Council

Marina

Aaron is pacing nervously and I shook my head.

“You’re doing the thing,” I said. He frowned at me. “You’re doing the thing where you’re thinking as her overprotective brother rather than her advisor.” He rolled his eyes. “Aaron, she’ll be fine. This will all be fine.”

“I think you’re taking your soothing spiritual leader role a little too personally,” he said. I rolled my eyes at him. “If Eric decides to leave, it’s bad Rina.” I nodded.

“I know,” I said and straightened my skirt. “And I’ve been thinking about that, probably more than anyone.” He sighed and sat down next to me.

“Of course you have, I’m sorry,” he said. I looked down.

“I’d go with them,” I whispered. He stared at me. “Not permanently, but,” I exhaled, “I’d go to Tumona, go home.”

“This is your home,” he said, “and we need you here, Marina!” I exhaled.

“We need to keep King Daniel happy,” I said. He nodded. “Or at least, convinced we’re still serious about a real alliance.”

“Yes,” he said, his tone careful. I looked down.

“Well, Annalise isn’t the only one available for that sort of arrangement,” I said softly. He exhaled.

“Marina,” he whispered, “I can’t ask that of you,” I stood up and walked over to a small portrait of my aunt, it really was like looking in a mirror. “And I doubt Lefty and Eric,” I looked over my shoulder.

“They’ll play along,” I said softly, “they don’t want war anymore than we do.”

“So you go South,” he said. I nodded. “Athena and Annalise go west to hunt for the gods?” I nodded again. “And if they need you?” I sighed.

“I don’t know,” I said, “I do know we’ll get nowhere with the mandate while fighting off a Phanian invasion of Brightcoast.” He sighed. He kissed my forehead.

“We don’t deserve you,” he said, “you know that, hm?” I laughed and patted his hand carefully.

“I know,” I said softly. “I love you though, so that makes you worth it.” He laughed sadly. “So I hear you’re going to have a stepfather.” That lead to a bark of laughter.

“Athena is not pleased,” he said. “Meanwhile, I’m just glad my mother is happy.” I smiled.

“Athena is protective of her people,” I said, “that now includes your mother as well as The General, I can’t imagine it’s an easy equation for her.” He nodded. “I think it would be good for my father, to go back.”

“If you think so,” he nodded. “It always seemed to me he was happy to never go back.” I swallowed. “And if Eric doesn’t leave?”

“I might still go,” I said softly. “Damian wants me to see it,” I admitted, “and Pharras. I want to, too.” It was the first time I’d said it out loud. I did want to. I felt at peace here in Brightcoast, but I knew there could be no real peace until we free the gods, so I was building in restlessness. Or maybe it was real. Who could say?

Rana had been frustratingly quiet lately. Lisette said the same. Raymond too. Though he was more concerned with the whispers in his sleep from Amina. I couldn’t tell Aaron about that, though I desperately wanted to. It wasn’t my secret to confide.

“Ah,” Duchess Norvine walked in with the others trailing behind her, “Duchess Brightcoast, nice of you to join us for a change,” I blushed.

“I apologize for my absence,” I muttered taking my seat. “As it turns out the people my father had in charge were less than reliable.” She nodded. Harold Friers scowled at me. He’s less than thrilled with our treatment of his son, but it can’t be helped that he’s too young and too shy, and frankly, if the way his eyes follow Raymond are to be believed he’s probably even less interested than we are.

“Will Queen Annalise be joining us?” Friers said. Aaron looked at me.

“She was alerted to the meeting’s importance,” he said, “I’m sure she’s on her way.”

“The matter of her marriage needs to be settled,” Duchess Norvine said, “or at least addressed. If she’s set on the Phanian or he border tribes boy, that’s all well and good, but if she hasn’t someone needs to reach out to Rastan.” She glanced at me. “They can’t be ignored forever.”

“If this is literally another meeting where we discuss nothing but whether Annalise is going to get married soon,” Aaron groaned, “I’m leaving. Harvest is coming, I should be in Pantona supervising.”

He looked miserable I realized. He was listening to this group squabbling about Lisette’s love life, when all he wanted was to be home, doing the thing he was good at.

Lisette walked in then, looking regal and confident and took her place at the head of the table as everyone rose.

“I was told this was a very important meeting of this council,” she said, her eyes never leaving Aaron’s, I so often wondered what passed between them. “What could be so urgent?”

Duchess Norvine cleared her throat.

“My people managing in Dorin are confident that The Dumanis will be on your side given any need for naval intervention,” she said simply, “if that’s still something you want.” She nodded.

“It is,” she said. “For now, at least. In the future, however, I’d like the crown to be as independent of the guilds as possible.” She glanced at me and I nodded. “And as we’ll be intimately connected with Phania, I don’t see building and training our own navy as terribly difficult.”

“You’ve decided then,” Friers said. She looked at him.

“I haven’t decided anything,” she shrugged. “Lady Marina however,” I swallowed.

“I, well,” I stuttered as they all stared at me. I wanted to murder her. “Lieutenant Lestoff and I have discussed a few possibilities, of course, but, well,” I was flushed. She thought she was helping, that was the worst part.

“Let’s move on,” Aaron said, sending a sharp look around the table. “Before you came in I mentioned harvest, and from most of the midlands, wheat looks particularly strong this year.” Friers began talking about his orchards then and I zoned out. We provided fish, and it was going well for the summer, this was known. After we adjourned everyone left except the three of us. “What were you thinking?” He hissed at Lisette.

“What?” She said, “We’ve talked about it, and I thought you were settled,” she paused.

“She’s not settled,” Aaron snapped, “I thought we got through to you this morning, Lisette, nothing is settled until you are. Everything hinges on you. Marina’s future, Tristan’s life, Athena and my marriage,” I swallowed. I’d never seen him this angry. “I understand you hate it, but it’s what it is.” She stared at him.

“Marina will you excuse us?” Annalise said softly.

“No,” Aaron said, “forget it, Marina stay, I’ll excuse myself.” He gathered his things and stopped in the doorway. “That is with your permission?” He was so sarcastic the room got colder. She nodded tersely.

“He’s not wrong,” I said softly, “we just came up with an elaborate feint to keep the Phanians at bay if Eric decides he’s had enough.” She looked at me. “And you may have just destroyed any chance of it working.” She closed her eyes and nodded. “He’s never asked me,” I whispered. “Not once, because he knows I can’t say yes, and I don’t think his pride could take it.”

“I’m sorry,” she said softly. I nodded. “I’m going to talk to Eric.” I nodded.

“You do that,” I said and walked out of the room. I found my way to the small apartment that Papa and I had here. We didn’t use it much, Papa really never. Damian was waiting for me, balancing a pen between his knuckles, I sat down next to him and put my head on his shoulder.

“Good morning to you too,” he smiled. “It went that well, hm?” I looked at him.

“Is Eric angry?” I said softly. “I hate using you as a go between, but, well,” I sighed. He nodded.

“Eric is, at the moment,” he snickered, “indisposed. When I got to our rooms last night, he was falling down drunk, and he’s unable to do much but vomit.” I laughed and kissed him gently. “What’s Annalise thinking?”

“I barely got to speak to her,” I said, “But I think she wants you to train any navy we might build.” He leaned back and looked at me.

“Hm,” he nodded. “That’s interesting.” I laughed and kissed him again. “Are you still upset with me?”

“I was never very upset with you,” I said softly. He smiled. “I’m glad you introduced me to them, really, Damian, I want to be a part of your life.” He cupped my face.

“You are my life, now,” he said softly, “I hope you know that.” I curled into him. He kissed my hair.

“If you leave, I’m going with you,” I said. “I can’t bear the idea of being without you.” I felt him tense around me.

“We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it, love,” he whispered. “But I’m glad to hear it. I don’t want to be without you either.”

Stories

Carolina

I bounced out of bed the next morning. I happily sniffed the little yellow rose from the night before. I hadn’t been this excited to greet the day in a while. Everyone was shocked by it as I made my way to breakfast, Papa was eyeing me most carefully.

“Could everyone excuse Caro and I,” he said. I swallowed as Emily hesitated and Mama after her. “We need to have a blunt conversation.”

“Do we?” I said and took a long sip on my coffee. He sighed and looked at me. “What about?”

“I received a letter from Captain Athena Dugarry,” he said.

“Commander,” I corrected. He sighed.

“Whatever,” he said. “She’s an imperious one, but seems uninterested in your dowry.” He produced the paper and handed it to me. I looked down stifling a giggle. “One dinner and one dance, and we’re already here?”

“I thought you’d be happy,” I said, looking over the note. “It’s more for Emily. I don’t see Brie DuCray as an easy negotiator.” He snorted.

My understanding is that my brother and your daughter have begun a courtship. My intended and I would be thrilled if your family attended our wedding in Pantona this autumn.

“She’ll put the press on in Pantona, I assume,” he said, “regardless, do you think you can keep his attention?”

“Yes,” I said. “I mean, I think so.” He raised his eyebrows. “Papa, I don’t know what you want me to say. I barely know him.” He frowned. “What are you so concerned about? Of course she isn’t interested in my dowry, they’ve got DuManis money and she’s about to marry a count and from what I understand it’s all ceremonial down there anyway.” He nodded.

“Well,” he said, “I want to see you settled. I was thinking we were going to have to send you to Rastan.” I sighed.

“I was never going to Rastan, and I think it’s time we stopped pretending I was.” I said, “Are we through?” He nodded I stood up and marched out of the room. I landed in the library, and grabbed a book and settled in to get lost for the day. Or at least a few hours. There would probably be callers at some point.

Do you think you can keep his attention?

Could I? I think I knew what my father was asking and I resented it. I’d resented it when Alex had noticed Emily and moved me to the side. I’d resented it when for months after he brought ship captains under his supervision, many nearly twice my age to the house, all with the same silent command from him. Get their attention, keep it, however I possibly could.

The dowry would never be enough, certainly not my personality, or my looks. But a girl like me, who’d already been shunted aside as a debutante didn’t need to worry as much about her reputation. My bed was open to prospective suitors, at least as far as my father was concerned.

I tried once. Andrei was young, and dashing and had spent a decent amount of time hanging around our house trying to convince Papa he was a worthwhile business prospect in addition to a potential son in law. Papa had agreed to give him his own ship and he’d promised to send for me in Rastan when he’d settled. He obviously hadn’t.

“Caro,” Mama walked in, “Sir Tristan is here.” I nodded and stood up. “Look at you,” she cupped my face. “I’ll send him in.” I nodded went over to the mirror and primped, turning as he walked in.

“Hello,” I said softly.

“Hello,” he said, he wasn’t in uniform, for the first time, I’d seen him. Instead he was in a pair of plain dark blue pants, and simple white shirt, with a brown vest over it. He was holding now a bouquet of the roses. “I thought, the one last night was a thank you, but these are just a token.”

“Thank you,” I whispered, taking them, “They’re lovely.” He smiled. “Please sit, do you want tea or coffee, or something? I could ring for it.”

“I’m alright,” he said, “I might never eat again after this trip, my aunts have wildly overestimated my appetite.” I laughed. “How are you? I’m sorry for losing track of you last night.”

“I can’t expect you to spend every minute on me,” I said. “Your sister wrote to my father.”

“Of course she did,” he sighed, “I haven’t heard from her in weeks, but your father needed to know what was happening.” I smiled.

“She invited us to her wedding,” I said. He rolled his eyes.

“She’s showing off,” he mumbled, “but I’d be glad, if you came to Pantona.” He looked sad again. I nodded and stood up to put my book away. He followed after me.

“Good then,” I said, “did you enjoy yourself, last night?” He was closer to me than he’d ever been.

“Some of it,” he said, “I was disappointed, to not say goodbye,” his hands were holding mine. I swallowed.

“My mother is terrible about that,” I said, “and we keep having to sweep Emily away from Alex,” I babbled, “she’s still so much younger, and well, everyone knows they’ll get married but,” he pulled me close and kissed me. I melted against him.

“I hope I didn’t overstep,” he said softly, “but I’ve wanted to do that since that infernal dinner.”

“I’ve wanted you to do that since you walked in the door,” I admitted. He laughed and pressed me against the bookcase, I wove my arms around his neck. He was a very good kisser. “Is this how it’s done in Dovetail?” I teased as he moved to my neck. “You dance with a girl and then give her flowers and she’s yours?” I exhaled.

“Something like that,” he said, pulling my hips close to his. “Should I have written five letters to each of your family members appraising them of not only my intentions but every item I own, and then walked you through town a few times before I kissed you?” I giggled and kissed him again.

“The walk would have been nice,” I said. “Then there’d be less of a chance of my father finding us.” He smiled and stepped away. My father wouldn’t care. But I needed to slow down. If he’d kept kissing me, touching me, I knew how quickly we’d be in bed.

“In that case,” he said, and offered me his arm. I laughed and took it. We stepped out into the sun. “Well, this is your city, where should we go?” I looked at him. “Alex mentioned a few places but I got the feeling they weren’t appropriate to bring you.” I raised my eyebrows.

“I’m sure they weren’t,” I said, “before my sister and me, Alex had quite the reputation.” He smiled. “Most people go to the park by the harbor.” He nodded.

“And you want to show me off?” He asked. I blushed again. I did, a little. But there were also places in the park, mazes and clearings where there would be privacy. I thought of how he’d pulled my hips to his with such confidence and couldn’t think of anything else.

“You’d be better to show off in your uniform,” I said. He laughed. We arrived at Harborside Park and walked carefully down one of the paths, a few people glanced at us and said hello, and Tristan seemed distracted as I walked us into a small walled garden. Thankfully there was no one else there.

“I think I understand the appeal of the park now,” he smirked as I settled in on a bench. I giggled as he sat down next to me, and turned my face towards him. “Can I kiss you now?” I nodded and he kissed me softly again. Then harder, pulling me close. “Gods, you’re beautiful,” he muttered. I exhaled.

“Kiss me again,” I said. He nodded and obliged. “Tristan,” I whispered. He looked at me, I carefully unbuttoned the front of my dress he took the invitation and moved his mouth to my chest and then my breasts, sliding my chemise down below my nipple. I groaned softly as he began sucking on it. He moved back up to my neck, his hand staying on my breast, the other going to move my skirts. “Wait,” I said softly. He exhaled and pulled away.

“Alright,” he said confused. “But isn’t this why we came here?” I nodded. “If you’re not ready, you don’t have to stall, you can just say so. We did only just meet.”

“No, I,” I swallowed, “I am ready, that is, I was, but, well, like you said, we just met and,” I paused. He looked at me. “You’re wonderful, and I want you. But this, us,” I exhaled, “it has to work. It just has to, for me.” He pressed his lips into his mouth.

“You’ve said that,” he stood up. “And Alex was so eager for us to meet.” I swallowed. “Are you two,” he exhaled, “what happened?”

“Oh,” I laughed, “with Alex nothing. I mean, some kissing, but the problem was once he and Emily, well, you’ve seen them, it’s disgusting,” he laughed. “But to the rest of the city, well, they saw The Dumanis Heir moving past me to my younger and prettier sister, so clearly I must be deficient in some way.” I swallowed. “I wasn’t in love with Alex, but my pride was wounded, I’ll admit that. I think he’s just trying to make it up to me, for Emily’s sake.”

“I see,” he nodded.

“What about you?” I asked. I couldn’t bring myself to tell him about Andrei, not yet. He frowned. “Why did you come here? Why are you going along with any of this?”

“Last summer,” he said softly, “my sister and I were sent to Pantona to get to know Annalise,” he exhaled, “Lisette,” his voice was soft. “And she was, well, I don’t know what you’ve heard, but it’s all true, probably. She’s brilliant, and kind, and beautiful, and powerful, and,” he exhaled, “and we fell in love. We knew we shouldn’t, that it couldn’t ever last, but it didn’t matter, not then, not there.” He looked so sad, so broken, whenever he talks about her, “Anyway, we kept trying and it kept hurting us both, and then there was Marina.” He exhaled. “Have you ever had someone in your life who just, knew you?”

“I don’t think so,” I admitted, though honestly, the first person to enter my mind was Alex.

“Well, that’s who Marina is,” he whispered, “she just saw me, she always did.” He looked at me. “But I hurt her, I kept her at arms length and she moved on. I wanted to start over, and I couldn’t do that in Dovetail.”

“Oh,” I said. It wasn’t what I thought it would be. I had pictured Annalise on her throne, playing with him and then casting him aside when he wasn’t convenient anymore. Duchess Marina being almost pressed into a place as his consolation prize, or perhaps not actually figuring into things at all, just a rumor because they were a boy and a girl people liked talking about. But this wasn’t a story or rumor, it was just a mess, and a mess he was running away from.

“I know none of this is terribly romantic,” he said softly and sat down again. “I behaved horribly. I treated two people who mean a great deal to me very badly.” He looked down. “But I like you, and I want you, and I think that’s as good a place as any to start.”

“I like you too,” I said softly, “and I want you too, but today, I just,” I swallowed, “I can’t, yet.” He smiled and nodded. We kissed again.

“I should get you home,” he said, “that Annabeth girl’s mother invited us for dinner and Aunt Brie says I have to go until you and I declare ourselves officially.” I giggled. “How long will that be, by the way?”

“I’m reasonably sure once my father responds to your sister, we’re official,” I shrugged, rebuttoning my top. “It would have been easier if you would allow your uncle or grandfather to negotiate.”

“You haven’t met Athena,” he shook his head. “I can assure you, that would not be easier for me in the slightest.”

Hearts And Politics

Athena

I was feeling better in the morning, particularly when Lisette found me, a little shaken but still flushed and glowing. The two of us hadn’t sparred in a while, and it felt good.

“You’re rusty,” I said as my spear met the twin short swords she’d taken to wearing recently. Something between the sword she carried into the siege and the knives she’d grown up using.

“I’ve been busy,” she said. I laughed. “Are you alright?” I relented and nodded. “Aaron said you weren’t thrilled about Olivia and Thomas.”

“I wasn’t,” I frowned, “I’m not. But, it’s not my business, I guess.” She looked at me. “I just worry about him, he doesn’t always think these things through and it’s other people who get hurt. And this time I don’t want Olivia to be collateral damage.”

“Are you going to lecture me about Harran too?” She asked. I sighed.

“No,” I said, “I actually think it will be good for you, but you went about it in a monumentally stupid way.” She smiled. “How was it?” I grinned. “If how he fights is any indication, I’d imagine it was athletic, forceful?” She blushed.

“Intense,” she exhaled, “he was very focused.” She paused. “He kept asking what I wanted, and I didn’t always know how to say it, but then he found the way there anyway.” I smiled. I did like this for her. After the grief and complication of her time with my brother, it was worth the cost for me to see her simply, content. “After this morning, though, that was more awkward.” She exhaled. “Olivia says he’s in love with me.”

“He most certainly is,” I smirked. “I didn’t see it at first either. I thought he just liked to flirt, but he’s in love with you.” She frowned.

“I wouldn’t have,” she admitted, “I thought we felt the same way, that we wanted each other, but that we were friends.” She exhaled and pushed her hair off her face. “And I have to tell Eric. He’ll leave, and I couldn’t blame him.” I looked at her, and I was suddenly tremendously glad that I went to sleep with Aaron each night, and that his expectations of me were so straightforward. “I don’t know, I think about it a lot, if I was actually Lisette.” I smiled. Tristan told me she did this sometimes. “I think I’d have run away with him. I thought about it, all the time, that year. Maybe I’m still trying to run away.” I looked at her.

“Before we came to Pantona,” I said softly, “I was involved with one of Trey’s apprentices, it wasn’t serious, and he’s kind of an idiot, but he was ambitious, and I used that. I was after all, raised in the house he was trying rise in, and it was fun. After I’d been so hurt and used, to be treated like I mattered, like I was important, it was intoxicating.” She looked at me.

“He was the one that Aaron found you with?” She said. I snapped my neck over and looked at her, surprised that she knew that. “You were upset, and he was unnerved by it.” I smiled. I loved that man so much. “I’m not using Harran.”

“I didn’t say you were,” I whispered, “I just think that if I hadn’t been with Carlton, after everything that happened with Warren, I don’t think I would have been able to be with Aaron, to see him properly.” She looked down.

“So your suggesting what?” She said. “I use Harran until Tristan is out of my system?” I rolled my eyes.

“I’m certainly not suggesting Tristan be in the conversation at all.” I sighed. “By all means, if you’re still missing him and need to shake it off.” She bit her bottom lip.

“I do miss him,” she said softly. “I miss what we had, and I miss his calm.” She exhaled. “I don’t miss what a mess it was at the end. I don’t miss hearing Marina cry while she hides it from, I don’t miss him refusing to admit he was jealous.” I smiled. “But I miss him, a part of me always will, even when he’s right next me again, it won’t be the same.” I exhaled as she rested her head on my shoulder. “Thena, I don’t know what to do anymore.” She sighed. “I haven’t had a Dream in ages, and The Leader’s are insisting on a marriage sooner than later, but they don’t like the idea of it being Eric because then we’ll become too Phanian but Harran would be a threat because if any of the tribes don’t like it then it could be civil war, and what is wrong with that nice Emmett Friers anyone, Your Majesty?”

“Ah yes, a fifteen year old boy who’s said ten words to you,” I raised my eyebrows, “obviously your perfect match.” She laughed. “You know my opinion, take the politics out of it, Cammadan is better if you’re happy, if someone who’ll support you is at your side. Who is that?” She closed her eyes and exhaled.

“I don’t know,” she said softly. “Thank you though, for listening.” I nodded and back up to our apartment where Aaron was sitting at the desk in the sitting room.

“Oh, there you are,” he stood up, “I didn’t want to go to this meeting without seeing you.” I ran over and threw my arms around him and kissed him deeply. “Well, hello to you too.” He laughed.

“I love you,” I said. He smiled. “Seriously, I do.”

“I love you too,” he laughed. “What happened?” I shook my head.

“Lisette and I just had a long talk is all,” I said softly, “be gentle with her today. She knows she’s put everyone in a tough spot.” He nodded.

“Of course,” he said and kissed me again. “I have to go, I wanted to check in with Marina first.” I nodded. “I love you.”

Boy Problems

Annalise

I woke up still wrapped happily around Harran. I liked the way that his arms were resting at my waist and his forehead on my shoulder.

And I’d missed being held.

“Good morning,” he smiled. I stretched and blinked at him

“Good morning,” I said and kissed him. “So, is this when we talk about how we’ve made a grave mistake?” He chuckled and stretched.

“I thought this was the part where I promise to stand by you and marry you regardless of your moral frailty in this scenario.” I giggled. “Lisette,” he softly cupped my face, “this doesn’t have to be anything beyond last night.” I withdrew a little.

“Oh,” I said standing up and finding a robe and slipping it on. He sighed and looked at me.

“That came out wrong,” he said, “I meant, I know things aren’t simple for you, in general,” I looked at him, “I don’t want to be a complication.” I sat down with him. He took my hands.

“You could never be,” I said softly. He shrugged. “Harran, how could you think that?” He chuckled softly. “I mean, the leaders aren’t thrilled with anything I’ve been doing anyway, I might as well do as I like.” He kissed me.

“Lisette,” he said, “I don’t mind caring about you more than you care about me. Hell, the moment I met you, all those years ago, I was sure that was my fate, even when I thought my obstacle was simply, being a foreigner who would take you far away from home.” I swallowed. “But we shouldn’t delude ourselves either.” I sighed. He pulled me close again.

“I know what you mean,” I said. “At least, I hope so.” He kissed me gently. “Harran,” I said softly. “Are you asking?” He shook his head.

“No, love,” he whispered, “you’d say yes and it would be wrong. I’ll stay in your bed until you turn me away, but I’ll only marry you if you’re not looking at anyone else and that’s impossible.”

“Now you sound like Eric,” I muttered and pulled away. He laughed and shook his head.

“I think he’s an idiot for resisting you, but like him I don’t want to be a consolation prize,” he kissed my shoulder. “You loved Tristan, you’re falling in love with Eric. There isn’t really room for me in that equation, Lisette.” I swallowed.

“You’re here,” I said sliding back, into a straddle. “That’s where you fit. You’re the one who’s here.” He kissed me deeply.

“I can live with that,” he said softly. The for now was implied in his tone. “Are you busy today?” I nodded.

“There’s a leader’s meeting that Aaron said is very important,” I explained, “and Olivia wants to speak with me about something.” He nodded and we kissed again. “Tonight I’m yours though.” He grinned.

“Alright,” he said softly. We kissed again. I really didn’t want to leave him. The already somewhat hazy memory of last night’s intensity was drawing me in. “Lisette,” he whispered, “if you don’t leave soon, I might not be able to let you.” I giggled.

“Well,” I whispered and kissed him again. “I have a little time.” He grinned and rolled me onto my back. As he pressed into me, I groaned softly.

“Oh yes,” he whispered. “Tell me what you need.” I pushed up to take all of him. “Oh Lisette, I need you.” I sighed and moaned.

“I need you too,” I said, and I meant it. I do need him, in my life, and he’s right, there isn’t space for him there, except this. Is it wrong? It might be. We finished and didn’t talk again as we got dressed to start the day but I couldn’t help enjoying the look on his face or the final kiss to my neck as he left quickly. I smiled brightly walking down the hallway to go get breakfast with Olivia.

I was glad she’d come, I’d been ready to accept her staying in Pantona, but I was grateful she’d changed her mind. I walked in and saw her apartment, which was positioned on the east end of the building so had lovely morning light. She was sitting sipping gently on tea. Aaron was leaning against the door frame. And, oddly Thomas was here too.

“Why do I feel like I’m in trouble?” I said sitting down. “Thank you,” I said softly as a maid handed me coffee.

“Can’t imagine why,” Aaron raised an eyebrow. I sighed.

“We need to talk to you two about something,” Olivia said gently. Aaron sighed and sat down. I glanced at Thomas.

“Oh!” I said, “OH!” He laughed. Aaron looked at them. “Well, that’s nice.” I took a sip. I looked at Aaron. “Do you have anything to say?”

“I was very aware of this,” he shrugged. “I was in Pantona, in case you all forgot, and neither of you are particularly good at sneaking.” Thomas smiled. “I’m glad, but I feel honor bound to,”

“Yes, yes,” Thomas nodded, “pain of a thousand deaths if she’s unhappy for even a moment.” I laughed. “Now, why on earth would you feel you were in trouble, Your Majesty?”

“No reason,” I kicked Aaron, who snorted. I narrowed my eyes at him.

“Right,” Olivia nodded. “I think I’d rather not know.”

“I know you’d rather not know,” Aaron said. Thomas frowned. “But I think we should all talk about why Lisette is in trouble.” I glared at him.

“I’m not in trouble,” I said, “Harran understands the situation perfectly.” Olivia choked on her tea.

Harran understands perfectly?” Thomas said. I nodded, trying to be casual. “Annalise, I am not going to instruct you how to conduct your sex life.”

“Thank you?” I said.

“But,” Aaron said, “while Westran is a strategic gain,”

“As according to Athena it is where the gods are imprisoned,” I pointed out.

“Right,” Thomas nodded. “But, um, well, King Daniel is fixated on united the line of the island with the clearly Chosen line of Tumona, between your mother, and you and Marina, and frankly Raymond,” I exhaled and looked at him, “and he’s built an entire new fleet to bring Cammadan to him one or the other.”

I stopped and took a deep breath.

“Oh,” I said softly. “But as I understand it, this means if Eric leaves, his brother has an Aamanda that can lead an invasion,” I said softly. Thomas nodded. “We’re barely healing!”

“Well, yes,” Thomas sighed, “and as you were genuinely becomimg fond of Eric and you hate being told what to do, Athena and I decided it was best to not tell you about this development.” I blinked, he wasn’t wrong.

“But then you decided to be super reckless and bring Harran into your bed so now it’s all a problem,” Aaron glared at me.

Aaron,” Olivia hissed. He looked at her. “Thomas, both of you need to leave.” Thomas sighed and stood up, his palms up as he backed out the door. Aaron glared at us both. “I mean it, get out.” He looked at me. She was rarely this serious. Let alone this insistent. They left. “So,” Olivia looked at me, “you slept with Harran.”

“Yes,” I said softly. “Should I not have? You were the one who told me to have fun.” She exhaled.

“I was never playing at your level and that was about Tristan.” She said sharply. I looked down. “Don’t even pretend that you think Eric will accept you taking another lover when he refused to even consider courting you until Tristan was on the other side of the continent trying to pursue marriage to another woman.” I exhaled.

“I know that,” I said softly. She looked at me and sighed. “He’s just so frustrating. He wants me, he’s falling in love with me, but he pulls back when I try to get close.” I exhaled, “and with Harran it’s simple, it works, why am I still fighting?” She smiled.

“Because you’re not in love with Harran,” Olivia said softly. I frowned. “He’s in love with you, he always has been. Frankly, I was hoping the chiefs would send someone else, but I doubt he’d have let them.” I looked at her and swallowed. “Lisette, you can do whatever you like, there’s no reason not to, but you have to be careful,” I went to say something, “I know you hate the politics, and it isn’t fair, that you have to play politics with your heart, but it’s the reality.” I swallowed.

“I know,” I sighed. She looked at me. “I do, I’ll clean up the mess.” She nodded.

Correspondence

Marina

I woke up in the morning satisfied and a little foggy. Damian hadn’t stayed, and I was for the first time grateful for it. It had been a strange evening.

“Good Morning, my lady,” Marta, my maid who I’d hired in Dovetail came in. She’d come highly recommended by the sisters, she’d been studying herself but decided not to take vows. I sat up as she carefully set a tray down. “Is it alright?” She looked flustered.

“It’s wonderful,” I smiled. She nodded. “I think I’m going to be spending the whole day at the palace, so you don’t’ need to be working today.” She nodded again and then left. I’m still new at this. My maids had always been placed in my service by Brayton, trusting her feels strange. Along with my breakfast was a small pile of notes.

My Lady,

I thank you again for gracing our establishment with your presence yesterday night. You are as lovely as I had heard despite your poor taste in men. I hope to see you soon, though I fully understand it is unlikely.

Your Humble Servant

Dorian Addison

I laughed and composed a gracious and equally flirty response back to him, assuring him I would, in fact, return soon. The next was a quick note from Aaron scolding me for not being present the night before and noting we had a lot to talk about. That didn’t bode well. I wrote back saying that I would meet with him over lunch. He could brood all morning then and come to me with fully formed thoughts.

And then there was the long letter.

My Dearest Marina,

I woke up this morning thinking of you. There was a time when we were little that I was walking through the courtyard with my mother, and you were being minded by one of the sisters and you ran over to me and handed me a small bird. You explained that you’d found a nest but the mama was gone and they needed caring for. You were taking one and I ought to take the other.

I learned the other night that my bird is thriving in my grandfather’s aviary, and the third generation descended from her recently hatched. My mother had given her to my Aunt Brie who has always managed animals. What happened to your bird? I’m curious. I can’t stop thinking about it. Regardless, I plan to bring one of the descendants as a gift for you when I come home.

As your previous letter asked me to tell you about Dorin, I will do my best. Everyone is very pleasant, and formal, but as I understand it that is only because of who I am. Apparently, I am a very important person, if you were unaware. I am both A Dumanis and A Personal Friend Of The Queen so everyone finds me quite impressive.

I miss you. I didn’t quite expect to miss you this much. I didn’t last time.

Yours,

Tristan

I swallowed and wrote back.

Tristan,

I remember the birds fondly. Mine lived quite happily with me until a few years ago when Papa and I were moved to a new apartment and there was nowhere to put her cage where there was sun. So I gave her to the Temple. I assume she is still quite happy, but I don’t know. I look forward to my new bird when you bring her. I actually have my own aviary here in Brightcoast, though it’s empty at the moment, so it’s really just a sunroom with a very high ceiling. (I am also quite important, Thank You Very Much.)

Last night Damian took me to meet his friends and they looked at me like I was Rana herself. It was strange and heady. I imagine this is similar to the way you’re feeling with everyone treating you with extreme respect. Lisette seems to have taken to it more easily, but it just makes me nervous.

I miss you too.

Yours,

Marina

I did miss him terribly. I also realized he didn’t mention Lisette in his letter. Not once. Because he wasn’t thinking of her? Or because he was avoiding her? I didn’t know. I realized it didn’t matter. I thought of how when he was at Pantona when he wrote it was almost all about her, and now it was about us. I stood up and walked to the window and looked out at the see and then took a deep breath of the salt air.

I was happy here, settled. Maybe I would stay. Maybe I wouldn’t. I didn’t know. But in that moment I wanted my friend here with me instead of on the other side of the continent.

Rising Darkness

“I’m stunned,” Aaron said that evening, as he fastened a necklace on me. I shook my head. “Flabbergasted in fact,” he kissed my neck softly. I rolled my eyes. “It’s almost like no one saw this coming, oh wait, hmm,” I elbowed him lightly in the ribs and he laughed. “You’re upset?”

“A little,” I admitted. “It’s complicated.” He shook his head. “Aren’t you?”

“Not really,” he said, “it could be worse, and she’s happy. I like Tom.” He chewed the inside of his cheek. “I can be angry if you want me to be. How dare she dishonor my father, and all that noise.” I laughed and shook my head.

“No,” I sighed, “you’re right, I just,” I shrugged. He nodded. “I think Harran is going to get serious, he seemed annoyed this afternoon.” Aaron smirked as we started walking down to dinner. “What?”

“You like him too much,” he said. “You’re not seeing the situation clearly.” I sighed. “Westran is important, but we can’t alienate Phania.” I shook my head.

“Whatever you say,” I shrugged. We made it through dinner without arguing, and Martin kept glancing at me. I was avoiding his eyes, because I just wasn’t ready. Aaron was chatting with a few of the other leaders and Prince Eric was looking miserable.

I swallowed, I’d seen Annalise be subtle, if clumsy before. She and Tristan weren’t a secret, by any means, but they were discreet. She was not being subtle tonight. I glanced at Aaron and saw the frown and worry on his face.

This was what he meant that I liked Harran too much. I was thinking of my friends, not of the very careful rope she had to walk right now. I thought of the map that Martin had been looking at, the new Phanian Navy, ready to deploy at any moment. And what I was looking at now was the enacting of a fourteen year old girl’s fantasy.

A young girl, might be fickle. I hated when they were right. I hated it so much.

I wanted Tristan. I missed him so much. I wanted my brother to listen to me scream and then laugh at me for it and hug me. After dinner I found my out to the beach and paused seeing Lefty walking back up from his night out with Marina.

“Early for you,” I said, “you make quick work.” He sighed and sat down next to me.

“I messed up tonight,” he said. I nodded. “What are you doing out here, shouldn’t you be glaring at the new guards and then giggling in Aaron’s ear.” I looked at him.

“I wish I disliked you more,” I narrowed my eyes at him. He laughed. “I need you to tell me the truth, Lefty. If she sends him away,” he looked at me.

“The ships will come,” he said. “You know it, Athena.” I nodded and hugged my knees. “Whether they’d attack or just come intimidate, I can’t say. But they’ll come.” I closed my eyes. “You don’t have a navy.”

“We don’t,” I said, “my grandfather does.” He laughed darkly. “She’s with Harran tonight. She wasn’t flirting, I’ve seen that,” he exhaled. “You know him best, could he forgive it?”

“Eric doesn’t have a temper,” he explained, “he lets things sit, and simmer, he doesn’t act until he can’t help it.” I nodded. “I had a feeling that might hurt him with her.” I sighed. “I don’t know if he could forgive it, but he won’t act rashly. He’ll make sure that she’s as safe as she can be before he walks away.” I nodded. “He loves her, though, which is new. That’s never been the case before.”

“How did you mess up tonight?” I said. “I was under the impression that Rina thought you hung the moon?” He smiled.

“Moon hanging aside,” he smiled, “she needed some space tonight. I can’t lose her.” I looked at him.

“Did you really come here hoping to bed me?” I asked.

“I most certainly did,” he grinned. “We spent a good deal of time in Dorin, stories about you spread and I was intrigued. I’d seen your portrait at your grandfather’s so I knew you were beautiful,” he sighed. “Admit it, if you weren’t with Aaron we’d have had fun.” I laughed.

“If you hadn’t still been entranced by Marina’s doe eyes, that is,” I said. He smiled. “So love got in the way of our fun.” I shrugged.

“Inconvenient, that,” he grinned. I laughed. “I’ll do my best to smooth things with Eric.” He leaned over and whispered in my ear. “I don’t want to leave either.” I smiled as he stood up and walked away. I leaned back and took a deep breath.

How had we come so far in a year? I swallowed and stood up and walked back inside. Aaron was waiting with a smile when I got to bed. I nestled my head into his chest.

“I wish you’d tell me what’s going on,” he said softly. “I get it if you can’t, but I’m here.” I looked up at him.

“There’s this darkness inside of me,” I said quietly, “and I don’t know, I can usually beat it, but it seems to be winning lately.” He lifted my chin.

“I don’t see that,” he said, “I see your light, every day, my love. I won’t let you lose it.” I smiled. “What do you need from me?”

“Just this,” I said, softly, “us.” He nodded. I snuggled close to him and pressed my forehead against his chest. And fell asleep.

I kept dreaming of entering a dark cave, seeing the wheel and the bindings, hearing Tristan calling my name behind me. I woke with a start. I didn’t know what it meant.

Wallflowers

Carolina

“I heard he cut off Lord Brayton’s head himself, even after Her Majesty ordered he live,” I heard Cassidy Mainer whispering to Annabeth Weirs, two girls my age, as we walked into the Manor ballroom, “and that’s why he had to leave Dovetail.”

“I heard she found him in her cousin’s bed,” Annabeth giggled. I pressed my lips into my mouth. “And insisted he be dismissed from the guard.” Tristan was standing beside his grandfather, looking what to most probably seemed stoic, but I knew was likely him trying to mask awkwardness. “Not that I blame her.”

“The Queen or her cousin?” Cassidy giggled.

“Both,” Annabeth said, “or either. Gods, he’s perfection.” We reached the room and I made eye contact with Tristan.

“Caro!” Emily exclaimed running excitedly up to me. “Come on, Alex said Sir Tristan is going to open the dancing.”

“With Mistress DuFrey and you, surely,” I said. It was what made the most sense. I was fond of Charlotte Dufrey, for all that she was ten years older than us, she was always kind. Tristan walked over and smiled at me. Cassidy looked at him. “Sir Tristan,” I curstsied.

“Miss DuKarras,” he bowed, “I apologize, perhaps I should have sent a note?” I smiled at him. “I’m being unspeakably rude. Commander Trisstan Dugarry,” he nodded to Cassidy and Annabeth.

“Oh,” I said, “this is Miss Cassidy Mainer and Miss Annabeth Weirs. What would this note have entailed?”

“That I’d like to dance with you, first, if you don’t mind,” he explained, “Charlotte isn’t feeling well and retired early.” I smiled.

“I’d be honored,” I said softly. He nodded.

“Ladies,” he bowed to Cassidy and Annabeth, and quickly departed. They both looked at me.

“Are you serious?” Annabeth’s voice was so high pitched I could barely hear it. I shrugged as non chalantly as I could. Cassidy’s mouth was still hanging open in disbelief. “How do you know him?”

“Alex came by to call on me,” Emily explained, “and Sir Tristan came with him. Then we came to dinner here last night.” She looked deeply proud, “I should find Alex, at that.” She bounced away.

“Is he courting you?” Cassidy managed. Unlike Annabeth’s shriek this was more of a disbelieving hiss.

“It isn’t that serious yet,” I said shaking my head. “From my understanding he’s quite shy is all, so because we were introduced,” I shrugged again. “Excuse me.” I walked over to the front of the room, feeling like I had clouds under my shoes. Tristan smiled at me. “How did you know to do that?”

“Oh,” he said, “well, I saw you standing there, looking absolutely lovely, by the way,” I blushed, “and I saw those two whispering and I know the type.” He looked down. “You seemed to need a rescue.”

“They’re furious,” I admitted. He chuckled. “I was certainly not supposed to be the one you noticed first.” He looked at me and then back across at Annabeth and Cassidy. “Are you prepared for jealousy and rumors as part of our little game here?”

“After nearly a lifetime under Brayton,” he offered me his hand as the music started, “I think I can handle it.” I smiled as we danced. “I plan to pump them for information about you when I’m forced to dance with them.”

“Mm,” I nodded. “You will be deeply reassured that I’m nothing special. Also, that I’m shy and snobbish,” I shrugged.

“Well, then we have lots in common,” he said. “I am stoic and stand offish, and have been instructed many times to remove the stick from my,” he cleared his throat and I giggled. “Regardless, I’m happy to be of help.” I looked at him.

The music started, and he took my hand and started the simple steps. Emily giggled as Alex danced with her. I looked over at Cassidy and Annabeth. Cassidy was still staring daggers at me, while Annabeth had started scanning the room for open partners.

“Can I call on you?” He asked as we finished. “Alex tells me this is what I’m supposed to do next.” I smiled and nodded.

“It is, and you certainly can,” I said, “what would be next in Dovetail?” He grinned sheepishly at me.

“My experience was atypical,” he admitted. “But it amounts to the same,” he kissed my hand, “spending time together.” I nodded.

“You should see to your other guests,” I said and started walking away.

“Carolina,” he called after me, I turned, “Do you have a favorite flower?” I smiled widely.

“Yellow roses,” I said softly. He nodded. I stepped out onto the balcony and pressed my hands against my face, which felt unbearably hot.

“So I’ve done well,” I rolled my eyes seeing Alex appear next to me. “Grandfather is thrilled.”

“We all live to please your grandfather,” I said. He nodded. “You shouldn’t neglect Emily.”

“Emily couldn’t possibly care if I spend five minutes on you,” he pointed out. I frowned. “Is Tristan not a big enough sacrifice to absolve me?” I looked at him.

“I forgave you a long time ago, Alex,” I said. “Now you just irritate me,” he smiled and leaned against the railing.

“I kissed you here,” he smiled.

“I remember,” I said softly. “I was so embarrassed.” He nodded. “Don’t break my sister’s heart, Alex.”

“For you,” he whispered and pushed a hair off my forehead. “Anything.” I swallowed and looked away and walked inside. Tristan had been swarmed. I giggled as he sent me a pleading look.

“Miss DuKarras?” A page walked over.

“Yes,” I said. He handed me a small box and I opened it, revealing a clearly hastily cut yellow rose with a white ribbon ties around it. “Thank you,” I whispered. He nodded and left. I smiled and stuck the flower into my sash. It didn’t quite go with the soft pink of my gown, but I couldn’t bring myself to care.

Worth The Wait

Annalise

“What brought about this metamorphosis?” Harran asked, as we sat beside one another in the large and very opulent dining hall. If the palace in Dovetail is a marvel, The Summer Palace in Brightcoast is a delicate gem. Everything feels deliberate and luxurious and beautiful, if there’s anyone who looks out of place there it’s certainly Harran, who still wears his simple leggings and loose fitting tunics.

“I’m not sure what you mean,” I said and took a sip of my wine, a light pink vintage that it turns out the region makes loads of. He shook his head. “Do you mind?”

“Not a bit,” he said sipping his own. We both glanced down the table to Eric who was glancing over occasionally. “I didn’t think I’d get to spend any time with you, frankly.” I smiled.

“I’m sorry about that,” I said, “my priorities have been skewed. Can I make it up to you?” He smiled.

“I think we can come to some understanding,” he whispered, his voice low and husky. Suddenly I’m fourteen in the parlor at Pantona again, desperate for his attention, for him to kiss me, tell me I’m special, touch me. “If you’re interested,” his hand slipped to my thigh.

“Yes,” I said softly, “I am.” He grinned and carefully fingered the light silk of my dress.

“You’re sure?” He said. I nodded. “I’ll come to you tonight then.” I smiled.

“I look forward to it,” I said and took another long sip of wine. After we ended dinner people broke off to go to various places. Probably my favorite thing about this summer court is how casual it is. There is of course traditional coffee and some music in the parlor, and whiskey, cards and conversation in the library. But as many people adjourn for long walks on the beaches, or nights in the town, or just go to their rooms. In Dovetail it’s not nearly so easy, with the long banquets, the entertainment staying in the hall and everyone asking for access. Tonight I made a brief appearance in each of the main gatherings before heading towards the grand staircase to go to bed and not alone.

“If you’re looking to punish me, you could be more subtle about it,” Eric called out from an alcove, walking out, holding a bottle and then taking a big swig. I looked at him and sighed.

“Are you drunk?” I asked as he stepped closer to me. He shrugged. “That’s not like you, Eric.”

“I thought you liked this sort of thing,” he said and wrapped his arms around my waist. I looked up at him. “You do look lovely, Annalise,” he whispered. “And if the flirting was to make me jealous, it worked.”

“And if it wasn’t about you at all?” I said sharply. He laughed.

“Then it wasn’t,” he said, “and I’m still jealous.” I broke away from him.

“You didn’t have to be,” I said, “so you can comfort yourself with that.” I turned away and rushed up the stairs and then after turning the corner and being sure he hadn’t followed I slowed down and reached my room and took a deep breath and turned the knob. Harran was already waiting and I smiled nervously.

I felt shy all of a sudden. But he stood up and took my hand and then kissed me gently.

“I’ve wanted this for so long, Lisette,” he whispered. “But if for a moment you aren’t feeling good,” his hands slid gently down my sides lingering on my breasts, “I need you to tell me. I want to make you feel so good, Beautiful,” he kissed my ear then and I exhaled gently as he moved to my neck and we moved in unison past the threshold of the sitting room to the bed and falling back onto it.

I grabbed the back of his head and kissed him deeply. He grunted and slid the straps of the gown down and slipped it past my breasts tearing as he did, he paused.

“It’s alright,” I said and pulled his shirt over his head, “don’t stop, please.” He smiled and pulled the rest of it off.

“Marina might kill me,” he said with a cheeky grin. I laughed and slid my hands over his chest which was so perfectly sculpted I thought I was dreaming.

“I promise she’ll understand,” I said, “I’m reasonably sure that was the desired effect of the thing.” He grinned and slid one hand to my hip and used the other to spread my thighs, before moving one finger into me, I whimpered and threw my head back.

“It was very effective,” he whispered, and then a second finger, “you walked in and I was hard.” I groaned and bucked against him. “Oh you like this, hm?”

“Yes,” I mumbled, “oh yes,” he laughed and kissed me. I moaned more as he kept moving his fingers into me, feeling and pinching. His mouth moved down me and found my nipple as he sucked and played with me I closed my eyes and was lost in it. In him. I groaned and whimpered, running my hands down his back and then I felt myself finish, letting out an involuntary moan and then, “oh Harran, gods.” He moved to be on his knees over me.

“I’m glad to have pleased you, majesty,” he whispered. I was panting and giggled up at him. I propped up on my elbows and smiled and kissed him.

“You have pleased me,” I said. “But we aren’t through yet.” He laughed as I pulled down his pants and then kissed him. He drew down and into me and then I exhaled, my legs wrapped around him. He pumped in and out of me and moaned my name softly. I needed to be closer to him, even then and grabbed onto his shoulders. He took the hint and took my thighs.

He’s so different from Tristan. Somehow he’s more attentive and yet seems to be thinking about it less. He’s hard and strong and doesn’t seem to be shying away from using that strength to move us. In fact he even lifted me up to ride him a while before grunting and finishing in me. After, resting his forehead on my chest.

“Gods,” he muttered, “that was worth the wait, I’d say.” I laughed and fell away from him back against the pillows as he rolled over and looked at me.

“I think so,” I said and brushed his hair off his his face and kissed him. “Harran,” I said softly.

“Yes, Lisette,” he said softly.

“Do you mind that I don’t love you?” I asked. He smiled.

“No, darling, I don’t think I do,” he said, “it’s enough for me that you want me.” I smiled and snuggled close to him, falling asleep feeling terribly safe.

Addisons

Marina

I think Damian is at least a little bit right about how I’ve been insulating myself. But after sixteen years of being insulated by others it is a hard habit to change. As we walk through town the life of the place even puts the market in Dovetail to shame. Everything is lit by torches and magic and there are people calling to one another, and there’s music spilling out and delicious food smells coming from cafes.

And more than anything, there are probably more dark skinned people around than I’ve ever seen in my life. Some much darker than I, and others lighter.

“Are you alright?” He asked. I nodded. “Come on, it’s right here.” I laughed as he enthusiastically took my hand and pulled me inside a door. What was inside stunned me. The ceiling was round dome, held up by what seemed like magic, and the there were two floors of balconies swirling around a large open floor.

And people were dancing. The music was festive and loud and I didnt’ recognize the tune, but the dancing was fast and lively. It was overwhelming but in the best way.

“Can you teach me the dances?” I stood on my toes to reach his ear and yell over the music. He grinned and nodded.

“Of course,” he said, “but let’s get a drink first.” He took my hand and pulled me through the crowd to the bar and the girl working behind it, saw us and lit up.

“I was wondering when we’d finally see you,” she said leaning forward and then pulling him close by his shirt. “The Glory’s been in port for weeks.” He cleared his throat and then she noticed me. “Ah,” she nodded and pulled back.

“I’m sorry for your anxiety,” he teased, “May I present Duchess Marina Sanpierre, and Rina, this Elaine Addison. Lainey and I have known each other since childhood.” She sent him a look and rolled her eyes.

“Welcome, My Lady, we’re glad to have you,” she smiled softly, “be careful of this one, hm?” Damian laughed and I felt immediately small and insecure. The way she’d grabbed him had been intimate, and not friendly. I thought of how early on Raymond had made jokes to him about Brightcoast. She quickly poured two drinks and headed to another end of the bar. I scowled at him as he handed me the cup.

This was new. I wasn’t used to feeling jealous around him. I glanced back down at Elaine. Why was I jealous at that? She’s not beautiful, not unattractive, but her nose is a little off center and her hair is covered so I can’t judge that. And I knew he had a past, but having to see it is piercing.

“Lefty!” A man called out and walked over, “one more night and we were going to send out a search party!” He stopped and looked at. “Glora’s wing,” he shook his head, “I beg your forgiveness, Duchess,” he bowed, “I ought always to greet a lady first.” He wedged himself between us. “My name is Dorian Addison and I am your and Her Majesty’s humble servant.” I smiled and offered my hand which he took and kissed.

“I accept your service gladly, Mr. Addison,” I said, “on my own and my cousin’s behalf.” He smirked.

“I’m grateful to have you in my establishment,” he said, “though I have to admit my surprise at seeing you here with this lowlife.” He nodded to Damian.

“The lowlife can hear you,” he said, playfully pulling Addison away. I laughed.

“You own this place?” I asked. He looked young for it, his hair in long twists down to his shoulder. “It’s wonderful, regardless.” He laughed.

“Prince Eric owns it proper if you must know,” he said, “but only in that he gave me the money I needed, paying him back as I can. Hoping when he’s king he’ll just forgive the debt.”

“Hush, Addison,” Damian said, circling my waist protectively. “You’ll scare her off with political talk.”

“Do you mean King of Phania or Cammadan?” I jested back, ignoring Damian. “You should know Lisette is by no means certain, but by law he’ll inherit the island.” Addison laughed loudly.

“Lisette, you say? I thought you were Brightcoast, not Pantona!” He gestured and then called out. “Lainey, three more!”

“You aren’t the first flattering barman I’ve encountered since her restoration,” I shrugged. Damian twitched at that. Let him. Addison laughed and cupped my chin and then flicked it playfully.

“Any man would be foolish not to try to flatter you,” he said.

“If my brother tries to turn your head,” Elaine said walked over with a bottle and pouring the drinks, “ignore him.” I looked at her again. “Damian, will you sing?” I turned to him taking my second cup.

“You sing?” I said. He sighed.

“Only when provoked,” he said and kissed me. I was drunk enough to not fight him on the kiss.

“If I want to hear you sing, will you indulge me?” I whispered. He shook his head.

“Which would you prefer?” He whispered back, “to dance or hear me screech a Pharras folk tune you’ll hate?” I met his eyes.

“I want to dance with you,” I said softly, “Only you.” He smiled.

We did dance and dance some more after someone pulled him away I found myself back at the bar.

“You look like you could use some water,” Elaine said and poured mine. I nodded, realizing I must be flushed. I took a sip. “We don’t often get,” I held up a hand.

“I don’t often get to either,” I said, “never actually, it was different, in Dovetail.” She nodded, I swallowed. “I’ve never seen him this,” I tried to find the right word, “comfortable, I guess.” She nodded.

“It’s nearly home,” she pointed out. I looked at her and nodded. “He’s never brought anyone here,” she swallowed, I looked down, “I just want you to understand that.” I smiled.

“I see,” I said, “I didn’t know,” I exhaled, “Raymond,” I whispered, “he mentioned friends, never anything else.” Elaine rolled her eyes.

“I’m not surprised,” she said. She exhaled. “He’s the best man I know, My Lady.” The understanding that passed between us felt deeply familiar.

Images of that first night at Camp, when I’d idiotically thought Tristan’s accepting of my invitation was because he wanted to see me. Of William’s eyes following other girls as they entered court. Girls who wouldn’t stop him when his hands moved to his fly. Girls who didn’t worry about what came next. Only Damian, who’s love overwhelmed me, got me over that fear, and I was only one in a line to him.

“Excuse me,” I said softly and walked out.

“Marina,” Damian said, having followed me, “you shouldn’t have, run off, it isn’t exactly safe,” he looked around. I swallowed. “What did Lainey say to you?” I looked down.

“Nothing” I said, “only, it’s very clear that there is something between the two of you, and,” I looked down, “you belong here, and I don’t, and,” I sighed. “Who is she to you?”

“Lainey is an old friend. Our mother’s grew up together, we were together a lot as children.” He explained breathleslly, I nodded and his face fell. “And that wasn’t what you were asking.” I blushed and looked down. “We weren’t in love with each other, Marina,” he said gently. “It just became, a sort of habit when I was here or she was in Brinecliff.” I swallowed.

“You probably should have warned me,” I pointed out. He sighed wistfully took my hands and kissed them both. I giggled.

“You’re right,” he nodded, “I’m desperately sorry and beg forgiveness.” I sighed. “You didn’t deserve an ambush. And I shouldn’t have abandoned you.”

“I forgive you,” I said softly. He smiled. “And I did like them.” He smiled.

“I’m glad,” he said with a gentle smile. “Someday you’ll see the island, my love, and be overwhelmed.” I kissed him. “They are all counting on Eric being King of Cammadan though.”

“Even if they marry she might not make him king,” I pointed out. “Mariah wasn’t a Queen after all.” We’d begun walking back toward the beach and the manor.

“But Marie was,” he said softly. “I think you all don’t appreciate what she meant to the Pharras and the Phanians living here. What Annalise does, what you do.” I kissed him again softly this time. “They came here because there was no place at home for them, because the dream that life here might be better.”

“A dream of a better world,” I said, he nodded. “Aaron and I used to talk about it, before we took Dovetail back. We wanted to lead for her, build a place where everything we believed in could matter.” I closed my eyes and felt the breeze. “I never saw it, Damian.” I admitted. “Because it didn’t matter. As long as I wasn’t in the palace, at Brayton’s mercy, the world was better.” He gently circled his arm around me and rubbed my shoulder. “He could have named the day, and I had no power to stop him.”

“Look at me,” he whispered and I turned. “You are amazing, Marina,” he cupped my cheek. “That you survived and came out kind and true,” he pressed his forehead to mine, “you could be bitter and angry and not a soul could blame you.” I pressed my forehead to his chest.

“Do you love me?” I asked softly, “or do you love what they see me as?” He exhaled.

“I love you,” he said, “if you said you wanted to burn it to the ground and run into the Westran desert, I’d go with you.” I wrinkled my nose.

“I doubt the desert would suit my father,” I said, “and I can’t run away without him, he’d forget to eat.” Damian laughed.

“Fair,” he said, “Although I didn’t realize we’d be bringing your father.” I shrugged. He pulled me close. “I don’t want to lose you, Rina.”

“You never will,” I said.

The Manor

Carolina

“Red, I think,” Mother said, as a maid nodded going into my wardrobe as she herself tightened my corset. “It sets off your hair, and he won’t be used to it. As I understand it everyone in Dovetail wears blue and green.” I sighed.

“Mother,” I said, “I don’t want you to invest too much in this,” I didn’t want to. It was too much to hope for. A path away from the guilds.

“Nonsense,” Mother said taking the red satin dinner gown from the maid and sliding it over my head. “Your father already spoke to Trey Dumanis about the whole business.” She turned me and looked me in the glass. “You’ll be Lady Dugarry by midwinter, darling.” She kissed me on the cheek. “Hair up,” she instructed the maid sharply. “Her neck is her best feature.” She walked out. I slid my hand to my throat.

Arriving at The Dumanis House, a large palace like mansion on a promontory above Dorin city proper always feels like an occasion, even if this time it’s only for a small family dinner. We stepped out of the carriage and Emily giggled squeezing my hand. I nodded and went to follow after her when I felt my father’s hand circle my upper arm.

“Do not embarass me, Caro,” he whispered. I nodded. We walked in and were greeted and then escorted to one of the many parlors. Alex quickly swept Emily away to a corner. I looked around, it really was just us and the family. I took a drink off a tray and quietly sat down in an arm chair.

He wasn’t even here. I sipped lightly on my drink when Trey Dumanis walked over and sat down with me.

“You look lovely Miss DuKarras,” he said. I nodded. “And disappointed?” I blushed. “Tristan should be on his way. He had to go to the fort and pay his respects to the Garrison Commander.”

“Oh,” I said quietly. “I suppose that makes sense.” We didn’t mix much with the guards.

“He takes his responsibility very seriously,” Trey said, there was more affection in his voice than I’d ever heard from a member of The Dumanis. “Even if he is supposed to be on hiatus for his stay here.”

“I didn’t mean to assume,” I muttered, but Trey simply laughed.

“It wasn’t an incorrect assumption,” he said, “as much as we are very happy about that Alex has settled on well, anyone, and we especially like your sister, this particular honor is very much about making sure you and Tristan get to know one another.” I blushed again. “And speak of the devil.”

My next breath caught in my throat. He’d seemed attractive that afternoon in his travelling clothes, but walking into this stuffy room, in his simple, well cut guard uniform, it was impossible not to look at him. He looked how I imagine Cornan himself to look.

“Grandfather,” he walked over and cautiously bowed to Carland Dumanis, “I apologize, Commander Varys was enthusiastic for me to see her whole operation. I didn’t want to insult her by running off.”

“Of course, my boy,” Carland grinned and glanced over at me and winked. Tristan looked embarased and walked over.

“Hello Uncle Trey,” he said. “Miss DuKarras.” He took my hand and kissed it again. This I could get used to. “I’m very sorry for keeping you waiting.”

“It’s alright, really,” I said softly. He smiled and sat down next to me. “Your Uncle was saying you’re on Hiatus from the Guard?” He sighed and shook his head.

“An unfortunate stipulation of my grandfather’s,” he said, “and General Martin. If I were to stay active in The Guard I’d have to be residing in the fort, which was unacceptable.” I laughed at that. “It will be strange, it’s been my life since I was ten.”

“Ten?” I said. He nodded. Trey excused himself, with a cough then. “That is quite young. Is it normal?”

“No,” he said, “and yes. If Annalise hadn’t been,” he paused, “if things were as they were meant to be we might have been even younger. The protectors usually grow up with their charge.”

“Then why ten?” I asked.

“That was when my parents died and Trey and The General took us,” he explained. I looked at him. His face didn’t betray anything. Not grief, or regret.

“Why didn’t you come here?” I asked softly. He looked at me.

“Because,” he said, “I am a part of this family, but I’m also a Dugarry, and we serve Cammadan.” He smiled sadly. “And Athena would have murdered someone by now, probably. She carries a lot of aggression.” I laughed.

“It must have been lonely though,” I said. He shrugged.

“I had Athena,” he pointed out. I smiled. “And we had a job to do.” He looked down. “And my mother didn’t want this for us. I keep thinking she’d be very disappointed in me.”

“As someone who is a deep disappointment to her parents,” I smiled nodding towards mine, “I somehow doubt it.” He laughed.

“Tell me about you,” he said softly. I looked at him and sighed, a bell rang and we all stood up to go into dinner.

“There isn’t much to know,” I whispered, “I’m not that different from every debutante in Dorin.” He nodded, and pulled out my chair so I could sit.

“But that’s the thing,” he said, “I’m not from Dorin, the last time I was here I was seven.” I laughed. “So I am going to find everything you do endlessly fascinating and novel.”

“Or unbearably dull in comparison,” I pointed out. He grinned. “I read, and I go to parties and dinners like this one. I pick out clothes. You’re used to queens and warriors.” The grin stayed but his eyes became sad. “Is it true?” I managed.

“Yes,” he said, “I mean, I don’t know how much or what the stories,” he sighed, “but yes, we were. She, I,” he stopped, “it’s complicated.”

“Well, the only boy who ever showed interest in me moved on nearly instantly to my younger sister, so obviously, I understand complicated,” I stabbed a fork into the salad that had come been served. He nodded. “Not that I begrudge them, they’re much more suited than Alex and I.” He smiled. “Are you in love with her?” He looked me in the eyes then, and I swallowed, the intensity of his gaze is something else. He looked as though he were sizing me up, trying to decide if I could handle his answer.

“Yes,” he said simply, “I am.” I nodded. “Is that,” he frowned. “Does it matter to you?” I bit my lip.

“I don’t know,” I admitted. “I don’t think so. But I’m glad you were honest.” He nodded. “And it really doesn’t make to much of a difference as my father and your uncle have already discussed the situation.”

“I’m sure they have but my uncle isn’t my negotiator,” he said. I looked at him.

“It isn’t my business, but you should not trust Alex with that job,” I said softly. “He isn’t, well, reliable.” He laughed.

“No,” he said, “my sister.” I looked at him. “I’m negotiating for her too. Though hers isn’t particularly complicated. Her first born inherits Tumona, and the weapons are to be evenly distributed and if our grandfather ever sets foot in Pantona he is to be arrested on sight.” I laughed.

“And The Count’s demands?” I asked. He smiled.

“To and this is a direct quote, ‘stop being bothered about this nonsense Tristan, I mean it, I don’t want to hear it again,'” he shrugged. “The nobility considers the contracts passé. Especially the inner circle. Anton and Marie had a love match and it’s now unfashionable to claim anything else.” I looked at him.

These people were myths to me. Stories I’d heard third hand. They were his family, his whole world. He said Inner Circle like it was something he was outside of and yet told casual stories about The Count of Pantona and called the King and Queen who’d died when we were children by their first names.

Before this morning I’d expected to be the old lady who my sister’s grandchildren whispered about and threw pastries at at parties.

He couldn’t actually want me. It isn’t possible. But the way he’s looking at me and smiling feels earnest.

“I’m used to being unfashionable,” I said. He nodded and smiled awkwardly, then I paused. “Did you say that your sister is concerned about the weapons in her dowry?” He shrugged.

“The Dugarrys have been in the guard for nearly two hundred years,” he explained. “There are a lot of weapons.” I laughed again, mid sip of my wine and it went up my nose. My mother sent me a glare and I swallowed.