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.

At Sea

Carolina

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I do like it though,” I whispered.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes,” I sighed. He sighed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Breakfast

Carolina

I woke up in the morning to my mother throwing open the drapes of me room.

“Mother,” I groaned and pulled my covers over my head. “No one will be calling this morning. Please.”

“What about Tristan?” She said. I grumbled and rubbed my eyes sitting up. “And the general? They said they’d be at breakfast.”

“They’ll train first,” I yawned. She glared at me. “Oh alright,” I mumbled. I pushed out of bed and got dressed quickly. “Mama,” I said softly as she tightened my laces, “Last night, Tristan asked me to go to Brightcoast with him, if they have to leave.” She frowned.

“That’s ridiculous,” she said, “you aren’t married yet and it will be very dangerous.” I swallowed.

“Yes, but,” I said softly, “if I’m going to join the guard, and we’re going to war, I should start training.” She looked at me.

“Your father won’t like it,” she said softly. She cupped my face. “There’s no rush, my darling.” I swallowed.

“But,” I stuttered, and she left. I sighed and sat down. Emily walked in after her. “Good morning.”

“Good morning,” she said softly. “Are you alright? I can’t believe Papa brought Andrei to your engagement party.” I shook my head and laughed.

“That’s the least of my problems right now,” I said. She looked at me and frowned. “Did you and Alex have a nice evening?”

“Yes,” she said and bit the inside of her cheek. I looked at her. I wondered if they’d quarrelled. Knowing just how fickle Alex could be, I didn’t think that was good, “I just wish that now that it’s all settled with you and Tristan, we could begin getting settled.” I laughed and hugged her.

“I agree,” I said, “you should absolutely be getting settled as soon as possible.” She looked at me.

“Are you feeling alright?” She said. I nodded. “I can tell you, Alex and his mother aren’t at all happy about General Martin showing up.”

“Tristan mentioned that The General often clashes with the family,” I explained, we walked out and downstairs to the dining room. Father was sitting at the table, anxiously drumming his fingers.

“Papa,” Emily said, “you look perturbed.” He frowned.

“Caro,” he sighed. I looked at him and poured myself a cup of tea, “as I understand it my delayed breakfast is Tristan’s fault.” I swallowed.

“I’m sure he’ll be along presently,” I said. I was done managing my father. Last night was my last straw. “Is Captain Arain not joining us?” He narrowed his eyes at me. “Tristan mentioned he was interested to speak further with him.”

“What’s this?” Tristan said walking in, followed by General Martin.

“Nothing,” I smiled as he kissed me on the cheek. “Hello General.” He smiled and sat down next to me.

“Good Morning, Miss DuKarras,” he grinned, “Mr. DuKarras, thank you for having us.” Father snorted

“I don’t believe you had a chance to meet Emily last night,” Tristan said motioning to me sister. The General took her hand and kissed it. She blushed a little. I didn’t blame her. Old enough to be our father, maybe, but the General is incredibly handsome.

“I did not, but I’m glad to,” he said. “Trey tells me that Alex is quite attached to you. I hope we can count on you influencing him to be as supportive as the family’s been in the past.”

“Of course,” she said, “I’m a loyal subject of Queen Annalise, and as my sister will be in the guard as well,” she shrugged. He winked at me and I smiled. “Are we really going to war?”

“Hopefully not,” The General sighed, and picked up a pastry from a tray that had been brought out, “Annalise and Prince Eric had been arguing but they seem to have mended things. Of course there’s always the possibility that their courtship was always just a delaying tactic for King Daniel, but,” Tristan caught his eye and with pursed lips, shook his head once. He cleared his throat. “Excuse me, I’m out of practice with company. I was exiled from Brayton’s court for a year and Annalise and The Dowager Countess never really expect conversation from me.”

“That’s a lie,” Tristan said with a laugh, “The Dowager Countess expects conversation from everyone. She just loves you enough to put up with strategy talk at dinner.” I laughed. “You slept alright?” He asked me.

“Yes, very well,” I said. “General, my mother and I were disagreeing this morning, but I felt it was important for me to go to Brightcoast as soon as possible to begin training.”

“Oh certainly,” Martin nodded. “I think that’s for the best.” I smiled and sipped my tea. “We’ll have to decide where to best place you of course.”

“I would have thought with Prince Eric,” Emily said, her voice very chipper, “isn’t that traditional? Tristan, didn’t you say that your mother was placed with Queen Marie for that reason?”

“Yes, but I don’t want to presume anything,” I said. I looked at Tristan, I wanted reassurance from him.

“Regardless, Tristan tells me you’ll come with us when we leave soon?” The General said. I nodded. “I’m glad to hear it.”

“Hold on,” Father said, “I don’t believe we agreed to anything of the kind.” I looked at him.

“We’re discussing it now,” I said, “after all before our engagement I was going to go to Rastan, wasn’t I? How is this different?” He glared at me. I knew exactly why it was different. Rastan was his plan, Andrei was loyal to him, would keep me close. Tristan turned and looked at him.

“I can assure you, Mr. DuKarras,” Tristan said, “everything will be perfectly appropriate. I’ve already written a letter to Duchess Marina asking if Caro could stay with her until our plans return to normal.” I looked at him. Mama’s eyes grew wide.

“Really?” She said. I swallowed and Tristan slid his hand into mine. “And you think the Duchess will accept?”

“Yes,” Tristan said with a shrug. “Why wouldn’t she? We’re old friends, she’s been very supportive in her letters.”

“She’s quite young, isn’t she?” Emily said. Tristan smiled at her.

“She’s your age,” he said, “so old enough to know her own mind.” Emily giggled. “She’s looking forward to meeting you, Caro.” I swallowed.

“I’m looking forward to meeting her as well,” I said softly. “Papa,” I looked at him. He frowned at me.

“I won’t stand in the way,” he sighed, “but I don’t approve.”

“Good then,” the General smiled, “if you have a few moments, sir, perhaps we could discuss what can be spared to defend your country.” Father’s eye twitched and they stood up and walked out. Emily frowned.

“Well that was awful,” she muttered. Tristan sighed and looked at me.

“You did very well,” he smiled. I sighed.

“I can’t be left behind again,” I swallowed. He nodded. “I mean it, Tristan, I just can’t.” He stood up and sat down next to me and took my hand.

“I know that,” he said softly, “I won’t, ever, I swear it.” I nodded and kissed him gently.

“Alright,” I said. Emily snorted. “Oh what.”

“Nothing,” she said, “but you two are never allowed to mock Alex and I again.”

Surprise Visitors

Carolina

I’ve never seen my mother how she’s been for the past few weeks, certainly not with me. Perhaps when I first came out and they thought that Alex and me were going to happen, but now she’s a full whirlwind. We’ve hosted people every day, either for tea or dinner, well wishers, and gawkers.

It would be hideous, if it weren’t for Tristan being by my side in all of it. I suddeny realized how wonderful it was to be marrying a courtier. He always said the right thing.

And when we were alone, well that was a completely different thing entirely. We didn’t manage every night, but enough of them, that I’d completely lost any sense of self consciousness about it. His hands on me, him inside of me, the way he kisses me and whispers my name, it’s the most comfortable thing in the world.

There have been gifts and gowns and the one I’m treasuring the most, lost in the mess of silks and jewels that my new in laws to be have sent over, is a simple gold pendant with a crest on it, strung on a simple green velvet band Tristan sent it with a simple note.

I felt the need to have this made. It’s The Dugarry Crest, and you certainly never have to wear it, I know my grandfather is sending over something far more elaborate.

Yours,

Tristan.

I haven’t taken it off, much to my mother’s irritation.

“I just don’t see why,” she sighed. I looked at her.

“Mama,” Emily shook her head, “Caro is going to be Lady Dugarry, not Madame Dumanis.” I smiled warmly at her. “I think it’s fitting.”

“Perhaps,” Mother said, and tied a pink sash around my waist, accenting the white dress I’d put on. “But for tonight, darling, maybe at least the earrings the old man sent over.” I frowned.

“I’ll wear the whole set, though I’m wearing the gown he sent,” I sighed. It was our official engagement party at the manor tonight. I slipped the pendant off and instead pinned it inside my sash. “Where’s Father?”

“He said he will join us there,” she said, “several ships came in this afternoon and it’s delayed him.” I frowned. My father was less enthusiastic about my engagement than I expected. For the man who was so intent on unloading me that he basically sold me to someone who abandoned me, he’s been curiously distant and stoic about the situation. To the point that my mother is worried The Dumanis are going to be insulted. I’m starting to see her point.

“Madame,” our butler walked in, “the young gentlemen are here to escort the ladies.” Emily squealed and flew off.

“Emily, do try to,” Mother called after her, “oh never mind, she’s hopeless.” I laughed. “Darling, I know you’re fed up with all of this, but it’s important to me, so I am glad you’re going along with it.” I smiled in the mirror and he squeezed my shoulders. “You shouldn’t keep him waiting.” I stood up and hurried to the front hall. Emily and Alex were already bundled in their carriage and Tristan was standing waiting for me.

“I was lucky they got out the door,” Tristan said softly. I laughed. “I’m an apalling chaperone.” I kissed him and he pulled me close. “I’ve missed you.”

“It’s been two days,” I said, “you couldn’t have missed me much.” He laughed.

“And yet, here we are,” he sighed, we walked outside. “I like this one,” he said, sliding the light linen of my gown between his fingers. “Is it from me? I’ve lost track.”

“From your grandfather, the jewels too,” I said. He nodded helping me into the carriage, where Emily and Alex were fully entwined. “Emily, Mother is joining us.” She sighed and pulled away, straightening herself. “Hello Alex.”

“Caro,” he smiled at me. Once Mother joined us the carriage carried us over to the manor and we walked inside, I relaxed into Tristan’s arm around my waist. I was surprised that not only were most of the merchants I’d ever known or seen here, so were many of the officers from the fort.

“Oh no,” Tristan said, as another one of them walked in. But he didn’t actually sound upset, he seemed, elated.

“What?” I said. He took my hand.

“I’m going to apologize in advance for how my entire family is about to react to something,” he said and we started walking. He looked excited though, even though there was a sudden hush in conversation. “Hello General.” He was beaming.

“Well, this is certainly something,” the man standing in front us laughed. I tried my best to take in General Thomas Martin, and he was quite something. If I’d thought Tristan was born to wear the uniform, it was clearly something he’d learned from The General. “You’re being rude, Tristan.”

“I’m sorry, you caught me by surprise,” he said, “This is Carolina DuKarras,” he looked at me. “Caro, love, this is General Thomas Martin.” My heart leapt.

“Oh!” I said, “Oh I’m so happy to meet you!”

“And I you,” The General said, gently, “I must say, it’s strange to be back here.” Tristan laughed and hugged him.

“Is Thena with you?” He asked.

“No,” he sighed, “honestly, this just happened to work out, I’m actually here to beg a favor if you can believe it, there have been some, developments.” Tristan frowned. “I don’t want to ruin your night, boy, we’ll discuss it later,” The General sighed. “I suppose I have to say hello to your grandfather, hm.”

“On your own head be it,” Tristan shrugged. “Trey is over there.” The General sighed.

“Yes, yes,” he said, “lovely to meet you Carolina, we’ll speak more soon.” I nodded as he left. I looked at Tristan.

“You really didn’t know he was coming?” I said. He shook his head. “I’m glad for you, and to meet him.” He kissed me gently. “You’ve gone, what is it?”

“Something must be very wrong, if he won’t tell me,” he frowned. I swallowed and turned his head, to look at me. “I’m sorry, I’m back.”

“You aren’t,” I said gently, “go speak with him. You’re useless to me in this state.” He laughed and kissed me softly. I exhaled and decided to explore a little, walking out into the hall, my father had walked into the door. “Kind of you to join us.”

“No need to be so prickly,” he said. “I’m here, I’ll make my apologies.” I frowned. “Would you prefer I hadn’t come at all?” He kissed me on the forehead. “And where is Tristan?”

“General Martin surprised him by arriving today,” I explained. Father nodded.

“Honestly, Angelo,” the man who swept in behind him, made my heart jump. “I’d rather not have come here first,” but then he smiled at me. “Well, hello Caro.”

“Andrei,” I managed a whisper.

“Ah, there’s the bride,” Trey Dumanis came in, “I was sent to fetch you.” I nodded, numbly and followed after him. I swallowed. “Are you alright?”

“I, thought,” I exhaled. “My father arrived.” He nodded.

“Yes,” he said, “and with Captain Arrain at that.” I nodded and took a glass of water he offered me. “May I give you some advice?”

“Yes,” I said, taking a large sip.

“Don’t let him rattle you,” he said. I swallowed. “Tristan knows everything?” I nodded. “And he’s standing by you?”

“He says so, but it was different, when he wasn’t,” I sighed, “he’s here.” Trey smiled softly. “Do you know everything?”

“I know that you and the Captain were involved,” he said, “and that you were rather changed after he left.” I smiled softly.

“Are you happy to see General Martin?” I said. Trey let out an indulgent sigh.

“Yes, I am always happy to see Tom,” he admitted, “though his appearance doesn’t bode well for how things are going in the south. Apparently he’s here to see about using guild ships for some conflict with Phania.”

“Oh,” I whispered, “I should find Tristan.” He nodded and I went back to the ballroom. Tristan was standing by his grandfather who looked, for probably the first time in my life, not just mildly irritated, but genuinely furious. Tristan’s brow was furrowed, and he’d lost all of his color. I walked over to him. “Are you alright?”

“I will be,” he said softly and kissed my forehead. My heart stopped beating so quickly. “I may have to leave earlier than I planned.” I looked up at him.

“I’ll come with you,” I said simply, “whenever.” He smiled. “My father finally arrived.” He smiled.

“A relief,” he said. He paused and saw them walking over to us. “Who’s that with him?”

“Commander Dugarry,” my father said and shook his hand. “May I present Captain Andrei Arrain? He’s the reason for my delay.” I exhaled and stared at the floor. “We had some matters to settle.”

“Of course,” Tristan’s voice was ice cold. “I’ve heard a lot about you, Captain Arrain.” Andrei looked at me then.

“Yes,” he said cautiously, “I imagine you have. I want to wish you both immeasurable joy.” I swallowed.

“That’s kind of you,” I said softly. He nodded and they walked away. “I was coming to warn you.”

“I could kill him,” Tristan said evenly, “would you like that? I bet Lisette would even pardon me for it.” I burst into a laugh and then kissed him. “Are you alright?”

“I think so,” I whispered, “I was shocked, and I don’t know what my father was thinking bringing him here.” He bit his lip. “Why is the old man so riled?”

“Oh, Martin always riles him,” Tristan shrugged, “they can’t stand each other. I’m sure Grandfather will threaten to kill him six times before breakfast.” I giggled. “Can we go to the gardens, I want to tell you everything, and I can’t here.” I nodded and we walked out into the courtyard. “I have to leave as soon as possible.”

“We have to leave,” I corrected him. He frowned. “Why?”

“There is a flotilla of Phanian ships in the Brightcoast Harbor,” he swallowed. “The General came to ask Grandfather for ships.” I sat down on a bench.

“My father,” I said. He sighed and nodded. “My father manages all shipping under your grandfather.”

“Yes,” Tristan said, “he does.” I looked at him.

“This will not look good, for us,” I said. “My family I mean, not you and I. Suddenly, we’re married and Alex and Emily,” he sighed. “But my father is now indispensable to The Old Man.”

“Look at me,” he said, “I don’t care about any of that. I want you with me, I want to marry you, I love you Caro,” I swallowed realizing it was the first time he’d said it out loud. “But it won’t be the same, if you come to Brightcoast. I thought we’d have time to figure out our new life.” I looked at him.

“Are you worried about seeing her again?” I whispered. I realized that’s what was worrying me. He swallowed and cupped my face.

“No,” he said, “I am worried that she’ll hate you though. And then I’ll have to hate her and that’s very complicated.” I kissed him. “You don’t have to come, I could send for you when we go to Dovetail.”

“No,” I said, “I’m coming with you. You aren’t leaving me behind.” He smiled.

“Alright,” he said softly. “You’ll forgive me for not coming over tonight?” I nodded. “You’re wonderful. I’ll come in the morning and bring the general. I’m sure he’ll want to talk to you.” I laughed.

“I look forward to it.” I whispered. He slipped his hands through my hair. “What is it?”

“I lived most of my life in war,” he said, “it was a secret one, but still. I don’t know that I’ll like the open kind any better.” I kissed him softly. I didn’t know what else do. “Being here has been so different and wonderful.”

“I don’t,” I sighed and pressed my forehead to mine. “We’ve talked about me wanting a different life, but if you,” I drifted off. He swallowed and shook his head.

“I didn’t mean that,” he said, “besides, Athena would never forgive me.” I laughed. “Are you alright?” I nodded. “I didn’t want to make a scene, that was right, wasn’t it?”

“Yes,” I giggled, “that was right.” He smiled.

“You’re doing what?” We heard Trey shout from the terrace. Tristan grimaced.

“Well, I think Martin just told him that he’s been involved with Dowager Countess of Pantona,” Tristan sighed. “I didn’t expect him to take it well, but a public outburst is something else.” I smiled. “I said it earlier but I really do apologize. I love him but Martin brings out the absolute worst in The Dumanis.”

Consumation

Carolina

Dinner seemed to crawl, though I couldn’t help but relish the toasts to my and Tristan’s happiness, his hand protectively on my back and beaming down at me in adoration.

Or lust. It might just be lust, but at this point I’d take it.

After when we adjourn to the library, I can feel his impatience as we sit quietly and Geno DuFrey pontificates on legacy and the deep connections between The Dumanis and all merchants as well as the crown.

“You promised,” he says cheekily. I smirked. “But Uncle Geno might ruin my mood.” I giggled and sidled next to him.

“I can wait as long as you need,” I whispered and slid my hand to his thigh. “Or restore the mood, if you’d rather.” The sound he made was somewhere between an exhale and a growl. I wasn’t surprised. Andrei had very much appreciated my abilities in that department.

I’d been thinking about Andrei a lot recently. I knew I had to tell Tristan about him. And I was wondering if I’d compare the two of them, I already had in a few ways. From just our fumblings I could tell that Tristan was, well, bigger than Andrei, and as I understood it this matters to men quite a bit, but I don’t quite see how it translates to my pleasure. Not that it was something Andrei was particularly attuned to, anyway. Our nights often ended with him whispering how wonderful I was while I touched myself to finish.

“I don’t think it will be difficult,” he said softly. “How will this work?”

“When they leave,” I explained, “Emily will detain my parents and Alex will bring you upstairs.” He smirked. “They owe me.” He laughed.

“I heard,” he mumbled and kissed me again.

When we did finally adjourn, six toasts later, Tristan departed, or acted like he had with a gallant kiss of my hand, and while Mother wanted to stay up and talk more, I insisted I needed to go to bed.

I was nervous just, waiting. Should I undress? He might want to undress me, though. I did decide to talk off my jewelry and the take my hair down, when the door opened.

Tristan was standing, so tall and proud, and all of his attention was focused on me. It was spellbinding. I swallowed as he walked over and took me by the waist.

“Please don’t tell me you’ve changed your mind,” he whispered. I smiled.

“No,” I said, and we kissed again. We fell back against the bed and he began kissing my neck softly. “Mm, Tristan wait,” I whispered. He stopped and looked down at me. “I need to,” I paused and exhaled.

“Carolina,” he whispered. “It’s alright, you’re nervous, so am I.” I looked at him. “I’m not that experienced, but I’ve never had complaints.” I giggled.

“I feel like I’ve lied to you,” I whispered. He carefully pushed my hair off my face. “This isn’t the first time,” I sighed. He nodded. “And I thought I loved him, and that he loved me, but then he disappeared and,” he kissed me gently.

“I’m not going anywhere,” he whispered. I looked at him. “I don’t care, about what happened before. After what I’ve done, everything seems small.” I pressed my forehead into his chest. “We have our whole lives.” He kissed me. “And you’re so beautiful, I knew it wasn’t actually possible that the only time anyone noticed you was my idiot cousin.” I giggled. “Now, where were we?” I smiled and slowly undid the buttons on his shirt. He slid my dress off my shoulder and then past my waist. “Is this alright?” He asked.

“Yes,” I said. He pulled the rest off, then he starting touching me. I exhaled as his fingers worked me gently. “Oh, Tristan, mm,” I managed.

“You like it then?” He asked. I nodded. He kissed me and carefully moved down my body with the kisses. Each kiss felt heavy with his desire and when he reached between my thighs I whimpered and pulled back, “it’s alright, sweetheart, let me please you.” I closed my eyes as he kissed me gently and then harder.

And what came next felt so overwhelming. I was overwhelmed with haze and explosion of pleasure. I’m sure I was shouting his name. I gasped for breath when he came up and kissed my lips gently.

“Oh Tristan,” I whispered.

“Mm,” he nodded. “I’m glad you’re happy, darling.” I smiled, and my hand crept between his legs.

“And what about you?” I whispered. He grinned and rolled me over onto my back and I squealed.

“I,” he said while kissing me again, “am easily pleased.” I gasped as he pushed into me. That part was over rather quickly, but it felt much better than anything I’d done with Andrei. “Tell me,” he said, “this man who left you, was he perhaps missing part of his brain?” I giggled.

“I’m glad you enjoyed yourself,” I said softly. He stroked my hair softly. “I’m using you as an excuse to keep wearing my hair down.”

“Mm,” he smiled, “good, because I like it. I can even drop a hint that it’s the fashion in Dovetail if it will stop your mother pinning it up every night.” I looked at him.

“Is it?” I asked. He laughed.

“Sort of?” He said. “Lisette and Marina wear theirs up, but their hair is curly and often braided, so a lot of women follow that. But a lot of women, including my sister and our friend Elodie wear theirs down.” He kissed my neck softly. “I like yours, I like being able to touch it.” I smiled. “When do you want to get married?”

“I don’t know,” I said softly, “as soon as we can, I suppose. Father and your sister need to sit down before we do.” He nodded. “So after we’re in Pantona.” He kissed my hair again.

“And do you want all of it?” He said softly. “Married by my grandfather, in the guild hall? A reception here and a ball at the manor?” I rested my chin on his chest.

“No,” I said quietly, “although the look on everyone’s faces would be delightful.” He laughed. “But I’d just as soon return triumphantly as Lady Dugarry at Emily and Alex’s wedding.” I paused. “But then what are our options?

“Well,” he said softly, and kissed my hand, “A Mastero would usually preside over a guardsman’s wedding, and Anselm doesn’t seem to hate me,” I laughed. “It could be quiet, simple, in Dovetail.” That sounded like heaven.

“I like that,” I admitted softly. He pressed his forehead to mine. “What do nobles do?” He exhaled.

“The reigning monarch,” he said softly, “or a chosen, usually in the palace, or on a home estate, which I don’t have.”

“Oh,” I rolled onto my back, “that would mean,” he nodded. “Well, I think that would be an awful idea then.” He laughed.

“I wouldn’t mind Marina doing it,” he admitted, “but it would a little uncomfortable.” I kissed him.

“Yes, I think so,” I agreed. He nodded. “Will she hate me?” He sighed.

“I don’t know,” he said softly, “I hope not, I don’t think so.” I looked at him. “She’s a complicated person,” I looked at him. “I wouldn’t expect a warm welcome, though. She’ll keep her distance, most likely.” I swallowed.

“I see,” I whispered, “I suppose you have to leave, in case they check on me.” He laughed at that. “After Andrei, Mother became very strict.” He kissed my forehead.

“Alex is waiting at a tavern to toast me some more anyhow,” he said softly, and stood up. Just watching the way his body moved was entrancing. His muscles were so disciplined, nothing was out of place, I could see how each ripple would effect the next. “I’ll come for breakfast.”

“I’d like that,” I cooed as he kissed me again. “Tristan,” I said softly.

“Yes, Carolina,” he said softly.

“I just,” I whispered, “I’m so happy.” He smiled.

“Me too,” he said gently. “Get some rest.” I snuggled back under the cover. He walked towards the door. “Caro,” he said softly, he’d never shortened my name that way before, it melted me. “I don’t want to lie to you, I’m not sure if I,” he exhaled. “I want to love you.”

“I know that,” I whispered softly. He nodded. “I’m glad that you can,” I looked at him, “thank you for telling me the truth.” He smiled and left. I sighed and flopped back into the covers. I’d been content, happy to be wanted and not even thinking beyond that. But somehow, him stating outright, so plainly that he didn’t love me. It felt like I’d been punched in the stomach.