Family

Athena

I woke early and went to the training yard with Tristan and watched as the newest recruits worked. It had been a long time since we’d been here and it was crowded and full of life. Elodie saluted me from where she was stationed and I smiled back. I looked at my brother.

“I’m taking Calla to see Uncle Trey this afternoon,” I said softly, “are you coming?” He looked at me.

“Until Trey and Grandfather take Caro’s side over her father, I’m afraid I can’t,” he shrugged. I nodded. “Are Alex and Emily still there?”

“I don’t think so,” I said. “But if they are, I’ll invite them here, I know Caro would like it.” He nodded. “How is she?” I asked. He raised an eyebrow. “How are you?” I tried.

“Things are,” he exhaled, “They’ve been better, I suppose.” I looked at him. “I don’t know what to do anymore, Thena. She’s miserable and I can’t fix it.”

“You could stay put for two days in a row,” I said, “that might help.” He looked at me and sighed.

“It’s more than that,” he said, “I talked to Marina last night, and I can barely look at Lisette because I know it will upset Caro.” I nodded. “Do you think a baby would fix it?”

“She wants to be a mother,” I reminded him, “but she also wants to be your wife.” He looked at me. “It would fix her loneliness, and her feelings of purposelessness.” He looked down. “But she’s heartbroken, Tristan, I don’t think it can fix that.”

“Maybe this trip will be good for us,” he sighed, “I don’t know anymore.” I smiled softly at him. “This was all your idea, by the way.” I raised my eyebrows.

“You forming the rangers and never coming home was my idea?” I asked.

“The marriage was your idea,” he said. I smiled.

“You could have said no,” I shrugged, “spent you life mooning after Marina unencumbered by a wife.” He kicked dirt at me.

A few hours later I was standing in front of Trey’s townhouse, with my hand in Calla’s.

“Mama,” she said as I knocked, I looked at her. “Why didn’t Lady Althea come with us? Isn’t she supposed to come with me everywhere?” I laughed.

“Yes,” Athena said, “but today is so you can see Uncle Trey, I’m sure he’ll get to know Lady Althea in good time.” The door opened.

“Ah, Lady Athena,” the butler smiled. “Welcome home.”

“Thank you, Emmet,” I said and walked past him. “May I present my daughter, Viscountess Calla.”

“Your Grace,” Emmet bowed. Calla wrapped around my leg. “I see.”

“Emmet, can you see to it,” Emily DuCray waltzed through the door and her face broke into a wide smile. “Oh Athena!” She squealed and ran over and embraced me. “Oh I’m so glad you’re here. We’ve been frantic since you got to the city! I was going to send a note to Caro this afternoon.”

“Emily,” I said softly, “you know she can’t come.” She frowned. “But you and Alex must come to the palace.” She smiled sharply.

“Of course,” she said. She looked at Calla and knelt down, “Hello Viscountess, and how are you this afternoon?”

“Quite well, thank you,” Calla managed before sticking her thumb back in her mouth.

“Calla, love, this is Mistress Emily, she’s Aunt Caro’s sister,” I smiled. Calla brightened. “Is Uncle Trey available? I sent a note!”

“He and Alex and arguing over some deal with Failon,” Emily sighed, “Prince Otto claims the racing studs Lotte sent him are subpar and Lotte is insisting it isn’t her fault Otto over trained the foals and they were exhausted by the time of races. It’s a mess.” I laughed. “Would you like to see Carlo?”

“I would,” I said. “Calla, would you like to meet your baby cousin?” Calla nodded and we followed Emily into the nursery. Calla rushed to the little boy playing on the floor. Carlo was nearly a year and a half old by now, so he was hardly a baby. “He’s beautiful,” I said. Emily beamed.

“Thank you,” she sighed. “I’ll bring him when I come to the palace, I want Caro to meet him.” She shook her head. “My father is so obstinate. Not that the old man is any better, they’re both refusing to even have the fight, even though your grandfather is squarely on Tristan and Caro’s side.” I smiled.

“That’s good to hear,” I said. “I always thought the hearing of the challenge would end it.” Emily sighed.

“It has for everyone but Papa,” Emily shrugged. “Everyone in Dorin says he looks like Alex.” I smiled at her.

“So he does,” I nodded. “Everyone in Pantona says she looks like Olivia.”

“Mm,” Emily smiled. “I see it. That hair though! Not auburn like everyone else or blonde like us,” she shook her head. “Her debut will be interesting.” I snorted.

“Unless Lisette pulls herself together, I doubt the heir to throne will have the option to debut in Dorin,” I shrugged. Emily raised her eyebrows. “Council votes this afternoon, it’s done.”

“That is something,” she said, “won’t you grandfather be pleased?” I laughed.

“Oh terribly,” I muttered. “Aaron is too. It might be the only thing they agree on.” She laughed.

“Ah there they are,” Uncle Trey walked in and kissed me on the cheek, “hello Countess.”

“Uncle,” I smiled. “We were discussing Calla’s ascension.” He grinned.

“Ah yes,” he sighed happily, “Tom wrote me of it.” I nodded. “It’s quite an honor.” I looked at all of them, Emily nodded to a servant and we all walked into Trey’s office.

“What can you tell me?” I asked. Alex was leaning against the window. “Hello Cousin.”

“Hello,” he grinned. “There’s not much new. Rastan is jumpy with the king’s health. Raniere seems to want to marry as soon as possible after he’s crowned.” I nodded.

“Will he make an offer?” I said. This was more Aaron’s department but he was busy.

“Not to Annalise,” Emily shook her head. “He doesn’t want her building an empire on his back.” I exhaled.

“Marina then,” I said. Emily nodded. “Cornan’s beard, that’s complicated.”

“We know,” Trey said. “She has no reason to refuse a king, who’s the right age, who will at least claim to want a peaceful alliance.”

“Phania will hate it,” Alex said.

“Phania hates everything we do,” I shrugged, “Marina will hate it, that’s what’s trickier.”

“A delayed betrothal?” Trey suggested. I swallowed and my hand fell to my belly. “Like Queen Elana negotiated for Princess Karina.”

“Aaron won’t betroth Calla, or this one” I shook my head, “nor will I, or Annalise. It isn’t Cammadie.” Trey sighed.

“Your mother’s daughter,” he muttered, but he was smiling. “Of course, you’re right, it is not Cammadie to betroth children, but expectations are another thing entirely. This whole mess with Phania comes from Annalise and Eric being expected for each other, official betrothal or not.”

“So your suggestion, Uncle,” Emily said, “is that even should Marina refuse him, which, as it’s Marina is terribly likely, we mention the expectation of Calla for any of Raniere’s sons?”

“My daughter is not a bargaining chip,” I said. “That is end of the conversation.” I stormed out of the room and back to the nursery.

“Mama,” Calla ran over, “Cousin Carlo is a very nice baby, but might we go back now? He can’t even talk!” I laughed and scooped her up.

“Of course darling,” I said. “Would you be terribly upset by tea with some grownups first?” She sighed loudly.

“If we absolutely must.” She sighed dramatically. I suddenly understood why the protectors were usually placed so young with their charges. A friend in situations like this is invaluable. I always had Tristan, and while we didn’t get to be those people for Annalise, Aaron was. Calla is already cleaving to Althea.

I walked her into the parlor and she settled next to me. Normally I would make her be more friendly but I was frustrated with all of them. Suddenly every single moment, every barb Martin shot at Trey about our future, every protective gesture the Pantonas put over us, down to the uniform I still wear makes sense.

Trey loved us. He still would have sold us. I let him sell Tristan, it’s only Carolina’s strong heart that saved them both from becoming pawns.

Alex looks at me, and an understanding passes between us. He and Emily have to choose now. I’m finished mediating.

Examination

Athena

“This is spectacularly unnecessary,” I said sharply as Elodie shove a pillow under my back on the bed, placing me in a reclined position. “Amanda examined me and said I was fine.”

“Amanda is useless,” Marina said and placed two hands on my belly.

“You two trained her,” I reminded them, “and placed her at Pantona.”

“Well, maybe not useless,” Elodie said, “but still, you ought to have told us, My Lady.” I smiled, all these years of friendship later, when she’s feeling waspish, Elodie reverts to the shy tavern keeper’s daughter who couldn’t meet my eyes.

“I knew this would happen,” I said, “and I don’t need it.” Marina glared at me and I sighed and lifted my dress and spread my legs. “The child is fine, I’ve done this before you’ll recall.”

“Yes, everything does seem to be fine,” she said. Elodie nodded. “You’re eating?”

“Yes,” I rolled my eyes. “Most everything is staying down too.” She nodded and stepped back. “There’s some pain, but not much yet, I know I’m starting to swell.”

“They’re strong,” Elodie said, “not surprising, knowing their mother.” I laughed. “Althea is going terrorize Calla into being her friend by the way.”

“I think Calla will be much more amenable to friendship after a rest,” I assured her. Elodie laughed. “She’s grown, Althea.”

“Like a weed,” Elodie shook her head, “Mercy’s determined to make her a lady, but I think it might be a lost cause.”

“She’s a sweet little thing,” Marina said, “but she is boisterous, and Mercy and I were such quiet little mice, it’s no wonder she worries.”

“You were a mouse,” I said standing up. “Mercy was more like some kind of silent poisonous snake.” We laughed. “Calla’s taken to finding every possible nook to hide in at the manor, so I’m sure the palace will provide endless entertainment.” We walked back downstairs to the large sitting room. Annalise was flopped in a chair, and Aaron was laughing at something Raymond had said.

“Look at them,” Marina smiled, and squeezed my shoulders. “We’re so glad you’re back, Thena, really.” I smiled at her.

“Has she been very bad?” I asked.

“Unsettled,” she said softly, “but better, I think,” I nodded.

“We were surprised to hear Prior came right here,” I said. “Is she serious?”

“Not that she’s told me,” Marina sighed. “I hope not. I don’t think they’d suit in the long run.” I looked at her.

“He makes her happy,” I said softly. “The politics are good,” Marina looked at me sideways. “Aaron thinks so.”

“Aaron thinks anyone besides Eric is good politics,” Marina mumbled, “he’s wrong.” I looked at her. “Prior wouldn’t suit the mandate.”

“You’re sure of this?” I asked her. She nodded. “Have you spoken with Goddess? Or had a dream?”

“I’ve met the man,” she said simply. I laughed. “He wants her, but he wants something she can’t give. Eric and Harran understood what she couldn’t give, I think even Tristan did, though he took it the most personally. Prior,” she shook her head, “he doesn’t see it. He sees a woman, even a queen, but he doesn’t see the sword.” I nodded.

“Perhaps she needs that though,” I tried. “Aaron didn’t know I was Champion when we fell in love.” She looked at me.

“It isn’t the same,” she sighed. “I wish it was, for her sake.”

An Injection Of Chaos

Annalise

“They’re here, they’re here!” Althea Graves-Willis exclaimed running into my office, followed solidly by her mothers. Mercy smirked at me, while Elodie scooped up their little girl, actually an orphan they’d adopted from Brightcoast. Althea was nearly five now, and positively doted on, not just by her parents but by most of court.

“Althea,” Mercy cautioned, “what did we say? If you could behave you could announce to Her Majesty.”

“I’m sorry Mother,” Althea sighed and wiggled out of Elodie’s arms and curtsied deeply. “Your Majesty, The Count and Countess of Pantona and their family have arrived in the city, if it would please you to greet them when they arrive at the palace.”

“Thank you, Lady Althea,” I bent down and kissed her forehead, “it does please me. As do you.” She laughed and ran off down the hallway. “You’re too hard on her Mercy,” I cautioned her. Mercy rolled her eyes.

“I won’t have her be a little savage,” she said, with a smile. “But she is excited to see Calla.”

“Of course,” I nodded, I looked at Elodie. “You’re ready to brief them, Commander?”

“Of course,” Elodie laughed, “not that Athena won’t have more questions than my briefing could possibly cover.” I smiled. We arrived on the palace steps and Marina was already waiting with Raymond and Evan. I wondered where Nika was.

“Some traders arrived and asked for a blessing,” Marina said, anticipating my question. I nodded.

“It’s downright eerie when you two do that,” Raymond grimaced. “I’m your cousin too, why can’t I guess what you’re thinking?”

“I haven’t any idea,” I said, “perhaps it’s from Mariah, not Tumona or The Goddess.” He rolled his eyes. The gates opened and I couldn’t help but grin widely as Aaron and Athena walked up in full dignity. They were followed by Olivia and Thomas, Olivia holding Calla in her arms. Tristan and Carolina were next.

“I’m going to kill her,” Marina muttered. I looked at her.

“I’m sure she had her reasons,” Elodie murmured. I exhaled, one of them was pregnant then.

“Your Majesty,” Aaron smiled and bowed, I nodded and he rose and kissed me on the cheek.

“Your Grace, Countess,” I nodded to Athena. “Countess, General,” I smiled at Olivia and Thomas, “Viscountess.”

“Your Majesty,” Calla squeaked shyly, and placed her thumb in her mouth.

“She’s rather sleepy from the journey,” Olivia smiled.

“Of course,” I said and kissed her. “I am glad you’re here, Lady Calla,” I whispered, the little girl nodded. “Commander Dugarry, Lady Dugarry,” I accepted their bow and curtsey. “Please, come in and get settled, we’re going to have a private supper tonight.”

“That sounds perfect,” Athena said cheerfully and Marina glared at her, “but I think I have to receive a lecture first.”

“Ah,” I nodded. “Congratulations,” she laughed followed me inside. “General, Commanders, if you don’t mind, Commander Willis has briefings for you.”

“Of course,” Tristan smiled at me and kissed Carolina and they walked through the hall and Carolina disappeared down the hall

“Is Mama in trouble?” Calla loudly asked. “Is it because of the baby?”

You told a child and then rode across the country without telling us?” Marina practically roared. Elodie’s nostrils were flaring.

“It’s almost as if I wanted to avoid this very interaction for as long as possible,” Athena sighed.

“The briefing can wait,” Elodie said, taking Athena’s hand and dragging her away, “we are examining you immediately.” Marina marched after her, Athena looked pleadingly over her shoulder and Aaron shrugged, barely containing his laugh.

“Your Mama is not in trouble,” I said gently. Althea nodded.

“My Mama helps all kinds of ladies with babies,” Althea said, Calla frowned. “Isn’t that right Mother?” She looked at Mercy who was laughing.

“It is indeed,” Mercy kneeled down to the two girls. Calla nodded and looked at Olivia, my heart broke.

“Come sweetheart,” Tristan picked her up, “why don’t you nap, and then you can tell Lady Althea all of your adventures on the journey from Pantona, hm?”

“I’m not sleepy,” Calla whined as he carried her away. I exhaled and moved into a sitting room and collapsed.

“I apologize for our lack of organization,” Aaron said, “I told Athena it was a bad idea to surprise the healers.” I smiled and poured tea for them.

“They’d have been hysterical no matter what,” Raymond shrugged.

“Where’s Prior?” Thomas asked. I exhaled.

“He’s leading training exercises today,” I explained. “He’ll be at dinner.” Aaron raised his eyebrows at me.

“At family dinner?” He said. “Has something changed?” Thomas shrugged. “You told them?”

“I shared some thoughts in a letter,” I said, “I haven’t decided anything. Just,” I exhaled, “considering some things.” He narrowed his eyes at me. “Much like Athena not telling Marina and Elodie she was pregnant, I was trying to avoid a lecture.”

“My father would be thrilled,” Evan piped up, “and you’d spare me and Marina.” Aaron snorted.

“Your father would put one of his horses on the throne and be thrilled,” Aaron said. “What about Calla?”

“Calla will be my heir,” I said, “until I have a child. Then she will be appointed protector, I won’t abandon her, or the new one. Or any children of Tristan and Caro’s.”

“How does Marina feel about it?” Olivia asked. I smiled.

“Relieved, I think,” I looked to Raymond who nodded, “gods know I rely on her for too much, taking one burden off her shoulders will surely help.”

“And how are your studies, Lord Raymond?” Olivia asked. Raymond preened a little.

“I’ll take my vow before we leave for Westran,” he said. I smiled at him. “I had hoped Mastero Anselm would come with you.”

“I excused him,” I said softly. “Is he doing better?”

“He’s weak still,” Olivia said gently, “but he’s improved.” I nodded. “Perhaps you can visit, that might cheer him up.” I nodded. It made me sad that my old teacher’s health was failing and I couldn’t be by his side. But the injection of chaos from my family was so welcome, I couldn’t help but feel joy fill my heart.