Watching Calla learn with Nika and Brea has been amazing. Seeing her take to their kind of magic is wildly interesting.

I’m still not sure about it. I’m trying to picture my daughter in black, and veiled. I’m not sure I can, but I love watching her face light up as she creates small flames, or sits with her hands to the sand and feels it’s energy run through her.

I’m grateful she doesn’t have to be afraid, that she has this but doesn’t have to bear our burdens, Annalise, Marina and mine, the dreams and confusion.

“Mama, look!” Calla called over to me holding a cactus blossom in her hand. I stood up and walked over to her. “Lady Nika showed me how to make it open.”

“Really?” I said. Nika smiled indulgently at me.

“Can you make it close Little One?” Nika said gently. Calla looked at the blossom and scrunched her face very hard, which made the petals close up. Calla gasped excitedly. “Well done, Calla.”

“That’s wonderful, dearest,” I said scooping her into my arms. She yawned.

“She’s a natural,” Nika smiled affectionately, “but I think that’s enough for today. This takes a lot of energy.”

“I can do more,” Calla said eagerly.

“Listen to Lady Nika,” I chastised her and she pouted. “Do you think I when I was small I took Grandpapa’s sword and fought everyday?”

“Yes,” she said. I laughed.

“Well, I did try, but I learned that I had to build up to something so big,” I said, “or else I’d get hurt. It’s going to be the same with your magic, hm?”

“I suppose so,” she sighed. “But it is very exciting.”

“Extremely exciting,” I said nudging my nose against hers. She giggled. “Thank you Nika.”

“Yes, thank you Lady Nika,” Calla repeated after me.

“It is my pleasure,” Nika smiled and accepted a kiss on the cheek. I carried her back to our tent and she fell asleep in my arms.

“Is everything alright here?” Marina asked as I approached.

“Someone overdid it in her magic lesson,” I whispered. She smiled. “She was making flowers bloom.”

“Oh,” Marina sighed softly, “I used to do that. In the courtyard gardens.” I smiled. “It does take a lot out of you.” I went in and lay her down. I walked around and found Tristan arguing with Elodie about where we should head next and she threw up her hands and marched away.

“Wow,” I said, “you’ve become so unpleasant even Elodie can’t take it. That’s got to be special.”

“Don’t start,” he snapped. I rolled my eyes.

“Fine,” I said, “stop pouting.”

“I’m not pouting!” He insisted. I raised my eyebrows. “I’m not, I just,” he exhaled. “She left.”

“Yes,” I nodded. “And you could have gone with her, but like every junction in your life you chose the path that suits you. That’s why we all have such little sympathy for you on it.”

“Excuse me?” He said. “The path that suits me?” I nodded. “What I want is never how things turn out!”

“No,” I said, “but we were in Pantona, and you chose to be with Annalise, even though you knew it was wrong. She chose you over Eric, just asking you to be patient and you went to Marina. Marina’s responsibilities meant you couldn’t hide anymore so you went to Dorin,”

“You came up with the idea of me going to Dorin!” He said, “you and Alex,” I sighed.

“No one kidnapped you, no one forced you,” I said. “Then you married Carolina and rather than stay with her you ran off exploring, no matter how unhappy it made her. Now she’s made a choice for herself, that’s really for Annalise, and you’re acting like the whole world conspired to make you unhappy. You could have gone with Caro, it would have been difficult, but we would have figured it out. Instead you chose to stay with us. The path that suits you.” He blinked at me.

“Oh,” he whispered.

“Yes, oh,” I said. “Honestly, your lack of self perception is becoming sad, Tristan.” He glared at me. “I’m only saying.” I stood up and walked away. I found Prior who was watering some of the horses. “He’s being an ass.”

“What else is new?” He grinned. I laughed. “When we hear from Caro he’ll settle down. That usually helps.” I nodded.

“Still, it’s irritating,” I sighed.

“I need to ask you something.” He looked at me,”Annalise has been Dreaming.”

“That’s normal, out here,” I said. “We’re close to the gods.” He nodded. “What about?”

“She won’t tell me,” he said. “I don’t want to push her, but it might help, and I don’t know how to broach it.” I frowned.

“You shouldn’t have told me, to begin with,” I said. “She’s very private about it.” He exhaled.

“I know,” he sighed. “It’s frightening, though, when it happens.” I looked at him. “I want to help her.”

“You do help her, Prior,” I said. “Just being there helps.” He looked down. “Aaron says that she used to scream for hours.”

“It doesn’t go on that long,” he said. I looked at him. “I love her, Athena.”

“I know that,” I said. “You still shouldn’t have told me.” He laughed. “Aaron thinks the two of you are being foolish.” He looked at me.

“And what do you think?” He asked. “Everyone knows you were Team Harran.”

“Yes, having Annalise married to my best friend would have been convenient,” I said. He laughed. “But you’re better for her.” I gripped the fence and stretched. “But after Eric and my brother,” he sighed. “You can’t ever leave her, Prior, you can’t even think about it. I don’t think she’d survive it again, not her heart, at least. And Annalise’s heart is the best part of her. She’s already so much colder and closed than she was when we first met her.” He nodded. “When she’s with you though, I see it, she’s full of light again.”

“Her aura?” He asked.

“Cornan no,” I shook my head, “mine doesn’t work like that. I just see it, she unclenches, she relaxes, her whole demeanor changes. You’re good for her, and I disagree with Tristan that she can only hurt you, like I said, I think if you leave her, it will break her.”

“I’m not going to leave her,” he said. I smiled sadly.

“Tristan said that,” I said, “and Eric. They both did. And losing my sister, my queen, Lisette,” I shrugged, “that would be hard enough, but losing The Sword? We’d all be doomed.” I looked at him. “So, don’t leave her, and don’t hurt her.” He smiled. “And don’t tell me things she wants kept private. I’d disembowel Aaron if he went to Annalise with my secrets.”

“Aren’t you glad to know?” He asked. “Even a little?” I shook my head.

“Yes, a little,” I said. It was useful to know she was Dreaming, since Marina noteably wasn’t, beyond her vision of Amina.

Little Witch


I was standing in the main training yard of The Border Keep, stretching. My training with Tristan had been helpful. I felt stronger and focused.

“You realize you’re being ridiculous,” Elodie said as Harran walked in, I glared at her and she rolled her eyes. “No one thinks you’re a less terrifying warrior because you’ve had children.”

“That isn’t the point at all,” I said. “I used to be the best.” Elodie looked at me indulgently. “It’s a part of who I am.”

“Well, My Lady,” she sighed, “you know his old weaknesses.”

“Of course,” I said. I’ve sparred with Harran dozens of times over the years. “And his strengths. He’s bigger than me, stronger.”

“Less agile,” Elodie nodded. “But also isn’t carrying a baby.” I frowned and looked down. I wasn’t big yet, but my belly had started to swell.

“Are you ready, Countess?” Harran grinned at me.

“Of course, Chieftain,” I smirked and struck first. “To disarm?”

“As you like it,” his block was quick and strong and he shoved me back. “You can do better than that.”

“I’m trying not to bruise your pretty face before your wedding,” I grinned. He laughed. I swerved out and landed a hit against his chest. He retaliated with two against my arm.

The fight was perfect, and I was glad that I’d spent the trip working with Tristan. Before that training I would not have been able to keep up.

“Do you think your son sees your shame?” He teased, as I fumbled my spear and recovered. John stirred in my belly.

“I know your bride sees yours,” I countered. I heard Brea laugh from the side.

“She does indeed,” she called out and winked at me when I met her eyes. “No true shame to lose to The Champion, my love.”

“Who’s losing?” Harran grinned back. I struck hard against his staff, and knocked it free, and knocked him on his back.

“Yield?” I said. He sighed.

“Yield,” he shrugged. The crowd cheered and I laughed helping him up. “It’s brutal when you do that.” I laughed.

“You shouldn’t have invoked my son,” I grinned, “he got his blood up too.” Harran laughed.

“Fierce like your mama,” he pressed his hands against my belly. “Eh, Little One?” Brea walked over. “No shame?”

“Well, some,” she grinned. “I thought you’d last a little longer.” He smiled. “Countess, your boy makes me strong. I think your girl did too.” I smiled.

“Maybe,” I said.

“She’s special, your Calla,” Brea said as we walked back towards the keep. “If she were of our people my sister and I would be training her already.” I looked at her.

“Really?” I said. She nodded. “She’s too young.” Harran looked at me and Brea shrugged.

“For your Masteros and Sisters, maybe,” she nodded. “But a witch isn’t a Mastero or a sister or even a Chosen like you or your queen, or Marina. There’s more instinct to it, so you have to learn young.” Harran looked at her.

“I’ll talk to her father,” I said. Brea nodded and they walked away. I found my way to our room and saw Aaron and Calla sitting on the bed, playing a counting game. I leaned against the frame and Aaron looked at me.

“Did you win?” He asked. I shrugged. “Oh good, you’d be insufferable if you hadn’t.” I frowned at him and came and sat with them. “What is it?” He asked.

“Calla,” I said gently to my daughter, “if Lady Nika and Lady Brea wanted to teach you things, would you want to learn?”

“What?” Aaron said. I looked at him and nodded.

“What kinds of things?” She asked. “Duchess Marina said she’ll teach me hiding places when we go back to Dovetail.” I smiled. “And Uncle Tristan taught me about horses.”

“Yes,” I smiled, “I don’t know exactly, but while we’re here and in Westran, you’ll listen closely to them?” She nodded and stood up.

“May I go find Lady Nika and ask her?” Calla said excitedly. I nodded with a smile and she rushed off. Aaron looked at me.

“What is this?” He asked gently. “Is our daughter a witch?”

“Brea seems to think so,” I shrugged. “I’d rather she learn than go around in a veil of despair and fear like Marina did.”

“There were a few other factors at play there than her not knowing her power,” Aaron pointed out, “but that’s fair.” I smiled. “I suppose it makes sense. It isn’t as though her perception ever felt like what Lisette was like at that age.” I nodded. “I’m sorry we didn’t come down to watch.”

“It’s alright,” I said. “I did well though.”

“I never doubted,” he grinned. “And John?” I laughed.

“Oh he was fierce,” I smiled. “He’ll be a warrior.”

“Hm,” Aaron sighed, “a witch and a warrior. We’ll need a third, because I really do need another farmer.” I laughed and kissed him.

“One at a time, my love,” I said. He nodded. “Did she say Marina was going to teach her hiding places?”

“Oh yes,” he nodded. “Mercy too apparently.” I sighed and shook my head. “Come here,” he whispered and pulled me into his arms. “Can you settle now?”

“I suppose so,” I said, “for a while.” He kissed my neck. “Aaron,” I mumbled.

“I am sorry I missed it,” he muttered, “I like watching you fight, Thena.” I giggled and wrapped my arms around his neck.

“Do you let me win?” I asked. He raised his eyerbows.

“Never,” he said. “I’m a terrifically bad sport, you know that.” I smiled. “I’ve never been able to beat you. I’ve come close but it’s very frustrating.”

“Mm,” I nodded, “very?” I slid my hand down and started stroking him.

“Tremendously,” he whispered. I nodded. “Almost as frustrating as a wife who’s distracted because she thinks she’s not the greatest warrior to ever live anymore. When she very clearly is.”

“The greatest,” I mumbled and kissed him. He rolled me onto my back and pressed into me.

“The greatest,” he repeated. “Fiercest, strongest, and most beautiful to ever live. Annessa herself would stand and tremble at Athena Dugarry, Countess of Pantona.” I giggled. He was teasing me but I loved him for it.



I marched into Tristan and Carolina’s tent and saw her sitting at a desk working on a letter while my brother sat cleaning his sword.

“Caro, I’m sorry to ask,” I said, she looked at me.

“Stay where you are,” Tristan said. Caro rolled her eyes.

“Honestly, the two of you,” she said. “Athena it’s none of your business.” I blinked at her. “I’m assuming you’re talking about whatever it was that happened this morning.”

“I well, yes,” I stuttered.

“Well, I’m tired as hell of talking about it,” she said. “We can all talk about it for five more years it won’t change anything,” Tristan walked over and put his arms around Carolina and kissed her gently. I realized I was seeing inside of something that I hadn’t before.

“I’m sorry,” I said softly. “But Tristan I do need to,” he glared at me.

“I’ll only be a moment,” Tristan said, and Caro sighed, “come on, Athena.” We walked out of the tent. “She’s right it’s none of your business.”

“I know that,” I said.

“It doesn’t affect you,” he shrugged, “it affects me, and Lisette. And Prior and Caro. But it has nothing to do with you.” I sighed. “I know you love me, I know you worry, but Thena, you can’t interfere in my marriage, it’s going poorly enough right now.”

“You’re right,” I sighed.

“I know I am,” he said. “Wait, what?”

“You asked to train Althea.” He nodded. “Why?”

“Because I want Calla to be safe,” he said. “And because then I could be home.”

“But what you do is important,” I said.

“What I do is important, but it’s not working and it’s what you’re supposed to do.” He shrugged. “Which is probably why it isn’t working. What’s gotten into you?” I exhaled.

“Harran has been helping,” I said. He nodded. “I’ve been doing nothing, and I couldn’t keep up with any of you today, and,” I exhaled, he smirked. “Don’t do that.”

“You think that you’re going to lose to Harran,” he said. I groaned. “And that is unacceptable.”

“Obviously,” I crossed my arms, “I lost to Annalise, she hasn’t beaten me ever. I nearly lost to Aaron last week, Tristan. Aaron.”

“Honestly, you have gotten sloppy, and he probably just let you win because he’s your husband and he loves you.” He said. I whacked him in the arm. “You want to train?” I nodded. “Just with me?”

“Martin is allowed too,” I said. He nodded and frowned. “And explain to Caro? I don’t want her thinking I’m trying to get involved in,” I gestured, “all of that. I’m on your side.” He nodded and hugged me.

“I know,” he said. “I’m sorry we jumped to conclusions. I should have assumed that it was actually all about you, it usually is.” I punched him again. “Lisette has gotten very good though. She’s always been fast, but she was like lightning today.”

“If she beats me again I’ll start taking it out on recruits,” I mumbled. My brother grinned at me.

“I have no doubt,” he said. “Good night Athena.” I sighed and returned to our tent and saw Aaron playing on the ground with Calla. She had two dolls, one dressed in a guard uniform and the other in a fine dress with a crown on.

“What have we here?” I asked bending down.

“Well,” Aaron smiled, “it seems that this guard and this princess are off to hunt shadows.”

“No, Papa,” Calla said, exasperated, “they’ve returned home from hunting shadows.” I laughed. “The Princess destroyed more of them and the guard is very put out.” I smiled. I wonder if the gods have made my daughter

“I see,” I nodded, “I think it may be time for you to go to sleep, Little One.” She yawned and nodded. I picked her up and lay her down on her cot next to the bed. “Do you like life at camp?”

“It’s very exciting,” she pondered. I nodded. “Mama, am I to live at Dovetail with Aunt Annalise now?”

“Where ever did you get that idea?” I asked tucking her in. “Of course you aren’t. You’ll be with us. Sometimes in Dovetail, and sometimes at Pantona, sometimes in camp like this.” She nodded.

“I only thought,” she said with another yawn, “as I’m her heir and the new baby.” I laughed.

“No Duck,” Aaron said sitting with her, “we are very proud of you for being so brave about become Aunt Annalise’s heir, but we’re a family, the three of us and the baby.” She nodded and snuggled in to fall asleep, her thumb in her mouth. Aaron looked at me and we walked inside.

“How is Tristan?” He asked. I looked at him.

“He agreed to help me train again,” I said softly. “What about him though?” Aaron followed my hands to my belly.

“Marina and Elodie said he was strong,” he said, “he ought to train too.” I laughed. “Have you thought of names? Do you want Alexander?” I sighed.

“No,” I said, “my father maybe? We don’t have another John.” He nodded.

“Alright then,” he said, “John it is.” I kissed him gently. “You know I want what you want.”

“I do,” I said softly. “I just wish I could decide what that was, right now.” He nodded and tightened the hug.

The Mandate


Althea and Calla sat on the floor watching Baby Carlo play after dinner. They seemed amused by him, certainly more than Calla had been that afternoon. I glanced at Alex, talking with Olivia a few times, he met my eyes and I stood up and walked outside onto the terrace.

“Did you know I asked Uncle Trey for permission to court you?” Alex said. I looked over my shoulder.

“What?” I laughed. He smiled.

“I was fifteen, I think,” he said. “So you would have been, thirteen?” I nodded. “And you were dazzling, even then. I had a whole plan, for how it would consolidate the family’s power, fully unite the Dumanis with the guard.”

“What did Trey say?” I smirked.

“That if I could beat you with a sword, I was welcome to try, but that would be what it would take,” he laughed. I smiled. “So I moved on.”

“To Caro,” I said. He nodded. “And then Emily.”

“I was powerless, when I realized I loved Emily,” he sighed. “I hated myself for it. I hated myself for hurting Caro and leaving her open to ridicule. I hated myself for giving up on loving you. That was my plan you know, like something from a novel, I would love you, while doing my duty while you became a countess.”

“Why are you telling me this?” I asked him.

“Because we don’t always get to choose, Athena,” he said softly. “I know you don’t like it. I know there’s too much Dugarry in you, too much of Martin,” she looked down. “But Calla is a part of this family, you are a part of this family.” She nodded.

“Calla may be Queen of Cammadan,” I said simply, “she will be Countess of Pantona.” He nodded. “She isn’t a Dumanis, Alex, and her future isn’t yours or Uncle Trey’s or Grandfather’s, or even mine to dictate. She’ll make her own way.”

“And what has that attitude gotten all of us?” He said. “Anton married Marie, making his own way, and it lead to estrangement from her homeland, our closest neighbor, it lead to Brayton’s rage and their deaths and over a decade of destruction.” I stared ahead at the mountain. “We won’t survive something like that again.”

“Our family?” I said. He looked at me.

Cammadan,” he said. “Annalise’s control is precarious, everyone knows it. She has no allies outside the country besides Harran,” I swallowed. “Her stubborness regarding her marriage, and Marina’s? Naming your and Aaron’s child her heir? These aren’t the choices of someone who is thinking long term, or outside of herself.” I looked at him.

“You don’t understand,” I shook my head.

“Maybe not,” he said. “But I can’t imagine what I’m missing out of the picture.” I sighed. “Tell me what I’m missing.” I looked at him.

“You’re missing the mandate. You’re missing that none of the politics matter if we don’t free the gods, if Amina comes and we can’t stop the shadows, if we can’t free the gods, it won’t matter that Otto of Failon was insulted that Marina wouldn’t marry him, or Daniel of Phania thinks he’s too high for us. It won’t matter, Alex,” I said. “Because we’ll all be dead, the world will fall into darkness. Annalise has to follow her heart because if she isn’t free to, she’ll be blind to the path she needs to go down. Marina can’t solidify an alliance with another throne because she has to be at her side. My daughter has to be Annalise’s heir so that my bond to Cammadan’s home soil is maintained if I fall in battle, so that Cornan can stand against his sister for his chosen home.” He stared at me terrified. “You’re missing the mandate, Alex, you’re forgetting the gods.” He looked down. “Don’t do it again.” I turned away and walked inside and wiped my eyes.

It was the first time I’d said it out loud and I felt like I’d cut my wrists open. I slipped past the group and into the same small lobby where Marina had bound the three of us years ago.

“Athena?” She walked in, all of her serenity focused on me. Sometimes it was just frustrating, but right now it felt soothing. “What’s wrong?”

“It’s nothing,” I said, “just, it’s been a long day.” She smiled and sat down with me. “It was all supposed to be over by now.”

“I know,” she said softly.

“I yelled at Alex,” I said. She smiled. “It’s not his fault though.”

“I don’t think it’s anyone fault, Thena,” she whispered. “Maybe Brayton’s or Amina’s.” I smiled. “I know you’re worried.”

“I was worried five years ago,” I said. “I’m terrified now, it’s paralyzing, Marina.” She nodded. “I don’t want to leave behind a broken world for Calla and this one,” I said, my hand on my belly.

“I know that,” she said. She sat down. “None of us do.” I looked at her. “I have visions sometimes,” I nodded, “of other threads, and there’s a few,” she looked down, “I have son. With Brayton.”

“What?” I stood up.

“It’s over and over,” she explained, “A little boy, with grey Dovetail eyes and curls like mine and my father’s smile.” I blinked at her. “And he’ll never exist, not in this world.” She hugged herself. “And that’s what I’m fighting for, I’m fighting so that he never exists. And so that your children will be safe and whole.” I nodded. “You aren’t the only one who’s paralyzed by terror at what we have to do.”

“Marina,” I said softly. “I’m sorry, I didn’t,” she shook her head.

“No it’s alright,” she whispered. “I’ve never talked about it before. With anyone. I wrote it in a letter to Damian once, and then burned it before I could send it.” Her knees were curled to her chest. “Caro is miserable because she can’t have a baby. Elodie and I treat women who’ve lost their’s all the time and I am fighting so that my little boy is never born and the world stays whole for yours.”

“My boy,” I whispered. She nodded. “How long have you known?” She laughed.

“Just now when I said it,” she shrugged. “It isn’t particularly precise, that magic.” I laughed. “But yes, you’re carrying a boy, it seems very obvious now.” I smiled.

“My boy,” I whispered softly. She nodded. “I’m sorry.” She shrugged. “You don’t want to have Brayton’s child?”

“No,” Marina said, “no, because that would require many terrible things.” She looked sad. “I would like to have a child. Nika doesn’t, and I have no idea what Damian,” she looked down. “And he has my father’s smile.” I wrapped my arm around her.



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.



“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


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.



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.”



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


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.”