Lost In A Tempest

I slept fitfully after the ride in the valley. We’d had dinner with Olivia, she seems in better spirits, though she kept asking Eric questions about Phania, and his mother. He took them well, but she also seems so tired.

After we ate, I stood quietly on the balcony and Aaron walked out and propped himself up onto the railing. I laughed and looked at him.

“So, Lisette,” he said, “what do we think?”

“You’re the politician,” I said, he laughed. “You tell me.”

“Politically it’s the best match besides myself,” he explained. “But you know that, Father told you that often.” I nodded. “And let’s not forget your mandate. You made need ships, and I would think the Goddess would approve heartily.” That made me role my eyes.

“You don’t believe in my mandate, or the goddess,” I pointed out.

“I don’t not believe in it,” he pushed down, “and you believe which is the important part. Lisette, don’t be foolish.” I nodded. “What does Tristan say?”

“Nothing good,” I sighed leaning forward. “He thinks I’m tying myself to fate. Maybe I am, I don’t know.”

“He’s afraid,” Aaron said, “I am too, you know. You’re different now, you have to be, I understand that, but it’s scary to see you change.” I nodded.

“I think I need to sleep,” I said softly. I went back carefully, through some back passages I found. (Meant, probably for the royal couples to visit one another) I got back to the apartment, and Marina undressed me quickly. She was in another world, and I didn’t ask.

I didn’t want to know.

I climbed into bed and fell asleep. I Dreamed. I was riding down a beach, a wider, whiter beach than I’d ever seen, it was Brightcost, I knew it was Brightcoast. There was a gleaming golden palace in front of me and behind me a smaller manor house. I stopped my horse, and looked over the sea, which was raging. The storm reached us and the horse reared and I fell backwards being pulled out to sea. I screamed, but crushed under the waves, I couldn’t breath.

When I broke through the water I was pulled onto a ship deck.

“You find me in the strangest places, my dear cousin,” I skittered back at the voice. I’d been expecting Eric, or perhaps the Goddess, but it was Brayton, dressed in his black robes.

“How?” I asked.

“Perhaps I’ve been lonely,” he shrugged, “or perhaps Amina and Rana have reached a detante.” I reached for my belt, drawing my sword, “for Goddess sake Annalise, it’s a Dream, you can’t stab me. Always the damn sword with you, like your father.” I frowned.

“Rana wouldn’t have drowned me,” I said.

“No,” he said, “though she’s clearly impatient.” I woke with a start then. I needed to talk to Marina. I scurried out of bed into the sitting room. Her door was closed. I didn’t want to wake her. I sat trying to find my center when the door swung open and my heart caught in my chest.

Marina was flushed, still in her gown from the dinner but rumpled, Tristan was behind her, and I understood.

She stammered something and left. I couldn’t blame her. I couldn’t blame either of them. I wanted to be angry, I wanted to scream.

“Say something,” he said. I blinked at him. “Lisette,” he whispered, “please, say anything.”

“What should I say?” I asked. “That I hate you both? That I don’t understand? I don’t, and I do.” He nodded. “I have no right, when I refused you, I set you free, and it isn’t as though I didn’t know how Marina felt.” He stepped closer and kissed my forehead.

“I promised to stay with you,” he said. I nodded. “But I can’t, it’s agony.” I swallowed.

“What then?” I asked.

“The Dumanis have suggested an arranged match,” he said, “I’d go to Dorin.” I nodded. “Not immediately, but before spring,” I nodded again. “I’ll always love you.”

“I know,” I said softly. We kissed and then he left.

Down In The Valley

The ride was invigorating but I was distracted. Tristan hadn’t come the night before. I’m not sure I expected him too, but I’d missed him. I kept glancing at Marina, who couldn’t meet my eyes. Tristan had helped her onto her horse after he’d excused himself.

Why did he want to see his grandfather? Tristan tried to avoid The Dumanis as much as possible. It was so odd.

“You seem lost in thought,” Eric said riding next to me. I smiled, he looked uncomfortable, but it was endearing.

“The riding doesn’t suit you?” I asked as we reached the valley pass just past the palace.

“We don’t usually ride much,” he shrugged, “I got a little better when we were in Rastan, they’re obsessed with hunting, but their forest aren’t quite so rocky.” I grinned.

“I’m sorry, I thought it was a good idea,” I sighed. He nodded. “You’d have done better in Pantona then. It’s very flat.”

“Do you miss it?” He said.

“Yes and no,” I shrugged, “I miss the village and my life there. But it’s nice to be settled, not feel like there’s an assassin lurking in every tree.” He laughed. Athena raced ahead past us. “Oh no.” I said.

“Don’t worry,” Aaron said, “she got it into her head to catch our lunch.” I nodded. “It’s been a good two weeks since she shot anything.”

“Right,” I smiled. I understood why Athena was restless, I’d been restless too. But even explaining things to Eric made me feel calmer. Lieutenent Lestoff and Sir Raymond were both riding beside Marina who was blushing. “That’s interesting.”

“Lefty’s smitten,” Eric said with a grin. “That’s not unusual but it’s still good.” I looked at him. “And maybe I was wrong about Raymond, though my guess is he’s more interested in her magic than anything else.” I nodded.

“My Uncle says your family collects Chosen girls,” I said. He frowned at that. “Sorry, I don’t know why I said that out loud.”

“He’s not wrong,” Eric sighed. “My father was obsessed, apparently, with the prophecies about well,” he gestured to me. I blushed. “So he pushed Daniel to pursue your mother, and then Elana and then he married my mother.” I nodded. “I’m not sure I believe it.”

“Don’t you?” I asked. He shrugged.

“I had strange dreams sometimes, still do,” he explained, “I think the gods have plans for me, I suppose, like they do for everyone, but I don’t think there’s some epic destiny we have to shape our lives around.” I smiled.

“What’s in the dreams?” I asked. He shook his head.

“I think you know that, Your Majesty,” he said. “Why do you think I knew you’d be waiting for me?”

“I”ll wait forever, Your Highness,” I said and spurred the horse on.

Eric

I sat at dinner quietly. It’s not like me and I’m sure people noticed, so I’m glad Athena had already said I was exhausted. Tristan had taken a door duty so I don’t have to look at him, but I feel him watching me.

“I was told I owed you an apology,” Prince Eric said. I looked at him. “Or at least an explanation.”

“I’m not sure I understand,” I said. He smiled and looked down. “You have nothing to apologize for.”

“We were sailing home,” he explained, “when we received word of your ascension, we changed course. I don’t know why Elana thought,” I smiled.

“It’s alright,” I said, “honestly, I’m relieved! I was disappointed when Queen Elana wrote that none of you were coming.” He brightened at that. “I’ve always wondered, about you.” He smiled.

“And I you,” he admitted. I thought of the Dreams. Of the vision that pulled me out of Brayton’s smoke. “You should know my brother is very determined.” I laughed.

“Determined for what?” I asked. He rolled his eyes. “I’m going to make you say it.”

“He wants us married by the end of the year,” he said. I smiled. “I’m less determined, though I haven’t ruled it out.” I picked up my wine and took a sip.

“Haven’t you?” I said. He smiled.

“I mean, if I’d gotten here and you were hideously deformed I might have gotten right back on the ship and then told Daniel to go right to Amina,” he said. I nearly choked laughing.

“Good then,” I smiled. “I mean, that you don’t find my hideously deformed, you haven’t seen my feet yet though.” He laughed.

“Frankly, with the stories I heard seeing that you are in fact a girl of flesh and blood and not a witch made purely of shadow is a relief,” he said. I laughed. “I want to get to know you, Your Majesty, if I may be permitted.”

“I think it’s best if we start as friends, Your Highness,” I answered. He nodded.

“If we’re friends then it can’t be Your Highness,” he smiled. “Eric.” He extended his hand.

“Annalise,” I said taking it. I almost said Lisette, but then I realized, I’m not Lisette anymore, I don’t want to be, not with him. “Tell me about your companions, they both seem deeply interested by my cousin and I must protect her.” He smiled.

“Raymond’s your cousin too, come to that,” he said, “his mother is your mother’s Aunt. He’s no danger to your Marina, if you catch my meaning.” I nodded.

“You can say he likes men plainly, it’s not taboo here,” I nodded towards Thomas. Eric smiled.

“That will suit him,” Eric said, “I do my best by him, but we’re very different people. His temperament actually matches my brother’s more.” I smiled. “As for Lefty, that is Lieutenant Lestoff, he’s my brother and I won’t speak against him, but she should be on guard. He likes a conquest.” I exhaled. After Tristan and William, I wonder if being pursued by an experienced play boy would be good for her.

“Your brother?” I said. “Another? I didn’t realize!” He laughed.

“Step brother, I suppose is more appropriate,” he explained, “my mother married his father after mine died.” I nodded. “But I was barely three when all that happened, so I’ve known no other life.”

“I know something of that,” I admitted, “I barely remember my parents, Caleb and Olivia and Aaron are my family.” He nodded. “What do you know of Cammadan?”

“I know Dorin,” he said, “and the sea, so I know the merchants well.” At that Athena looked over.

“You know my family then?” She said. He smiled.

“We do,” he said, “your cousin Alex best, probably. But your grandfather was always very good to us when we were in his city.”

“It’s Duchess Norvine’s city,” Aaron said, and Athena pinched him. “It’s a matter of some disagreement.”

“You can see having a courtier and merchant as my main advisers is divisive,” I grinned. Eric laughed. “But you don’t know the valley at all?”

“No,” he said, “but I look forward to getting to know it.” I smiled. Later when he’d excused himself and he and Lieutenant Lestoff had left, I didn’t know where Lord Raymond had gone.

“We should do something fun,” I said to Athena. She raised her eyebrows at me and glanced at the door. “What is it?”

“It’s nothing,” she said, “what were you thinking?”

“Riding maybe?” I said, “Down into the valley? It’s so pretty and it will be too cold to do it soon.” I looked around. “Where is Marina?”

“She mentioned she wasn’t feeling well,” Athena said quickly. I nodded. “I’ll let her know the plan.” She got up quickly and then I noticed Tristan was missing too. I was suddenly very sad and very grateful for Athena.

Proposal

After waking up and lining up our ducks. (I sent Marina and Aaron to greet them. They’re good at people and manners and I need to catch my breath.) Olivia was helping me dress. Marina had chosen the clothes, a green uniform dress and the crown of the goddess. I was supposed to look splendid and terrible. I mostly felt ridiculous.

He looks different than my visions, but I knew him immediately. And I felt at ease. Eric. Prince Eric, My Eric, I probably shouldn’t drop the title. But it was like everything felt easy, when he took my hand.

Marina is sitting studying in the parlor now. I walked out and sighed loudly and flopped on an armchair.

“Can I help you?” She asked not even looking up from her books.

“What time do I have to change tonight?” I asked.

“Around 7 I suppose,” she said. I frowned. “You could try taking a nap.” I wrinkled my nose. “Annalise, I can either keep working and unlock the battle magic secret or entertain you this afternoon.” I laughed. “Go bother Aaron, I’m sure he’s plenty bored too.” I stood up and kissed her on the cheek.

“I am sorry for bothering you,” I said and she swatted at me and giggled. She’s changed so much in the past few months, and it’s a good change. I walked out into the gardens, wondering who if anyone I’ll come upon. I want to spend more time with the courtiers, but I think they all think I’m odd.

“Lisette,” Prince Harran called to me from across the lawn, he was standing with Tristan. I wanted to be furious with him after this morning, but seeing him, “That is, Your Majesty. Did I tell you, Captain Dugarry about my great shame when I first met our queen.”

“My great triumph,” I said straightening my shoulders. Tristan raised his eyebrows. “Prince Harran came to Pantona, when I was fourteen, with some very potent whiskey.”

“Ah,” Tristan nodded, “And Queen Annalise, or Lady Lisette as she was then,” he looked at me, that melancholy way of his, “drank most of it.”

“Here was this little girl, charming of course, and very beautiful,” Harran said, “and she sat down with me in Pantona’s study as I opened the bottle and asked for some. And then, I think it may have been at the Viscount’s urging, we wound up in a contest, and I found myself unable to stand while Lisette continued to pour herself drinks.” I giggled.

“it was not ladylike, but I was proud of myself,” I said. “I’m glad you’ve come.”

“The Chieftans insisted, my brothers were put out,” he said. “They want to court you,” I laughed. “Harran’s already had his chance at Pantona! I said they can line up behind half the men in Cammadan and most in Rastan and Phania.” I smiled.

“It’s a lot to handle,” I said, seeing Tristan’s face darken. “Which is why familiar faces and old friends can be helpful.” He nodded and bowed. “You’re still angry.”

“I’m frustrated,” he said. “Harran’s right by the way and it’s been hell.” I took his hands and lead him away from the crowd. We kissed then. “Last night, I thought we could change all that.”

“I want to,” I said, “Tristan I do, really.”

“So marry me,” he spit out. I kissed him. “I’m serious.”

“I can’t,” I said, “you know why I can’t, we’ve talked about it!” He frowned.

“Because the court wouldn’t like me, and Rastan and Phania’s honor must be served,” he frowned. “You sent away all the Provenance heirs, except Aaron, obviously.” I sighed. “Lisette, don’t argue with me, just,” I closed my eyes.

“Tristan, I can’t marry you,” I said, “I thought I’d always made that clear,” I wanted to cry, I might have been crying, come to think of it. “I love you, only you but, I can’t,” he nodded.

“Fine,” he whispered and kissed me again and then walked away. I feel like my heart is torn in two. I ran inside and luckily Marina had left. I walked into my room flopped on the bed and kept crying. I didn’t hear the door open, but then I heard Athena’s voice as she sat down and stroked my hair.

“That idiotic boy,” she muttered, “I’d strangle him if I could bring myself to.” I sat up and looked at her. “Honestly, I know he’s my brother, but he doesn’t deserve you and you don’t deserve any of this.” I smiled.

“Did they send you to fetch me?” I said. “I have a lot to do, I know, but I just,” she shrugged.

“It’s alright, we’ve told everyone you’re worn out,” she shrugged. “I don’t think it’s untrue, but you still need to make an appearance tonight.” I wiped my eyes. “What do you think of him?” I looked at her.

“I don’t know yet,” I said softly. “I was so surprised this morning, I thought I had  more time.” She nodded. “Athena,” I whispered, “don’t tell anyone, about what Tristan asked. Not Aaron or Martin, please, I couldn’t take it.” She pressed her lips into her mouth.

“Alright,” she said. “What about Marina?” I sighed. Marina and I were at an understanding about Tristan finally, this morning not withstanding, but this was different.

“I’ll talk to Marina,” I said softly, “eventually.” She nodded.

What If?

I woke seeing Damian sitting up. I looked at him then noticed it was still dark out.

“Where are you going?” I asked. He laughed and kissed me.

“I didn’t want to wake you,” he whispered. I nodded. “But I probably shouldn’t be found here either.” I nodded. “I will see you in the morning.”

“No,” I whispered and took his hand, “stay a little longer.” He laughed and kissed my hand.

“No,” he said. “I’ll come again tomorrow night, if you’d like.” I nodded. “Sleep well, my love.” I fell back against the pillows and exhaled. I wasn’t going to be able to sleep anymore no matter how hard I tried. I wrapped myself in a cloak and walked to my maze. I reached the center and found Tristan at the fountain.

“Hello,” I said softly. He looked at me.

“Hello,” he smiled. “I can’t sleep.” I nodded.

“Me neither,” I said and took his hand. “Do you know her name?” He looked at me. “This girl you’re going to marry?”

“Carolina DuKarras,” he said softly, “nothing is decided or final, of course, but that’s who Grandfather and Uncle Geno have in mind. Alexander, my cousin, said she’s pretty at least, and she’s rich.” He skipped a rock against the pond. “She’s a good candidate for me because her father’s main territory is the midlands.”

“Ah,” I whispered softly, “so with Athena being married to Aaron.” He nodded. “I slept with Lefty last night.” He looked at me. “I’m so in love with him, Tristan, I sometimes can’t breathe.” He nodded.

“You’re frightened?” He asked. I nodded. “Of him?”

“No,” I sighed, “no, it’s just, before him, there’s was only you, and we,” I looked down, “we knew everything about each other.”

“And he’s a stranger?” He said. I nodded. “I’m tying my future to a girl I’ve never seen, and you had a stranger in your bed. I feel the two very serious children who sat in Brayton’s dining room would disapprove heartily of us.” I giggled and he laughed too. “I’ll miss you.” I slid my hand into his. “I still have that handkerchief, you know,” I blushed. “The one you gave me when I went to Pantona.”

“I remember,” I said softly. “That feels so long ago.” He nodded and leaned down and kissed me softly.

“I thought it was my turn this time,” he whispered and slipped a simple gold bangle into my hand. I saw the small AD engraved into it.

“Tristan,” I whispered.

“It was my mother’s,” he said. I nodded and he slipped it over my hand onto my wrist. “Don’t tell Athena. I think it’s technically supposed to be a part of her dowry but I doubt Aaron would miss it.” I laughed but I realized I was also crying.

“I hope she deserves you,” I said softly.

“I hope he does,” he said. “I need you to watch out for Athena,” he said softly. I looked at him.

“She has Aaron,” I said. He nodded.

“Aaron is in love with her,” he said, “he doesn’t see when she loses control,” he exhaled. “Sometimes she needs someone to pull her back.” I nodded understanding.

“And who will pull you back?” I whispered. He laughed and kissed my hand again.

“I’ll have to rely on my memories of you and Athena for that,” he said softly. I nodded.

“Have you seen Lisette?” I asked. He shook his head. “Tristan!”

“I can’t, Rina,” he exhaled. “If I stop to say goodbye to her, I won’t go.” I nodded and kissed him on the cheek going back to the palace and then to our apartments. Annalise was standing on the balcony looking out as we watched his horse exit through the gates. She was crying and I slipped my arm around her.

“Can I not be the queen?” She asked softly. I looked at her. “Aaron and I used to play a game, you see,” she exhaled. “What if I was Lisette? What if Annalise was someone else, another girl, hidden somewhere else. What if I was really just Lisette, a the daughter of a barmaid and a Phanian sailor who died or abandoned her? What if one day a travelling soldier came to Pantona, and I loved him?” She was sobbing now. “So you see if I wasn’t the queen, I could be married to Tristan. If I was Lisette, I’d be training to be in the guard now, because his wife will be expected to,” she exhaled, “I’ll have to smile at her, and call her Lady Dugarry and induct her and it’s going to be the worst thing I have to do.”

“I’m glad that you’re you,” I said softly. She looked at me. “I understand what you’re saying,” I looked down, “but this other Annalise, I don’t know who she would be.” She smiled. “And you can’t not be queen, because then have to be and I don’t see that going terribly well.” She laughed.

“I suppose not,” she said and blinked at me. “I think Mercy owes me money.” I blinked at her.

“You bet on tonight?” I sighed. She nodded. “Goddess, that’s dignified behavior.” She giggled. “I don’t want him to go.” She smiled.

“I am trying,” she said softly, “not just for your sake, I promise, I really do care for Eric, it’s just he’s not,” I nodded. “It’ll be easier now, I think.”

“I hope so,” I whispered. “And there’s still the other thing.” She nodded. “He can’t come to Brightcoast, Annalise, I feel that, so deeply, it’s,” she swallowed.

“I know,” she said. “He’ll stay here, Anselm is going to as well.” I nodded. “If I haven’t killed him by then.”

“Anselm, or Brayton?” I smirked. She laughed.

“Both,” she said, “or either.” She hugged me. “I’m so glad I’m not alone.” She whispered, I understood her completely.

Afterglow

Lefty...Damian…is asleep now. I can’t sleep, I’m too happy.

Well, I mean, I am happy, but I’m also worried, and distracted and I’m not sure what else. After the ball wound down, I escorted Annalise back to her room. She was distracted, I can’t imagine what she’s feeling, with Tristan going away now. I hurried back to my room and undressed. I loved the gown that I had finally settled on, but I felt as though I ripped it off. I glanced at my normal night gowns and swallowed. I didn’t know if I should put one on, but before I had much time to think about it, there was a knock on the door and he walked in.

“Hello,” I managed to say, suddenly feeling quite shy. He smiled.

“Hello,” he said and kissed me softly. “You’re still sure?” I nodded and took his hand and we walked to the bed, still kissing I exhaled as we lay down and he straddled me. “I love you.”

“I love you,” I whispered and swallowed as he undressed me, “Lefty,” I whispered, as he used his hand inside of me. I knew I liked this, from William, obviously.

“Damian,” he whispered in my ear and kissed it. “If I’m your lover, Rina, I’d rather you called me by name.”

“Damian,” I exhaled, it felt right, he kissed me and well, the rest I can’t write down, but he made love to me. I think I said his name a hundred more times. Afterwards, he held me for a while and we were quiet.

“Are you alright?” He asked. I rested my chin on his chest. “Did I hurt you?” I smiled.

“A bit,” I mumbled and kissed him. He nodded. “But it was,” I tried to think of the right word, “nice.” He laughed.

“Nice?” He muttered. “I think I ought to be offended.” I giggled. “If you aren’t satisfied, Duchess,” he rolled over onto me again.

“No,” I giggled and kissed him, “no Lieutenant, I’m satisfied.” He grinned at me, his hair was curly and wild and perfect and Goddess, I wanted him so badly again. We kissed deeply. “Damian,” I muttered as he grew hard and then pushed into me again. This time was different. I thought I’d been satisfied the first time, but this time, we both felt more urgent and moved faster and I felt a wave of pleasure rush over me and I cried out, not able to think of his name, or anything but how amazing I felt. I fell away from him, panting. “Well,” I mumbled, “no wonder Annalise and Tristan won’t stop! That’s wonderful.” He laughed and began playing with my hair.

“I think you just told me something you weren’t supposed to,” he teased. I blushed. “I won’t tell,” he whispered, “I’d guessed a while ago though.” I nodded. “And what about you and the good Captain Dugarry?” I swallowed.

“That’s complicated,” I whispered. He nodded. “We grew up together, and I,” I sighed, “well, it never mattered because he didn’t feel the same way.” He kissed me again.

“I don’t understand that,” he whispered, “not loving you seems completely impossible.” I blushed.

“When did you know you loved me?” I asked. He laughed.

“When I saw you,” he said. I rolled my eyes. “Goddess, you think I’m corny. But it’s true. You and Count Aaron walked up and we thought you were the queen and you smiled, and corrected us and I was lost forever.”

“You know that if,” I sighed, “the council wants me to try to marry Eric if Annalise won’t.” He laughed. “It’s not funny! It would be awful!”

“No love,” he said, “it would never happen.” I blinked. “love you, I’ve loved you since the moment I saw you and Eric knows and honors that.” I looked at him.

“This has come up before,” I said. He smiled.

“Once or twice,” he said. I nodded. “It’s why we have rules. I imagine you and Annalise must have them around Sir Tristan as well.”

“We don’t talk about it,” I said, “that’s the only rule.” He nodded. “You said this afternoon that you weren’t respectable. What did you mean?” He smiled sadly.

“My mother,” he said softly. “She was,” he swallowed. “well, I don’t know precisely that she was a prostitute but she was a barmaid at the least. My father was a ferryman, a rich one, to be sure, but still. It wasn’t a scandal, and he married her.”

“But then he married a queen,” I whispered. He nodded. “How?”

“Aimee’s father wasn’t high ranking,” he said softly. “But she was pretty, and Chosen and young, so the old king married her, and then she had Eric and he sent her away. To where she grew up, to Brinecliff, and then he died.”

“And your mother?” I asked. He smiled.

“She died later, with my brother,” he explained. I kissed him. “Aimee and my father were childhood sweethearts, but their circumstances had prevented them from marrying. It was frankly a good scheme for Daniel and Elana who wanted Eric and Aimee out of the way.” I smiled and kissed him. “I got the brother I lost in the bargain, Papa got a title, and Aimee got as much peace as I imagine she’ll ever have.”

“Do you remember her?” I asked softly. “Your mother?” He nodded. “I wish I remembered my mother.” He kissed me again. “Was it hard, at court?” He shrugged.

“Not really,” he said, “my father is very popular at court, he gets along with everyone, and Aimee’s always been. If it weren’t for Katrin needing to come out though, I think they would have stayed happily at Brinecliff forever.” I smiled. “Our childhood was happy, simple.” I nodded. “Why do want to know all of this?” He asked lacing our fingers.

“I like hearing about other people’s family’s and childhoods,” I said, “mine was so odd. Papa and I shut up, alone with our books, the sisters running around like frightened cats. I was afraid of everything.”

“When did Brayton set his sights on you?” He asked. I swallowed.

“I was fourteen,” I mumbled. “It was awful.” He kissed me. “Tristan was always kind to me, you see, and his parents too.”

“Not Lady Athena?” He said. “You two are such good friends.”

“Yes, now,” I laughed. “But no, before, Lisette, we weren’t. She thought I was silly and I was afraid of her.” He laughed. “Did you really come here hoping to court her?”

“Yes,” he grinned, “I’ve never had a warrior woman.” I rolled my eyes. “Of course before tonight I’ve never had a witch or a duchess either.”

“I’m Chosen,” I said softly, feeling his breathing get deeper. “Not a witch.”

“Six of one,” he whispered, before falling asleep. He’s sleeping soundly, my lover. Damian. And I’m so frightened. I know so little about him.

A Winter’s Ball

I don’t think I’ve seen Annalise this happy in ages. She’s thrilled that Aaron’s back, but even more her giddiness at Mastero Anselm sitting beside her is infectious.

He keeps looking at Raymond like he has six heads, the poor thing, but Raymond is chattering at him quite a bit, and as an oft victim of Raymond’s chattering, I can see it getting a bit off putting, especially given his similar natural aura to Brayton.

I was enjoying the fruits of my labor fairly immensely, mostly happy to see Papa sitting in a chair nodding to the music, not hiding in his study. Countess Olivia said it would pass, and it seems to have.

But I sighed quietly watching the door. He still wasn’t here. Perhaps he’d gone. But Prince Eric was still there. Then it was like the crowd had disappeared. I inhaled as he walked into the room and went to him.

“I thought perhaps you’d stay away,” I said softly.

“No,” he said quietly, taking my hand and kissing it. “No, my love.” I wanted to kiss him, to throw myself into his arms. But something stopped me.

“I thought about what you said,” I said softly. “I still want you.” He smiled at that. “I disagree that you’ll leave me.” He laughed. “I understand why you think you will, but I’ve been told I’m the most beautiful woman alive. A goddess insisted that a man trade his soul for me.”

“I see,” he nodded. “And your thought is that I will be unable to resist you, then?” I nodded.

“Yes,” I said softly and took his arm. We walked and I glanced around the room, “so tonight, you will see to Eric, and I will see to Annalise.” He nodded.

“They are royal and useless and require assistance,” he grinned, “and with Count Aaron returned and Raymond beside himself at getting to speak with an actual Mastero, that just leaves us,” I nodded.

“And then you’ll come to see me,” I said and we found our way to an alcove. He pressed me against the wall.

“I’ll make you mine, then,” he said softly. I smiled.

“I’m already yours,” I said. He nodded.

“And there won’t be any further,” he looked down, “I mean, is there anything you need?” I blinked at him. “Marina.”

“Oh!” I laughed. “Oh that! No I take a potion for that.” He blinked at me again. “It’s quite simple, you see, there’s a property in whip willow bark that when isolated syncs with the tides so does a woman’s cycle and it prevents pregnancy.” He grinned and laughed. “What’s funny?”

“Nothing,” he said, “you’re brilliant, is all, and if you weren’t already the second richest woman in Cammadan, I’d guess you’d be about to be with discovering a potion like that.”

“Oh I didn’t discover it,” I rolled my eyes. “Common women have been using whip willow for ages, I just found a way to make it easier to take than boiling bark tea and choking it down.”

“Still,” he said. “You’re brilliant.” I laughed and kissed him. “Goddess, do we have to wait until the end of the night?” I giggled and slipped away from him. I found a pillar and leaned against it and exhaled.

I’d thought about this a thousand times. Not with Lefty, certainly, but with Tristan and with William, and even with horror, Brayton.

But I’d never imagined being so in love with someone I wanted so badly. And he loved me too.

“Well, hello,” Athena slid up to me. I looked at her. “So, purely out of curiosity and caring for your well being, and not because Elodie, Mercy and I have a bet, are you still a virgin?”

“Who bet that I wasn’t?” I asked.

“Mercy,” we said at the same time.

“I bet that you were until this afternoon, and Elodie said you most certainly still were,” she shrugged. “So?”

“A lady doesn’t speak about such things,” I straightened my skirt. She laughed. “When’s your wedding?”

“Fall,” she said happily. I looked at her. “Enroute back from Brightcoast we’re going to stop in Pantona. We’re doing it then.” I smiled. I glanced over and noticed Lefty talking to my father. “You won’t change his mind you know. Unless they get married, he’s going to leave.”

“I know,” I said softly, “but I have to try.” She nodded and squeezed my hand. “I love him.” She smiled.

“I know,” she said quietly. “You just have a tendency to get run over by love, my friend, and I don’t want to see it happen again.”

“It won’t,” I said taking her hands. I saw Aaron walking towards us. “You Grace.”

“Duchess,” he smirked. “I heard a rumor that this was meant to emulate our evenings in Pantona.” I nodded. “Our first winter ball was your idea?”

“Your father asked me what I thought would be fun,” I explained, “I came up with this. Also ice skating, and new dresses.” He laughed.

“Lisette had a new dress,” he said, “and there was in fact ice skating.” He turned to Athena. “A dance, Captain?”

“An honor,” Athena said and took his hand. I glanced about the room and saw Tristan in a corner, his arms crossed over his chest while Annalise sat at her table, laughing at something Eric said. I don’t know what understanding they’d come to, but I could tell he wasn’t happy. I walked over to him.

“Lady Marina,” he whispered.

“Sir Tristan,” I said, “you’ll go soon?” He nodded.

“Tomorrow,” he whispered, “if the my grandfather’s party is ready to that is.”

“I thought he left ages ago,” I said softly. He nodded.

“He always has people in Dovetail,” he pointed out. “It would be bad for business not to.” I nodded. “Am I to congratulate you?” He asked. I looked at him. “I noticed Lieutenant Lestoff speaking to Duke Lestat.”

“No,” I said softly, “no it isn’t that.” He nodded. “Brayton is going to be executed, and you’re going to find a bride, and Athena and Aaron are marrying and Annalise,” I exhaled, “tonight is the last night that things will be even a little bit like they once were.”

“My parents, teaching Athena and I chess,” he whispered, “you leading prayers.” I nodded.

“Dance with me,” I said and held my hand out. He smiled and took it. “It’s better now, isn’t it?” I whispered.

“Yes,” he said softly. “In some ways, in others, I’m never sure.” I looked at him. “I knew you then.”

“You still do,” I said softly. He smiled. “You’ll write?” I whispered as the music stopped.

“Don’t I always?” He said softly. I nodded and he let go of me. I glanced over to where Annalise was sitting, laughing at something that Eric was saying to her. This was all for the best. For the good of everything.

What Anselm had said earlier was sticking with me. The gods had sent Eric, as a way for Annalise to fulfill her mandate.

“I should,” I whispered, glancing across the room and seeing Lefty smile at a blonde girl in a guard uniform, and take her hand for the next dance. I wasn’t jealous, exactly, but I did wish it was me, “I should see to Papa,” I managed and Tristan nodded. “You know how he hates this sort of thing.”

“Of course,” he said softly. “I should,” he exhaled, “Athena,” I nodded and walked away, catching a wink from Lefty as he waltzed with the pretty guard girl. I realized how soon, he’d be mine and I almost swooned.