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.”

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.

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.

A New Hope

Carolina

I sat at my vanity brushing my hair. I was already tired and the season was only just starting. 

“Caro,” my sister Emily bounced into her room. “Alex is downstairs.” I rolled my eyes at my sister. We’d both once harbored hope that the Dumanis heir would propose and while I’d been disappointed, Alex seemed genuinely attached to Emily.

I’m trying to be happy for them, which I think would be easier if everyone’s faces didn’t turn to pity every time I walked in a room.  

“Tell him I’m not seeing people today,” I said. I was too tired, too bored, to sit listening to him crow about his recent trip to Dovetail.

“He’s not alone,” Emily said and bounced on the bed. “His cousin is with him.” I turned in my seat. “He did tell you that Sir Tristan DuGarry was coming, didn’t he?”

“Yes, but Alex says a lot of things,” I stood up. Emily giggled. “What does he look like?” I asked, as Emily stood up and grabbed my hands and spun me in a circle.

“Like all of them,” Emily shrugged, “Tall, fair, though he seems more, well, you’ll see.” Emily giggled and skipped out of the room. I shook my head and looked in the mirror.

I wouldn’t make the best impression, but I’d do. I wasn’t expecting to do anything but maybe read today. I walked downstairs to the parlor. Emily was chattering quickly and I heard Alex’s laugh. I walked in and Emily smiled at her.

“Carolina,” my mother said, standing up and encouragingly placing her hand on my lower back to push me forward. “Master DuCray and Sir Tristan can’t stay but they invited us to the house tonight for dinner.”

“Always an honor, Mr. DuCray,” I said to Alex who smiled at me. It was then that I noticed the other young man in the room, he was standing awkwardly, as if he’d risen from the chair he was beside quickly when I entered.

“Goddess, where’s my manners,” Alex said and stood up, “Miss Carolina DuKarras, this is my cousin, Sir Tristan Dugarry.” I curtsied.

“It’s a pleasure, Miss DuKarras,” he said and walked over, taking my hand. I expected him to look like Alex, and he does a little. He’s tall and blonde, he has the same narrow nose, but his eyes are a striking green color, offset by his guard uniform. He was also more broad than his cousin, and I realized it was likely because the sword on his hip wasn’t worn for fashion like most of the boys I knew.

“That’s kind of your Sir Tristan,” I said softly, “or do you prefer Master Dugarry?”

“If you’re going to be formal,” Alex said teasing, “it’s Captain Dugarry now, isn’t it?”

“Commander, actually,” Tristan grimaced and sat down. “Lis-that is Queen Annalise promoted my sister and I after her coronation but Tristan is fine.” 

“What’s she like?” Emily breathed out. I sighed and tried not to roll my eyes at her. I also realized Mother had slipped out. She was good at that.

“Who? My sister?” Tristan said. “Infuriatingly stubborn, The Queen couldn’t spare her obviously, and her betrothed, the Count of Pantona had an opinion too. This is the first time we’ve lived apart, it’s very odd for me.”

“I think my sister meant Queen Annalise,” I smiled. I liked how nervous he was, he met my eyes. “Although I am disappointed we won’t meet your sister. From what your cousins tell us, she seems very interesting. You both do.”

“Right,” he said, “The Queen is,” he stopped, like he was looking for the right words, everything about him softened, “well she’s not like anyone else. She’s very intelligent and dedicated to her duty and the people she loves.” He stopped. “She’s decided to go South this year instead of come North, which is probably for the best. The Prince of Phania is visiting so Brightcoast is the logical choice.”

“How disappointing for us,” I said and sipped my tea, “I’d hoped to meet her, and it’s always nice to see Prince Eric and Lieutenant Lestoff, they’re quite popular.”

“Are they?” Commander Duggarry’s voice went flat. “They must be very congenial then, they’re well liked in Dovetail too.” I suddenly got the impression that neither man was popular with Commander Dugarry himself.  Alex cleared his throat. 

“Emily,” he said, “perhaps we should take a turn in the gardens.” Emily nodded and followed him outside. I realized then that we were alone. 

“I’m sorry if I said something,” I started and he shook his head. 

“You didn’t,” he sighed, “I’m just, awkward in new spaces.” I nodded. “I don’t know the rules here, and don’t say there aren’t any, there are always rules.” I smiled.

“Well,” I shrugged, “yes, but I think you’re sufficiently grand that no one will take note when you break them.” 

“Exciuse me?” He laughed.

“Well,” I said, “first and foremost, this is Dorin, and you’re a Dumanis. You could slap every man in every room across the face as you entered and then insult their mother’s and they’d thank you and ask after your grandfather.” He laughed. “And you’re a personal,” I cleared my throat, “friend of the Queen’s, that doesn’t mean nothing.” We weren’t so disconnected from the real world that I hadn’t heard the rumors of the extent of Commander Dugarry’s relationship with the queen. 

“I see,” he said. “So asking for your help would be useless?” I smirked at him. He was good. “I don’t like games, Miss DuKarras.” 

“Then I’m afraid you’ve certainly come to the wrong place, Commander,” I said softly. “It’s all a game.”

“Do you intend to win?” He asked.

“I intend to stop playing, however possible,” I said. “I don’t particularly like this game either.”

“I’m glad we agree then,” he stood up. “There’s going to be some sort of ball or party tomorrow night at my grandfather’s. My Aunts are arranging it, but I would be very disappointed  not to see you.” I stood and offered my hand again.

“We’ve only just met,” I said softly, “but I would very much hate to disappoint you.” He took it and kissed it and then left almost silently. I sat back down almost in shock.

Alex hadn’t been lying. He was here to take me away. 

“Well,” Emily rushed back in. “What do you think?”

“I think that,” I looked at her and smiled, “I think that I’m going to be getting out.”