Brave

Marina

I stood beside Nika a few steps behind Harran and Brea as their parents approached. Nika had her shoulders squared, and her face was placid.

I try to be understanding about Nika’s relationship with her parents, but having been only hovered over and adored by my father, their cool treatment of her and clear favoritism of Brea has always seemed strange to me. But Nika has asked me to support her and I will.

“Chief Walkin,” Harran smiled as their father stepped forward, “and Lady Anaia,” their mother, who eyed me sharply. I looked down. “Welcome.”

“Chieftan,” Anaia said with a smile, “Brea, love,” she kissed Brea on the cheek. “And Nika,” she moved to Nika. “Duchess.” She looked at me.

“Mama,” Brea said, slipping her arm through hers, “isn’t it lovely that they got here so quickly. They only arrived this morning.”

“We had thought we’d arrive before you,” Chief Walkin said as we all moved inside the keep. Nika nodded. “You look well, Nika.”

“Thank you Papa,” Nika said, her eyes downcast. Brea was babbling about something for the wedding in a few days and Anaia was nodding along.

“Is your cousin here as well, Duchess?” Walkin asked me.

“Yes,” I said, my throat dry. “But she is resting, I think. She hates long rides in full court. I prefer them because we move slower, the faster riding is what exhausts me.”

“Rina,” Nika raised an eyebrow at me. I clamped my mouth closed. I realized I was babbling. “Her Majesty offerred to perform the ceremony but Brea insisted on Mama.” I smiled softly at her.

“I would hope so,” Walkin said and moved past us. Nika exhaled as he left. I took her hand and squeezed it.

“That wasn’t so bad,” I said cheerfully. She looked at me.

“I suppose not,” she said. “Thank you.” I nodded.

“I’m sorry I was babbling,” I sighed, “I know your father hates idle chat.” She laughed.

“It’s alright,” she sighed and we walked to our room. “I’m glad we got here before them.” She fell back on the bed.

“You should go spend time with them,” I said. She looked at me.

“They won’t notice,” she said. I lay down with her again. I kissed her softly. She wrapped her arms around me. “We shouldn’t.”

“I’m not the one who doesn’t want to,” I pointed out. She exhaled. “I love you. I can’t imagine they don’t love you too.”

“They do love me,” she whispered, “they just don’t see me.”

“I see you,” I whispered and pressed my forehead to hers.

“Nika!” Brea ran in breathlessly. “Why does everyone keep disappearing on me?” Nika sat up and looked at her sister. “Mama is insisting we go over the ceremony.”

“Why?” Nika said. “We’ve all done it a hundred time.” She rolled her eyes.

“I don’t know, it’s Mama being crazy,” she threw her hands up. She glanced at me with a smirk. “Was I interrupting?”

“Of course not,” I mumbled and straightened my gown. “Do you need any help?” Brea smiled gently at me.

“No,” she said. “Thank you though. I look forward to when you two go through this.” She grabbed Nika’s hand and pulled her up. “Come on.” I laughed as Nika groaned following her sister out of the room. I flopped back again and took a few deep breaths. Stolen kisses were becoming more common, but we hadn’t had sex since that first night she’d asked me to pretend.

I missed it. I missed touching her.

“Excuse me,” Calla’s small voice came from the door. I sat up and looked at her.

“Yes, Lady Calla,” I said. She walked over to me.

“Do you know where my Papa is? Aunt Annalise and Chieftain Harran sent me to find him, but I cannot find him.”

“Perhaps we should look for him together,” I said and stood up taking her hand. She nodded and we walked out. “How do you like the keep?” She smiled.

“There are so many hiding places, I’m guessing,” she said. I laughed. “I found some good ones today, but Lady Mercy said I oughtn’t hide from everyone now that I’m the heir.” I knelt down.

“May I tell you a secret?” I said. She nodded. “Lady Mercy knows the best hiding places at the Palace in Dovetail. When she and I were small we hid all the time. Your Uncle Tristan knows good ones too.” She giggled. “But yes, you ought to stay in sight while we’re here. The Keep is very old and has a lot of secrets.” She nodded seriously.

“When you and my mama and Uncle Tristan were small,” she said, “you hid?” I nodded.

“I did,” I said softly, “and your Uncle Tristan and Lady Mercy. But never your Mama, she thought it was stupid.” She giggled. “Why do you hide?”

“Everyone is big,” she said. I nodded. “And loud, and I want to be brave, like Mama. But sometimes,” she sighed. “It’s just scary.”

“I know,” I said softly. “But there are lots of ways to be brave. Your Mama and Aunt Annalise are brave when they fight. But don’t you think it’s scary for your Papa and Me, to take care of all the people in our Provenance, and our family?” She nodded. “It’s big, and that’s scary. But doing it is brave. So while we’re here, you’ll practice being brave.” She hugged me. “And when we get back to Dovetail, I’ll show you all the hiding places.” She nodded.

“Your Grace,” she said softly, “what if I can’t,” I hugged her close.

“You can,” she whispered. “We’re all here to show you how.” She nodded. “Come on,” I picked her up. “We’ll find your Papa now.”

The Bruise

Marina

I was sitting quietly writing as we’d settled in for the night when Nika walked into my tent. She looked unsettled.

“What are you doing here?” I asked. She frowned.

“I have to ask you a favor,” she said.

“Alright,” I smiled. She was being overly serious. It made me want to tease her terribly, but I knew it wasn’t my place anymore. “What’s the favor?”

“When we arrive at the keep,” she frowned. “I need you to pretend we’re still together.” I gaped at her.

“You want to lie?” I said. She nodded. “About us? That’s not like you.”

“I know,” she said, “But I can’t do it. I can’t go through this wedding and these visits, with my sister and parents, having abandoned my people, my duty to them for a love that failed.” I stood up and went and held her hands. “So perhaps we could simply, pretend?”

“Of course,” I said quietly. “Or we could,” I choked on the words. I missed her. “We could not pretend, we could be together again.”

“No,” she whispered, “no, I can’t,” she swallowed, “I can’t do that anymore.” I nodded, trying to understand.

“I am so sorry, Nika,” I whispered, “I wish I were different, I do.” She put her hands around my face.

“I don’t,” she said, “oh, I would never wish you were different. I love you.” We kissed softly. “I just know you don’t love me, and I can’t take it anymore.” I pressed my forehead to hers. “I thought I could live with it, I really did. I thought that you wanting me, and me loving you and us having our life together would be enough.”

“I do love you,” I whispered.

“You love me as you love Annalise and Athena,” she whispered, “as your friend, and compatriot, but you don’t love me the way I love you, the way you love Lefty and Tristan.” I swallowed. “It’s alright, I made peace with it a long time ago, I just can’t do it anymore.” I nudged my nose against hers.

“Come to bed,” I whispered. She sighed. “Let me show you how I love you.”

“Sex isn’t love, Marina,” she said. “I never doubted you wanted me, or how good our sex was.” I blushed a little. “I think it might be the only way I am above the others in your estimation.” I laughed. “I mean, I have no doubt both Tristan and Lefty are both satisfactory lovers, the way you whimpered that it had never been like this our first time, was quite gratifying.”

“Alright, fine,” I sighed throwing up my hands. “Sex isn’t love, but you could still come to bed.” I took her hand and led her back.

“Rina,” she whispered.

“Nika,” I smiled and kissed her. “I miss you.” She sighed. “You won’t even talk to me.”

“I have nothing left to say,” she whispered. “What happened today?” I looked at her. “With Annalise?” I sighed.

“I suggested that you and Prior form a club,” I teased. She laughed. “Everyone saw, is all that happened.”

“Poor Carolina,” Nika said softly. I nodded. She took one of my curls around her finger. “Poor you.” I smiled.

“I’ll survive it,” I said. She nodded. “You’re wrong you know. I do love you.” She sighed and looked at me. “I’d have died without you, Nika. You saved me from despair a hundred times these past four years.” She kissed me.

“So you’ll save me this time?” She whispered. I nodded.

“I’ll be perfect,” I said and kissed her. “I might even fool you into taking me back.” She rolled her eyes and onto her back, I straddled her.

“Rina,” she warned, but there was a laugh in her voice. I grinned down at her and we kissed. “This is not going to be a regular occurrence.”

“Absolutely not,” I said, unwinder her veil and running my hands over her hair. “Only tonight.” I kissed down her neck and opened her robe, then down her breasts. “I will be perfectly behaved.”

“Mm,” she exhaled, letting her arms drift over her head. I took her breast into my mouth and sucked gently. “Oh gods,” she exhaled. I wanted to make her shake and moan, worship her body.

I traced kisses down her belly to her sex and licked and kissed gently. She inhaled and then let out a moaning sigh. She tasted so sweet. The tiny hitches in her breath, as I tasted her, pleasured her, everything about Nika is so controlled, except here, except with me.

“Marina,” she lifted her hips. “Oh, my love,” I pulled back and looked at her.

“Let go,” I whispered, working my fingers into her. “Just be with me.” I kissed her and she pulled me close as she came on my hand.

“Rina,” she mumbled as I slid beside her and held her. “We can’t.” I kissed her hair.

“I know,” I said softly. “But I want you.” She rested her head against me.

“You’re spoiled,” she mumbled. I laughed. “Getting everything you want.”

“You love me,” I whispered and then kissed her.

“Unfortunately for me,” she rolled over in mock submission. “Yes, I do.” I slid into her arms and she pulled me close. “It hurts, so much, Rina.”

“I know,” I said. “I want to make it stop hurting.”

“You can’t,” Nika said gently. “You’re the bruise and being with you is just pressing on it.” I understood now.

“You’ll have to tell them eventually,” I whispered. She sighed. “Brea might even guess.”

“Brea will not guess,” she said, “Brea won’t be able to see five feet in front of her. Brea is about to marry Harran, which is everything she’s wanted since she was five years old. That this is the only thing that matters to Brea right now.” I laughed.

“She once told me that she knew many curses that would make me wish I’d never been born,” I said softly, “if anything ever happened to you, if I ever hurt you.” She looked at me.

“Really?” She said. I nodded. “Brea doesn’t actually know any curses.” She paused. “I don’t think so at least.” I laughed and kissed her.

“I’d really rather not risk it,” I smiled. She pulled me into her lap.

“Then stop hurting me,” she grinned. I sighed.

“I am trying,” I whispered and kissed her again.

“I know you are,” she said. “You’ll do this for me?” I nodded. “Thank you.”

Proud

Marina

“And then I’m going to anoint you,” I said going over the ceremony for Raymond’s Mastero vows. He was the first in nearly twenty years to do it. “Rose oil and mud mixed from the soil of the valley.”

“You anoint me with mud?” Raymond said. I shrugged. “Cornan’s so weird.” I laughed. “Then I say the vow, ‘I am at the service of the gods and their knowledge in this world, blah blah blah,” I nodded. “And then I’m a Mastero.”

“And then you’re a Mastero,” I said and smiled at him. He sighed. “We’re all very proud of you. I’m sure Eric and Damian are too.” He smiled.

“Will your father come?” He asked. I smiled. Papa was already on his way.

“It was meant to be a surprise,” I stood up. He laughed. “Evan is worried.”

“About me?” He said. I nodded.

“He said you’ve been Dreaming,” I explained. “More violently than usual.”

“Oh,” he said softly, “that.” I sighed.

“Yes,” I matched his tone. “That.” He sighed.

“It’s nothing new, the wheel, the two of them screaming. Karina on a throne engulfed in flames,” he sighed. “I’m supposed to help her but I don’t know how.”

“We’ll both help her,” I assured him. He nodded. “I’m a little jealous,” I admitted, “before the other week with the shadow, I hadn’t Dreamed in months.” He squinted at me.

“You don’t miss it?” He was disbelieving. I shrugged. “Gods, Marina, I thought we all hated it.” I smiled. “Have you and Nika made up yet?”

“No,” I said softly, “I don’t think we will honestly.” I sat down again. “I keep thinking about Damian. How much I miss him, and how he wouldn’t have been angry at me,” I frowned.

“You’re deluding yourself if you think Lefty finding you half dressed with Tristan Dugarry wouldn’t make him the angriest person to ever live,” Raymond said. “I know it’s been four years, but have you completely forgotten what he’s like, especially when it comes to you?”

“He wouldn’t!” I argued. “I mean he did, not the half dressed part. And I wasn’t half dressed that night,” I looked at him. “He was very understanding.” I crossed my arms.

“You’re romanticizing because you miss him,” Raymond said, slowly, as if talking to a child. I glared at him. “If you walked into a room, and saw Elaine Addison draped over Lefty, him whispering to her, you wouldn’t care?” I glared at him.

“I once walked into Lisette’s bedroom and she was riding Tristan while naked,” I pointed out. “And all it did was make me laugh.”

“I’m not talking about Tristan,” he said. “I’m definitely not talking about Tristan and Annalise. I’m talking about the person you love and gave your whole self to, with the person who you worry they’ve given more to.” I looked down. “Nika gave up her whole world, to be with you. And she left you, and now you’re here talking about someone else.”

“Stop being so damn wise,” I grumbled, “it’s annoying.” He laughed. “You’re wrong.” He said.

“Maybe,” he said, “but you never gave in to her, the way she did to you, because you’ve just been waiting. Waiting to find the gods, or Brayton, or for Lefty to come back.” I looked him. “But Nika gave up her life for you, you should be sensitive to that.” I looked at him.

“Do you feel that way?” I asked. He shrugged.

“Sometimes?” He admitted. “I could have gone home, been with my family, with Lefty and Eric and I wouldn’t have Evan, or you or have become a mastero,” he shrugged. “But I’d be safer, in ways.” I rested my head on his shoulder.

“I’m so proud of you,” I said softly. He nodded. “Do you know the thing I hate Brayton from taking me from the most?” He looked at me. “I hate that he took you and Lisette from me. I hate him for it, more than anything else. We could have grown up together, we could have had inside jokes and played and known each other better than anyone.” She exhaled. “And he took that from us. He took it when he killed Lisette’s parents, when he imprisoned my father and refused to let him take us back to Phania. Over and over again.” He looked at me. “He took so much, but the thing I hate him for the most was taking that from the three of us, what we could have had, what we could have been.”

“I’ve never thought about that,” he admitted. “I wish we’d grown up together too.” I sighed. “Have you tried apologizing to her?”

“Yes,” I mumbled. “She won’t even talk to me.” I frowned. “Some of the people arguing against Calla today,” I shook my head, “I had no idea that they were on my side. How could I not know that?”

“I don’t know,” he said, “They probably aren’t, they probably just hate Aaron.” I laughed. “I’m going to be a Mastero, Marina. When I came here, I thought I had no future. And now I’m a Mastero. We can change anything, we’re not bound to fate.”

“I know,” I smiled and hugged him. “I’m proud of you, like I said, I don’t think I’ll ever say it enough.”

The Heir

Marina

Nika has moved her things out of my rooms. She didn’t speak to me while she did it, and I didn’t insult her by acting like I didn’t know why.

But it still hurt.

Now I’m sitting in council and listening to them argue about Calla. Annalise is taking it well, Aaron looks furious. I don’t blame him, every comment feels like a backhanded insult to him and his father.

“Of course no one can deny your family’s sacrifice and bravery, in taking the princess in, Count,” Elliot Frears said languidly, “but surely, The Queen’s own blood line is more suitable.”

“My cousin and I do not share blood on our Cammadie side,” I piped up. Annalise looked at me. “It makes no difference to me.” He scowled. “I am in full support of The Queen’s choice for Lady Calla, please do not consider my feelings in the situation.”

Aaron smirked.

“So it’s settled then?” Annalise rose. Everyone joined her and nodded. “Good, Count, Duchess come with me and we’ll discuss how to handle things moving forward.” We walked out into her private office and she collapsed. “Thank the Goddess that’s over.” She groaned. I laughed and poured myself a cup of tea.

“It always amazes me,” Aaron grumbled, “If my father wanted the throne so damn badly why would he have raised you as my sister? Makes no damn sense.” I laughed. “I am glad it’s settled though, and thank you.”

“It’s really a relief to me too,” I smiled at him. “What do you want from me? For Calla?” He sighed.

“She should be here more, but I can’t be away from Pantona more than I am,” Aaron sighed.

“She should go to Brightcoast too,” Annalise said. “Perhaps not this summer, but next.” I nodded. “Do you want to hand the household over to her, when she’s old enough?”

“That doesn’t need to be decided now,” I said, “I rather like running the household honestly.” Aaron laughed.

“That doesn’t surprise me,” he said, Athena walked in. “Hello dearest, how is your family?” She scowled at him.

“Oh no,” Annalise sighed, “what did they have to say?”

“Oh nothing particular,” Athena muttered, “apparently Reiniere wants to marry Marina after his father dies. Congratulations.”

“Goddess,” I murmured and sipped my tea, “a guaranteed proposal from someone I’ve never met, my very favorite thing.” Annalise snorted. “I appreciate your fury on my behalf Athena, but this is hardly unprecedented.”

“Then they started talking about contigencies,” she sighed, “involving Calla.”

“Oh,” Annalise said. Aaron sighed.

“I’m sorry love,” he said and kissed her forehead. “It isn’t as though they don’t know how you feel about it all.” She nodded.

“I’m just so tired of it,” she said. “I’d prefer an open fight to all of this.” I smiled at her. “I’m sorry Rina, really.”

“It’s alright,” I shrugged. “I made my decisions. This would all be settled if I’d simply gone to Vacana and married Kieran Franz. The fact that he’s disgusting and Damian would probably murder him halfway through the ceremony would have been a bit of a hindrance but it would have made all of your lives easier.” Everyone laughed.

“You would be a lovely queen of Rastan,” Annalise kissed me on the forehead. “Though I think I’d prefer Failon. Otto at least bothered to come here.” I laughed. “At least the debate about Calla as my heir is settled.”

“Yes,” I said with a smile, “will there be a ceremony. I didn’t have one, but that was a bit different.”

“She’s three,” Athena reminded us. “I think simply having her beside you whenever you hold court will suffice.” I smiled. “I doubt she could make it through a ceremony without wiggling.”

“Good,” Annalise said, “I’m glad that’s settled. Marina,” she looked at me, “we have to meet with seamstresses about Westran.”

“I have to go to the University,” I shook my head, “speaking of ceremonies, we have to plan Raymond’s vows.” She exhaled. “Not that I wouldn’t rather watch you stare at fabric samples.” She rolled her eyes. “Mercy will be there, she’ll do better than me anyway.”

“Calla is going to demand constant service from Althea, by the way,” Athena grinned. I laughed.

“Imagine having a little girl toddling after you demanding your attention all day long,” Aaron smirked, “sounds like a complete nightmare.” Athena sighed and looked at the two of us.

“It is a trial,” she teased. I shook my head.

“I didn’t bother you, I was too terrified,” I said.

“You bothered me plenty,” Athena said. I laughed. “Althea’s a good choice though. Elodie is in the guard, and it will help Mercy repair the damage done her family by her father.”

“Ooh, I’m going to use that,” Annalise said, “if Mercy puts up any resistance.”

“No faith in her,” I shook my head, “any of you. She’ll be thrilled.”

Patience

Marina

I was standing quietly as Bethany did up my laces and jumped hearing the voice.

“If you were more serene, you’d be an actual statue,” Tristan’s voice was flat. “Mistress Bethany.”

“Sir Tristan,” Bethany blushed. “Are you alright my lady?” I rolled my eyes.

“I am,” I said, “Thank you.” She nodded and bounced out. “What are you doing here?”

“Caro’s asleep,” he explained, ” andI barely got to see you before.” I nodded. “Is something wrong?”

“Of course not,” I said and pulled a dress over my head. “Do me up?” He nodded and walked over carefully strung the delicate pear buttons through their loops up my back. I suppressed a gentle shudder. That was behind us, and by the end of the night, my body might remember what my mind and heart knew. “It’s been a while since you saw me in my underthings is all.”

“True,” he nodded. “The view hasn’t changed much though.” I sighed and looked at him. “A bit more filled out, but pleasantly.”

“Tristan,” I said, “what in the name of Rana are you babbling about?” He looked at me and sighed.

“I need to talk to you about William Santino,” he said. I blinked oddly at him.

“About William?” I said. He nodded. “I haven’t spoken to William in,” I paused, “well, three years? When did he end his engagement? Stupid idea.” He raised his eyebrows. “What did you need to talk about?”

“What is appealing about him?” He asked. I laughed. “Rina, I’m serious.” I sat down with him.

“Something happened, between him and Caro?” I asked. He nodded. “Oh,” I leaned back, “I don’t think that I’ll be terribly helpful,” he looked at me, “I was fifteen Tristan!”

“You were sixteen when we were together,” he pointed out, “and when you met Lestoff.” I sighed.

“William is,” I exhaled, “attentive, I suppose is the right word. I’d spent so long sighing after you having someone pay attention to me was intoxicating.” He nodded. “And he knew how to kiss, and he was quite good with his hands,” I exhaled.

“Alright, enough,” Tristan sighed. “I don’t know what to do, Marina.” I looked at him. “I can’t hold it against her, I was away for so long, and well, there’s you, and Lisette,” I sighed.

“Poor Tristan,” I said and rested my head on his chest. “Poor Carolina.” He laughed and kissed my hair.

“I missed you so much, love,” he said.

“I wish I could help you more.” I said. I listened to his breath rise and fall. The door opened and I shot up as Nika walked in, her eyes narrowed. “Nika,” I said and walked over to her. “I thought that the blessing,” my voice felt feeble, and she looked unbearably hurt.

“It was fewer people than anticipated,” she said, “Commander.” She seethed at Tristan.

“Lady Nika,” he said softly, his voice full of shame, he straightened his coat. “I’ll see you both at dinner.”

“Tristan,” I said gently as he walked out. Nika looked at me. “He was asking me for advice.”

“And you needed to be in his arms to provide it?” She snapped. I frowned at her.

“Nothing happened, nor will it,” I said and reached for her hands, but she pulled them away.

“I don’t ask much of you,” she muttered, “but I won’t be made a fool of. Aside from that, it’s cruel, to Carolina, to Annalise, to each other.”

“We were talking,” I said. She rolled her eyes. “You’re being unfair.”

“It’s always just talking,” she shouted. I swallowed, “Or just a dance, or too long a glance at dinner, or just a touch,” she exhaled. “There’s no just about it, and I’m sick of pretending it doesn’t happen.”

“I don’t want Tristan.” She laughed. “I don’t, it’s the past, I can’t erase it, but it isn’t,” I inhaled, “I don’t, not anymore.”

“Now you’re just lying, my love,” she said. I swallowed. “Of course you want him,” I stared her down, her amber eyes dancing with fire. “Don’t pretend one hurried night quenched a lifetime of flames.” She turned around and left. I swallowed and sat down.

She wasn’t wrong. I did want him, desperately sometimes. But it didn’t matter. Nika was right, it was cruel. I looked in the mirror, straightened my gown and wiped my tears. I walked over to the Princess tower, where everything had been set for dinner.

“Marina,” Carolina rushed over to me and took my hands and kissed me on the cheek. I suddenly felt like my stomach had been ripped out. “I’m sorry I rushed off before, the last leg of the journey disagreed with me.”

“Nothing to be sorry for,” I said with a smile. She nodded. “How are you feeling?” She sighed.

“Much the same,” she admitted. “But now jealous too.” She looked at Athena. I squeezed her hands. “It’s wrong I know, but,” she sighed. I looked at Nika across the room. “Marina, I,” she sighed, “he said he talked to you and I know what you’re thinking,” I smiled softly.

“No,” I said, “you don’t know what I’m thinking, but you must know that I of all people am in no position to judge you.” She smiled. “And you have Calla.” She nodded with a sad smile.

“I do, and I adore her,” she whispered. “Nika seemed to have a storm cloud over her head when she came in.”

“I think she’s reached the end of her patience,” I sighed. “She’s not as good as you at hiding it.” Carolina laughed.

“It takes practice,” she admitted, “and a certain resignation to the facts.” I looked at her.

“I want so badly for it to be different,” I said.

“I know you do,” she kissed me on the cheek. “That’s why I can forgive it.”

Testing

Marina

It was dusk the next day, when I was sitting with Nika, Annalise and Evan in Raymond’s lab, to test a shadow against his new technique. Nika unwound her scarf a little and pressed her hands together.

“Are you two ready?” She looked at me. We nodded. If she lost control of the shadow, we’d have to harness it. Annalise picked up the block of obsidian and filled it with light and Nika’s pulled her hands apart and a shrieking shadow appeared. I flinched and Evan put his arm around me.

I’m grateful for him and his steady presence right now. I’ve never gotten used to shadows. Every single time we face one, I shudder, and right now hearing it’s voice hissing in my mind, it’s taking all my strength to not scream.

He’s coming for you, My Lady. His patience wears thin. I look forward to watching him bind you.

Annalise carefully pressed the brick into the shadow and it shrieked and broke up, Nika collapsed and looked pale, I ran to her and cupped her face.

“What did it say, my love?” I whispered. She looked at her.

“I betrayed her, abandoned them,” she sniffed. “The Dark Lady will make me pay for my arrogance.” I pressed my forehead to hers. “You?”

“He’s coming for me,” I whispered, “the shadows long for my binding.” She nodded and I kissed her. “You betrayed no one.”

“I would die before I let him take you,” she whispered. I nodded. I loved her so much. I would have died without her these past few years, I’m sure of it.

“Glad you’re both alright,” I turned hearing the singsong laugh in Annalise’s voice and then saw the beam of pride on Raymond’s face, “but more importantly, it worked!”

“It did,” Nika said, standing up. “It didn’t take too much out of you?” Annalise shook her head. “That’s good. When Athena gets here we should discuss weapon design.”

“Absolutely,” Raymond said. “But I think you two need to go lie down.” I nodded.

“Come on,” Evan said putting his hand gently on my shoulder. “I don’t think you should try to get back to the palace.” We walked carefully back to their little house and settled on a bed in their spare room.

I slept for a while in Nika’s arms, and found myself struck into a Dream. I shouldn’t have been surprised after dealing with magic all evening, but it’s still always jarring.

I was running through the black marble palace of Amina. I knew it as well as Dovetail now. I heard the laugh, Brayton’s cold, detached laugh.

Then I found a mirror and saw myself, dressed in white and vieled, a bride. I closed my eyes and opened them to Brayton behind me, his hands around my waist.

“Oh sweet one,” he whispered in my ear, “you’ll be mine so soon.” I woke with a start, and looked at Nika, glad I hadn’t woken her. I stood up and walked out into another room, where Evan was sitting with a book, and he smiled at me.

“A Dream?” He asked closing it. I nodded. “I felt the table rattle. I assumed it was one of you.” I laughed and sat down.

“It might be all of us,” I admitted, he poured me a glass of the wine he was drinking. “Thank you,” he looked at me.

“I’m worried about him,” he said softly. I nodded and took his hand. “Rina, I mean it. Not hearing from Karina or Lefty, his sister just repeating herself.”

“I know,” I said quietly, “but he’s working so hard, he’ll take vow soon.” Evan laughed.

“Yes, any day now,” he shook his head. “My father sent instructions for my council voting, I’m supposed to fight against Calla.” I bit my bottom lip.

“Does he have an alternative?” I asked. He sighed and pointed to himself. “Goddess.”

“Well, I’m also supposed to marry you, obviously, solidifying both of our claims,” he laughed darkly. “Are you interested? I don’t know how Raymond and Nika would feel, but I imagine the wedding itself would be fun.” I laughed and sipped my wine.

“Oh it would be very grand,” I nodded. “Raymond would perform it, I assume.” Evan nodded.

“If not the Queen herself,” he laughed. I smiled. “Of course, I imagine you’d get halfway through your vows and Damian Lestoff would simply appear, powered by pure anger.” I smiled.

“He would not be thrilled,” I shrugged, “but he’d prefer you to others, at least he’d still feel he could be my lover then.” He laughed. “If your father’s whole plan hinges on our marriage, I’m even less worried than I was before.”

“Mm,” Evan smiled. “He is predictable, and underwhelming. I think Prior being made consort is his backup.” I snorted.

“It’s more likely than us marrying, but not by much,” I sighed. “How does Prior feel about it?” Evan sighed.

“My cousin adores Annalise,” Evan admitted, “but if he has any hopes for the future, he keeps them to himself.” I nodded. “I’m worried about Raymond.” I sighed.

“I know,” I said, “I am too. And he’s worried about me, and Nika’s worried about you, and it goes around and around.”

“The wheel turns,” Evan nodded. I smiled at him. “The Border and Westran will be interesting.” I grinned.

“They usually are,” I said.

University

Marina

Growing up, I’d been a little afraid of The University in Dovetail. It stood empty, save for a few Black Guards coming and going. I was barred from getting too close, for once an order from my father rather than Brayton.

Since Annalise reopened it, I still keep my distance because I’d spend every possible moment there if I could. The Masteros that survived have done an incredible job bringing the place back to life, and it’s filling daily with eager students from all over the country, who want to learn to harness the odd talents that for most of their lives they had to pretend didn’t exist.

Raymond has been flourishing and is going to be finishing his studies and becoming a Mastero soon. I’m absurdly proud of him, and the life he’s built with Evan Allred, who also studies, but as his father’s heir cannot take Mastero vows.

“Marina!” Raymond said as I walked into his lab, a large sunny room that we’d designed to be as close to a sea base as possible. “I was wondering what took you so long.”

“I’m sorry,” I said, “I didn’t realize it was urgent.” He rolled his eyes. “Nika’s here.”

“Ah,” he nodded. “Understood, Prior showed up today too, so you and Annalise will both be useless.” I stuck out my tongue. “Here,” he shoved a large orb into my hands. It was smooth and dark. “Hold that.”

“Raymond,” I said, “what is this?”

“It’s obsidian,” he muttered, “Tristan brought some last time they were in Failan because I asked for it. I think it will help.” I raised my eyebrows, “fill the pores with light, if you please.” I exhaled and shot my power through the porous stone. “OK,” he mumbled and swept a small cloud of smoke around it, but it wouldn’t settle on the stone.

“Goddess,” I whispered. “Raymond, that’s incredible. Do you know if it will work with shadow?” He shrugged.

“I can’t conjure shadows,” he pointed out, “maybe Nika can help with that test? But I think so.”

“Obsidian weapons,” I mumbled, “wielded by soldiers with gifts, Athena is going to kiss you.” He laughed.

“Or even rangers where one partner has a gift and the other doesn’t,” he shrugged. “Or if I can figure out charging.” I laughed. “How are you?”

“I’m fine,” I said, repeating what I’d said to Annalise, to Nika, but Raymond knew better and frowned.

“I haven’t heard from them either and it’s worrying,” he muttered. “I tried writing to my sister, but it was just more platitudes about how until I am freed from my unfair holding, they can’t risk Eric’s safety and blah blah blah,” he frowned. “Sometimes I think I should go back, bring Evan, live openly. They couldn’t really stop me, not anymore.”

“No,” I said, “they couldn’t, but we’d miss you.” He smiled. “We’re having a dinner when everyone arrives nothing formal.” He groaned.

“What did you say to him?” Evan walked in. I laughed at him. “He usually only makes that noise when someone tries to come into the house.”

“You have to come to a dinner at the palace,” I raised my eyebrows.

“Oh, well he can survive that,” Evan laughed and rested his head on Raymond’s shoulder.

“I can’t,” Raymond mumbled.

“You will,” I said. “Also, you’re a genius.” He grinned at me. “Raymond, I,” I swallowed, “you’d tell me, wouldn’t you if something happened,” I exhaled, “I mean, if you knew he wasn’t alright?”

“Oh Rina,” Evan said softly, I was trembling and swallowed the tears in my throat. “I’m sure he’s alright.” He hugged me tightly. “Raymond, reassure her!” Raymond looked at me.

“I wouldn’t keep it from you,” he said gently. “My best guess is they’re in Rastan, honestly, with the news of the king’s health failing, Eric would want Karina and Kristoff’s engagement settled, and Katrin basically serves Karina the same way Lefty does, well did Eric.” I nodded.

“I’m sorry, I,” I swallowed, “I’ve been so worried and today Lisette was asking, and then Nika and, I can’t,” I swallowed, “I feel like I can’t breathe anymore.”

“I know,” he whispered, “it’s alright, it’s going to be alright.” I swallowed. “You should go home.” I frowned. “I mean it, you’ve been landlocked too long, I think you need the sea.”

“I can’t,” I hiccupped, “We have to go to Westran, for Brea and Harran’s wedding.” Evan frowned.

“I’m sure you can be excused from that,” Evan said. “If you need to be home.”

“I’m sure I can’t miss it,” I said, “it would be very insulting to the tribes, and the Witches in particular, and Nika’s whole family.” I wiped my nose. “I’ll be alright.” I kissed him on the cheek. “You ought to come tonight though, to see your cousin.”

“I seriously doubt Prior has any interest in speaking to me, but I’d like to see Nika, so I’ll come,” I kissed him on the cheek. Raymond looked at me. “He’ll come too.” I laughed.

Just The Way It Is

Marina

I walked into my office in the palace, to the eager greeting of my secretary, Bethany. She took my cloak and I settled in on a couch. I like working this way better than at a desk.

“What is most pressing today?” I asked her. She looked at a list in her hand.

“Well,” she said and sat down, “Your grace has several invitations.” I sighed.

“Decline them,” I said, “Lady Nika is in the city and I wish to spend the evening with her.” Bethany nodded.

“Adept Quents wishes to see you,” she said, “he asks if The Duchess can possibly join him at the lab in the university sometime this week, that is if her busy schedule allows.” I laughed. I did owe Raymond some attention. “And Her Majesty is wondering if there is a plan to welcome Sir Tristan and Lady Dugarry when they return from Pantona.” I swallowed.

Carolina had found Bethany for me. She was a merchant’s daughter who’d joined to guard to avoid marriage and found the life didn’t suit her. I had plenty to do, between running Annalise’s household, and managing Brightcoast, (though Papa did most of that.), continuing the frustrating negotiations with the Westran tribes to search the desert for The Great Wheel. Having someone to help me was nice.

“I’ll go to see Her Majesty in a bit to discuss the Dugarrys,” I said, “and I’ll go to see Adept Quents this afternoon.” She nodded. “Nothing from Phania?”

“No, Your Grace,” she said, “but there is one from your father.” I nodded and dismissed her. I hadn’t had a letter from Damian in months. I was a little worried. I usually hear from him every few weeks.

“Thank you,” I said gently. She nodded and stood up walking out. I closed my eyes and frowned, opening the stack of letters, and got to work answering them. Papa asking questions about what to do with the increased Guard presence at home. Feed them, keep them entertained. And our most important instruction. Watch to see if anyone has magic, then write to Raymond or Elodie. It’s what Tristan and Carolina are doing in Pantona, it’s what Papa is doing, it’s what the Norvine’s are doing.

We need magic users and we need them to be trained, and we need to know they’re loyal. It isn’t easy.

“Are you busy?” Annalise walked in a hidden door. I shook my head.

“You were on my list,” I said. She laughed and plopped down. “I think just a dinner for Caro and Tristan, you know they don’t like a fuss.” She rubbed her face. “Is it just them?”

“I think so,” Annalise frowned. “Aaron didn’t mention coming, not that I blame them, Calla should be at Pantona as much as possible, not here.” I disagreed. So did Athena.

“She’s a Dugarry too,” I said softly. Annalise frowned. “And your heir.”

“Until I have children, there’s not much for the next generation of Dugarrys.” She muttered. “And officially speaking, you are still my heir.” I sighed.

“Have you heard anything?” I asked softly. She shook her head. “When did he last,”

“Two years,” she said, “two years ago. An apology, freeing me, if you can imagine.” She’d never said anything. Not a word.

“Oh Lisette,” I said gently, “I’m sorry.” She sighed. “It’s been a few months.” I swallowed. “I’m worried.” I stood up and picked up a tea pot. Thank Rana for Bethany, who prepared it every morning, I poured myself a cup and offered it to Annalise who shook her head. “Raymond asked to see me today. He might know something.”

“Oh you mean our hostage,” she said, I laughed. “Nika arrived safely?” I nodded. “Alone?”

“I’m sure Brea is very busy,” I said. She rolled her eyes.

“I’m sure Harran is at his wit’s end,” she frowned. I nodded. Brea and Harran were getting married. Annalise wasn’t happy about it. I got the feeling that Harran was. “Rina,” she said softly, “I’m worried about you.” I smiled.

“Don’t be,” I said, “I’m tired is all.” She nodded. “When do you want to go west?” She sighed.

“When everyone comes here,” she said, “then we go west. And hopefully we can do some ranging.” I nodded.

“I hope so too,” I said, “Lisette, I’ve been thinking about Rastan,” I drifted off.

“Me too,” she said, “apparently the king is not doing well.” I nodded. “I’ll go when Ranier’s crowned.”

“Right,” I said. “Good meeting.” I said and stood up.

“Rina,” she said softly, “You’d tell me if something was wrong right?” I nodded.

“In what way?” I asked. “I haven’t had any Dreams out of the ordinary, or anything.” She nodded. “Have you?”

“Nothing new,” she admitted, “but still concerning.” I looked at her. “I worry about you.” I shook my head.

“Annalise, I cannot think of anything less likely to happen at this point in time than me pledging myself to Amina and joining Brayton.” I raised my eyebrows. “Among other things, when the hell would I do it?” She laughed at that. “I don’t hold it against you, you know.” She frowned. “I’d have wound up stranded in Phania if you’d let me go.”

“But you’d be with Lefty,” she said.

“But I wouldn’t be with you,” I said, “or my father, or Raymond, or Nika.” She smiled. “Anything else?” She shook her head and stood up and left.

I left my notes and walked back to my apartment, Nika was sitting on the couch with a book.

“You’re early!” I exclaimed and sat down with her. She laughed and kissed me.

“I wanted to surprise you,” she said. I smiled and carefully unwound her veil. She slipped her hands to my back and started undoing my laces.

“You succeeded,” I whispered. “I’m supposed to go see Raymond.” I said softly.

“I’m sure he’ll be plenty patient,” she smirked. I giggled and fell back against the couch. “Oh gods, I want you,” she said taking her rings off. I ran my hands through her hair. I love her hair. It’s silky and brown with flecks of gold highlighting it. I asked her once if she kept it veiled because the color made Brea jealous. That made her laugh.

Four years and we didn’t get nearly enough time together. Nika travels more than I can, but whenever we’re in the same place we’re together. We both understand what this is, we can’t be with one another permanently, it doesn’t suit us.

But our moments are worth it. I kiss her neck and down her chest.

“Marina,” she whispered gently, breathy as she touched me. I groaned softly. “Oh I never get tired of that,” she whispered. We tumbled onto the floor and I laughed kissing down her and between her legs. “Oh, love,” she exhaled. We finished, panting happily and wrapped up in each other. “Why does Raymond want to see you?” She asked.

“Who knows?” I said, “but he asked me to come to the lab so probably some experiment he needs help with.” She nodded. “How was home?” She groaned and fell back against the carpet and I laughed.

“Brea’s already crowing about her sons and how they’ll be chieftains and leaders,” she shook her head. “She didn’t particularly like when I pointed out that Harran might change his mind again.” I shook my head and stood up.

“I don’t think he will,” I said, “I think he loves her, in his way.”

“You think too well of people,” she pecked me lightly.

“You’re too cynical,” I teased. She laughed. “Do you want to come to the University?”

“Not today,” she stretched, “give Raymond my best.” I nodded and kissed her. I stood up and straightened my gown. “Rina,” she said and kissed my hand. “You seem sad.”

“I’m happy,” I said, “when you’re with me, I’m happy.”

A Long Time Ago

Marina

Tristan came and joined me sitting out by the water at the manor. I was still exhausted, even though it had been weeks. I hadn’t thought I wanted to see anyone, I’d even sent Nika away. I wanted peace. But Tristan didn’t disrupt that peace.

“I’m sorry,” he said. “I can only imagine how you’re feeling.” I sighed.

“May I confess something?” I whispered. He nodded. It was Tristan, I could trust him. “I don’t feel anything. I’m numb.” He placed his hand over mine. “My heart isn’t even broken just, gone.”

“I don’t believe that,” he said softly. I looked at him.

“Losing the love of his life destroyed my father,” I whispered. “Damian isn’t dead, of course, which might be worse, he’s just out there, without me.” I managed a small smile. “Have you and Carolina settled?” I asked. He nodded.

“I think so,” he said, “Her mother and sister set sail today. Alex claims the ship they’re on will be here in ten days or so.” I nodded.

“I’m glad for you, truly,” I said. “But I’m a little sad.” He sighed. “It’s silly, I love Damian, and I’m,” I exhaled, “I don’t know what’s next with Nika, but you, and I,” he nodded.

“Whenever I think about the wheel,” he said, “and the threads of time, I think about us first.” I looked at him. “I think no matter what, Lisette and I would have wound up as we are, maybe by a different path. But it was doomed from the beginning.”

“I don’t know about that,” I said. He shrugged. “But you think about us?” I said.

“Mm,” he nodded. “I think about if I hadn’t been so focused on the mission, if I’d let myself look at you for a moment,” he sighed, “we could have had time.”

“I didn’t help my cause,” I shrugged. “I could barely speak to you.” He laughed, I pushed his hair out of his eyes. “When you were at Pantona, and you would write to me, you wrote about Lisette a lot.” He nodded. “In Dorin you never did.”

“I didn’t know to miss you when I was at Pantona,” he said softly. “I missed you every day in Dorin.” I nodded. When he’d left he said he’d regret me forever. He was changed now, I saw that. And I could see his commitment to Carolina was true. “I miss you still, actually.” And it was in that moment that I realized it didn’t matter.

“I miss you too,” I said. And we were kissing them, I don’t remember if he kissed me or I kissed him. It didn’t matter. Nothing did, except that neither of us wanted regret again. I stood up and he followed me upstairs. We kissed again and fell back against the bed. “Tristan,” I whispered.

“Yes,” he said.

“You know this doesn’t change anything?” I said. He pushed up onto his elbows above me.

“I do know that,” he said and kissed me again. “This happened a long time ago.” I nodded as he bunched my skirts up around my thighs. I slid his pants down and he pressed into me. We kissed as we moved with each other. “I’ve needed you so badly Rina.”

“I need you now,” I whispered and kissed him. I groaned as he finished. I swallowed and he rolled over. “A long time ago?” I said.

“Yes,” he said. “The night of Annalise’s coronation,” he said, “when I went to her instead of you.” I rolled over and looked at him.

“I was with William that night,” I said. He shook his head.

“You said goodbye to William that night,” he reminded me. I laughed. “I waited one night too long, and it was a mess. But I’ve gone over those days in my mind so many times,” I pushed his hair off his face. “And that was it, that was the moment when we could have been together, and I missed it.”

“Why that moment?” I asked. “I seem to remember being very open to it after.” He smiled sadly at me.

“You met Lestoff the next day.” He sighed and I nodded. “I could love you but you can’t compete with the sun.” I laughed.

“If I’d been with you I’d never have looked at him twice.” I whispered. “I only ever wanted you, back then.” We kissed. “Martin can perform the ceremony, if you’d rather.”

“No,” he said softly, “I want it to be you. I’m starting a new chapter in my life, and you’re the person who’s been there for every chapter.” I smiled. “And I want you to be happy.” I closed my eyes.

“When he’s back, I’ll be happy,” I shrugged. “Until then, I don’t know. Content, I suppose, satisfied, curious,” I shook my head. “But no, I won’t be happy, Tristan. I hope you can be.” He wrapped a curl around his finger.

“I love her,” he said, “I do. She’s amazing, and so beautiful, and smarter than anyone I’ve ever met, including you,” I laughed. “And in Dorin it was easy. I could be what she needed, what, she wanted.” I exhaled and looked at him. “Here everything is weighted down by the past.” I nodded.

“It doesn’t have to be,” I said, “I let you go such a long time ago, Tristan,” I whispered, “it was freeing. You should let go.” He cupped a hand against my face. “We can’t live fully in one place or another, life is in the in between.” He pressed his forehead to mine.

“So wise, Rina,” he mumbled. “I’ll try to remember that.” I laughed. “Should I go?”

“No,” I said and snuggled close to him, “please stay. Unless you need to.”

“No,” he whispered, “I can stay.” I fell asleep in his arms.

This all happened a long time ago.

Not Lost

Marina

I sat in the courtyard with Nika while everyone else went elsewhere.

“You ought to go back to the palace,” she said softly, I swallowed. “I’m serious Marina.”

“I will,” I said softly, “but I want to be with you right now.” She nodded and looked over at Brea and Harran. She was pulling her hands away from him and he looked miserable. “Will she be alright?”

“She’s more than used to this from him,” Nika shook her head, “I suppose she thought it would be different this time.” I wove my fingers into hers. She smiled. “I’m glad you want to be with me.” I rested my head on her shoulder and she kissed my hair. “You were brave to face him alone.”

“I had no real choice,” I sighed. “He’d have killed Damian.” She nodded. “I told him, about us, about me, I guess.” She smiled.

“And?” She said.

“He asked that he remain my only while he and I are together,” I said. She nodded. “I can’t say it’s unfair.”

“No,” Nika said softly, “it’s more than fair.” She kissed me gently then. “You have marriages to perform. Have you done it before?” I laughed.

“No,” I said, “you have?” She nodded. “It feels very important.”

“Marriages are a joy, so are namings,” she said softly. “The burials are harder.” I smiled. “The Queen is sending Harran away, but keeping us?”

“Yes,” I said gently, “we need you to teach us, and to help fight Amina. She needs Harran to make sure the Tribes will accept us exploring to find The Wheel.” She inhaled.

“You should go to Damian,” she whispered, “he’ll wake and want to see you.” She’d taken to using his first name. Like she was already reading my heart. I squeezed her hand and stood up and walked to the palace, and up to my apartment. A healer I’d trained with, Bella, was sitting with him, a cool cloth on his head.

“How is he?” I said softly. She looked at me.

“Fine,” she said, “the fever passed.” I nodded remembering the worst of General Martin’s illness last year. “Is Lord Brayton,” she drifted.

“He escaped,” I whispered. She made a sign against shadows. “I tried.”

“I know,” she said and squeezed my hand. “I’ll leave you.” I nodded and sat beside him. I rested my hand on his forehead. I waited to see something, some darkness, or dream. Instead, I saw only small images. A white sand beach, where palm trees lined the water, the soft face and laugh of a woman, I knew immediately was his mother, my own face and smile, our hands intertwining.

This was good, I knew, from my reading. This was his mind and soul, reminding him of light and love, expelling the shadow. After the trauma of reliving Thomas’s fall, I hadn’t checked in on him more, but I was sure his mind was then full of the twins, and Trey and Countess Olivia. Damian’s eyes fluttered opened.

“Hello, my love,” he said gently.

“Hello,” I said softly and brushed his hair off his face. “You frightened me, you know.” He laughed.

“I raised the alarm in time?” He said. I nodded. “I’m glad.”

“Don’t think of it right now,” I said gently, “you’re not out of danger and I don’t want any darkness near you.” He smiled.

“No darkness,” he whispered, “impossible for there to be darkness when you’re near me.” I slid into bed with him. “Did you win?”

“After a fashion,” I said. He nodded. “I have to go soon. We’re going hunting.” He nodded. “Eric and Annalise are engaged, though, and he’s going home to settle things.”

“So while you hunt shadows and gods,” he said, “I’ll go home, and wait for word?” I smiled.

“When you put it like that, it sounds awful,” I sighed, “I was thinking, I’d go off hunting shadows and gods, without having to worry if you’re safe. Which sounds very nice, actually.” He laughed. “And when he comes back and they get married, we can be together forever.”

“Mm,” he whispered. “I can take one of my father’s ferries on.” I smiled.

“Yes,” I said, “and you’ll eventually be Duke of Brightcoast, like my Papa.” He laughed.

“I won’t lose you though,” he said. I swallowed.

“No, my love,” I rested my chin on his chest. “You’ll never lose me.”