The Conversation

Carolina

I walked into our apartment and saw Tristan at a desk, working through a report. I slid my hands against his chest from behind.

“Caro,” he said gently, “I have to,” I kissed him gently.

“It’s late,” I whispered, “come to bed.” He shrugged me off. “Tristan,” I said, “please look at me.” He turned. “Come to bed, touch me, make love to me, please.”

“I can’t,” he said. I closed my eyes. “I look at you and I,” he exhaled. “Why would you want me?” I looked at him.

“Because I do,” I said. “Because no matter what else happens, I want you, and you wanted me. You stripped me in a park and you pushed me against bookcases and you didn’t even look at the hundred other girl who they paraded in front of you.” I swallowed. “And I broke it, I know I broke it, Tristan. But he looked at me, and I was so lonely and being wanted again, felt so good,” she looked down. “But I didn’t want him, not really, I wanted you, I always want you. And if you don’t want me anymore please let me go, I’ll leave, I’ll go home with Emily and Alex, but please,” he grabbed my face and kissed me.

“I don’t want you?” He whispered. “You think I don’t want you?” I swallowed. “I have wanted nothing but you since the day we met.” He pressed his hands down my body to my lower back. “I spend every minute I’m not with you, on fire, wishing I was with you.” I exhaled and we tumbled back onto the couch. He rushed his hands below my waist pushing my skirts up, tearing my underthings down. “From the minute you walked into your mother’s stupid, overly starched parlor. I could barely speak, I wanted you so badly.” We kissed and I undid his belt.

“You pulled out my chair,” I exhaled and he kissed my neck. “That night, at your grandfather’s you pulled out my chair, and I couldn’t stop looking at you hands, and I wanted them on me.”

“At that damn ball my aunts threw,” he whispered and pushed into me. “I had to dance with those girls,” I gasped for air. “I had to make conversation, when all I wanted to be doing was this.”

“When my father backed Andrei’s challenge,” I moaned. “And the idea of not having you in me again made me feral.” He kissed me deeply. “Oh gods, Tristan,” I screamed out. He said my name over and over again as he moved in and out of me. It was so good. He finished and collapsed on top of me.

“Do you believe me now?” He whispered, I giggled and he rolled off of me. “I have wanted to do that every day since,” I looked at him.

“Tristan, sex has never been our problem,” I said. He smiled. “I mean, until recently.” He nodded. “I love you,” I said, “and you don’t love me,” he cupped his hand against my face.

“I do love you,” he said softly. “Caro, you brought up the challenge,” I nodded. “Do you remember when Uncle Geno sat in judgement of Andrei’s challenge?” I nodded. “It was right after I’d told you what happened with Marina, and I stood in the guild hall, watching you sitting with Emily and your mother, and you hadn’t spoken a word to me in weeks, and Andrei stood there, telling half the city how you’d pledged yourself to him and lived as his wife for months before your contracts.”

“What does this have to do with anything?” I said. Recounting that humiliating day, and how angry I was that I’d almost just told Geno that I had been Andrei’s wife, so that I could get away from Tristan. But I wasn’t angry right now, I was just sad.

“I wanted to tear him to pieces,” he kissed my forehead. “I wanted to take my sword and cut out his heart but not before forcing him to his knees to beg you for forgiveness for his treatment of you, for how he took you for granted.”

“Tristan,” I said softly.

“I’d do it to myself,” he said, “I’d cut out my own heart and fall at your feet, Caro, but it won’t be enough will it?” I sighed. “No, it wouldn’t be. You can’t forgive me for loving her and I can’t stop loving her. I’ve tried!”

“Then why did you marry me?” I whispered. “Why didn’t you let me go three years ago? Why have you kept me? Why did you let me love you so much and be a part of your family?” He closed his eyes.

“I married you because I wanted you,” he whispered. “I wanted you and then I fought for you because I love you.” I wrapped my arms around him. “As for you being a part of my family,” he laughed lightly. “If Aaron and Athena didn’t want you for family, no force in this world or any other could have made them take you.” I laughed. “And now, if you went away,” he sighed, “there would be a hole too big to ever fill.” I rested my head against his chest. “Athena and I have lost so much family, Aaron lost his father,” I exhaled. “And if we lose you, I don’t know what our family will be Caro.” I closed my eyes.

“Alright,” I said and stood up.

“Alright?” He said. I nodded.

“There’s nothing else to say, Tristan,” I whispered.

“You had an affair!” He smirked.

“You have been in love with someone else our whole marriage,” I giggled. He sighed. “How much do you want to know about it?” He looked at me.

“Everything,” he said softly. “I want to understand.” I looked at him.

“When I first came to Pantona,” I exhaled, “and our home, I was so sure everything was going to be perfect. That new life I’d always dreamed about, I had it.” He nodded. “And then you founded the Rangers, and I was so proud of you.” He pressed his forehead to mine. “But it took you away, and I didn’t belong in the guard, that was so clear. And then the spying and code breaking, and I felt useful, but you disapproved, and it put up another wall between us besides the physical distance,” I exhaled, “and William was there, and he listened to me, and flirted with me and,” I swallowed, “and two months ago, you wrote that you were staying away longer and I just wanted you,” I sighed, “I wanted anything, I wanted to be wanted. And I knew how William felt. So I went to him, and he knew what it meant, and then we,” I sighed, “it was only the once. And it was a wonderful night,” he nodded. “But in the morning I knew, that it didn’t matter because I only wanted you. I wanted our life.” He kissed me. “That night that I came home, and you asked me,” he sighed again.

“If I could take back that conversation I would,” he whispered. “I didn’t handle it well.”

“He asked me to run away with him,” I said. “And I considered it.” He looked at me. So hurt. “I, even after we talked, I was thinking about it.” I exhaled. “I still think about it. But I’d lose so much more than just you and losing you would be enough to break me in half.”

“If I lost you I’d lose everything,” he whispered. “I’d be dust. I wouldn’t have a heart anymore, I’d be like a shadow.” I smiled and snuggled into him. “I’ll leave the rangers, I’ll leave the guard even, if that’s what you want.”

“No,” I whispered, “that isn’t what I want. Your work makes you happy, gives you purpose, I don’t want to take it from you.” He exhaled. “But I want you home, Tristan, I want the life we talked about. I want to be your wife, and have your children.” He cupped my face. “But I can’t do either with you away so much.”

“Calla will need a protector,” he muttered.

“They chose Althea,” I said. He smiled.

“Yes,” he said, “but Athena and I weren’t placed in Annalise’s cradle without someone really protecting her, Caro.” He said. I smiled.

“You’d train Althea,” I said. He nodded. “But Calla will be either here or at Pantona.”

“Sometimes Brightcoast,” he grinned. “If you could stand it.” I giggled and tackled him to the floor. “I’ll hand the rangers over to Prior and Elodie. They’ll prefer it.”

“Thank you, Tristan,” I kissed all over his face. “Thank you, thank you!” He smiled. I could live on this smile.

Sisters

Carolina

“Lady Dugarry,” A page walked in, “Mistress Emily DuCray is here to see you.” I stared at him.

“What?” I stood up.

“Should I show her in?” He looked confused.

“Of course,” I said. Emily walked in breezily, with a baby in her arms. “Emily, what on earth?”

“Athena invited us for supper,” she explained, “which was kind of her, since she was infuriated with us yesterday. Alex is still giving her space but I had to see you.”

“I’m glad,” I said and hugged her. “What did you do to Athena?” She sighed.

“Hypothesized about Calla’s future,” Emily said. I looked at her. “I know, we got carried away.”

“Calla’s future is tied up enough in her role as heir,” I said, taking the wiggling Carlo from her. “Besides you have your own plans to make, for this handsome devil.” She laughed.

“He is handsome isn’t he,” she settled in. “How are you?” I sighed. I wanted to tell her everything. Even a few years ago I would have. But we’re so distant now.

“I’ve been better,” I managed to admit. “But I’m glad to be back here. Pantona is so far away from everything.”

“Isn’t that what you wanted?” Emily asked. I sighed.

“Yes,” I smiled, “turns out getting what you wanted isn’t always wonderful,” Emily laughed. “I missed you,” I said, “and I am so glad to meet you, Little One,” I bounced my nephew and he giggled.

“Caro, are you busy,” Annalise flew in, Emily flew to her feet and into a curtsey. “Hello Madame DuCray.”

“Your Majesty,” Emily said softly and rose. “I’m sorry if you need my sister.”

“Don’t be silly,” Annalise said, “I’m supposed to meet with the seamstresses about my clothes for Westran. It isn’t important. I thought you might like to come.”

“Of course,” I said. “I’d be happy to,” I started.

“Enjoy your family,” Annalise smiled at me, “I’m very happy to meet little Master DuCray,” she looked at Emily. “You must stay for dinner, please send for your husband too.”

“That’s very kind of you my queen,” Emily said quickly, “but my husband and his cousins aren’t,” she sighed.

“The twins will cope,” Annalise said gently, “Caro clearly needs her family right now.” I smiled gratefully at her.

“Thank you, Your Majesty,” I said. She nodded.

“I’m sorry to have interrupted,” she said, “Madame DuCray.” Emily bobbed another curtsey.

“I think that’s the most she’s ever spoken to me,” Emily said.

“She came to your wedding,” I reminded her. “Probably the larger honor.” She rolled her eyes.

“Well, yes,” Emily said. “Honestly, though she’s always so friendly.” I smiled. “You’d never know she probably prayed for your death.”

“If Annalise prayed for my death, I’d be dead,” I laughed. “She’s chosen of two gods.” Emily laughed. “I’ve missed you.”

“I’ve missed you too,” she said softly, “Papa,” she started and I stared daggers at her. “He has regrets, Caro, truly.”

“Does he?” I said sharply. “Then why is Andrei’s challenge still active?” She looked at me. “Even after all these years, after that day in the guild hall? After Geno all but declared it over, why is my father still claiming my husband isn’t my husband?” Emily sighed. “And why is my husband’s family still doing business with him?”

“You’re right,” Emily said, “but I don’t think they will for much longer.” I looked at her. “Alex has been buying ships, some Rastani, some Phania, where do you think all of his information comes from?”

“Of course,” I said, “but enough?”

“Well, not yet,” she admitted, “but soon, I think so. The Old Man already scaled back Papa’s contract, with barely a thought.” I looked at her, more than a little shocked.

“Hello Emily,” Tristan walked in. She smiled as he leaned down and kissed her on the cheek.”I’m glad to see you, Athena seemed concerend we might not.”

“Speaking of,” Emily got up and went to the desk, “I’ll send Alex a note about dinner,” Tristan raised his eyebrows at me.

“Annalise insisted,” I smiled, “Kiss your Uncle Tristan, Carlo.” Tristan laughed taking the little boy. I smiled. We needed to fix this. He needed to be a father.

I had to give him that.

The Honesty Of It

Carolina

She’s not as good as you at hiding it.

There’s a certain irony to her saying that to me. All I could think of was three years ago when, after Tristan told me about their night together, I’d cornered her and screamed. Screamed about betrayal, screamed that I’d trusted her, screamed that hours after being in bed with my husband she’d dared to witness our vows.

And she took it. She didn’t apologize or beg for forgiveness. She’d simply stood, her brown eyes lightly filled with tears and listened. And then she’d explained.

“I love him, Caro,” were the only words. “I was alone, for so long except for him, and when I was alone again, he was there. If I’m alone again and he’s there, I can’t promise it wouldn’t happen again.”

I suddenly understood, and I couldn’t resent either of them, for whatever it was between them. A history full of wounds so deep that I’ll never understand them, or that string that held them tightly together.

“May I?” I asked softly, joining Nika on the terrace. She looked at me.

“Of course,” she said softly. “Are you here to tell me that I’m overreacting?” I laughed.

“No,” I said, “this is where I tell you there’s no point, if you can’t accept it.” I picked at my dress. She looked at me. “When I thought I couldn’t,” I looked down. “Annalise I could bear, because she’s so far away from him now, it’s all theoretical, which is sort of worse, and sort of better, you know?” Nika looked at me, her face inscrutable.

“Yes,” she said, “I could stand it if Lefty came back, then it would simply be over.” I nodded. “But this limbo, it hurts too much.” I looked at her.

“She loves you,” I said, “she’s with you, she’s chosen you. It has to be enough.” She looked at me and smiled gently.

“Does it?” She said. “I don’t know anymore.” She swallowed. We stood in silence.

“My ladies,” a page walked over, “dinner is being served.” I nodded and followed after him. I looked back at Nika who didn’t follow.

“She’s had a difficult week,” Evan said settling next to me. I smiled. “How are you? I saw your sister a few days ago, she and Alex were in town on their way down to the midlands.” I smiled.

“How did you find them?” I asked and sipped my wine.

“Well enough,” he shrugged. “Their boy is a fine little man.”

“I’m jealous,” I said, “I haven’t met Carlo yet.” He nodded. “I have to ask, and the others will laugh,” he raised his eyebrows, “are we supposed to give Raymond a gift? When he takes his vows?” Evan smiled at me.

“I don’t know if it’s traditional,” he admitted, “but nothing about Raymond is, and I think he’d appreciate it. Especially as you’re merchant, and he knows gifts mean a great deal to you.” I smiled at him.

“Thank you for putting me at ease, Lord Evan,” I said and raised my glass.

“My infinite pleasure, Lady Dugarry,” he grinned, clinking his glass against mine. Moving into this circle at the same time, we’d managed a careful friendship neither one of us wanting to upset the cart. “What would you give him?” I chewed my meat and frowned.

“I don’t know,” I sighed, “a book I suppose. If they’re in town, there’s seller who I think would know the proper history or esoteric magic book.”

“Please, I beg you, no more esoteric magic books,” Evan groaned. “We’re full up of those.” I laughed. “A history might be nice. Maybe something about Mariah’s connections to Phania. He’s found fragments but never anything solid.” I smiled and nodded. “But you don’t have to.”

“I’ll consider it.” I said. “And how are you? Apparently your father has abdicated council again?”

“Mm,” he nodded. “Prior seems worried about him marshalling separtist forces. Annalise thinks it’s impossible.”

“It is,” I smiled, “unless he’s found a way to make money appear from nowhere.” Evan nodded.

“It would also be far too much work,” Evan noted. “But your evidence is firmer, I’m sure.” I laughed.

“It is,” I said, “I watch your father closely. His tantrums are far too public not to.” Evan nodded. “I sympathize, by the way. My own father’s public fuming has made my life heinously complicated.” He nodded.

“Oh I know,” he said. “But at least yours is personal it’s not literally treason.” He sighed. “Annalise is patient with him, which I appreciate.” He paused. “Will you see your sister, while you’re both here?”

“I haven’t decided yet,” I said softly. “I want to but, there’s still a lot of hurt there.” Evan nodded. “What will your father do if Annalise marries your cousin?”

“Spontaneously combust from happiness and rage combining, probably,” he laughed. “It serves his ambition for our family but he hates her so much.” I laughed.

Off And Away

Carolina

We’d packed, and had two carts (a recent gift from Alex and Emily, to celebrate the birth of their son) full, plus a carriage for Calla, The Dowager Countess and myself to ride in. I’d never gotten used to the long over country rides, and Calla is too little for them, sitting with myself and her grandmother means that Athena can ride freely.

But before we leave tomorrow morning I found my way to the inn and walked back to William’s office. He wasn’t there so I found my way to a small terrace out back.

“What are you doing here?” He asked, his voice soft.

“I wanted to say goodbye,” I said stepping closer, tentatively. “We’re going in the morning.” He nodded, his figure outlined by the moonlight. “And then we’re off to Westran and I don’t when I’ll be back and I didn’t want to part,” my mouth was dry. “I want us to be friends again.”

“Friends,” he said, as if he was tasting the word, “the first time I saw you, four years ago, all I could think about was how Tristan Dugarry was probably the luckiest man to ever live. Maybe it was just jealousy, that drew me to you. Jealousy that he had Annalise’s love when she’d never even looked at me, bitterness that Athena shoved me away from Marina to clear the way for him,” I closed my eyes, “and now he had this beautiful bride, who looked at him like he was the sun, and he rode away from her at the first chance.”

“Well if you’re looking to push me away further,” I said, my voice flat, “telling me that everything between us was about Tristan and Annalise and Marina is certainly the way to do it.” He looked at me. “I cared for you. And I was lonely and sad and you used that, to get some petty revenge for imagined slights?”

“That isn’t what I meant,” he whispered and walked over to me. He turned up my chin. “I cared for you too, I still do. But were you ever going to choose me over your marriage? Over your duties?” I swallowed.

“No,” I said softly. “But losing you,” I swallowed and he nodded. “William, did I use you terribly?”

“No,” he said, “we’re both guilty here, sweetheart, no getting around it. Your shouldn’t have come to me, and I should have sent you away.” He kissed me, softly. “I won’t regret it, ever. Even just one night, that you were mine.” I pressed my forehead to his.

“William,” I whispered. He kissed me again. I realized if he’d asked then, months ago, when I was so tired and needy, if he’d asked me to run away with him, I would have. I might now, even. “Ask me,” I mumbled.

“Oh, Caro,” he whispered, “we both know you’d hate me in a week.” I laughed with a light sniffle. “It’s good you’re going away, sweetheart, when you come home I’ll be good again.” I looked up at him. “He doesn’t deserve you.” I swallowed.

“I don’t think it’s about deserving,” I whispered. “That isn’t how hearts work.” I pulled back and squeezed his hands and turned and rushed back to house. Tristan was waiting in his study, he looked at me as I walked in and I swallowed.

“I won’t insult either of us by asking where you were,” he said softly. I looked down. “How long was it going on?”

“Long enough,” I said simply, “and it’s over anyway.” He closed his eyes.

“Why him?” He said. I sighed and sat down. “I know why you, I understand my part in it,” he shook his head.

“He was here,” I said. “And good to me, I wish it were more complicated.” Tristan nodded. “I’m more sorry than you could know.”

“I think I know,” he whispered, “I remember that particular brand of sorry.” I smiled and poured myself a glass of whiskey. “Caro, look at me,” I looked at him. “I hate leaving you, every time. It feels as though I’m ripping my heart out.” I nodded.

“You could resign,” I said.

“I can’t,” he whispered, “you know I can’t.” I nodded. “But we’ll be together this time.” I slid close to him.

“Yes,” I said softly. “I wish you’d be angry, then I might feel less guilty.” He kissed my hair.

“I was plenty angry,” he said softly, “when I saw you with him last week.” I nodded. “But I’d rather forgive you and be with you, than be angry and distant.” I kissed him. “Besides, you forgave me.” I nodded.

“I made you work harder for it,” I said. He laughed.

“You did,” he whispered, his voiced edged with teasing, “but I’m clearly more magnanimous than you.” I whacked him in the chest and he laughed. “Do you love him?” I closed my eyes.

“I don’t know,” I whispered, “I don’t think so. It’s not like us. Not even like what I had with Andrei. It simply is.”

“And it’s over?” He asked.

“Yes,” I said, “it is.” He kissed me. That night after we went to bed he didn’t touch me. In the morning when we left, he kissed my hand gently as I got into the carriage and I smiled.

A sleepy Calla yawned and curled in my lap. I smiled and wrapped my arms around her. Dowager Countess Olivia smiled at me. That I risked this family might be my deepest shame about this whole thing.

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.

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.

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.”

Presentation

Carolina

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Little Duchess

Carolina

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

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

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

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

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

“Your Grace,” I said softly and curtsied.

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes,” he said shortly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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