The Dream

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

“Westran,” I mumbled.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I can’t leave,” he said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Question Of Conversation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Confrontation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Of course,” Trey said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Riding and War

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thena,

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

Tristan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dueling The Lieutenant

I got up early, even poking Aaron to see if he wanted to get up to train with me. He grumbled and pulled the covers over his head and I laughed before getting dressed and heading down to the yard.

Tristan was waiting for me and I smiled at him. He shrugged back and pointed. I noticed Lieutenant Lestoff was standing waiting. I smirked and I saw my brother laugh as I walked over.

“Hello Lieutenant,” I said, “may we help you?”

“Lady Athena,” he said and then stopped, “Or Commander Dugarry? Which do you prefer?”

“Lady Athena,” I said, truly shocked, most people, men especially simply said what they were comfortable with. He nodded. “I heard you wanted to spar?”

“I wanted more than that,” he winked, “but having spent some time with you intended, I can see that would be hopeless.” I laughed. I liked him, almost in spite of myself. “Luckily Dovetail is not bereft of interesting women.”

“Hm,” I nodded and picked up a staff and tossed it to him. He caught it easily. “Well, as long as you’re entertained.” He smiled and bowed I return it and Tristan met my eyes.

“Flatten him,” my brother grinned. I laughed. He liked very few things more than when I beat someone new. Particularly if the new person is at all arrogant. He struck first, I blocked. Then we both pulled back and I struck.

“Tell me,” I said, “why now?” He smiled.

“Well, we couldn’t very well come while Brayton was in charge,” he shrugged, going for my legs and I jumped over the staff. “King Daniel never officially acknowledged him.”

“But she’s been here for months,” I said, landing a hit on his shoulder. He winced but then twirled the staff and reset.

“You’re new to diplomacy if you think we could run out of Rastan the moment we heard the news,” he pointed out. “Though I notice none of them are here.” I nodded and winced as he hit my ribs. But then I caught his staff with mine, disarmed him and crossed them at his neck. He inhaled sharply and then laughed.

“Yield?” I said.

“With pleasure,” he said and extended his hand, I took it and shook it. “I look forward to our ride later.” I nodded and he turned and left. “Will, um,” he inhaled stopping, “will the Duchess be joining us, do you know?” I stopped and nodded.

“I believe so,” I said.

“Oh,” he said, “well good then.” He kept moving. I heard Tristan exhale sharply.

“I can’t go,” he said. I glanced at him. “I’m going to see Grandfather, to, well, make plans.” I looked at him and then hugged him. “I’m not saying I’ll do it, but I’ll hear him out.” I nodded.

“Good,” I said, “I think it’s the right thing, Tristan, really, I do.” He nodded. “What will you tell Lisette?”

“The truth,” he sighed, “that I finally understand what she’s been saying, that we can’t be together, no matter how much we want it.”

“And Marina?” I said. He sighed and frowned.

“Marina knows, and understands, somehow, I think, she always will,” he said. “I don’t like him sniffing around her though.” I threw my head back and laughed.

“He’s a flirt, I’m sure she can handle it.” I said. He snorted. “It really is a shame I met Aaron first, because I think the Lieutenant and I could have had a great deal of fun together.”

“Oh Cornan,” he gagged. “I don’t need to know that.” I giggled as we headed back to the palace. Martin was waiting for us with his arms cross. “Morning General.”

“You,” he pointed at me, “Upstairs,” and his eyes narrowed at Tristan, “you and I are going to have a conversation.” I swallowed. “Now, Athena.”

“Thomas we aren’t children,” Tristan said.

“I am aware of that,” he said, I looked between them. “Athena, I won’t ask again.” I swallowed and walked away it isn’t as though I won’t be able to hear them. “Quiet” is not the word for when Thomas and Tristan argue.

“And what, precisely, would you have me do instead?” I hear Tristan.

“That isn’t the point!” Thomas bellows back.

“No, to you the point is merely knowing you were right and Trey was wrong, but it’s my life,” Tristan roared back. I stopped running into Countess Olivia.

“Heavens,” she said, “what is that about?” I sighed.

“Tristan proposed to Lisette but now he’s going to go to Dorin and possibly marry a girl the Dumanis picked out,” I explained. Another yell and we both winced. “The General is, not pleased.”

“I’d gather not,” she said. “Lisette is taking the Prince riding?” I nodded. “I will talk to Thomas.” I frowned. It might calm him down.

“And selling yourself to some featherheaded debutante solves the problem, how, Tristan?” Thomas yelled. I winced, and it might not.

The Ever Coming

“What if he hates me?” Annalise said, pacing in front of the palace. Tristan was staring grimly ahead and I was sitting on the steps.

“He won’t hate you,” I said, she looked at me. “Lisette, you have to calm down.” She sighed and looked at Tristan. He wouldn’t make eye contact with her.

“He might,” she said and bit her thumbnail. “I’ve been thinking about him my entire life, you know?” I smiled softly at her.

“I’d bet he’s thought of you a few times as well,” Tristan managed, it was like the words choked him. “How could he help it?” She looked at him.

“Tristan, I,” she swallowed, I cleared my throat, reminding them that I was present. “I wasn’t paying attention, I should have Dreamed it.”

“Don’t be ridiculous,” I mumbled, suddenly feeling guilty. Maybe I should have known? I’ve been distracted lately and haven’t even considered communing. “From everything you’ve told me about your conversations with Rana, this kind of surprise seems exactly her style.” She sighed and straightened her gown again. She looked lovely, even more than yesterday, even, with her hair in a braid circling her head and the Crown of The Goddess on her brow. She was somewhere between that simple farm girl we met a few months ago and the great queen and savior she was when crowned.

Marina was exceptionally good at her job. As I spoke the group of them came walking up. Marina looked bouncy and anxious and Aaron had that twinkle in his eye that he gets when he wants to make trouble. The Prince himself was a bit of a surprise. Shorter than I’d expected, and much better looking. My Dorin cousins knew him a little and mostly talked about how he was reserved and uninteresting he was. (I have this sinking feeling it’s more about him not wanting to marry any of them rather than The Prince’s actual personality.)

He and Annalise greeted each other coldly and Tristan managed to be aloof but not rude, something he struggles with even with people he’s indifferent to. As we all disassembled Aaron jogged to catch up to me.

“I’m going to train, are you coming with me?” I said, shocked. He never trains anymore. Says now that the war is won he doesn’t need to.

“You’re going to have trouble,” he grinned. I rolled my eyes. “The Princes’s step brother came here with the expressed purpose to woo you.” I snorted. “I’m serious.”

“And you allowed him to speak like that?” I said and crossed my arms.

“I assumed you would shut him up yourself my love,” he grinned. “Which will be most amusing for me,” he crept close to me and kissed me gently. I giggled.

“And suppose I find Lieutenant Lestoff more attractive than yourself,” I whispered. He laughed.

“I’m afraid that you have given me your word,” he teased. I laughed. “Thena, this is going to be complicated.” I nodded. “There are already people rumbling that if she marries someone not Cammadie, or at the very least Westran the guilds will be unhappy.” I nodded. “I know you hate politics, and I know Tristan hates it even more, but,”

“They’ve spent a whole twenty seconds in one another’s company, Aaron,” I said softly. “Let’s not have their vows written and my grandfather in open rebellion just yet.” He nodded. “I do have to go, I swear if any Phanian officers flirt with me, I will send for you immediately before tossing him on his ass.” He laughed.

“Excellent,” he muttered and kissed me. “I should see to my mother, we’re trying to decide when to go home,” I nodded. “I wish you could come with me.”

“I wish I could too,” I said softly. I’d been longing for Pantona. For the quiet, and the fields and hills. For the excited bustle of market days and even the cool shocking looks from other girls who Aaron had slept with. And for the life that we could maybe already have there, if his father hadn’t died.

“Thena,” he whispered and kissed my forehead. “What has Martin said to you?” I looked at him.

“Excuse me?” I said. He sighed and rubbed the back of his head. “About us? He’s not sure I’m making the right decision.”

“No, I know, he’s told me as much,” he sighed, “I mean, about, well, about my mother.” I sighed and shook my head. “I just, she said he’s coming, to Pantona.”

“He hasn’t told me anything,” I grumbled, “I know he’s been spending time with Trey again.” Aaron nodded. “I don’t think it has anything to do with your father.” He swallowed and smiled sadly.

“How do you always know what I’m thinking?” He asked.

“I’m just that good,” I said softly. He smiled. “They weren’t together, Aaron.” He sighed. “I know it, he had,” I shook my head, “after Trey, there were men and a few women, but no one permanent, and never your mother, I would have noticed.”

“And why is that?” He asked. I blushed.

“Because I watched her,” I said softly, “you weren’t here, you couldn’t understand. Your mother was, this brilliant light in the darkness. And the rumors about her, about how she’d been this great beauty and could have been queen but gave it up because she loved your father, it was entrancing.”

“So you were always a romantic under all that sarcasm?” He raised an eyebrow. I shook my head.

“Infuriating boy,” I said and walked away towards the training field. The new recruits were better than I’d expected. So many were eager to serve Annalise.

“Lady Athena,” Prince Harran walked over to me, I smiled at him and dipped lightly, “if I am to understand, I have competition now.”

“You always had competition your highness,” I said. He laughed. “But yes, The Prince of Phania arrived this morning.” He shook his head.

“Typical,” he sighed. I laughed.

“Do you know him?” I asked, tossing him a wooden sparring sword. I like sparring with Harran.

“Prince Eric?” He said. I nodded. “No, my older brother Anders met him at Rastan. I went to Pantona.” I laughed.

“I see,” I nodded and strucked first, he blocked me.

“Lady Athena?” I turned hearing the Prince’s voice. I spun and was face to face with him. “Am I interrupting?” There was a laugh in his voice.

“No,” I said, “of course not, your highness. Do you know Prince Harran, from the Borderlands?’

“No,” he said. “Your Highness,” Harran nodded at him. “I was wondering if you might know, my men, as we came so quickly we didn’t make arrangements, and they could stay on the ship but it’s not comfortable, and,” I laughed and shook my head.

“I’d imagine not, but I’m not the one to ask about such things,” I said.

“You’re head of The Queen’s Household, aren’t you? Or did I misunderstand?” He swallowed.

“Lady Athena is Captain of Her Majesty’s Guard,” Harran grinned, “if you need a bandit caught, she’s your woman.” I poked him and then nodded towards the terrace of the palace, where Aaron was standing talking to Marina.

“It’s my betrothed, Count Aaron or Duchess Marina you want for that sort of thing,” I smiled, “I’m hopeless at logistics.” He nodded. “Is there something else?”

“I feel as though I should apologize, your brother,” he looked down, “I didn’t realize you were estranged from your family in Dorin.”

“Don’t mind Tristan,” I said, “we aren’t, well, I’m not. With Tristan it’s more complicated.” He nodded. “Is there anything else?”

“I suppose not,” he said softly, “my brother would be interested in this.” He gestured to my sword.

“He’s very welcome,” I smiled. Harran snorted. The Prince bowed and turned and walked away. “They’re peculiar.”

“I think they’ll find us confusing,” Harran grinned, “Anders said they’re very formal.” I nodded.

“Yes, but you thought we were formal,” I said and kick his knee knocking him to the ground. He laughed. “You know if you’d have asked her last week she’d have taken you, I think.”

“No she wouldn’t have,” he said. “She wasn’t going to have anyone until he came.” I nodded.

Heartbroken

I don’t think I’ve ever seen Marina rush through undressing me so quickly before. I have a feeling that I am about to be 30 gold pieces richer. I wish I could laugh, or tease her about it, but she’s vibrating at such a high frequency, and all I can think about is that Tristan is going away.

It’s been less than a year and the idea of life without him feels unbearable. I try sleeping, it doesn’t happen, so I do something I haven’t done since I was very small. I go to the basin that’s been set up in my bedrooom. I swept the small amount of water out, and grabbed the vial of sea water from the North Sea that Duchess Norvine gave me.

I’ve never done anything this selfish with magic before. Anselm would have been furious, and it feels somehow, dark, and wrong. I swallow and pour the water into the basin and focus, swirling it.

“Please, let me see her,” I said softly.  The image of a beautiful young woman, with long golden hair appeared. She was brushing it and humming to herself.

She was wearing a red night dress.

“I’m trying Caro,” a male voice comes from outside and she turns, her eyes narrowed. I know the voice.

“Are you, Alex?” She said and stood up and walked to a door, looking out onto a terrace and courtyard.

“Yes,” he rolled his eyes. “could have set you up in Dovetail a year ago, you know.” She frowned.

“Only until your grandfather and uncle died,” she hissed. “I don’t want any part of merchant life and you know it.”

“Tristan’s your man then,” Alex Dufrey muttered. “His wife will have to enter the guard and so will any children. If this works out you’ll be good and out, I promise.” Her face softened then.

“And he’s really coming?” She asked. He nodded.

“Leaves in the morning,” he said. “You could say thank you, Carolina.”

I smashed my hand against the water and fell against the bed. I don’t know why I thought it would make me feel better. It didn’t. I felt worse. She was using him to escape. I hated her. I hated Alex DuFrey. I hated Tristan. I hated Eric. I hated the stupid gods. I hated the crown all of it.

I started sobbing. I thought about the what if. I thought about if I was Lisette. Would I have even met Tristan? Would I have stayed in Pantona, married William and lived quietly and content running the inn? Or would I have run away with Harran?

It didn’t matter of course. It was a stupid game. Tristan and I had played it for too long and it had broken both of our hearts. It might break Eric’s. It might break the beautiful Carolina’s.

We couldn’t know how much wreckage our pretending would bring.

I cried then, for I don’t know how long and but they were bitter, angry selfish tears, I cried until I hear a horse leaving the palace and ran out to the balcony watching Tristan speed away on Elian. I hear the door creak and realize that Lefty has slipped out and Marina comes and joins me and hold me while I cry more.

Anselm Is Here

I must be spending too much time with Marina since I woke up this morning and headed straight for the library. I keep thinking about what Harran said, about the Westrans and the balance of the Triad.

I never thought of the three of them that way, I’d always thought of it as war, Cornan and Rana against Amina. Maybe I was looking for kindness where there was none for Caleb’s sake. He was buried now which gave me hope that Amina no longer held him, but still.

“Well, this is certainly a sight I never thought I’d see,” I looked up and exhaled, thrilled to see Mastero Anselm. I leapt out of my chair and embraced him, in a way I hadn’t since I was very small. “Relax yourself, Majesty,” he said and I broke away. He knelt them. “In the name of the gods, I pledge myself to your service, Queen Annalise.”

“Your service is accepted with gratitude, Mastero,” I said gravely, “please stand, I’m so glad you’re here.” He smiled and stood up. “I didn’t hear back from you so I didn’t know if you were coming.”

“I almost didn’t but then a certain newly installed Count came banging on my door and said if I didn’t come to the aid of my queen when it was requested I could find another place to die, if it pleased me,” he sighed and I giggled, imagining the scene. “I happen to like the garden I’ve built at Pantona as well my house, plus I don’t see your cousin Marina or Duchess Norvine being to my taste as a landlord, so alas, here I am.”

“Do you think there’s any chance that Amina is going to exploit my grief about Caleb’s death in order to overtake Marina and turn her against me so that she can have Brayton’s child who will be the Dark Sword who destroys me?” I blurted. He looked and me and laughed.

“My goodness, that is quite a lot of information,” he said, “you Dreamed these things?” I nodded and we walked back to the table. “The possibility of Amina trying to create a sword did not escape me, but Lisette, I assure you,” he took my hand, “your birth was the incredible event of many strands of fate intersecting. Even if Marina Sanpierre bore Brayton’s child the chances of that child being a sword,” he sighed. “Your mother was Chosen, your father was the first Prince with the sight in fifty years, they were in love, truly and deeply. And you were shaped, by Count Caleb and myself,” I smiled. “Have you been speaking to him?”

“Not frequently,” I said, “it’s complicated.”

“It is not, in fact complicated, Annalise,” he said. “I am glad I came.” We walked out onto a balcony. The Dome of The University was in plain view. “Blast, I suppose I’ll have to go there.” I looked down. “What, precisely do you hope to gain from discussions with The Shadow Lord, Lisette?”

“Insight,” I said softly. “An understanding of my mandate of what being Chosen is, what it means.” He nodded. “And he is my family, Anselm, my blood, my father’s,” I leaned against the rail.

“You have other family,” he said, “your cousins here with you, both chosen,” I went to speak up, “And Thomas Martin, who perhaps feels even more keenly the import of a mandate than anyone, having failed in his? Hm?” I swallowed. “Brayton will only feed you doubt.”

“I’m glad you’ve come,” I said. “I’m sorry too. I know you didn’t want to come.” He smiled and patted my hand.

“Well, we don’t always get what we want,” he said. “Where is Duchess Marina? I would like to hear her thougths on all this?”

“You’re going to gang up on me,” I said and he laughed following me into the palace.

 

Prince Harran

Prince Harran of the Borderlands had been spending most of his time around the barracks. It made sense, the Border Tribes were less formal than us, and Harran had been chafing at court.

I’d forgotten how much I’d liked him when he visited us at Pantona, with his easy manners and laugh. He was tall with light hair and eyes, and he was tall and strongly built.

“Your majesty,” he said, seeing me approach. He was sharpening a knife.

“Your Highness,” I said and sat down with him. He laughed and pulled his flask from his belt. “Thank you.”

“Tell me Lisette,” he said, “where have you been of late?” I frowned. “You haven’t been here with us.”

“No,” I said softly and took a drink. “Do you think I can still out drink you, Your Highness.” He laughed and shook his head.

“Perhaps,” he said, taking the flask back and drinking himself, “I don’t think we should try now.” I nodded. “So, where have you been?”

“I don’t know,” I said, “with the gods?” He laughed. “I just want to be Lisette, for a moment.”

“All right,” he nodded. “Will you marry me?” I laughed.

“Did you hear me?” I said, “I want to be Lisette. A nameless orphan girl, raised in a country manor on the kindness of some nobles. You wanted to marry Lisette.”

“I wanted to do a lot of things with Lisette,” he grinned. “She was too young, as was I.” I smiled. “Besides, I didn’t think you were nameless, I thought you were Count Caleb’s daughter, which is why I didn’t simply show up in your chamber and help myself, frankly, because it would have been a grave insult to him.”

“Harran, I don’t know whether to be insulted or flattered,” I shook my head and he smiled. “I might not have turned you away, I did think you were very handsome.” He laughed and stood up, walking over to my bench and sitting beside me. “But you didn’t want to marry Lisette, you wanted to her to bed.” He smiled.

“Hmm,” he nodded. “So I did. Still do, at that.” I swallowed. “But now I’d be worried Tristan Dugarry would chop my head off for it.”

“And now?” I said, “You were sent here by the Chieftans to court me. You’ve done poorly there.” He snorted.

“This is why I wanted you then,” he said, “you fear nothing, Lisette.” I smirked and pulled myself close.

“I don’t fear you,” I said. He nodded. “If I were Lisette, not Queen Annalise, what would you ask me?” He kissed me then and I felt almost giddy.

“I’d ask how long before anyone came looking for you,” he whispered. “But you aren’t Lisette. Lisette wouldn’t come to me like this, she was fearless about life, but shy of men.” I smiled and looked down. “Besides,” he pulled back, “I’m not interested in a woman who’s heart is full of another man.”

“So you want love from me too then,” I said. He laughed.

“No,” he said, “no, if you wanted me, really, me, even just for a night, I would not miss it. But you don’t want me, you want to escape. You want to forget who you are, forget Captain Dugarry, and darling I am not the man for that.” I smiled. “My proposal stands though. It’d be a good match. You’d be Annalise Dovetail, Queen of Cammadan, The Sword of The Goddess and Chieftess of The Border.”

“Would you expand that border?” I grinned. He laughe

“When I rise to Chieftan, Lisette,” Harran grinned, “I will conquer the west for you regardless of if you’re my wife. I will crown you Empress myself, if you wish it.”

“Good then,” I said. “I might still marry you, I haven’t decided.”

“Mm,” he smiled. “Well, I’ll write to the Chieftans and tell them I need to remain to,” he winked, “convince you.” I laughed. “If I were to leave you be, it would not be for a lesser man than Prince Eric or Captain Dugarry. I admire them both.” I smiled.

“I’m sorry, if you felt I was trying to use you, Harran,” I said, cupping my hand on his cheek.

“You are Queen,” he smiled, “to use your subjects is your right.” I smiled. “You needed an old friend, I know you’re short on those at the moment.” I nodded. “How long until Aaron returns?”

“I don’t know,” I said softly, “soon, I hope. Olivia said she might stay in Pantona, which would break my heart but I understand,” I sighed. “I miss them.”

“That’s alright,” he said, “I miss my brothers, and my father,” I smiled and we kissed again. “The gods knew what they were doing with you, I can see that.” I smiled.

“Who do your people honor?” I asked.

“The gods,” he said softly. “We exist by their grace, their balance and triad.” I pressed my lips into my mouth. “Yes, the discussion of the triad would upset you, I suppose, but Rana and Cornan’s balance cannot exist without Amina’s check. The Westerners and The Rastani understand this better than we ever could.” I nodded and stood up. “I’ve upset you.”

“You’ve restored me, Old Friend,” I said, we pressed out hands together one last time. “Thank you.”

Raymond

Marina was studying, or working on the faire or something. Tristan was in the market, with Athena, probably preparing for his departure.

We still didn’t talk about it. Ever. It hurt us both too much. I found myself longing for Aaron. I’d been so caught up in things with Eric and Tristan and my more recent dreams that I hadn’t let myself miss him.

But I wanted to talk to him about everything, about seeing Caleb in the Realm of The Dead, about watching Marina grow happier and healthier as she fell in love with Lefty, about my own swirl of thoughts and feelings with Eric.

We’d slowed things down, after that night on the couch, even the small casual touches had stopped. I didn’t miss it, because he still laughed and smiled and flirted, and I had my nights with Tristan which had only become more intense.

“Your Majesty?” Raymond stepped in to the parlor and I stood up. I’m still not fully comfortable around him. “I’m sorry, was I disturbing you?”

“No,” I shook my head. “How can I help you?”

“Marina, that is,” he looked down, “The Duchess,” I laughed and shook my head.

“We’re all cousins, Raymond,” I said, settling at the table and gesturing to a chair for him, “you can call her Marina, and me Annalise, or even Lisette if you like.” He nodded and sat down.

“Yes, well,” he cleared his throat, “she thought it might be possible for me to enter the University.”

“She mentioned the idea to me too,” I said, “it isn’t a bad one, honestly, I wish I’d thought of it.” He smiled. “What do you want to study? Besides Elementals, obviously.”

“Yes, besides that,” he said, “I don’t know. History? Maybe the mythologies, I could help with your mandate.” I nodded. I saw how badly he wanted to be useful. Eric had told me he’d been largely cast aside at home. He didn’t belong on The Prince’s Glory either, not really. Marina had decided we needed to make a place for him.

But he still made me uneasy.

“That could work,” I said softly, “I sent for Mastero Anselm, he might have a few ideas.” Raymond’s face brightened.

“Mastero Anselm is coming here?” He asked. “Truly?”

“Unfortunately,” I mumbled, “I’m out of options. He’s going to be furious with me but there’s nothing to be done.” I stopped. “What do you know about Dreams?”

“I know that when my sister has one we have to shutter the royal apartments because she shrieks like a banshee,” he said softly. “I’ve never had one myself, which is why,” he stopped.

“Why the Mothers rejected you,” I said. He nodded. “I’m sorry, for that. We’ll find something for you, you have my word.”

“Thank you,” he said, standing up and bowing, I smiled and nodded indicating he was dismissed. The conversation had been almost normal but I was still unsettled, I still wanted someone who’d known me before.

I wanted to be Lisette, even for a little while. And then I suddenly remembered that there was someone in the palace who knew me before and smiled.