. I still trust them both, no matter what.” He kissed my forehead and I frowned. “Now do you want to train?” I nodded and we squared off.

A Question Of Conversation

“How long have you been in the guard?” Prince Eric turned to me at dinner. I looked at him and swallowed the piece of fish I was chewing.

“Officially?” I said. He shrugged. “About five years, you can induct as young as twelve. But unofficially, Tristan and I have been in since we were babies.” He laughed. “What’s funny?”

“Nothing,” he said, “it just sounds familiar. It’s my life with the Navy.” I smiled and nodded. “Your parents wanted you in the guard?”

“Yes,” I said, “I mean, I suppose so, we never talked much about it. It mattered to them, they were very proud of their own work.” He nodded. “And your father?”

“I don’t remember my father at all,” he said, “but Simon, that is, Lord Lestoff, he knows the sea, he’s a ferryman, and he had high hopes for Lefty and I.” I nodded and took a sip of my wine. The food and wine are both wonderful, but they always are with Countess Olivia.

“I see,” I nodded. “Do you like the Navy? My cousins are wild about sea life, even if they’re usually stuck in offices after they take a few tours.” He laughed.

“I do like it,” he said, “I was wretched in Vacana, you can ask Lefty.” I laughed.

“I’m looking forward to the sea,” Lisette chimed in, he looked at her. “We’ll go to Brightcoast in the Spring.” Marina looked over at her, her eyes wide with joy.

“Will we?” Aaron said, “Gods, Rina, did you bribe her, or has Anya Norvine been nagging you both too much?”

“Even if you all went North,” Marina answered him sharply, “I have to go back sometime.” She stuck out her tongue at him.

“It’s not about the Duchess,” Annalise said softly, Tristan frowned. He hadn’t spoken much and I couldn’t blame him, though I was grateful he’d agreed to come. Lisette had been waffling for weeks about where the Court’s first official visit should be, but of course, Tristan’s decision to go to Dorin would mean she didn’t want to be there.

“We’ve been to Brightcoast a lot,” Lord Raymond said, “it’s really quite beautiful. Lefty knows more people there than the rest of us.” Lieutenant Lestoff choked on his food and coughed.

“Yes, I well,” he sighed, “did you know Your Grace that you have a good sized population of Pharras in your Provenance?” Marina looked at him and shook her head.

“No,” she said, “I hadn’t realized. It’s shameful, but I don’t actually know a lot about Brightcoast, my education was curtailed in many areas.”

“What a kind way of saying that Brayton tried to keep you stupid and powerful,” Tristan managed. “Do you have a special interest in the Pharras, Lieutenant Lestoff?”

“My mother was Pharras,” he explained, “so I would say so.” The looked that passed between them was icy.

“I’m a little lost,” Aaron said. “I thought that Pharras was Phanian.”

“It’s a subject of some debate,” The Prince said softly. “The Pharras certainly wouldn’t say so.”

“The island has been Phanian for so long,” Raymond explained, “but the people maintain their individual culture should allow them to be separate.”

“It sounds a lot like The Westrans,” Lisette said, “I’m hoping to unite them with us eventually, and I’d rather it not be a conquest, or for them to lose what makes them who they are.”

“A people’s own sovereignty is often a part of who they are,” Lestoff said. “Pharras is a strange case, though, I’ll admit, and I also think it would be to The Westran’s advantage to take your protection and resources.”

“Not so strange,” I shook my head, “my grandfather also often speaks about our culture and need for independence.”

“No offence meant, Lady Athena, but I think my people are at a bit of a different juncture than your grandfather,” he grinned. I laughed.

“A bit,” Tristan smiled. “But then again, imagining the world revolves around him suits him.”

“We really do need to get your Grandfather and my brother in the same room,” Prince Eric smiled. I laughed. “Countess, I apologize, you seem quiet, we’re being terrible guests.”

“It’s alright,” Countess Olivia smiled, “the conversation feels familiar, but comfortably so.” I smiled at her. “And I agree about Carland and King Daniel by the way. Their egos might block out the sun, but it would be amusing.” I smiled at her. “Your Highness, are you enjoying the lamb? I had it sent up from Pantona as it’s Lisette’s favorite.”

“It’s wonderful,” he said. I smiled. He’d done his job with Countess Olivia, she was clearly charmed.

Confrontation

We were sitting in Trey’s office, all of us, lined up on one side of the desk and Grandfather on the other. Well, Martin wasn’t sitting, he was standing leaning against the door.

“As I see it,” Grandfather began, “we have an excellent opportunity, with Tristan finally deciding to do his duty by his family,” Martin snorted, and I shot him a glare, he held up his hands. “Athena will be making her home in the Midlands, and there are several families who would be happy to expand their territory there, with daughters the appropriate age.”

“And why are we here, then?” Martin said. Trey sighed and pressed his fingers against the bridge of his nose. “If it will be so easy, I don’t see why I need to be consulted. You all know I think it’s a bad idea, that it goes against Alexia’s wishes, my wishes as his guardian,”

“Tom, everyone knows your objections,” Trey said, “but it’s Tristan’s decision.” Tristan was silent, I wanted to know what he was thinking but he wouldn’t meet my eyes, so I couldn’t even guess. “We need to know you’ll stand behind him. And you, Athena, and Count Aaron.”

“Of course Aaron and I will stand behind him,” I said. “Was that ever in question?” Tristan looked at me and his face softened.

“And his place in the guard is assured?” Grandfather said. “As it was with his father, it is a large part of his appeal. A rise in station for the girl.” Tom sighed and looked down.

“I would not dismiss Tristan,” he said, “only a fool would let go of such a soldier willingly, but as he likely told you, the decision is not entirely mine. The Guard serves at The Queen’s pleasure.” Trey nodded.

“I told them,” Tristan said, “she won’t ask me to step down.”

“For the moment, but a jealous young girl’s judgement,” Grandfather started. I stood up then. “Where are you going?”

“I won’t stand here and listen to you insult her,” I said. “She is your Queen, and would never,” I looked at Tristan, “how dare you?”

“Athena,” Trey said softly, “No one is insulting Queen Annalise, there is a concern, that she may, well, change her mind regarding Tristan’s position given they are no longer,” he waved his hand.

“She wouldn’t do that,” Tristan said, I saw him gripping the arms of his chair. “As I’ve been saying all afternoon.”

“And I think Carland is insulting her a little,” Martin said, “though I understand the idea of loyalty beyond immediate gratification is unthinkable to him.” Grandfather stood up at that.

“If I had my way Thomas Martin you’d have been,” he was seething and thought better of it.

“Always a pleasure to hear your empty threats, sir,” he said glibly, he looked over at Trey, “I genuinely thought we could get past all this.”

“Perhaps your time in Pantona will help you,” Trey said. Tom nodded.

“Speaking of you going to Pantona,” Tristan said, “I can’t leave for Dorin before Martin and Count Aaron return. I can’t leave the Queen that vulnerable.” Grandfather nodded. “You know my other stipulations for the contracts.”

“Of course,” Trey said.

“Then we’re done here,” Tristan stood up and we all three walked out. We got out into the street. “How many times has he threatened to have you killed?” Martin laughed.

“I lost count around my twentieth birthday,” he shrugged. “He’d never do it, for all our problems, Trey would never forgive him.” I smiled. “You’re sure about this?”

“I am,” Tristan said, but his voice was caught in his throat. “It worked for my parents, after all.”

“They were lucky,” Tom said softly, “and your mother was an uncommon person.” Tristan smiled. “Whoever she winds up being, you know I will welcome her.” Tristan nodded and looked at me.

“When I’m a countess,” I muttered, “I’m going to ban him from Pantona,” I said, “Trey and the Aunts may come, but if he sets foot on my land I’ll throw him in a dungeon.”

“I don’t think Pantona has a dungeon,” Tristan laughed as we started walking.

“Well then I’ll build one,” I scowled, “and throw him in it. As if Annalise would dismiss you,” I sighed, they were both laughing. “It isn’t funny,” I said.

“It’s a little funny,” Martin smiled. “I am glad to finally have you on my side though, Thena.” I looked at him and nodded, we walked back to the palace and I got to my apartment to find Aaron waiting.

“How did it go?” He asked. I sighed and straddled him on the couch and kissed him. “Oh that well?”

“I yelled at my grandfather again,” I said, “I don’t think he’ll put up with a third time.”

“Do you still want to ban all Dumanis business in Pantona?” He asked. “We can if you really want to. The tenants might be disappointed but they’ll get over not having anyone to sell animals or crops to, or buy city goods from.” I shook my head.

“No, we can’t ban the family,” I muttered, “but he insulted Lisette!” We kissed again.

“Thena,” he whispered as I moved my hands down to his waistband, “we have to go to dinner with my mother.”

“We can be quick,” I assured him. “I need you.” He smiled and ran his hands through my hair, and I pushed his pants down. His hands moved up my thighs.

“You’re the most incredible woman,” He mumbled, as I arched my back letting him into me. I writhed, riding him until we both finished. “I’m going to miss you so much.” He whispered.

“I’ll miss you too,” I said and stood up and went to clean up. “Why are we going to your mother?”

“Lisette wants her to get to know The Prince,” he sighed and leaned back.

“And this isn’t possible in the banquet room?” I frowned. It wasn’t that I didn’t love an evening with Countess Olivia, but the idea of more family time is overwhelming right now.

“According to my mother, no,” he said and stood up. I laughed. “Thena,” he said softly, “what if we got married, and you came back to Pantona with me?” I looked at him.

“I want that more than anything,” I said softly. “Really, I do.” He smiled. “But my brother,” he sighed, “and Martin and Lisette.” He nodded. “And your father, do you want us to get married before he’s at rest?” He sighed and hugged me around the waist.

“I suppose not, but if he hadn’t died we’d be married already,” he pointed out. I shook my head.

“That’s morbid, my love,” I said, “go, I have to get presentable.” He sighed and kissed me again.

“Fine,” he muttered. “See your later.” I swatted him on his way out.

Riding and War

We were riding into the valley behind the city, and I felt so spectacularly free. This kind of movement had been restricted for so long. Tristan had left to go settle things with Grandfather, and while Lisette had seemed disturbed at first, she seemed to have calmed down. She paid light attention to her cousin but mainly to Prince Eric.

“This could work,” I said, sounding more relieved than I realized I was to Aaron. His eyes were still narrowed. “Aaron, she has to marry someone.”

“I know,” he said, “I don’t have to like it though.” I laughed. “I am trying to convince myself this is better than Harran.”

“Where is Harran?” I asked. “Surely he was invited?”

“No,” Aaron said, “We thought Tristan was coming and I thought two suitors more than sufficient.” I smiled and glanced over at Marina, she looked more confident than I’ve ever seen her, glowing under the attentions of Lord Raymond and Lieutenant Lestoff.

“Did we bring food?” I asked. Aaron shook his head.

“You brought a bow, love, I assumed you’d handle it,” he teased. I laughed and spurred my horse on. I loved to hunt, I think it’s one of the gifts that the God gave me, as I’m also quite good at it. I managed to grab a few rabbits and even spotted a stag.

Maybe a hunting party at another time, a whole stage was a bit much for lunch. Returning to the party, I asked Marina to light a fire, which I had to admit was her to let her show off a bit. Lord Raymond immediately asked for her help teaching him magic. She agreed.

Once we returned to the palace, a page handed me a note.

Thena,

I think it’s settled. Come to Trey’s. Bring The General if you can convince him.

Tristan

I sighed and walked into the barracks. Martin was sitting behind his desk, working on something.

“We’re invited to dinner,” I said sitting down. He looked up at me.

“No,” he said, “you’re mother is going to torment my dreams forever for not stopping this, I won’t break bread on it.”

“It worked out alright for her,” I pointed out. “Maybe it will for Tristan.” He stood up and frowned going over to the window. “What were you looking at?” I picked up the paper. It was a report from Phania.

“He’s building an armada,” Tom said, “and recruiting land troops, solidifying the alliance with Rastan to block the North.” I swallowed.

“Prince Eric told Annalise his brother wants an engagement by the fall,” I said, my throat dry. “You think if it isn’t settled they’ll invade?”

“Daniel wants The Sword on his side,” he explained, “he always did. He thinks he can control Annalise through her marriage to Eric, but he’ll do it through fear, or domination if he must.” I nodded.

“Have you told her?” I asked. He frowned and shook his head. “You have to, she needs to know.”

“I will,” he said. “Trey’s tonight?” He sighed, I sat up and nodded. “Fine, I need to talk about this with him too. As helpful from a rallying point Duchess Norvine would be, it’ll be your family who builds our Navy.”

“Fine,” I said, “if that’s what it takes to get you there. Don’t wear a uniform, you know they hate it.” I stood up and walked out of the office and through the training yard. One of the guards, Helena, I think her name is, was supposed to be on rotation, but instead she was leaning against a pillar and Harran was pushing her hair behind her ear.

“Recruit,” I said, cause her to stop mid giggled and straighten herself, “Your highness,” I grinned at Harran.

“I’m sorry Commander,” she mumbled, “Prince Harran was asking,” she exhaled, “I’ll return to patrol.”

“You do that,” I said as she walked away. I looked at him.

“You didn’t have to ruin my fun,” he said.

“You could wait until she’s off duty,” I said. He sighed. “Aren’t you supposed to be courting Lisette?”

“So you’re on my side?” He said as we walked towards the palace. “What about your brother?” I looked at him.

“I’m on her side,” I said. He nodded. “And my brother should not figure into the equation.” He looked at me. “Dance with her tonight. If you let Prince Eric monopolize her,” I trailed off.

“Yes, yes,” he shoved me gently, “I don’t need to be told how to woo, Athena, especially not a girl I had in my hands three years ago.”

“She’s a queen now,” I said with a shrug. “Might require some rewooing.” He laughed.