Presentation

Carolina

I was trying to remain calm standing next to Papa waiting for Tristan. Should I not have left them alone? I trusted him. But there was something nagging me about it. Duchess Marina had been pulled away and was now I noticed having a very animated conversation with the man she’d introduced as her cousin.

“Oh good,” Athena walked over. She looked beautiful, dressed in her formal uniform, the same jacket as I’ve seen Tristan in, but tailored to her curves, and a long green satin skirt rather than the crisp black pants. “You look wonderful. Are you nervous?”

“A little,” I admitted. I was happy with the dress. It was a simple gold satin, with a few flounces of lace. Ever since Emily took control of my wardrobe from Mother, I’ve been more comfortable. I suddenly felt a pang, wishing desperately that my sister was here. “She was very kind. Thank you for suggesting we talk before.”

“Mm,” Athena nodded. “Well, I’m glad. Where’s Tristan?” I exhaled. “Oh,” she said softly. “Well, I’m sure he’ll be along soon.” I swallowed and nodded.

“Will I have,” I looked her up and down. She looked down. “well, this?”

“Oh,” she laughed, “perhaps not this elaborate, but yes, you’ll have a dress uniform. Count Caleb gave Tristan and I ours when we were inducted. I’m sure you’ll be able to afford one.” She stopped. “Or perhaps I’ll give you one.” I nodded. “Hello, Mr. DuKarras.”

“Lady Athena,” Father smiled distractedly at her. I glanced across the room and saw Andrei lazily leaning against the wall, sipping out of a glass. I glared at my father. “I couldn’t well stop him from coming.”

“Clearly,” I gritted my teeth. Athena looked at me. Tristan walked in and the knot in my chest released. He looked vaguely worried but I hurried over to him. “What kept you?” His face immediately softened.

“I’m sorry,” he shook his head. “As you said, we had a lot to talk about.” I nodded. “I promise to tell you all about it.” I smiled and kissed him. “Are you alright?” He asked gently.

“Just nervous,” I said softly. “Andrei is here. I don’t know why.” He nodded.

“I think I do,” he said, his eyes sliding to his grandfather. He kissed my forehead. “Are you ready?” I nodded. A large bell was rung and two large doors I hadn’t noticed swung open. I watched Annalise walk through the ballroom, people sinking into bows and curtsied as she did.

I felt like I couldn’t breathe. The girl who I’d spoken to earlier seemed gone completely. In her place, might as well have been the Goddess herself, all poise and calm.

“I can’t do this,” I said. Tristan looked at me. “Tristan, you don’t understand, when we met, I’d already given up, you didn’t see the years before. Tripping over gowns, Alex apologizing for me when I said the wrong thing to your grandfather, ” He looked at me. “I can’t, I’ll fall on my face, and humiliate you.”

“Caro,” he said softly, “it’s alright. You’ll be fine. I’ll be with you, and you don’t have to do anything at all. We did the hard part. This isn’t really her, you saw the real her.” I swallowed and nodded. But I knew it wasn’t that simple. A few other people had walked through the crowd and gotten a nod. I noticed Count Aaron and his mother standing beside her.

Tristan’s hand was in the small of my back and I swallowed.

“Your Majesty,” he said gently and bowed, “Your Graces,” I also noticed a Phanian man on her left. “Your Highness,” Tristan’s voice seemed higher and tighter when he addressed the Prince. “I would like to present, my intended, Miss Carolina DuKarras.” I swallowed and sunk into a low curtsey.

“Miss DuKarras,” Queen Annalise smiled, “we are honored to have you here with us, and hope, that on your marriage you will choose to serve.”

“No-nothing could bring me more pleasure, Your Majesty,” I said, meeting her eyes. There was the softness in them, that had been there when she took my hands earlier and laughed. She nodded and I stood up.

“Sir Tristan,” The Dowager Countess said, “perhaps, you and Miss DuKarras would honor us all by opening the dancing.” He glanced at me. I nodded.

“We would be honored, Your Grace,” I said gently. My voice was barely above a whisper, it was all I could manage.

“Good then,” The Count winked at me, “you two will start, and I request at least one, Miss DuKarras.” The exasperated sigh The Queen let out then almost made me giggle. It certainly made me miss Emily less. We moved away then and I exhaled happily.

“That went well,” Trey walked over to us. I smiled at him. “You’re very pale, Caro, would you like some wine.”

“Oh Gods, yes,” I said, reaching for the goblet he held out. I took a long swallow. “That was awful. I never have to do anything like that again, do I?”

“Of course not,” Tristan said, “well, your induction, but that will be smaller.” I nodded and took another long sip. He laughed. “Please slow down,” I frowned at him.

“Fine,” I said softly. But the wine was wonderful, sweet and light, compared to heavier dark reds I drank at home. “But I will be dancing with the count.” He laughed.

“As if I thought I could stop Aaron from doing just as he pleases,” he said. I laughed. “You don’t mind, do you?”

“No,” I said, “I know he’s only teasing. I watched the sunrise in his eyes when he looks at your sister.” Like I saw in your eyes when you saw her. He smiled gently and kissed me. “Tristan, I don’t want to be a burden while we’re here.”

“You couldn’t be,” he whispered softly and kissed me again. “You’re upset, did someone say something to you?” I shook my head.

“I’m fine,” I said, “it’s been a very long day.” He nodded. “I want to dance. Like we’re back in Dorin.” He smiled then, and cupped my face.

“Of course, I want that too,” he said. “In Dovetail there’s usually food at these things and I’m starving.” I laughed, taking his arm and going in search of food.

Reunited

Annalise

“You’re very impressive tonight,” Mercy said, fastening a sash across my chest. I looked at her. “I understand it. I helped Marina pick her dress for tonight, and she might as well be Rana herself.”

“It’s mostly because between Franz and the merchants I can’t appear even human, let alone,” I swallowed.

“Sir Tristan looked well enough when I saw him,” Mercy grinned. I glared at her. “I’m only saying. And Elodie said he and Marina were practically dancing together when he came to camp.”

“You and Elodie see too much,” I grumbled. She giggled.

“Perhaps,” she said, “but neither of us have seen Miss DuKarras.” I rolled my eyes.

“Aaron said she’s perfect,” I mumbled and fidgeted with my necklace. She touched my wrist to stop me and took my hands.

“When my father used to parade me in front of his friends,” she said softly, “before I met Elodie,” I looked at her. “I made sure I couldn’t be missed. That was my armor. They would see me.” I looked at her. “I think you’re just hoping to be seen tonight, Your Majesty.” I kissed her on the cheek.

“Remind me to humiliate your father every night when we get back to Dovetail,” I said. She laughed.

“He won’t return to court,” she said, kneeling down to settle my skirts. “And I’m reasonably sure if he tried, Elodie would take a knife to him and that wouldn’t be much fun for me.” I laughed and the door opened.

“I’m sorry, I didn’t,” Tristan stopped and I turned and looked at him. “I thought you’d be dressed.”

“I am,” I said. “Thank you, Mercy.” She nodded and walked out, whacking Tristan in the arm.

“Mistress Graves,” he grimaced.

“Commander,” she said. He sighed. I held back a laugh. Mercy’s loyalty was unwavering.

“She’s never liked me,” he said. I smiled. “I wanted to,” I glanced at the bed and nodded and we stepped into the sitting room. And there she was. “Your Majesty, I’d like you to meet my intended, Miss Carolina DuKarras.”

“Oh,” I said softly. I didn’t know what I expected, but when our eyes met I felt two feet tall. She was beautiful, I’d Seen that. But she seemed to fit at Tristan’s side, he seemed to gravitate towards hers, and I wanted to hate her for it.

It was also impossible to miss that she looked terrified.

“Lisette,” he said, “Athena thought this would be be better,” he looked almost ashamed. Carolina looked at me.

“It is,” I finally managed and walked over. “Miss DuKarras, I’m so happy to meet you.” She swallowed and curtsied.

“Your Majesty,” she said, “I am honored. And I hope you’ll accept my service.” I grinned in spite of myself.

“Oh Tristan,” I shook my head, “please tell me you didn’t,” he shook his head. “Your service is accepted, please stand up.”

“What didn’t he do?” Miss DuKarras said and looked at me and then him. “Did I do it wrong?”

“You were perfect,” I said, lacing my arm through hers and walking her out onto the terrace, “when Tristan first learned who I was he dropped to one knee and pledged to die for me.” Tristan looked furious. “So clearly you two are well suited.” She burst out into a laugh.

“He didn’t tell me that!” She said and settled on a chair, “he told me about the lemon orchard in Pantona.”

“Well he comes off as a dashing hero in that story,” I shrugged, “so obviously that’s the one he’d tell.”

“He is right here,” Tristan grumbled and sat down with us. “Please don’t repeat humiliations to my bride, Lisette, she thinks I’m wonderful.”

“Hm,” she nodded, “he was rather wonderful when we were in Dorin. Though he often lost his temper when teased.”

“Oh he hates being teased,” I grinned. Tristan was flushed. “Thomas tells me you wish to enlist.” She sat up straight.

“Very much,” she said, “I want to do my part and I know as Lady Dugarry it will be expected.”

“I happily accept,” I said, “we’ll talk with Thomas in the morning about your assignment. Obviously if you and Prince Eric get on,” I stopped and looked at Tristan. “Well, I suppose we can cross that bridge when we come to it.”

“Yes,” Tristan said. “We should go downstairs,” he stood up, Miss DuKarras placed her hand on his arm.

“I’ll go,” she said, “I think you two need to talk.” I swallowed and nodded as she walked out. He watched her go and then cleared his throat.

“Lisette, I,” he started. I smiled.

“She’s wonderful, Tristan,” I said. He smiled. “You’re lucky.”

“I am,” he admitted. “I should have come to see you this afternoon, but there was so much,” I exhaled.

“I know,” I said. We were standing opposite one another. “It’s so good to see you, I was worried,” he nodded.

“Were you?” He swallowed. “Lisette, I,” I stepped closed and wrapped my arms around him. “Gods, I’ve missed you.”

“I’ve missed you too,” I said. “So much, Tristan. I was so lost sometimes, and I love Eric, I do, but, it’s not,” he lifted my chin.

“I know,” he said, “I love Caro, but it isn’t the same. It isn’t us.” I smiled.

“You must have coached her,” I laughed, “I couldn’t believe she practically, mirrored you.” He laughed.

“She didn’t promise to die for you, I still reserve that right,” he said, running a hand over my braids. “This suits you,” I smiled. “Rina almost feels like a stranger.”

“She has grown hasn’t she?” I laughed. “I’m so proud of her. Aaron and I fought and didn’t speak for weeks, did Thena tell you?”

“No,” he said, “what did you fight about?” I swallowed.

“I was,” I sighed, “well, Harran was involved.” He exhaled.

“Of course,” he said softly. I sighed. “I don’t want to,” he laughed. “This was always going to be impossible, wasn’t it?” I nodded.

“I think all of us acknowledging that it’s impossible is the first step here,” he smiled. On instinct I stood up on my toes and kissed him gently. We then passed gently pretty quickly as he pulled me close and I pulled him down onto the seat. It felt so good to be close to him again. He pulled away and sighed pressing his forehead to mine.

“And we probably shouldn’t do that again,” he said softly. I nodded.

“Yes,” I said softly, “that is absolutely the last time we do that.” He laughed and stood up. “Tristan,” I whispered and he looked at me. “I wish you’d said goodbye.”

“I wish I had too,” he said softly. “But that night, I just,” he exhaled, “I couldn’t, Lisette, I just needed to be away from you, and from Marina too. I could barely breathe, we were all so wrapped up.” I looked at him. “Why Harran?” He asked gently.

“Because Eric wanted something real, and I wasn’t ready,” I said softly. “And you weren’t here.” I swallowed. “And I wanted you, I mean, not that way.” We started walking. “I just wanted to talk to you. To ask why you loved me, why,” I exhaled. “Why I should keep trying.” He smiled.

“As if I could explain why I love you,” he shook his head, “loving you is like breathing for me, Lisette. Like I wasn’t even a whole person until we met.” I nodded.

“Don’t leave me again,” I said softly, “that’s an order.” He smiled.

“Understood, Your Majesty,” he said and opened the door and I walked past him.. He slid his hands to my waist and nuzzled against my neck. “I wanted you too, nearly every night.” I exhaled. “I dreamed about you. About us, about the first time I touched you, about your coronation night.”

“Tristan,” I whispered, “don’t,” I whimpered. “We can’t do this.” He sighed and let me go.

“I love you,” he said, “and I always will.”

“I’ll always love you too,” I said, “that doesn’t make it right.” I looked at him. “But we can’t go in circles anymore, and it isn’t just us anymore.” He swallowed. “I have to go. I have to welcome your intended to court.” I realized I was crying and I rushed away.

The Little Duchess

Carolina

I was fully dressed and pacing in the hall of the house we’d be staying in. It was lovely, I couldn’t argue with that. The dress I was wearing had been especially made for whenever I was being presented to the Queen and now I was so nervous I couldn’t breathe.

“Miss DuKarras?” A maid stepped in. “There’s a carriage here,” I nodded. “And The Lady Marina is in it.” I exhaled.

“Oh,” I whimpered, “I thought we’d be going soon. Has there been any word from Sir Tristan?” She shook her head. “Alright, the parlor, I suppose.” She nodded again and I walked into the parlor and waited.

She walked in, practically floating. Her hair was arranged artfully in curls and she was dressed in a silvery blue color and smiled so gently.

And she was tiny. I’d heard her teasingly called The Little Duchess and I could see why now.

“Your Grace,” I said softly and curtsied.

“Miss DuKarras,” she said and walked over to me and sat down. “I’m sorry I couldn’t greet you this afternoon, and I’m sure you were expecting Tristan but he’s been detained.”

“Of course,” I sighed, “I imagine he has a lot to catch up on.” She nodded. “I’m glad to meet you, finally. Tristan speaks of you often.”

“That’s nice to hear,” she said softly. “I don’t want things to be awkward between us. Tristan is my oldest friend and I adore him and it’s clear that you make him terribly happy which is nice because he’s almost never happy.” I laughed.

“You flatter me, Your Grace,” I said softly.

“Marina,” she said, “please.” I nodded and then Father walked in. “Oh, you must be Mr. DuKarras.”

“Yes,” he said shortly.

“Father, Duchess Marina came to meet us and escort us to the palace,” I said standing up and taking his arm. “Tristan was delayed by work, wasn’t it kind of her?”

“Very kind,” he said, “thank you, Your Grace.”

“Not at all,” she stood up and began walking out. “My own father won’t be there, I hope you won’t take offense. He absolutely refuses to attend any event that Admiral Franz will be present at for personal reasons.”

“What are those reasons?” I asked as we climbed into the carriage. “I thought your father was Phanian?”

“Oh he is,” she nodded, “but Papa is rather eccentric. And he deeply disapproves of Annalise and I and well, our attachments to the Island, shall we say. He thinks it’s dangerous.”

“He may not be wrong,” Father said. “I recall some of the talk around Phania when your aunt became queen, none of it particularly kind.” I looked at him. “You look shocked, Caro. You know I spent time in Vacana during my apprenticeship.”

“I long to go,” The Duchess sighed. “I think the Goddess wants me to, but she certainly isn’t being helpful.” I stared at her.

“Isn’t that disrepectful?” I said softly. She smiled at me.

“Oh terribly,” she sighed, “but while losing the blessing is traumatic, I sometimes think it might be worth it.” Father and I both stared at her baffled. “Ah, here we are!” I looked out the window and saw the palace. “Don’t be nervous, Annalise is wonderful, really. She might be a bit stand offish at first, but that’s because she’s a bit shy of new people.” She happily bounced out of the open door and I swallowed and stepped out.

Tristan was smiling waiting for me. I exhaled and took his hand.

“I’m sorry,” he said, “Rina insisted.”

“I did not,” she said sticking out her tongue. I laughed. “Mr. DuKarras, would you mind escorting me inside?”

“Of course not, your grace,” he said offering his arm. She winked at me and continued chattering to my father.

“Did she frighten you?” Tristan asked with a soft smile. “I warned her not to.” I laughed.

“No,” I shook my head, “no, she’s lovely. A bit odd.” He laughed.

“She is that,” he sighed. “She’s lived a peculiar life so far. I doubt it will get more normal.” I nodded. “I’ve missed you all day.”

“Don’t be silly, I’m sure you’ve been very busy,” I said and straightened his jacket. “I was worried when you didn’t come tonight, but Duchess Marina explained you were working.” He nodded.

“Yes,” he said, “and Athena had a thought. We’re going to see Annalise.”

“Well, yes,” I nodded as we started walking inside. “That is why I’m here.”

“No,” he sighed. “I mean, yes, but I meant now, before the presentation. I think it will be easier.” I stared at him.

“What?” I said, “Just waltz into the Queen’s bedchamber like,” I stopped. Of course, it wouldn’t seem at all strange to him. He looked down. “Oh Tristan, I don’t think it is a good idea.” I pressed my lips into my mouth. “I understand if you want to speak to her first, I can find my father and your uncle and be fine until,” I swallowed. “Duchess Marina said she’s shy of new people?” He smiled.

“I don’t know if shy is the right word exactly,” he said. “But she’s not good at it. Most of her life it was just her and The Count, you see, she never really could make friends.” I nodded. I was familiar with that idea.

“Alright,” I said softly. “I mean, I suppose so.” He smiled. “But my father,” I drifted. I was making an excuse, he knew I didn’t really care about my father’s comfort and it seemed he and the Duchess were getting along just fine.

“Caro,” he said softly, the softness in his voice, that he usually used just for me, returning, “it’s alright.” I smiled and nodded and followed him upstairs.

Brother

Athena

I sat on the bed as Tristan started unpacking his trunks. I frowned, seeing how he’d come back with four more than he’d brought.

“You travel like Alex now?” I said. He looked at me.

“You’d be amazed,” he said, “Alex is practically a minimalist compared to the people up there.” I nodded. “Most of these were gifts, Thena, from when we got engaged. Which is more about Grandfather than me.” I raised an eyebrow and he sat down. “You don’t approve?”

“It doesn’t matter, how I feel,” I said, “you seem changed, though, mostly for the better.” He looked at me. “Maybe I’m being unfair.”

“You aren’t,” he said. “I feel it too. I don’t know how I’ll fit anymore.” I looked at him. “And I have no idea what I’ll say to Lisette.”

“What did Marina say?” I asked. He frowned and stood up. “What did you do?”

“I didn’t do anything,” he said, “Lestoff showed up and she seemed rather annoyed.” I nodded.

“They’ve been arguing quite a bit,” I said. He frowned at me. “She talks to me, we’re friends now. I thought that was what you wanted.”

“I don’t want you telling me these things,” he fell back against the bed and I stood up. “Part of why it was so easy for me to let go was thinking that they didn’t,” he drifted off.

“Are you really just going to escort Carolina into that room without talking to Lisette first?” I raised my eyebrows. “You already didn’t say goodbye when you left. Just reappearing probably won’t help.” He glared at me. “And Marina is most certainly over you, though she was on her way even before you left. Lisette,” I stopped. “I don’t know that she ever will be Tristan.” He was just staring upward.

“Of course she won’t,” he said softly and I looked at him. “I won’t ever get over her either. I think that’s what you all don’t understand. How we love each other is permanent, Thena.” I frowned at him. “It isn’t that I don’t love Caro, that I don’t want to marry her, that I’m going to throw all of that away. It’s simply a fact of my life. I love Lisette and she loves me.”

“That sounds terrible,” I said.

“It really, really is.” He groaned. “I’ve been trying to tell you for a year how terrible it is, and you thought I was being ridiculous.” I laughed. “What about you?” I sighed and stretched. “Aaron said it was bad for a while.”

I sighed.

“It was,” I whispered, “it was dark, and he was wonderful about it.” Tristan smiled. “I never realized how much I relied on you, when it was bad. I’m sorry for that.”

“Athena,” he said, “it was never a burden. I was worried about you though. There were a lot of changes all at once, and that usually makes it worse.” I smiled. “Do you disapprove of the wardrobe?” He sighed.

“I don’t disapprove,” I said, “but I am going to tease you about it, forever. It used to be a struggle to get you into a clean shirt.” He laughed.

“Even when I wore some of it,” he said, “Caro didn’t like it. She likes the uniform.” I smiled.

“Oh, she and I are going to get along very well,” I said. “Come on, time to reintroduce you to the troops, Commander.” He groaned. “Unless you want to continue your hiatus. I’ll recommend whatever you want.” He followed me out the door.

“Do you know how weird it was to go up to the Fort in Dorin and see everyone and then go back to that damn house,” he said and shook his head. “I did manage to keep up some training, but I’m going to be rusty.”

“Hm,” I nodded. “Well, we’ll whip you into shape.” He laughed when we reached the hall and Marina was running in. “Oh, is it that late already?” I asked. She looked at us.

“Mercy said we have to pick her clothes at least,” she shrugged. “And then I have to change.” I sighed.

“Why don’t you get changed?” I said, “and go down into town and retrieve Tristan’s bride.” Tristan stared at me.

“I hate that idea,” Tristan said flatly. “You’ll terrify her.”

“I will not!” Marina said. “People very much enjoy me.” I giggled. “And then you’ll introduce her to Lisette.”

“Yes,” Tristan said, “that is the point of this whole evening.”

“No,” I said, “not the presentation. Take her to go see her. You’re worried Marina will terrify her. Lisette in full Sword of The Goddess, Protector of the Realm mode is the scariest thing in the world.” He frowned.

“I think she’s right,” Marina said and kissed Tristan on the cheek. “What a wonderful idea, Thena.” She bounced away. I grinned at Tristan.

“I have officially decided I do not like you two as allies.” He grumbled. I giggled.

“Come on,” I said, “we have work to do.” I pulled him outside.

Argument

Marina

I was helping to teach the healers the spells Elodie and I had come up with the weave soothing herbs in with bandages when I heard the deep clearing of a throat behind me. The healers all stood at attention and turned around.

“Tristan!” I squealed and ran over to him, “I mean, Commander,” I inclined my head.

“Duchess,” he said, bowing with dignity. “Are you very busy, or can you spare a moment?”

“Oh, I think we’ll manage,” Elodie winked. I shook my head and rolled my eyes and walked out of the tent with him.

“I’m so glad to see you,” I said and threw my arms around his neck. He laughed and he spun me around. “Are you taller? Is that possible?”

“No,” he grinned, “but you might have gotten smaller.” He put me down and I whacked him the chest. “How has it been?”

“Awful,” I sighed, “and wonderful too, but,” I shrugged. “Feels like old times.” He nodded. “Did you come alone?”

“Here? Certainly,” he said. “Carolina is at a house her father took. It was a compromise.” I nodded. “I missed you. Every day,” he placed his hand against my cheek. I swallowed and looked up at him.

“I missed you too,” I said, “so much has happened and I wanted to talk to you and I just,” he nodded and pulled me close. “Have you seen Lisette?” I whispered. I could feel his exhale against his chest.

“Not yet,” he whispered. “She’s locked in with the Phanians.” I nodded. “Why aren’t you?”

“I made up a job to get out of it for the day,” I admitted. “Elodie didn’t really need me for this.” He laughed. “Where is Carolina staying? I’d like to go see her, if you wouldn’t mind.”

“I won’t have you scaring her,” he narrowed his eyes. I shook my head.

“I’m not scary,” I said. He frowned at me. “On purpose.” He smiled then, I slid my arm through his and we started walking. “How did you like it in Dorin?”

“I actually,” he sighed, “I loved it. There would be moments when I was so angry at Martin, for keeping us away from that life. It was simple, once I learned the rules,” I smirked, “and nice, and quiet. And Caro is,” he exhaled. “It’s hard to explain how I feel about her.” I looked at him and smiled gently. He was blushing.

“You’re in love with her,” I giggled. He shrugged. “Oh but that’s wonderful, Tristan! Here I was, so worried you’d be miserable, that you’d hate her.” He blushed.

“And you?” He asked gently. “How’s Lestoff?” I sighed. I could see how annoyed he was to even be asking.

“It’s complicated,” I shook my head. “He’s unhappy. We’re,” I sighed as we kept moving. “I know it’s not me, it’s not us. But he’s wretched, and I don’t know how to help.” He looked at me.

“If anyone can it’s you,” he said softly. I nodded. “I suppose I should let you get back to work.”

“Yes,” I said softly. I didn’t want to though. I wanted to stay here, with him holding me.

“Well, hello,” I jumped away from Tristan hearing Damian’s voice. “Welcome back Captain.”

“Thank you,” Tristan said, his face instantly hard. Damian had a cool smirk on his face. “You aren’t in the negotiations?”

“We’ve adjourned so Annalise can speak with General Martin,” he said sliding his arms around my waist. Tristan nodded. “I’m surprised you aren’t with him.”

“I’ve been with my sister,” Tristan said, “and when I’d heard Marina wasn’t in the meeting,” he drifted off. “If you’ll excuse me, I should go find them.” He took my hand and squeezed it gently.

“I’m glad you’re home,” I said softly.

“I’m glad to be home,” he said. “Lieutenant,” he nodded to Damian. He walked away and the pulled away from him.

“What is wrong with you?” I said harshly and started walking away.

“What’s wrong with me?” He snorted. “I found you in another man’s arms. I’d say my reaction was justified.”

“Please,” I rolled my eyes and kept walking. “You know how hard this has been for me and yes I was taking comfort in an old friend.” He grabbed my arm and I shook him off. “Is that really something you want to condemn me for right now?”

“It’s different,” he said flatly. I laughed shortly. “I was never in love Elaine.”

“No,” I said, “and Tristan was never my lover. So I suppose it all evens out, doesn’t it?” I started walking away. “Don’t follow me!” I shouted over my shoulder. I marched to the beach, where Nika was sitting on a rock, the waves crashing against it. I turned to go, I didn’t want to disturb her.

“You don’t have to go,” she said softly exhaling out of her meditation pose. “I already sensed the storm in you.” I sighed and joined her, sliding my shoes off and dangling my feet in the waves. I already felt better. “Who did you argue with?” I laughed and shook my head.

“Damian,” I said softly. She nodded. “I don’t think I can take much more of this.” She looked at me and smirked.

“Do you require a man?” She raised an eyebrows. I blushed. “I am serious, if the queen marries she’ll likely have many children, surely you could leave your title to a younger one.”

“There are other benefits,” I pointed out. She laughed. “And I do love him.” She sighed and stretched.

“My sister says the same,” she shrugged, “of course Lefty loves you back, and Harran does not love her, so I suppose your case is less hopeless.” I sighed.

“I suppose,” I said. Our knees touched. “It feels rather hopeless, at the moment.” She slid her hand to mine and I shivered.

“The gods have a plan for you, Marina Sanpierre,” she whispered, “it’s as plain as looking at you, the path will be difficult, but,” she stopped, I realized she was blushing, and so was I. “I’m sorry I,” she paused and I swallowed.

“Please don’t apologize,” I swallowed. I stood up. “I should go find The Queen. Thank you.” I ran off then, my hand still tingling from where she touched it.

Negotiations

Annalise

“We understand your hesitancy in the matter of marriage,” Franz said pompously, “but it is difficult to understand why you still haven’t sent an ambassador to our court.” I sighed and Duchess Norvine looked at me.

“I haven’t sent any ambassadors anywhere,” I reminded him, “I’ve only been secure on the throne for a year, and it’s been a trial to even get my own provenances in line. I took Prince Eric’s arrival and considerably long stay as remark of confidence on your king’s part. Perhaps I was mistaken.” Eric grinned at me.

“Can you commit to sending an ambassador in the next year?” Franz said. The Duchess nodded at me.

“I believe, yes,” I said, “I can.” The Duchess nodded. “Duchess Norvine, your son in law had discussed wishing her could travel, had he not?”

“Indeed he had your majesty,” she grinned at me. “And Liesle has complained of the cold her whole life.” I smirked.

“Well then,” I said. Eric cleared his throat.

“I don’t know that we need name the person today,” he said gently. I sighed and looked at him and the door cracked open, a young guard slipped in.

“I apologize for interupting, Your Majesty,” she squeaked. I nodded at her. “You asked to be told when they arrived and they have.”

“Ah,” I said and stood up, “you all will accept a brief recess? I must speak with my General as he has returned.”

“Of course,” Eric smiled and stood up as I left. I walked into the throne room and saw Thomas standing waiting for me with Aaron.

“Hello Thomas,” I said and walked over. He bowed and grinned then pulling me up into a hug. “I’m so glad you’re back.” Then I looked past him. “Oh, Chancellor Dumanis, I hadn’t realized you’d join us so immediately.” Aaron shrugged.

“Your Majesty,” he said. “Of course, I assumed you wished to discuss strategy. I’ve brought nearly fifty ships.” I nodded.

“You bringing the ships was the strategy,” I explained. “There’s no open fighting yet, and I wanted to remind Admiral Franz who is on my side.”

“I see,” he said. I smiled politely at him. “Tristan and The General seemed more alarmed.” I glanced at Aaron.

“Tristan is usually alarmed, that is his nature,” Aaron pointed out. “And The General left before we had a full understanding of the situation.”

“I am unbelievably grateful for your assistance, of course,” I said with a confident smile, “but at the moment I have no further need of it.” The old man stared at me, his face bright red. “I can imagine you have a great deal to do, to settle in here? Many of your associates here in Brightcoast must wish to speak with you in person.”

“Of course,” he said and bowed, “I will see you this evening, for Miss DuKarras’s presentation?”

“Of course,” I smiled and he left. I exhaled and slid down in the throne. Thomas sighed and leaned against it. “Insufferable man.”

“Truly,” Thomas muttered. “How are negotiations?”

“So far,” I said, “they’ve demanded a full neutral stance on Pharras’s independence, Lefty was thrilled with that.” Thomas nodded. “A commitment that no husband who isn’t from a royal family would be crowned king. And today that we send an ambassador to King Daniel’s court by the end of the year.”

“Who’d you promise?” Aaron asked.

“Anya Norvine’s son in law,” I laughed. “I know they’ll want Marina and she may well want to go, but I won’t say as much in there.”

“Of course,” he said. “You won’t get rid of Carland, you know?” I sighed and stood up.

“I know,” I mumbled. “I can put him off though, at least for a while.” I fiddled with the necklace around my throat. “Can you send word to the Admiral that we will be a good deal longer? I want to get a nap in.” I kissed Thomas on the cheek. “I am glad you’re back, it will be easier with you here.”

“I’m glad to be back,” he said softly. I smiled and walked up to my rooms, slipped my dress off and flopped onto the bed.

“You make this far too easy, love,” Eric’s voice rang with a laugh from my doorway. “Half undressed and in bed already.” I sat up and looked at him.

“I’m attempting to rest,” I said, “not tempt you.” He laughed and came and lay down and kissed my neck. “I am besieged on all sides, Eric. Franz with his petty demands from your brother which could have been delivered in a letter, and now Carland Dumanis thinks he has the right to sit in on war councils.”

“Poor Anya,” he said softly, slipping his hands down my spine. “And you have to receive her tonight.” I exhaled. “I won’t pretend not to be jealous, but I can’t imagine it won’t sting your pride a little.”

“Mm,” I said softly. “I keep thinking about what it will be like to see him again. I don’t know how it’s going to feel.” He slipped his arms around my waist and turned my face to kiss me.

“Fret about it all you like,” he whispered, “but please remember you’re mine, now.” I smiled.

“Yes,” I said and rolled over to face him, “I’m yours.” He sighed. “But I do need to get some sleep, Eric. And if you’re going to be king,” he groaned.

“I wanted to slap him, when he brought that up,” he said. “You don’t need to crown me. I just want you.” I smiled and kissed him and snuggled close. “Sleep a little, my heart. I’m here with you.” I drifted off, grateful for his arms.

Greetings

Athena

I looked in the mirror and straightened my hair and uniform. Aaron looked at me with a lopsided grin.

“All this for your grandfather?” He teased. “I thought you didn’t care what he thought.” I frowned.

“I don’t,” I said, “but we need him, so now I have to.” Aaron sighed and nodded and kissed me. “Plus Tristan’s future inlaws will be there and I want to make a good impression.”

“Of course,” he said. “Come on, we should meet my mother and head down.” I nodded and we walk solemnly down into town and to where we knew the ships would be docking. Olivia looked even more nervous than I did and I realized that was terribly sweet.

“I’m sure he’s dying to see you,” I whispered to her.

“I’m dying to see him,” she sighed, “but it’s also the first time I’m seeing Trey since,” she exhaled, “one does feel a bit guilty.” I smiled at her.

“I doubt Trey blames you,” I said. She smiled softly. We stood as a gang plank was rolled out reveal the very grand party of my grandfather, Trey, Tristan, Martin, and two people I didn’t recognize, a man, who had a haughty and annoyed look on his face and a very beautiful young woman, who looked pale and nervous.

“That must be them, then,” Aaron said with a grin. “Tristan’s letters didn’t do her justice.”

“Down boy,” I said with a wink.

“I’m merely noticing, my love,” he said as they walked down. “Chancellor DuManis,” he said, using my grandfather’s guild title. A well done flattery, “Master DuManis, General, Commander.”

“Count,” Grandfather smiled and shook Aaron’s hand, “Countess Olivia, what an unexpected pleasure.” Then he regarded me. “Athena.”

“Grandfather,” I said, accepting his kiss on my cheek. “Hello Uncle,” I said and embraced Trey, “General,” I said squeezing his hands. Tristan grinned wildly at me. “You look terrible.” He laughed and hugged me tightly.

“I’ve missed you so much,” he said softly. I laughed. “Hello Aaron.”

“Hello Tristan,” Aaron laughed and hugged him. “And who is this vision?” He moved to Miss DuKarras. I sighed. “Count Aaron of Pantona.” He took her hand.

“Stop it,” Tristan said, “may I present my intended, Miss Carolina DuKarras, and her father, Mr. Angelo DuKarras.”

“Your Grace,” Miss DuKarras dipped to Aaron as he kissed her hand. “It’s an honor.”

“Yes, yes,” Mr. DuKarras said and looked at me. “We’re all quite honored. Lady Athena, I believe we have a great deal to discuss.”

“Of course you do,” Olivia said in her most graceful and welcoming voice, “but please, let us help you all get settled first.” Martin raised his eyebrows at me. “Please, Mr. DuKarras, Duchess Marina and I were quite busy finding a house for your daughter and you.” She slid her arm through his and they started walking.

“She is really good at that,” Trey sighed and laughed, Martin shook his head.

“She is,” he said. “We should follow them,” they walked on, and I took Tristan’s arm, and the four of us started walking slowly.

“How was the voyage?” I asked. “Marina and Lisette were practically throwing their jewels in the sea to appease Rana.”

“It wasn’t too bad,” he said. “Carolina wasn’t well.” I looked back at her, giggling as Aaron teased her. “Where are they?” He asked.

“Annalise is in negotiations with Admiral Franz, with Duchess Norvine representing the council,” I explained. He nodded. “Marina is with Elodie, preparing the healers in case of battle.” He nodded.

“How are the negotiations?” He asked. I shrugged.

“I don’t think it will matter in the end,” I said. “Franz isn’t seriously here to invade, he’s here to sweep Marina away.” Tristan looked at me. “He is not doing particularly well, she mostly ignores him or when forced answers him sarcastically.” He smiled.

“She’s grown up,” he said, “remember how she used to simply go pale and silent whenever Brayton would force his attention.” I smiled.

“I do,” I said. “There’s going to be a dinner at the palace tonight, to welcome Grandfather and so you can present Carolina.” He sighed.

“Right,” he mumbled, “the sooner the better, I suppose.” I looked at him.

“It won’t be bad,” I said, “she’s ready to like her, Tristan. She’s moved on.” He exhaled, I looked behind me. “Miss DuKarras,” I said bouncing over to them, “You’re to ignore everything he says.” She laughed. Aaron shook his head.

“Didn’t I say it?” He shrugged. “I’m horribly abused.” I rolled my eyes.

“Count Aaron was telling me about your plans in Pantona,” she explained. “Apparently his manager has found three houses for us to choose from. It’s awfully generous of you both.”

“It is the opposite of generous,” I said pulling her away. “These past few months have been the longest of my life and if I’m forced to live apart from Tristan again, I might explode, or Aaron will kill me.” She laughed.

“He missed you too,” she said. “He was practically vibrating with excitement all last night.” I laughed. “I hope when you speak with my father you don’t,” she sighed, “An old suitor came back into orbit recently and he’s suddenly more resistant to this match than he was. I also think he’s a little insulted you haven’t mentioned my dowry.” I stared at her.

“Oh,” I said, “I hadn’t thought of that.” She nodded. “Should I be demanding he pays us more? We don’t need it, you know! We’re Trey’s heirs and we have money from our father’s family and well,” she smirked at me and shrugged.

“It’s about his pride,” she explained, “Tristan mentioned the Count doesn’t approve of any of it, but you’re still having contracts.” I smiled.

“That’s true,” I said. “Do you care?” She bit her bottom lip.

“No,” she said, “I love Tristan and I want to marry him.”

“That was the correct answer.” I smiled as we walked up to the town house.

At Sea

Carolina

It had been two days at sea and I was only growing more anxious by the minute. I’m not doing well when it comes to the voyage. I’ve been sick every day, and Papa appears to be punishing us for insisting on me coming by placing us on Andrei’s ship.

“How are you feeling?” Tristan walked into my cabin. I smiled at him and held out my hand and he came and walked over to me.

“Better,” I said softly. “The waters seem calmer, don’t they?” He nodded and kissed my hand.

“We’re closer to Brightcoast,” he said, “I think Rana’s kinder here.” I laughed as he lay down next to me and kissed me.

“I think so too,” I whispered. “Are you nervous to arrive?” He sighed.

“I’m excited,” he said softly. “Nervous too, but mostly excited. I’ve missed my friends, and Athena.” I smiled and he kissed me again. “I’ve missed you so much.” I whimpered and pressed against him.

“I’ve missed you too,” I said. Between my sickness and not wanting to alert my father, sex has been off the table for us. “Tristan,” I whispered as he he slid my skirts up and his hand in between my thighs. I whimpered as his fingers worked their way in me. I pressed against him.

“I don’t know why I bother with this,” he whispered in my ear and then kissed it. “You’re always so ready for me.” I giggled and kissed him.

“I do like it though,” I whispered.

“I know you do,” he muttered. He started moving faster. I gripped the sheets and groaned. “That’s right, Caro, let go for me.” I kissed him and pulled away.

“I want you,” I said softly. He smiled. “I want to come with you in me.” He nodded and rolled me onto my back. He pressed into me.

“Like this?” He whispered and kissed me, sliding arms above my head. I nodded. “I need your voice, Caro.”

“Yes,” I said as he started stroking in and out of me. “Faster,” I moaned and he obliged, “oh gods, Tristan,” I cried out. He hands curled around my wrists.

“I love you,” he groaned and grunted. I tightened around him, letting go and falling backwards away from him as he finished. He swallowed and held me close. “You finished?”

“You didn’t feel it?” I teased him. He laughed. I stretched and rolled onto my side and looked at him. “I had missed it.” He kissed me gently.

“Me too,” he whispered. “Your Captain Arain says we should be in Brightcoast by tomorrow.”

“Don’t call him that,” I said. He pushed my hair behind me ears. “I know you’re teasing but I don’t like him being my anything.”

“I’m sorry,” he said and kissed me. “I don’t like being near him when I can’t strangle him.” I laughed and sat up.

“I admire your restraint,” I whispered. “You can take your satisfaction in knowing I never,” I rolled over and kissed him, “ever,” I slid my hand down and gripped him, “felt as good with him as I do now.” I kissed him and he groaned.

“That does take the sting out of it,” he smirked. The door opened and I squeaked pulling the sheet over myself.

“Well this looks cozy,” Andrei said lazily. “You’re feeling better, then, Miss DuKarras.”

“Yes,” I squeaked, grabbing a robe. Tristan was blushing and rushing for his pants. “Much.”

“Hm,” he nodded, “Captain Dugarry, General Martin was looking for you, something about making sure tomorrow’s landing is handled properly.”

“Alright,” Tristan said, “thank you.” He left quickly and Andrei stayed looking at me.

“Can I help you?” I said, having recovered my voice.

“Just remembering,” he smirked. “Tell me Caro, did it take him all three nights? Or did you move up your time table?”

“You’re a pig,” I said. He looked down. “Did it really mean so little to you? I was terrified, and I thought,” I swallowed.

“It meant a great deal to me,” he said softly. “I had every intention of marrying you.” I looked at him. “Rastan didn’t pan out how I’d hoped.”

“You could have written me,” I said. He frowned.

“Is that what’s different?” He said softly, “with him?”

“What’s different with him is that he refused to leave me behind at all.” I said. “But then again he also doesn’t answer to my father, so that’s a benefit.” I went to walk past him and he grabbed my arm.

“I am sorry,” he said softly. “Please know that.” I swallowed.

“What possible difference could that make now,” I said and slipped past him. I walked up on deck and paused, hearing voices.

“Who do you think it will be then?” Tristan said. “Surely not Lisette?”

“No,” the General said. “She’ll be busy. Marina maybe, certainly Aaron and Olivia.” Tristan sighed.

“He won’t like that,” Tristan frowned, “her snubbing him.”

“Trust me, I’m aware,” the General sighed. “Olivia wrote that everything social has moved from the palace to the manor, but I doubt he’ll like that either. But we’re trying to avoid war, and he’s already too involved.”

“Right,” Tristan said, I could hear his frown but I rounded the corned then.

“Hello Miss DuKarras,” The General smiled at me. “I see you’re feeling better.”

“Yes,” I said softly. “I am, I overheard, you’re worried about the old man?”

“Not in any real way,” Tristan said. “Just that he’ll be irritated we aren’t making enough of a fuss.” I laughed.

“Oh,” I smiled. “I think I can help with that.” Martin looked at me.

“He does seem to like you,” Martin said, “what’s that like?” I laughed. “How would you help?”

“Well,” I swallowed, “I could make a fuss. How grateful I am to be allowed to come along, knowing how it isn’t normally done this way, but it means so much to us, and how grateful Tristan I are at his unfailing support of our future, especially his,” Tristan beamed at me.

“Cornan save me, you both found politicians,” Martin mumbled. “Yes, that will work.” I giggled and kissed Tristan. “If you’ll excuse me, I’m going to attempt to get some sleep, lest Olivia and Athena lock me in a bedroom for a day when we arrive.”

“Of course,” Tristan said and we walked over to the railing. “Are you alright?” I nodded. “What happened with Andrei?” I shrugged and leaned forward.

“He called me a slut and then apologized for abandoning me,” I said. “So old territory.” Tristan frowned and cupped my face. “It doesn’t matter.”

“It does,” he whispered. I swallowed. “I hate that you would ever think such a thing about yourself.” I looked at him.

“I don’t,” I said softly. “And I love that you didn’t.” He smiled. “You don’t think the Queen will greet us?”

“It’s unlikely,” he sighed and ran his hand through his hair. “She didn’t even greet Prince Eric herself. She sent Marina and Aaron. That’s what’s most likely for us too.” I nodded. “And that wasn’t even because she was in war meetings, that was just because we,” I smirked at him and he cleared his throat. “Let’s just say what happened earlier is something of a theme for me.” I giggled.

“I see,” I smirked. “Well, we’ll have to ensure our privacy from now on.” He laughed. I thought of him how I’d first met him. So serious and awkward. He seemed lighter now, although not as light before we learned we had to leave Dorin.

“You’re sure your father is going to insist you stay with him,” he asked. I frowned.

“Yes,” I sighed. He sighed.

“Maybe I can convince Lisette to take you into the household, that’s how we freed our friend Mercy,” he started. I took his hands. “I just want to be near you.”

“You’ve said it yourself,” I whispered and kissed him gently. “We have our whole lives. This will only be a few months. We’ll survive.” He sighed. “Tristan,” I whispered.

“Caro,” he said softly. “You’ve asked me a hundred times how I feel about this.” I nodded. “How are you feeling?”

“I um,” I sighed, “I don’t know. I know it’s awful, that it’s because we’re probably going into war, but it’s also,” I exhaled. “It’s what I’ve always Tristan.” He kissed my forehead.

“Good,” he said. “Taking you away from everything you’ve ever known is not how I wanted this to go.” I smiled. “Alex told me I was overthinking it.”

“Well, by Alex’s metrics you overthink everything,” I shrugged, “because you think about things at all.” He laughed and kissed me. “You should get some sleep. The General is right, your sister will be furious with me.”

“Oh Athena doesn’t care if I sleep,” he chuckled. “That fussing is reserved for Martin.” I smiled. “But for you, I will.” I smiled.

A Lack of Honesty

Marina

I was undressed and brushing my hair when Damian came in. I didn’t turn to look at him. I was too angry.

“Marina,” he said softly.

“What kept you?” I asked, still not looking at him. I couldn’t. I’d melt when I did, and I wasn’t ready for that.

“Eric needed me,” he said. “Royal and useless remember?” He rested his hands on my shoulder. “I don’t know why you’re so upset.” Well that did it.

“You abandoned me,” I said and stood up. “It was a godsdamned dinner Damian, but you knew it was important and you just, weren’t there.” He exhaled. “Nothing’s even happened yet and you chose the other side, if it becomes real,” I gasped for air.

“Oh,” he said softly. “Oh love, no,” he whispered and knelt next to me. “I won’t, I wouldn’t, I’m not.” I swallowed. He kissed me softly. “I couldn’t, I’m here, I’m with you,” I stared at him. “No matter what we do I’m with you.” I looked at him.

“But you weren’t,” I said and sniffled. “All night, you were distant, you barely even looked at me.” He swallowed. “If you could explain, maybe,” he sighed.

“He wants you,” he said simply, “Franz, he, well, at least he’s been sent here to,” I cocked my head, “and if he knew about us, he’d find a way to send me away, I know it, he’s done it before, and,” I laughed. “It isn’t funny.”

“It’s very funny,” I said with a shrug, “I’ve dealt with bad acting suitors before, you know, one who was in complete control of my life, I think I can handle Kieran Franz.” He frowned. “As for you being sent away, it simply won’t happen. I won’t allow it.” He looked at me.

“And you won’t encourage him,” he frowned. I looked at him and shook my head. “I mean, you won’t flirt, or anything like that?”

“Of course not,” I said, “I’d like to flirt with you but if you ignore me every time we’re in public that will be difficult. He laughed. “What did Aaron do, when he said he’d come here for me?”

“Oh he choked on his drink,” Damian said, as I walked him back to my bed. “I think he might have burst a blood vessel. Raymond laughed outright, Raymond gets to do things like that.” I grinned as we fell backwards. “And I was just trying not to strangle him, ‘and the Duchess is unattached, as I understand?'” I giggled. “‘Your brother is curious to meet her you know, and she’s more lovely than I expected.” I slid my hands up his chest.

“Do you think I’m lovely,” I whispered. He kissed me.

“You are the most lovely,” he said softly. “And I want you every minute of every day.” I exhaled as he pressed into me. “I won’t leave you,” he whispered in my ear. “I won’t do it.” I kissed him. His lovemaking was hard edged and hungry tonight.

“Damian,” I said softly, and stopped him as he tried to start again. “No,” he looked at me. “Please, just hold me.”

“Alright,” he said softly. I snuggled close to him.

“I wish I could help you,” I said softly.

“You do help me,” he whispered. “Just being near you helps, really.” I smiled and pressed my forehead to his. “Today was awful.”

“Yes, it really was,” I whispered, “how are Elaine and Dorian?” He sighed.

“Worried,” he said softly, “their parents were going to be coming over, but they probably won’t now.” He sighed. “Lainey asked after you actually.” I smiled.

“What did Eric need?” I asked.

“Hm?” He whispered, carefully kissing my hands.

“You said you were helping Eric, tonight, what did he need?” I said. He frowned.

“Just the usual things,” he said and stretched. “And now there’s the added wrinkle that he basically wants to move into Annalise’s rooms which could be tricky, without a public engagement.” I nodded.

He was lying to me.

I didn’t know why. But he was.

Endgame

Sorry I was a day late. I’ve been away and it threw off my schedule. In Palm Beach Florida, which if your curious, has always been what Brightcoast looks like when I think of it. Anyway, enjoy Athena!

Athena

“I know we need to do this part,” I mumbled as Aaron handed my cape to a maid at Marina’s that night, “but I’d almost rather cut right to the fighting.” He smirked.

“Yes,” he sighed, “but here we are.” I groaned and walked into the parlor. Marina had outdone herself. The room was filled with flours and lit by both candles and those magical orbs of hers. I picked up a napkin and noticed the embroidery was Brightcoast’s sigil entwined with one I didn’t know.

“It’s Tumona,” Raymond said appearing behind me. I jumped. “Sorry.”

“It’s alright,” I said, “how did you know what I was thinking?” He smirked. “You read minds now?”

“Don’t be ridiculous,” he said, “you’re the most transparent person alive.” I rolled my eyes. “Someday maybe though.”

“It’s a good idea,” Aaron said softly, “it won’t hurt to remind him that they’re Phanian.” I snorted.

“Lisette is about as Phanian as I am,” I muttered. Aaron looked at me I sighed.

“Don’t say that when Franz can hear you,” Raymond said, “he’s very patriotic.” He flopped on a couch. Aaron looked at him and at me. We’d talked about it earlier. We were worried about him. Heartbreak was making him sarcastic, bordering on bitter.

And what could come after that, for him, could be much worse.

“Oh good,” Marina came flying in, “you two are here,” a maid was flying after her, tying a sash around her waist. I laughed, she seemed overwhelmed, which was nice. It was nice to remember that she’s human. “Aaron, is you mother coming? I meant to send a note to double check, and I,” he walked over and put his hands around her face.

“Breathe,” he said, “this is our first big test, Marina, we can’t be unhinged.” I smiled and walked over. “My mother is coming, she’s with Lisette.”

“Oh,” she said softly. I looked around. “Damian isn’t here, he’s usually here well ahead of any guests.” She looked miserable. “I should check on the food.” She floated out.

“Did they argue?” I asked. Raymond shook his head.

“No, he’s just,” he sighed, “well, you’ll see.” I frowned as the door opened and Admiral Franz walked in. “Hello Admiral.”

“Lord Quents,” his lip twitched on it. “I didn’t get a chance to speak to you last night, your sister,” Raymond stared him down, “she is concerned. She hasn’t heard from you.”

“Hm,” Raymond nodded, “but my niece has, and our mother, so she really had no reason for concern.” The Admiral looked at Aaron, and then me.

“I was under the impression that there wouldn’t be military present,” he sniffed.

“Then you were misinformed,” I said, straightening my back.

“Lady Athena is here as my guest,” Marina floated back in. Her serenity as Chosen and Duchess seemed to have returned. “Not in an official capacity.” She extended her hand as he bowed and took it to his lips.

“Of course, My Lady, I am sorry,” he said. Marina smiled indulgently at him. “May I compliment your home? I hadn’t realized Cammadan contained such loveliness.” Raymond coughed, clearly hiding a laugh.

“Thank you,” Marina settled in. “It’s beginning to feel more like home, though I think Dovetail will always hold my heart.”

“Will your father be joining us, Rina?” Aaron asked. She shook her head.

“Papa has not been at all well, I’m sorry to say,” she whispered. I looked at her. She hadn’t said anything before. “I wonder what’s keeping The Queen.”

“Nothing in particular,” the door opened and Lisette walked in. We all got to our feet. Not something we do usually but we’re putting on the show for Franz. “I do apologize, Marina.”

“Not at all, Your Majesty,” Marina said rising up. “Your Highness,” she said softly, inclining to Eric, who was just behind Annalise.

“Duchess,” he smiled, “Admiral.”

“Your Highness,” Franz said, coolly. Lefty was at Eric’s right, looking more disheveled than I’d ever seen him. I understood now what Raymond was saying. “Lieutenant Lestoff, I’m glad to see you haven’t abandoned your post in protest.”

“Family and duty mean something to some of us,” Lefty said, his voice flat. But the anger in his voice was obvious. “Duchess,” he said softly. Marina looked at him, I could see she was angry. And she couldn’t show it, which likely made her furious.

“Lieutenant,” she said coolly. “Your business in town is handled?”

“Nearly,” he said. “Lady Athena, you look well, the muster is going smoothly?”

“I don’t think I can tell you that, Lieutenant,” I grinned, “you’re the enemy after all.” He barked out a laugh.

“No one is enemies her,” Annalise settled into a seat. “At least not yet.”

“Hopefully not,” The Admiral said. After what was a very awkward dinner, we split up into men and women, not something we ever did but was apparently how it was done in Phania and Marina.

“You did well,” Countess Olivia smiled at Marina who groaned and leaned her head back. “I mean it Rina, this is a good start.”

“I should be talking to them,” Annalise said looking anxiously towards the door.

“Aaron can handle it,” I said, with more confidence than I actually felt, “I do wish,” I paused. Marina looked at me. I was about to speak the unspeakable. I was going to say that I missed Tristan. That he should be here.

“Me too,” she said softly, “he’ll be here soon enough.” Annalise looked uncomfortable. “Lisette,” she said softly, Annalise looked at her. “What do you think?”

“I just don’t know,” she sighed. “I think you’re right, having Tristan here would help.” She bit her lip. “I don’t think Eric would like it.”

“He’ll have to get used to it,” Marina said, her voice hard. As if she was tired of the conversation. The Countess looked at her and tapped her knee sympathetically.

“I’m going to see your father,” she said softly, “I’m assuming he’s not actually ill, just refusing to engage.” Marina nodded. “Alright then,” she smiled and kissed her on the cheek. “You really are doing very well, my dear.”

It wasn’t long before the men came in and Aaron looked at me like he wanted to kill himself.

“Commander,” The Admiral said and sat down next to me, “I take it this won’t be the last time we speak.”

“No,” I said quietly, “I imagine it won’t be.” He smiled, he was handsome, I realized, and could probably be charming when he wanted to be. No wonder he was a favorite. “Tell me, Admiral, what is it you hope to accomplish? You know we have no power to push you out of the sea, but in the year since her ascension we’ve built a strong presence and the mountains around Dovetail mean a land invasion is nearly impossible, so why are you here?”

“Do you question every order?” He said and raised his eyebrows. “Or do you go where your Queen commands?”

“I’m an advisor,” I said, “how can I advise if I don’t know the endgame?” He laughed at that.

“Of course,” he smiled. “But what kind of leader would I be if I revealed mine?” I sipped my wine. “I met your mother once. I was young, and new in service, but she was, exceptional.” I nodded.

“She was, yes,” I smiled softly.

“Do you think she’d be proud of you?” He asked.

“I know it,” I said, standing up and then over to Aaron. “He’s slippery.”

“I noticed,” he grimaced. “I’m exhausted. Can we go?” I nodded. We said our goodbyes and our horses were waiting as we left. We rode quickly and arrived back at our apartment. “You didn’t enjoy your evening?”

“He’s going to try to court Marina,” he said quickly. I stared at him. “He didn’t say it directly but his hints were clear.”

“He was sent here for Marina?” I said. He shrugged, and poured a whiskey and took a long drink.

“He was sent here for a few reasons I think,” he sighed, “but Marina is certainly one of them.” I plopped down on the couch. “Lefty was reasonably calm, considering the circumstances.” He sat down next to me.

“Tristan wouldn’t have kept it together,” I said softly. He snorted.

“No,” he said softly, “it was probably the only time all night I was deeply grateful Tristan wasn’t there.” He looked at me. “I hate this, so much, it wasn’t supposed to be like this.” I swallowed.

“My love,” I said and kissed his hand gently, “if things were as they were supposed to be, I doubt you and I would be here together.” He laughed.

“Oh, we would have had a wonderful season together before burning out,” he grinned. “Of course before we took her in my parents intended me for Lisette.” I snorted. “Can you stay tonight?” He whispered.

“Yes,” I said, “I have to be up at dawn, but I can stay.” He pulled me close and kissed me.