The Mistake

Carolina

I walked into the inn in the village and the girl behind the bar nodded to me and motioned her head to William’s office.

“Hello Lady Dugarry,” he grinned. I smiled and sat down as he gestured to a couch. “I was expecting you earlier.” I frowned at him.

“Sir Tristan arrived home,” I explained arranging my skirts, “he had,” I swallowed, “other plans,” he smirked at me. “Don’t look at me like that.”

“I’m not looking at you any way in particular,” he said as the girl walked in with a tea tray, “thank you Izzie.”

“You’re welcome,” she said and bounced a curtsey to me, “My Lady.” I nodded at her, and she shut the door behind her.

“You are looking at me, and you can’t,” I mumbled. He stood up and came next to me. “Don’t,” I said, “my husband is back, and we’re,” I looked down.

“Caro,” he mumbled, “I don’t want to complicate your life.” I nodded.

“Then don’t,” I said, standing up and looking out the window. He stood up and kissed my neck, “William,” I mumbled.

“Do you love him?” He whispered.

“What kind of question is that?” I turned around. “He’s my husband.”

“I’m aware he’s your husband,” he said, “that wasn’t what I asked.” I frowned at him.

“I do, yes,” I said. “And it’s awfully presumptive of you to think I love you.” He smiled.

“I never thought for a moment that you loved me,” he said. “But I know you want me.”

“No” I said sharply. “You’re the one who keeps bringing it up.” It shouldn’t have gone further than this, his teasing, a few kisses, glances we hope no one sees. But there was that one night, which I know he’s thinking of now.

“You’re the one who came to me,” he whispered softly, “lonely and wanting.” I swallowed. “I wonder sometimes if you told him, and that’s why he hates me so much.”

“He hates you because you didn’t recognize Brayton, he has no idea about us,” I whispered. He nodded. “I wouldn’t hurt him like that.”

“He did,” he whispered. I closed my eyes.

“That was different,” I said as he kissed my knuckles. “William,” I said softly. “Please?” He nodded and stepped back, “I just wanted to,” I exhaled.

“You wanted to tell me Tristan was home, which I already knew,” he said, “and see if I had any news.” I nodded. “I have no news for you my lady.” I swallowed and pulled my shawl around me.

“Good, then,” I said softly, and walked out. I frowned and exhaled. I shouldn’t have gone to him that night. But I thought that I wanted something, anything but what I was feeling, so alone and lost. That night, sobbing in his arms, taking comfort in his touch, and kisses, felt horribly wrong now that Tristan was back.

“Oh, Caro,” Aaron was walking down the lane when I saw him. I dipped into a curtsey. “I didn’t expect to see you about.”

“Your Grace,” I said. He laughed. “Are you going to my house?” He smiled.

“Not just yet,” he shook his head. “I’m giving the twins a wide berth.” I laughed. He glanced at the inn. “And I’m supposed to invite William to dinner.”

“Oh,” I said softly, “well, that should make for an entertaining evening.” Aaron looked at me. I wonder sometimes how much he knows. He knows so many things that are impossible to know.

“Caro, I,” he sighed, “I wonder if maybe you ought to have gone to Dorin these past few months.” I laughed.

“If I’d been invited I’d have gone, I can assure you,” I said gently. “Unfortunately my in laws are not quite at the point where they wish to completely alienate my father, as much as my sister seems to wish it.” Aaron nodded. “Dovetail will make a nice change.” He lifted one shoulder.

“It always does,” he said. “The Queen is nervous about council convening.” I nodded. “Did anything happen?”

“No,” I said quietly. I was reporting and reassuring him, I realized. He nodded. “I don’t want,” I exhaled.

“You don’t have to say anything,” he said. “I know none of this has been easy for you,” he looked down, “but don’t,” I rested my hand on his elbow.

“Aaron,” I said, “I swear, there’s nothing to tell.” He nodded. “But, thank you.”

“Of course,” he said softly. “I’ll see you tonight.” I smiled. He smiled back. I found my way home, Tristan was back at his desk and I slid my hands down his chest. He closed his eyes and exhaled.

“How was your visit?” Tristan asked gently.

“Fine,” I said, “I saw Aaron. Are Athena and Calla gone?”

“Mm hm,” he said. “She’s having another baby.” I closed my eyes.

“I see,” I whispered. “That’s good.” He looked up at me. “It is! It’s wonderful news. Tristan,” I said, my voice breaking.

“Yes, love,” he said.

“Please don’t ever stay away so long again,” I mumbled, curling into his lap. He nodded and cradled me to him.

“I’ll try my best,” he whispered. “What’s happened? You were so determined this morning.”

“It doesn’t matter.” I mumbled. “It only matters that you’re home and you wanted me.” He lifted my chin.

“I’ll always want you,” he said softly. “Did he upset you? I can kill him.” I laughed. “I’ve wanted to kill William Santino for five years, Caro, I could muster the impulse to do it quite easily.” I liked this old joke of ours. He’d threatened Andrei the same, and I knew his antipathy towards William had little to do with me, but it still felt nice.

“Hush,” I mumbled and kissed him. “Are you terribly disappointed that Athena and Aaron will have another child, and we still have none?”

“Hmm,” he whispered and lifted me onto the desk and I giggled, “I was, but I suppose I will have to renew my resolve to use this time we have together.” I smiled and spread my legs for him. I’d married a good man, who even if he hadn’t loved me then, did now, and wanted me, wanted me to have his child.

Discontented

Carolina

I woke up with sunlight peaking through the curtains and pulled the covers over my head.

“Caro,” Tristan’s voice sing songed. I peaked back out. “Are you awake?”

“I am not,” I said firmly. He laughed and kissed me. “I’m sleeping, go away.” He kissed me again.

“But I’m home,” he said, sliding under the covers with me.

“You’ve been home for three days,” I reminded him, “and I’ve enjoyed it, but you’re rather tiring my love.” He smiled and kissed my neck.

“Ah,” he said, pulling my hips to him. “But I was in the wilderness for four months,” I giggled, “and the thought of tiring you out was the only thing keeping me sane.” I kissed him again.

“The only thing?” I said. He nodded. “Your mission didn’t come into your mind?” He sighed and kissed me.

“Tragically,” he shook his head, “you know I tend to be singularly focused, and this round it was, ‘I am going to go home as soon as possible and make my wife moan for three days straight.'” I laughed.

“Well Commander, you succeeded beautifully,” I kissed him. “But I ask for a slight reprieve.” He sighed. I kissed him. “Now, we can’t put off everything else we have to do.” He groaned as the door opened.

“Lady Dugarry,” our maid, Elsie smiled dropping a tray on the table, “Sir Tristan.”

“Thank you Elsie,” I said standing up and opening the curtains. Tristan pouted at me. “As you can see, Sir Tristan is behaving like a child this morning.”

“Yes, ma’am,” Elsie laughed. “Shall I send word to the Countess not to expect you, again?”

“You can send word to the Countess that she can hang in the village square for all I care,” Tristan grumbled, “as if my sister would attend a godsdamned dinner party after a four month ranging mission.” I kissed him gently.

“We can’t put them off again,” I said, “please tell the Countess we look forward to seeing her tonight.” Elsie nodded and left. “You know,” I said slipping back into bed and straddling him, “when Alex and Emily came through I bought several new gowns and I haven’t gotten to wear them at all.” He laughed at my pout.

“The gowns can hang along with my sister,” he said and flipped me onto my back. I groaned as he started touching me. “When we go to Dovetail, we’ll hardly have any time alone, here,” I whimpered, “I have you all to myself, just as I prefer it.”

“Oh Tristan,” I sighed. I’m weak. I know I should tell him no, that we’ve delayed long enough and we can’t spend another day simply making love.

But I’ve missed him too. Four months is the longest we’ve ever been apart. And his times out in Westran or east in Failor were getting longer.

“Tell me you like it,” he whispered in my ear.

“You know I do,” I teased and nibbled on his bottom lip. He smirked as he pressed into me. We always have this. The physical distance between us can become emotional, but in when we’re in bed, it’s the same as when we first met. We want each other and everything else doesn’t matter. “Tristan, oh gods,” I moaned, arching up into him. “I can’t, I’m going to,” I exhaled and clenched around him.

“Hang on a bit longer, sweet,” he said, “stay with me.” I nodded and cried out as we both finished. “I missed being with you so much, Caro,” he whispered. “Sometimes I thought I was Dreaming.” I smiled and kissed him.

“I felt that too,” I said softly, resting my hand on his chest. “We still have to go to the manor tonight. Athena’s likely to break down our door and then make Aaron evict us if we avoid it any longer.” He laughed.

“I don’t think he can evict us,” Tristan said, “the house was a part of our wedding contract. Unless someone in Dorin takes Andrei’s challenge seriously, he can’t get rid of us.” I barked out a laugh.

“Well, then we’re perfectly safe, since Alex has everyone in Dorin fully convinced that Andrei is out of his mind,” I said. “But we’d better not risk it.” He sighed and I kissed him. “Tristan,” I whispered, “please.”

I knew why he wanted to stay in bed, what he hoped it would lead to.

“Have you spoken to Marina about it?” He whispered. I nodded. “And?”

“Well, she said it will happen on the goddess’s timeline, not ours,” I slipped a robe on.

“Which is Marina for, be patient, the baby will come?” He asked. I shrugged.

“I think,” I kissed him, “it also means that even if we spend every moment we’re together having sex, only being together for a few days every few months, means we can’t count on anything.” He sighed and sat up. I straddled him and pressed my hands against his chest. He had so many scars now. There had been a few I’d always known, the one on his side from taking Dovetail, the small one on near his eyebrow, from a time Athena accidentally cut him as a child. But there were two on his right pectoral now, several on his back. Three on each thigh.

And I was never there for the healing, for his pain. I hated that, I wanted to be, so badly, but it was something he kept hidden away, like so many other parts of himself.

“You’re right,” he sighed. “But I know how badly you want it.” I smiled.

“I do,” I said softly. “But you’re home, and safe, and I can’t ask the gods for more than that,” he kissed me. “This one is new,” I said softly brushing his shoulder.

“Mm,” he nodded, “we walked into a briar nest, it was fine.” I nodded.

“Why didn’t Prior come here with you?” I asked. Tristan’s ranging partner sometimes came here. He frowned.

“He was in rather a hurry to get on to Dovetail,” he muttered. I frowned.

“Oh,” I said softly, “I hadn’t realized they were still,” he shrugged.

“She has to entertain herself somehow,” he sighed.

“Tristan,” I said quietly. Though that at least got him out of bed. I wanted to say something, but anything I’d say on the subject would sound hollow, jealous. She isn’t replacing you, no one could. I have to believe that. Annalise’s lovers have nothing to do with Tristan, because if they do, then what does our marriage mean? I know I can’t be what she was to him. I’d never even bothered to try.

“I’m sorry,” he said, “I know you didn’t mean,” I kissed him. “I’ll get dressed, we’ll walk into town, and then to the manor.” I nodded. “I brought some things for Calla.” I grinned.

“She’s missed you too, you know.” I said. “Annalise is considering giving her the circlet soon.” He looked at me.

“That’ll be sure to calm the Phanians down,” he said. I shrugged.

“Nothing else has,” I sighed, “we got some word that Lord Lestoff is rebuilding his launches, that’s good news, if the ferries start running.” He smirked.

“Any news from Brinecliff is good news,” he muttered. I shook my head.

“You don’t get to resent Annalise having Prior and Marina pining for Lieutenant Lestoff at the same time, love,” I teased. He laughed. “And us not having a child. It’s too much. Even you can’t sustain that level of brooding.”

“I’m very good at it though,” he grinned. I shook my head. “What is it you want to do today, besides dinner?”

“I have to go into town,” I said, he groaned. “I haven’t checked in in a few days, something may have happened.”

“I won’t speak to him,” he said.

“Oh that will be new a different,” I grinned. “You two are usually on such good terms.” He glared at me. “Tristan, he’s a useful contact. I can either do my job well, or I can ostracize William, it cannot be both.”

After I was inducted into the guard, it became abundantly clear that I was not a fighter. But Dowager Countess Olivia quickly observed how my merchant trained manners set people at ease, and how my contacts through Alex and Emily could keep the army up to date. So instead of a soldier I became a spy. I’m very very good at it.

Tristan hates it.

That is the least of our problems.

A Long Time Ago

Marina

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes,” he said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This all happened a long time ago.

Farewells

Annalise

A week moved so quickly I could barely take it. There were a few negotiations, a lot of planning our next step and mostly just soaking up every minute with Eric that I could.

It did not help matters that Tristan was planning his wedding and Marina and Lefty were walking around like someone died.

“It’s six months,” Eric said, “at the most.” He kissed my temple as we lay in bed. “He’s acting like we’re leaving forever.”

“Does he have to go with you?” I asked. “Maybe he could stay, if it is only going to be six months.” He sighed. “I’m worried Marina might cause a hurricane or something if she gets too depressed.” He laughed.

“No, he has to come,” he sighed, “to resign his commission if nothing else. Although I hope he doesn’t, he’s too good a sailor to give it up.” He kissed me. “I don’t want to go either, by the way, but it’s necessary. Daniel will insist.” He stood up. “Only one more tide and then we go.” I joined him and wrapped my arms around his waist and pressed my forehead into his back.

“I love you,” I said. “I can’t wait to see you again.”

The next morning we all stood on the dock, I was ready, we’d said everything there was to say. It was a strange reversal, I realized.

I’d grown so used to Marina’s calm, her ability to stay neutral in public, that seeing her in Lefty’s arms weeping as they got ready to separate while Eric quietly kissed my hand and smiled at me felt wrong. I’d expected her to break down later. But that she couldn’t control it now, was breaking my heart.

I should have let her go with them. I’d said I would, and now was going back on it, and I was relying on her seeming unending reserve of compassion to forgive me.

And I thought of the Marina of my Dreams, the shadow Brayton had conjured. That was in her too, cold, and powerful and calculating, and that Marina would be my enemy, the Marina who is drained of that goodness.

We stood together and watched them sail away, and she straightened.

“Marina,” I said gently.

“Don’t,” she whispered and turned away. “Not now, please don’t.” I nodded as she walked towards the manor. I exhaled and returned to the palace. Aaron and Athena were both waiting for me.

“I’d rather you two weren’t spending every moment haunting my steps,” I said sharply.

“To be fair,” Aaron said, “that is her job.” I laughed.

“I’m fine,” I said gently. They looked at each other. “I am. If you’ll recall I’ve been left before and that was more permanent.”

“And you took it so well!” Athena said. I looked at her. “You won’t get rid of me.”

“Fine,” I said and threw up my hands. They sat down and went back to whatever they had been doing before. “When do you leave?” I asked. Aaron looked at me indulgently.

“Lisette, I have to be there for harvest, you know that,” he said. I pouted and crossed my arms. “And I’d appreciate my wife being with me.” Athena beamed at him.

“You’re both insufferable,” I said, “my betrothed just left me, and now I’m losing you too.”

“We’ll come to Dovetail after harvest,” Athena said, “Probably about in time for your wedding.” I smiled, that felt nice to think about. “How’s Marina?”

“She didn’t want to talk to me.” I said. Athena nodded. “Maybe you could try.”

“Tristan should be the one to talk to her,” Aaron said. We looked at him. “Don’t look at me like that you know I’m right.” We frowned, he really was.

“What’s he right about?” Carolina walked in. She smiled softly. She’d settled into training, and even her small apartment in the barracks remarkably well. She’s still uneasy around me, I can’t blame her.

“Do you know where Tristan is?” Athena said. She frowned. “We’re worried about Marina, and sometimes,” she drifted off.

“Of course,” Carolina said softly, “my mother and sister are due today, he’s with your grandfather, getting the last of everything settled.” I nodded. “Did the prince get off alright?”

“He did,” I said. “When you see him,” she nodded. I realized suddenly that we understood each other. I was grateful for it. She was going to love him, I could stop worrying.

Vows

Athena

I stood nervously as Olivia pinned a wreath of white flowers into my hair. I smoothed my gown and swallowed a lump in my throat.

“You look lovely,” she said. I looked at her. “Just like your mother.”

“Are we making a mistake?” I whispered. She shook her head.

“No,” she said, and rested her hand on my heart. “Waiting longer would be a mistake. The wheel is turning and you don’t know what’s going to happen next, but this way you’ll know this,” I swallowed. “Athena, this won’t go away. It’s solid.”

“Thank you,” I said, “how did you know that’s what,” she shrugged.

“When I married Caleb,” she said, “I thought about my father, and the conditions he put on his love, and Anton, who would be distracted by well, anyone,” I smiled, “and Tom, who couldn’t stand still long enough to build anything, and I worried, so much that this would flee from me too.” She smiled. “But Aaron’s like his father. He wouldn’t commit to anything that would falter.” I realized I was crying.

“I wish he was here,” I said softly, “I wish my parents were here,” she hugged me.

“Me too,” she whispered and wiped my eyes, “smile, darling, you’re going to be my daughter now.” I laughed.

“Are you ready?” Tristan asked, walking up to us, with Martin not far behind him. I nodded and looped my arm through his. “I suppose this means you’ll outrank me forever.” I laughed.

“Yes, I think it does,” I said, “I actually think my babies will even outrank you which is the best part.”

“You two can squabble about this all day,” Thomas said, “but you’re both still runt recruits.” We reached a courtyard, shaded by willows arching over it. A few rows of chairs had been set up and Aaron was standing at the end of the aisle, beaming at me. Marina was behind him, dressed in her simple blue healer dress, which pleased me.

I walked towards him and took his hands.

“Hello, love,” Aaron whispered to me.

“Hello,” I said softly. I glanced out at the assembled group, Annalise was standing her hand in Eric’s. Harran hadn’t left yet, and winked at me. Thomas, Tristan and Trey, Carolina and her father. Mercy and Elodie. I swallowed and looked at Aaron.

“It is my honor,” Marina began, “to unite Count Aaron of Pantona, and Commander Lady Athena Dugarry in marriage,” Aaron winked at her and she giggled. “Aaron, do you vow to love Athena, to cherish her and support her, to honor her will, joy and sorrows?” His face was serious now.

“I so vow,” he said and squeezed my hands. I smiled. Marina nodded to me.

“Athena,” she said, my eyes were fixed on Aaron’s, “do you vow to love Aaron, to cherish him and support him, to honor his will, joy and sorrow?” I swallowed.

“I so vow,” I said, though if I made any noise at all, it would surprise me.

“And do you both vow to share your home, warmth, and hearts, to build a family worthy of your ancestors?” She said.

“We so vow,” we said in unison. She them placed my right hand over Aaron’s.

“I bless you, and your union,” her voice was soft and steady. “In the name of the great god, Cornan, the holy goddess Rana, and the lines of Pantona and Dugarry. May your marriage be the greatest of all blessings.” We smiled at her and then he pulled me close and kissed me.

“What do you think Countess,” he whispered to me. “Did it suffice?”

“Perfectly sufficient,” I whispered back. “Thank you.” He laughed into my neck. “I love you.”

“You’re the best parts of me, Thena,” he said softly. I kissed him again and he pulled me close.

“You’re my home,” I said as we pressed our foreheads together. Realizing finally that I’d arrived there.

No Rush

Carolina

I’d fallen asleep, which I hadn’t thought was previously possible. Someone had gotten a note from Papa letting me know he was safe. I was grateful for that.

“Caro,” I woke up to Tristan smiling softly at me. “Good morning,” I sat up and looked at him.

“Good morning,” I said and hugged him. “You’re safe.” He nodded.

“I am,” he whispered. “Brayton got away.” I looked at him and swallowed.

“So what does that mean, for us?” I asked softly. He kissed me.

“It means I’m going to be very busy,” he said softly. “And your training will be quick.” I nodded. “And I want to get married.” I smiled.

“We are getting married.” I said softly. Tristan shook his head.

“No not,” he sighed, “not in a few months, not after Athena’s finally worn your father down, not when Emily and your mother have fought you to a guild hall wedding that we don’t even want,” I looked at him. “I want to marry you now, I don’t want,” he exhaled, “I want to know that you’re going to be secure, if something happens.”

“Tristan,” I whispered.

“If you don’t want to,” he said, “if you want to wait, I understand, but Marina said she’d perform the ceremony.”

“I want to,” I said, “maybe, wait a few weeks though? So we can send for Emily and my mother?” He nodded and kissed me.

“Alright,” he said, “I’ll send for them,” I smiled and kissed him again. “Thank you, I know you’re giving up so much for this.”

“I’d give up more for you,” I said, “but we don’t have to rush.” He nodded and kissed me. “Mercy is an interesting person.” He snorted.

“That’s a word for her,” he said as I stood up.

“She reminds me of Emily actually,” I said. He nodded. “Was it awful?”

“No,” he said, “I missed most of it, actually, Annalise, Athena and Marina confronted him. There were a few shadows to push back, which Nika and Brea handled.” I nodded. “I was careful.”

“I’m glad,” I said and sat back down with him.

“Athena and Aaron are getting married today,” he said softly, “we should get dressed.” I nodded. “Do you want to go to the house?”

“It is where most of my clothes are,” I smiled, “I can’t go to your sister’s wedding, to a Count no less, in last night’s gown. Emily will never speak to me again.” He laughed. “I thought you might die last night.”

“So did I,” he whispered. “I think it a lot, actually.” I exhaled. “I don’t know what comes next, Caro, I wish I did.” I kissed him gently.

“The wedding will be at sunset?” I asked. He nodded. “Good, I’ll write to Mother and Emily, get it on the next boat to Dorin. You write to Alex and ask that they be sent down on the fastest.” He nodded. “Do we need to give them a gift? Goddess!”

“Caro,” he laughed, “we do not need to give Athena and Aaron a gift. First of all, we have nothing, and could not buy anything that could possibly be of value to them,” I laughed. “But I do need to talk to Lisette and make sure the contract is finalized.” He kissed my forehead. “I love you.” I smiled.

“I love you too,” I said gently. I quickly put my dress on and rushed down through the palace and into town.

It felt different from yesterday, quieter, and calmer, and a little eerie. I got to the house and found my father in the study. He stopped his work and looked at me.

“I’m glad you made it back,” he said. I nodded.

“Tristan and I have decided to move up the wedding,” I said firmly. He stood up and walked over to me. “I’m going to write to Emily and Mother and they’ll come here and we’ll be married once they arrive.”

“I see,” he said, “and I was not to be consulted in this plan?” I sat down and took a piece of paper and pen and began writing, “Carolina, look at me!”

“No,” I said, “since it’s become abundantly clear you don’t want the wedding to happen at all, I assumed when it happened would be irrelevant to you.” I went back to the letter.

“He isn’t going to make you happy,” he said. I stared at him. “You’re an escape for him, and now he’s realizing he can’t escape, and it will make you both miserable.” I looked away. “Andrei made a mistake, Caro, but he cares for you, do you think he’d have come here if he didn’t?”

“It doesn’t matter,” I said, “I don’t want him, and I do want Tristan.” He frowned at me. “I know what you’re saying, I know what you mean even, but it doesn’t matter. It’s over.”

I could see it in the way he was looking at me. He would never forgive me for this. And for the very first time in my life, I didn’t care.

Not Lost

Marina

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

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

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

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

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

“And?” She said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Hello, my love,” he said gently.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Assignments

Annalise

The three of us walked out to the courtyard, and saw the others. Tristan had joined them and he smiled gently at me. I nodded and went to Harran.

“Walk with me,” I said. He smiled and we went out of the courtyard. “I need you to go home,” he sighed.

“Of course,” he said. I swallowed. “With a specific mission, or are you just tired of me?” I laughed.

“No,” I said, “I need to you to take your father and brothers’ temperatures, I need to know they’re with me.” He nodded. “And argue for me if they aren’t.”

“That I can do,” he pressed his forehead to mine. “I’ll be called a failure, you know. Twice I’ve not managed to keep you.” I laughed.

“I’m going to miss you,” I whispered. “Not nearly as much as Athena, but still,” he laughed then.

“She might never forgive you,” he admitted. “Brea and Nika?” I bit my cheek.

“I still need them,” I said, “we have to find Brayton, and after him Amina, probably.” He swallowed and kissed me. “Harran,” I whispered.

“Lisette,” he said softly. “Gods, if I’d been bolder four years ago.” I laughed.

“You’d have had a terrified little girl in your arms,” I said, “I’m glad we waited.” He frowned.

“But I’d have had you first,” he said, “and could hold some claim on you.” I smiled. “You have a wild heart, my queen, you needn’t tame it to suit others.”

“He doesn’t want to tame it,” I said, “but it is his.” I swallowed, “you said it yourself, I can’t keep fighting fate.”

“Yes, but when I said that you weren’t sending me away,” he pointed out. “And Tristan wasn’t back yet.” I laughed. “I’ll leave in the morning.”

“Good,” I said. I walked back over to the group. Marina was sitting with Nika, their foreheads together and they were whispering, Athena and Tristan looked at me.

“You two should go to,” I paused, “I’m sure Aaron and Carolina are worried.” Athena smiled softly.

“I’m sure they are,” she said, “but you need us.” Tristan nodded.

“This is what we do, Your Majesty,” he said. I laughed. “We protect you, we fight for you.” I swallowed and threw my arms around his neck. “I’ll die for you, remember. I swore.” I nodded.

“I’d really rather you didn’t though,” I muttered. He smiled. “I don’t know, if,” he cupped my face.

“I made another promise,” he said gently, “to tell you the truth,” I nodded. “You can handle this. You were born for it.” I swallowed. “We also have a favor to ask, though.”

“Anything,” I said softly. The twins made eye contact.

“We know,” Athena said, “that whatever’s next, we have to be with you.” I nodded. “And that any plans we might have had.”

“We want to get married,” Tristan spat out. I stared at him. “As soon as possible.”

“Oh,” I said. “Well, what do you need from me?” Athena smiled.

“Permission to do it on the palace grounds, mostly,” Athena shrugged. “Marina’s already agreed to perform the ceremonies.”

“Permission granted then,” I said softly. Tristan’s face relaxed. Did he think I’d say no? “I should speak to Eric.” I walked back to the palace and found him waiting in the apartment.

“Well?” He whispered.

“Something’s starting,” I said, “I don’t know what yet.” He nodded and kissed me pulling me close. Sex would be easy right now, to just be with him, to think of nothing and no one else. “How’s Lefty?”

“Restless,” he said, “worried, but unharmed.” I nodded. “Did you catch him?”

“We let him go,” I said softly, “he’s not important anymore.” I sat down and rested my head on his shoulder. “When do you go?” He exhaled.

“A week or so, I think,” he kissed me, “I’ll come back as soon as I can.” I slid into his lap. “Anya,” he said. “What’s wrong?”

“Don’t know me so well,” I teased. He laughed darkly. “I can’t just want you?”

“You can,” he said, “but in this moment, you don’t,” I exhaled. “Tell me,” I frowned.

“You’ll be angry,” I said. He sighed. “I sent Harran home,” I whispered, “and Tristan and I,” I pressed my forehead to his, “I don’t know, Eric, I love you, I want us to be together, but I can’t not love him. And I know you’ve said you can’t live with that.” He pressed his forehead to mine.

“I never said you shouldn’t love him,” he whispered, “I said I wouldn’t share you.” I swallowed. “I still won’t, but I trust you.” I wove my hand into his. “I’ve never loved anyone else, Anya, but you have. You love so fiercely, why would I want to change that?”

“We have a week?” I whispered. He nodded. I kissed him fiercely. “What will we do with ourselves in that time?”

“I think you’ll be rather busy,” he teased, I nipped at his bottom lip. I nodded. “As will I,” he groaned as I kissed along his jaw. “There are a lot of arrangements to make.”

“Mm,” I smiled. “Are there?” He nodded and stood up, carrying me to bed. “I don’t want to lose you.” He pushed his hands over my thighs.

“You won’t,” he said, “I swear it.” I smiled.

Hiding

Carolina

Tristan found me sitting in the library listening to some girl about fifteen trying to play the piano. She wasn’t doing well.

“There you are,” I said, he sat down with me, “what’s wrong?”

“I’ve made arrangements for you to stay here tonight,” he said softly. I looked at him.

“Whatever for?” I said, “I should be at the house in the morning you know how my father is about breakfast.” He exhaled.

“I need to know you’re safe, and the safest place is here,” he sighed. I squinted at him. “Come on,” I stood up and followed him. “Lord Brayton has escaped, and I can’t,” he touched my face. “I can’t be worrying about you.”

“Oh,” I said softly. “Of course not,” I swallowed, “Is Lady Marina alright?” He frowned.

“I don’t know,” he muttered, “Lisette and Athena don’t want to disturb her, which I think is wrong.” He shook his head, “you’ll stay here, though?” I nodded. He kissed me. “I have to go, I’ll find you later though.”

“Alright,” I managed softly. I went back into the library and nearly jumped out of my skin when a very pretty red haired girl settled in next to me.

“Oh, I didn’t mean to startle you,” she said, “I’m Mercy Graves, I believe you’ll be staying with me this evening.” I looked at her. “Of course he didn’t give you the details.” She rolled her eyes. “My Elodie will be on duty as well, that’s why I offered.”

“I understand,” I swallowed. “Does it always feel like this?” I asked. Mercy looked at me. “Like your stomach is on the outside of your body?”

“Unfortunately,” she said, “it isn’t an easy life.” I looked at her. “It’s worth it though.” I smiled. “You have it much worse than I do though,” she said as we stood up and walked down the hall, “Tristan’s not just a soldier, he’s a hero and thinks of himself that way.” I swallowed. “Elodie at least tries to stay safe, but that boy,” she shook her head. “I’m not helping, I’m sorry.”

“It’s alright,” I said. We reached her apartment. “How long have you and Captain Willis been together?” She sighed and flopped onto a couch.

“Two years,” she said, “she was away for six months, right before Annalise took the throne. I thought I might never see her again, it was hell.” I sat down. “Tell me, what makes a wealthy merchant daughter leave a whole world behind to come to court and be a soldier’s wife?” I sat down.

“I never fit, in Dorin,” I explained, “and I hate the guilds. I hate the way they turn everything into a deal and nothing can simply be. I hate negotiations and I hate being a commodity that my father wants to unload like cargo on one of his ships.” I frowned. “And I love Tristan. I didn’t expect to, but I do.” Mercy looked at me. “I love that he’s too serious, and that I’m the one who makes him smile and the way he’s always trying to solve the puzzle of every room he’s in,” I laughed, “and he’s doesn’t love me. He’s trying to, but he doesn’t.” I was crying. “He was honest about it, he told me he was in love with her, with the Queen,” she nodded. “The first night I met him, I asked and he answered, yes,” I swallowed. “I thought I could live with it. I still think I can.”

“Wow,” Mercy nodded. “I’ve always been jealous of him, you know.” I raised my eyebrows. “Marina loved him. She tolerated me.” I smiled.

“You have good taste,” I said. She laughed.

“I didn’t have many options,” she admitted. “But yes, I think so.” I laughed. “My father didn’t want me either,” she swallowed, “I was a girl, and queer besides, useless to him. He tried to change me.” I scrunched my face.

“I didn’t realize such things happened anymore,” I said. Mercy shrugged. “Where is your father now?”

“Dovetail,” she smiled, “he’s sided with Brayton until the end, you see, so while Annalise spared his life, he isn’t welcome at court.” I smiled. “Do you want to make sure yours is alright?” I sighed. “I’m sure you do,” she rang a bell.

“It’s really alright,” I shook my head. She raised her eyebrows. “I’m sure the guards have better things to do.” She nodded and I stood up. “What do I do if he dies?” I asked.

“Whatever you like,” Mercy shrugged, “your service was accepted tonight, but the Queen won’t hold you to it if you want to go home and marry that Rastani man who was skulking around earlier.” I stared at her. “I’m more observant than most. He’s very handsome, a little dim, I think, when I talked to him.”

“Not dim,” I shook my head, “and yes he is, handsome, I mean. He was my,” I stopped, “well, before Tristan.”

“Oh,” Mercy said, “well that is complicated.” I laughed. “He’s not going to die. If Tristan Dugarry were at all marked for death he’d have died a long time ago.” I smiled.

“You rang, Mistress?” A maid walked in. She looked at me.

“I think chocolate will do,” Mercy said softly. “Unless you want something stronger?” I shook my head. “Yes then, two hot chocolates.” She took my hands, “I know it’s awful,” I nodded. “But all we can do is wait, and love them fiercely when they’re with us.”

Final Decision

Athena

Aaron and I are standing on the landing, not talking watching as something gathers on the horizon. That’s what it feels like but it’s also physically happening, there are shadows over past the cliffs gathering.

“Are you alright?” He said. I swallowed and nodded. “Do you agree with Tristan? Should we go to Marina?”

“We’d only panic her,” I said. He looked at me. “I’m panicked. Our best were guarding him, Aaron, and Anselm? This isn’t like with Phania. This wasn’t a frustrated boy who wanted to go home. We can’t talk ourselves out of Brayton bringing shadows. Marina’s power has grown, and Raymond will be helpful but we still don’t know how she summoned that light last year, or if she can do it again.” He nodded. “And Lisette is distracted. Cornan tells me to wield her, she’d his sword, I’m his champion.” I sighed, “I don’t know how to do that, I don’t know what it means, and she doesn’t listen to me anyway.”

“She listens,” he said gently, and held me close. “But she doesn’t want to be a weapon. She never did.” I smiled up at him.

“You know that’s when I started falling in love with you,” I said softly, “do you remember, that day we went for a ride in the woods? And I was teasing you, about ghosts?” He smiled.

“Ah,” he nodded, “and I thought that you were ignoring her as a person.” I nodded. “I didn’t understand then.” He swallowed, “I think I do better now. I’ve been able to forgive my father for it.” I smiled and kissed him. “She’s a person,” he said, “but she’s a symbol too, and the sword. She needs to embrace that. I think Eric is helping.”

“My Lady,” I turned as a guard ran in. “Lieutenant Lestoff is here, he’s insisting he needs to see you alone.” I frowned.

“Alright,” I said, Aaron nodded and followed the guard out, Lefty stumbled in and collapsed on the couch, his eyes wide, and full of fear. “Lefty,” I said and knelt down next to him. “What happened?” He shuddered, I shouted for the guard. “Get Captain Willis.”

“No,” he said, “no he’s back, he’s here, Athena, he has her.” I looked at him. “You have to, she’s alone with him, she’s fighting him,” I swallowed.

“Look at me,” I said, “Brayton?” He nodded. “Were there shadows?”

“No,” he whispered, “but I couldn’t breath, I couldn’t think. It was so dark.” I nodded. “He’ll kill her.”

“No,” I said, “unfortunately, it will be worse than that.” I grabbed my sword, and spear. “You need a healer, Elodie will be here presently.” He swallowed.

“I left her,” he whispered, “she said to, but still,” he was shaking. I pressed my forehead to his. “I swore I never would, and I,” he swallowed.

“It’s alright,” I said. “She’ll forgive you.” He closed his eyes. “I have to go.” He nodded. “Lefty,” I said, “we need you to tell us if you’re feeling,” I swallowed, “not like yourself.”

“I’m no shadow, Lady Athena,” he said. I nodded. “Go,” I ran out into the hall, Nika, Brea and Harran were standing waiting.

“We felt it,” Brea said, “Nika and I, The Dark Lady is awake.” I looked at Harran, who was holding large staff. “The Shadow King is here?”

“He has Marina,” I said, “Lefty just came to warn us.” Nika folded and then unfolded her hands, creating a pair of whips of pure light.

“Marina is formidable enough for The Shadow King,” Nika said, “but his army is another thing entirely and if The Dark Lady comes herself,” she exhaled.

“I’m glad you’re here,” I said, meaning it from the bottom of my heart. Annalise walked down the stairs, in full battle armor. “We’ll never hear the end of it.”

“Trust me,” she said, sheathing the dagger from Caleb, alongside her father’s sword. “I considered that.” We walked down the beach, a legion of guards at our back. “Where is he?”

“Getting Carolina safe, probably,” I said. She nodded. Brightcoast Manor didn’t look different, but I felt it. The stillness and chill I’d felt everyday for years hung in the air. Brea looked at me. She moved her hands into a triangle form, flame circling out from them. It banished the coolness in the air. “Your Majesty?”

“Remember in Dovetail,” she said softly, “when I insisted that I go alone?” I nodded. “Have them stay, I need you.” I smiled.

“Nika, Brea, Harran,” I motioned to them, “if shadows fall, you know what to do?”

“Of course,” Harran said. We stepped inside. The hall was lit by silver flames in brazier, Marina’s magic. That was a good sign, but the light felt eerie.

“Marina,” I called out, I looked up and saw her descending the stairs, in a blue dressing gown. She looked placid. Annalise was frozen next to me.

“Hello Athena,” she said, her voice was cold, flat, wrong, “Cousin.”

“Rina,” Annalise said softly, “please, tell me you didn’t,” she stepped closer to us and cocked her head to the side.

“How many times have you Dreamed this?” Marina said softly. “You must be prepared.” I squinted at her, and I didn’t hesitate, I took my sword from my belt and quickly sliced at her neck.

“Athena!” Annalise shrieked as the woman in front of us disappeared into shadow. “It wasn’t her?”

“No,” I said.

“How did you know?” She asked. I swallowed.

“I grew up around the black guards,” I said, “I know how it feels near a shadow. Come on,” we walked up the stairs and into Marina’s chamber. She was standing, a few light ropes that resembled Nika’s whips in her hands, binding Brayton to a chair. She was shaking and sweating, but hadn’t broken.

“There you two are!” She said, sounding exasperated, “what kept you?” Annalise burst into a laugh and quickly took the rope. I ran and hugged her tight. “Damian?”

“Elodie is with him,” I said. She exhaled. Brayton looked at me.

“So it’s you then,” he said. “Cornan chose you.” I frowned. “Warren send his regards. He’s waiting on my signal.”

“Is he?” I said. “He’ll be terribly disappointed. He doesn’t breathe unless you say so.” He snorted.

“He’s loyal,” he said. “I promised him you, you know.” I tightened his bindings and he flinched.

“I’m not yours to promise.” I hissed. He smirked knowingly.

“Still, it’s about the only thing that motivates him,” he said. “Just you.” I looked down.

“That’s his misfortune, then,” I said softly.

“So cold,” he said, “That’s the DuManis in you.” I exhaled. “Anselm and your best guards couldn’t hold me because Amina is through waiting, what do you three think will be different now?”

“I didn’t understand before,” Marina smiled gently, “I think I do now.” She flicked her hand and the binding fell. “I’m the one she needs Brayton, not you.” His face went ashen. “So go to her, tell her I’m ready. I’m tired of waiting too.” He ran out of the room.

“I don’t know how wise that was,” Annalise grimaced. Marina looked at her.

“I’m tired of hiding,” she shook her head. “Tired of being afraid. I don’t think she’ll like that he failed again.”

“I’d take an open fight over all of this too,” I admitted. “Though Nika and Brea think we can’t take her.” Marina set her chin stubbornly and I smiled at her.

“We’ll get ready then,” she said. “Brayton was in my bedchamber, while I was with my lover, and almost killed him, I have no interest in deferring this any longer.” I nodded.

“Good then,” I smiled and picked up my spear, “I’m going shadow hunting.”