The Bruise

Marina

I was sitting quietly writing as we’d settled in for the night when Nika walked into my tent. She looked unsettled.

“What are you doing here?” I asked. She frowned.

“I have to ask you a favor,” she said.

“Alright,” I smiled. She was being overly serious. It made me want to tease her terribly, but I knew it wasn’t my place anymore. “What’s the favor?”

“When we arrive at the keep,” she frowned. “I need you to pretend we’re still together.” I gaped at her.

“You want to lie?” I said. She nodded. “About us? That’s not like you.”

“I know,” she said, “But I can’t do it. I can’t go through this wedding and these visits, with my sister and parents, having abandoned my people, my duty to them for a love that failed.” I stood up and went and held her hands. “So perhaps we could simply, pretend?”

“Of course,” I said quietly. “Or we could,” I choked on the words. I missed her. “We could not pretend, we could be together again.”

“No,” she whispered, “no, I can’t,” she swallowed, “I can’t do that anymore.” I nodded, trying to understand.

“I am so sorry, Nika,” I whispered, “I wish I were different, I do.” She put her hands around my face.

“I don’t,” she said, “oh, I would never wish you were different. I love you.” We kissed softly. “I just know you don’t love me, and I can’t take it anymore.” I pressed my forehead to hers. “I thought I could live with it, I really did. I thought that you wanting me, and me loving you and us having our life together would be enough.”

“I do love you,” I whispered.

“You love me as you love Annalise and Athena,” she whispered, “as your friend, and compatriot, but you don’t love me the way I love you, the way you love Lefty and Tristan.” I swallowed. “It’s alright, I made peace with it a long time ago, I just can’t do it anymore.” I nudged my nose against hers.

“Come to bed,” I whispered. She sighed. “Let me show you how I love you.”

“Sex isn’t love, Marina,” she said. “I never doubted you wanted me, or how good our sex was.” I blushed a little. “I think it might be the only way I am above the others in your estimation.” I laughed. “I mean, I have no doubt both Tristan and Lefty are both satisfactory lovers, the way you whimpered that it had never been like this our first time, was quite gratifying.”

“Alright, fine,” I sighed throwing up my hands. “Sex isn’t love, but you could still come to bed.” I took her hand and led her back.

“Rina,” she whispered.

“Nika,” I smiled and kissed her. “I miss you.” She sighed. “You won’t even talk to me.”

“I have nothing left to say,” she whispered. “What happened today?” I looked at her. “With Annalise?” I sighed.

“I suggested that you and Prior form a club,” I teased. She laughed. “Everyone saw, is all that happened.”

“Poor Carolina,” Nika said softly. I nodded. She took one of my curls around her finger. “Poor you.” I smiled.

“I’ll survive it,” I said. She nodded. “You’re wrong you know. I do love you.” She sighed and looked at me. “I’d have died without you, Nika. You saved me from despair a hundred times these past four years.” She kissed me.

“So you’ll save me this time?” She whispered. I nodded.

“I’ll be perfect,” I said and kissed her. “I might even fool you into taking me back.” She rolled her eyes and onto her back, I straddled her.

“Rina,” she warned, but there was a laugh in her voice. I grinned down at her and we kissed. “This is not going to be a regular occurrence.”

“Absolutely not,” I said, unwinder her veil and running my hands over her hair. “Only tonight.” I kissed down her neck and opened her robe, then down her breasts. “I will be perfectly behaved.”

“Mm,” she exhaled, letting her arms drift over her head. I took her breast into my mouth and sucked gently. “Oh gods,” she exhaled. I wanted to make her shake and moan, worship her body.

I traced kisses down her belly to her sex and licked and kissed gently. She inhaled and then let out a moaning sigh. She tasted so sweet. The tiny hitches in her breath, as I tasted her, pleasured her, everything about Nika is so controlled, except here, except with me.

“Marina,” she lifted her hips. “Oh, my love,” I pulled back and looked at her.

“Let go,” I whispered, working my fingers into her. “Just be with me.” I kissed her and she pulled me close as she came on my hand.

“Rina,” she mumbled as I slid beside her and held her. “We can’t.” I kissed her hair.

“I know,” I said softly. “But I want you.” She rested her head against me.

“You’re spoiled,” she mumbled. I laughed. “Getting everything you want.”

“You love me,” I whispered and then kissed her.

“Unfortunately for me,” she rolled over in mock submission. “Yes, I do.” I slid into her arms and she pulled me close. “It hurts, so much, Rina.”

“I know,” I said. “I want to make it stop hurting.”

“You can’t,” Nika said gently. “You’re the bruise and being with you is just pressing on it.” I understood now.

“You’ll have to tell them eventually,” I whispered. She sighed. “Brea might even guess.”

“Brea will not guess,” she said, “Brea won’t be able to see five feet in front of her. Brea is about to marry Harran, which is everything she’s wanted since she was five years old. That this is the only thing that matters to Brea right now.” I laughed.

“She once told me that she knew many curses that would make me wish I’d never been born,” I said softly, “if anything ever happened to you, if I ever hurt you.” She looked at me.

“Really?” She said. I nodded. “Brea doesn’t actually know any curses.” She paused. “I don’t think so at least.” I laughed and kissed her.

“I’d really rather not risk it,” I smiled. She pulled me into her lap.

“Then stop hurting me,” she grinned. I sighed.

“I am trying,” I whispered and kissed her again.

“I know you are,” she said. “You’ll do this for me?” I nodded. “Thank you.”

The Mandate

Athena

Althea and Calla sat on the floor watching Baby Carlo play after dinner. They seemed amused by him, certainly more than Calla had been that afternoon. I glanced at Alex, talking with Olivia a few times, he met my eyes and I stood up and walked outside onto the terrace.

“Did you know I asked Uncle Trey for permission to court you?” Alex said. I looked over my shoulder.

“What?” I laughed. He smiled.

“I was fifteen, I think,” he said. “So you would have been, thirteen?” I nodded. “And you were dazzling, even then. I had a whole plan, for how it would consolidate the family’s power, fully unite the Dumanis with the guard.”

“What did Trey say?” I smirked.

“That if I could beat you with a sword, I was welcome to try, but that would be what it would take,” he laughed. I smiled. “So I moved on.”

“To Caro,” I said. He nodded. “And then Emily.”

“I was powerless, when I realized I loved Emily,” he sighed. “I hated myself for it. I hated myself for hurting Caro and leaving her open to ridicule. I hated myself for giving up on loving you. That was my plan you know, like something from a novel, I would love you, while doing my duty while you became a countess.”

“Why are you telling me this?” I asked him.

“Because we don’t always get to choose, Athena,” he said softly. “I know you don’t like it. I know there’s too much Dugarry in you, too much of Martin,” she looked down. “But Calla is a part of this family, you are a part of this family.” She nodded.

“Calla may be Queen of Cammadan,” I said simply, “she will be Countess of Pantona.” He nodded. “She isn’t a Dumanis, Alex, and her future isn’t yours or Uncle Trey’s or Grandfather’s, or even mine to dictate. She’ll make her own way.”

“And what has that attitude gotten all of us?” He said. “Anton married Marie, making his own way, and it lead to estrangement from her homeland, our closest neighbor, it lead to Brayton’s rage and their deaths and over a decade of destruction.” I stared ahead at the mountain. “We won’t survive something like that again.”

“Our family?” I said. He looked at me.

Cammadan,” he said. “Annalise’s control is precarious, everyone knows it. She has no allies outside the country besides Harran,” I swallowed. “Her stubborness regarding her marriage, and Marina’s? Naming your and Aaron’s child her heir? These aren’t the choices of someone who is thinking long term, or outside of herself.” I looked at him.

“You don’t understand,” I shook my head.

“Maybe not,” he said. “But I can’t imagine what I’m missing out of the picture.” I sighed. “Tell me what I’m missing.” I looked at him.

“You’re missing the mandate. You’re missing that none of the politics matter if we don’t free the gods, if Amina comes and we can’t stop the shadows, if we can’t free the gods, it won’t matter that Otto of Failon was insulted that Marina wouldn’t marry him, or Daniel of Phania thinks he’s too high for us. It won’t matter, Alex,” I said. “Because we’ll all be dead, the world will fall into darkness. Annalise has to follow her heart because if she isn’t free to, she’ll be blind to the path she needs to go down. Marina can’t solidify an alliance with another throne because she has to be at her side. My daughter has to be Annalise’s heir so that my bond to Cammadan’s home soil is maintained if I fall in battle, so that Cornan can stand against his sister for his chosen home.” He stared at me terrified. “You’re missing the mandate, Alex, you’re forgetting the gods.” He looked down. “Don’t do it again.” I turned away and walked inside and wiped my eyes.

It was the first time I’d said it out loud and I felt like I’d cut my wrists open. I slipped past the group and into the same small lobby where Marina had bound the three of us years ago.

“Athena?” She walked in, all of her serenity focused on me. Sometimes it was just frustrating, but right now it felt soothing. “What’s wrong?”

“It’s nothing,” I said, “just, it’s been a long day.” She smiled and sat down with me. “It was all supposed to be over by now.”

“I know,” she said softly.

“I yelled at Alex,” I said. She smiled. “It’s not his fault though.”

“I don’t think it’s anyone fault, Thena,” she whispered. “Maybe Brayton’s or Amina’s.” I smiled. “I know you’re worried.”

“I was worried five years ago,” I said. “I’m terrified now, it’s paralyzing, Marina.” She nodded. “I don’t want to leave behind a broken world for Calla and this one,” I said, my hand on my belly.

“I know that,” she said. She sat down. “None of us do.” I looked at her. “I have visions sometimes,” I nodded, “of other threads, and there’s a few,” she looked down, “I have son. With Brayton.”

“What?” I stood up.

“It’s over and over,” she explained, “A little boy, with grey Dovetail eyes and curls like mine and my father’s smile.” I blinked at her. “And he’ll never exist, not in this world.” She hugged herself. “And that’s what I’m fighting for, I’m fighting so that he never exists. And so that your children will be safe and whole.” I nodded. “You aren’t the only one who’s paralyzed by terror at what we have to do.”

“Marina,” I said softly. “I’m sorry, I didn’t,” she shook her head.

“No it’s alright,” she whispered. “I’ve never talked about it before. With anyone. I wrote it in a letter to Damian once, and then burned it before I could send it.” Her knees were curled to her chest. “Caro is miserable because she can’t have a baby. Elodie and I treat women who’ve lost their’s all the time and I am fighting so that my little boy is never born and the world stays whole for yours.”

“My boy,” I whispered. She nodded. “How long have you known?” She laughed.

“Just now when I said it,” she shrugged. “It isn’t particularly precise, that magic.” I laughed. “But yes, you’re carrying a boy, it seems very obvious now.” I smiled.

“My boy,” I whispered softly. She nodded. “I’m sorry.” She shrugged. “You don’t want to have Brayton’s child?”

“No,” Marina said, “no, because that would require many terrible things.” She looked sad. “I would like to have a child. Nika doesn’t, and I have no idea what Damian,” she looked down. “And he has my father’s smile.” I wrapped my arm around her.

Proud

Marina

“And then I’m going to anoint you,” I said going over the ceremony for Raymond’s Mastero vows. He was the first in nearly twenty years to do it. “Rose oil and mud mixed from the soil of the valley.”

“You anoint me with mud?” Raymond said. I shrugged. “Cornan’s so weird.” I laughed. “Then I say the vow, ‘I am at the service of the gods and their knowledge in this world, blah blah blah,” I nodded. “And then I’m a Mastero.”

“And then you’re a Mastero,” I said and smiled at him. He sighed. “We’re all very proud of you. I’m sure Eric and Damian are too.” He smiled.

“Will your father come?” He asked. I smiled. Papa was already on his way.

“It was meant to be a surprise,” I stood up. He laughed. “Evan is worried.”

“About me?” He said. I nodded.

“He said you’ve been Dreaming,” I explained. “More violently than usual.”

“Oh,” he said softly, “that.” I sighed.

“Yes,” I matched his tone. “That.” He sighed.

“It’s nothing new, the wheel, the two of them screaming. Karina on a throne engulfed in flames,” he sighed. “I’m supposed to help her but I don’t know how.”

“We’ll both help her,” I assured him. He nodded. “I’m a little jealous,” I admitted, “before the other week with the shadow, I hadn’t Dreamed in months.” He squinted at me.

“You don’t miss it?” He was disbelieving. I shrugged. “Gods, Marina, I thought we all hated it.” I smiled. “Have you and Nika made up yet?”

“No,” I said softly, “I don’t think we will honestly.” I sat down again. “I keep thinking about Damian. How much I miss him, and how he wouldn’t have been angry at me,” I frowned.

“You’re deluding yourself if you think Lefty finding you half dressed with Tristan Dugarry wouldn’t make him the angriest person to ever live,” Raymond said. “I know it’s been four years, but have you completely forgotten what he’s like, especially when it comes to you?”

“He wouldn’t!” I argued. “I mean he did, not the half dressed part. And I wasn’t half dressed that night,” I looked at him. “He was very understanding.” I crossed my arms.

“You’re romanticizing because you miss him,” Raymond said, slowly, as if talking to a child. I glared at him. “If you walked into a room, and saw Elaine Addison draped over Lefty, him whispering to her, you wouldn’t care?” I glared at him.

“I once walked into Lisette’s bedroom and she was riding Tristan while naked,” I pointed out. “And all it did was make me laugh.”

“I’m not talking about Tristan,” he said. “I’m definitely not talking about Tristan and Annalise. I’m talking about the person you love and gave your whole self to, with the person who you worry they’ve given more to.” I looked down. “Nika gave up her whole world, to be with you. And she left you, and now you’re here talking about someone else.”

“Stop being so damn wise,” I grumbled, “it’s annoying.” He laughed. “You’re wrong.” He said.

“Maybe,” he said, “but you never gave in to her, the way she did to you, because you’ve just been waiting. Waiting to find the gods, or Brayton, or for Lefty to come back.” I looked him. “But Nika gave up her life for you, you should be sensitive to that.” I looked at him.

“Do you feel that way?” I asked. He shrugged.

“Sometimes?” He admitted. “I could have gone home, been with my family, with Lefty and Eric and I wouldn’t have Evan, or you or have become a mastero,” he shrugged. “But I’d be safer, in ways.” I rested my head on his shoulder.

“I’m so proud of you,” I said softly. He nodded. “Do you know the thing I hate Brayton from taking me from the most?” He looked at me. “I hate that he took you and Lisette from me. I hate him for it, more than anything else. We could have grown up together, we could have had inside jokes and played and known each other better than anyone.” She exhaled. “And he took that from us. He took it when he killed Lisette’s parents, when he imprisoned my father and refused to let him take us back to Phania. Over and over again.” He looked at me. “He took so much, but the thing I hate him for the most was taking that from the three of us, what we could have had, what we could have been.”

“I’ve never thought about that,” he admitted. “I wish we’d grown up together too.” I sighed. “Have you tried apologizing to her?”

“Yes,” I mumbled. “She won’t even talk to me.” I frowned. “Some of the people arguing against Calla today,” I shook my head, “I had no idea that they were on my side. How could I not know that?”

“I don’t know,” he said, “They probably aren’t, they probably just hate Aaron.” I laughed. “I’m going to be a Mastero, Marina. When I came here, I thought I had no future. And now I’m a Mastero. We can change anything, we’re not bound to fate.”

“I know,” I smiled and hugged him. “I’m proud of you, like I said, I don’t think I’ll ever say it enough.”

Recollections

Annalise

“Are you going to wear a veil?” Mercy asked as she fingered the light green material in front of her. I glanced at Nika.

“It would be respectful,” Nika said, “for the wedding itself and maybe the first meetings with each tribal leader, but I don’t think you need to be veiled the whole time.”

“Brea doesn’t wear the veil,” I pointed out. Nika smirked.

“Brea will be veiled at her wedding, Your Majesty,” she said, “quite elaborately. I’ve seen the designs and the beginning of the weaving.”

“Mm,” I sighed, “alright then, have a few made, but nothing too ostentatious.” Nika smiled at me as the seamstress left. “I hate this.”

“You’ve gotten better at it,” Mercy said. “Your first year I would sometimes cry over how hopeless you were at picking your clothes.” She looked at Nika. “She tried to wear a uniform to her coronation ball.”

“And this is bad?” Nika’s raised her eyebrows. Mercy sighed.

“Marina would understand,” she said and then stopped. “That is,” Nika rolled her eyes.

“I’m not going to fall apart at the mere mention of her,” Nika said. “I’m angry and sad not suddenly fragile.” I smiled at her. “How was the council vote?”

“Mercifully brief,” I said with a smile. “Calla is now my heir. Mercy, I do need to talk to you and Elodie though.”

“About Althea being her protector?” Mercy said. “I think it’s a very good idea.” I smiled. “You were worried I’d be resistant?”

“A little,” I said, “I assumed Elodie would be enthusiastic.”

“Yes, well,” Mercy said, “among other things it’s what Althea wants, and I’d like my daughter to grow up happy.” I looked at her and she sighed. “Children deserve that from their parents.” I smiled at her.

“Of course,” I smiled. Nika nodded. “I should wear more blue, shouldn’t I?”

“Some grey,” Nika said, “remind everyone you don’t favor any god in particular.” I glanced at her. “Annalise,”

“Amina is my enemy even if she isn’t yours,” I pointed out. “I won’t honor her, even to make the tribes comfortable.”

“I can’t imagine anyone in any tribe expecting a daughter of Anessa and Mariah to honor Amina,” Nika shook her head. “But they’d be more favorable to Rana than Cornan.” I nodded. I looked at her.

“Are you alright?” I said softly. She sighed.

“No,” she muttered, “but I will be.” I hugged her. “How did you forgive them?” I laughed.

“I met Eric?” I exhaled. She sighed. “Not particularly helpful advice, I know.”

“Carolina advised patience and acceptance,” she mumbled.

“Well,” I frowned and picked up a pieced of blue lace and wound it around my hair, “Carolina is a saint. We’re merely human.” She laughed. “The first time I found them together I went back to my room and broke a mirror.”

“You said that was a Dream!” Mercy gasped. I rolled my eyes at her.

“I lied,” I giggled. “Of course before that anytime Tristan brought up her name I made him change the subject.” Nika sighed.

“It’s odd,” she muttered, “if I found her with Lefty, I’d forgive her in a moment, but I saw her lying in Tristan’s arms and I lost my mind.”

“Of course,” Mercy said, sitting next to her, “she admits her feelings for Lefty. She’s in complete denial about Tristan.” I looked at her. “I’ve known her longer than both of you. And I loved her first.” She kicked her feet onto the table. “Nika, have you any idea how jealous I was, the first time I saw Marina kiss you? If I’d known she liked girls, well,” she huffed, “our girlhood would have been quite different, I can tell you.” I laughed.

“I had no idea,” I said. Mercy shrugged.

“I got over it,” Mercy said, “I met Elodie. But still, old wounds.” I thought of my own old wounds.

“Really?” Nika said. “You never even kissed her?” Mercy giggled.

“If you think she’s preoccupied by him now!” Mercy said. “You have no idea what it was like when we were younger. She basically a ghost unless Tristan was talking to her.” I looked at her. “But she trusted me, and that was enough. I was jealous of her, because her father wasn’t trying to marry her off to some old man who worshipped Brayton.” I looked at her. “But she was also so beautiful, just being near her,” she shook her head. “I’m just saying I don’t blame him. It was dark here, and she was a very bright light. It’s a hard habit to break.”

“Habit or not,” Nika frowned, “I’m done indulging it.” I looked at her and circled my arm around her. “I just want to go home. I want to be with my sister, and my people and,” she exhaled. “It doesn’t matter, are we finished?” I nodded. “Thank you for trusting me with this, Your Majesty.”

“Of course,” I said as she left. I collapsed next to Mercy. “If we don’t find the gods on this trip I’m going to the sea, drowning myself and asking Rana what in the hell her problem is.” Mercy laughed. I sighed. “I don’t want to go to this wedding.” I groaned.

“Maybe Harran will pull a Tristan,” Mercy raised her eyebrows. I looked at her. “Get all in his feelings and take you to bed before going through with it anyway.”

“That is terrifically unlikely to happen,” I said softly. “And if Tristan had come to my bed instead of Marina’s he would not have gone through with the wedding.” She patted me on the thigh.

“Whatever helps you sleep at night, Your Majesty.” She stood up.

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.

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.

Never Tired

Athena

I’m very lucky that my mother and sister in law are good hostesses, because no matter how hard I try, how many times I watch Olivia run even the smallest of gatherings, I’m not good at it. There are plenty of other things about being Countess I’m very good at.

But hostessing is just not one of them. And tonight is worse because Carolina is willfully ignoring William, who had staring at his drink like it might offer an escape, and then left quickly after dinner. It’s so unlike her.

Tristan standing with his hand on Carolina’s lower back. I looked at Aaron who shook his head at me.

“What is it?” I whispered.

“I’m not sure yet,” he admitted, “but it’s not good.” I sighed. “I had a letter from Harran today. He sent one for you too.”

“I read it,” I smiled. “I’m excited to see him.” He smiled at me. “I was wondering if we’d bring Calla?”

“Bring her where?” Caro settling in next to me. Tristan in a chair nearby. Something was wrong

“To the border,” I explained. “I don’t know if it’s safe.” Caro smiled at me.

“I think she can handle it,” Tristan smiled. “I wrote to Lotte, we ought to get her a pony.”

“She’s three,” I said. He shrugged. “You’ll spoil her.”

“She’s going to be a Countess,” Aaron laughed, “possibly even a queen, I don’t think she can be spoiled.”

“Don’t be silly,” Olivia settled in, “you complained plenty that we spoiled Lisette.” Aaron laughed. “She should learn to ride though, she loves horses so much.”

“We were five on ponies, Thena,” Tristan said. I glared at him.

“Perhaps I want Calla’s childhood to be different from ours,” I said. Carolina looked at me. “That still leaves two years anyway, but you’re right about talking to Lotte and Drea about it.” We talked for a little longer, some about going to The Border and then Tristan’s plans with the queen in Westran after.

“Will Marina be with you?” I said. Tristan shrugged.

“I suppose so,” he said, “I know Nika will be and I can’t imagine they want to separate.”

“They’re separate more often than their together,” Aaron said, “I think it suits them, honestly.” He was looking at Caro.

“I’m sure it does,” she said, meeting his gaze. “They’re both so busy.” Tristan looked at me.

“Of course,” Aaron said. He seemed angry with her, I wish I could figure out why.

“I’m afraid I have to ask you all to leave,” I said abruptly. Olivia stared at me. “My stomach is still often unsettled, with the baby.”

“Of course,” Tristan smiled and kissed me on the cheek and then Olivia. I embraced Caro and we made our way up to bed.

What is going on with you a Caro?” I asked Aaron as we slid into bed.

“I think something is happen with her and William,” he said. “She was incredibly upset this afternoon leaving the inn, and then he seemed on a another planet.” I laughed.

“Well, yes, he’s in love with her, he has been for years,” I shrugged. He stared at me. “Oh, don’t look at me like that. You must have seen it.”

“I really didn’t,” he muttered. “She isn’t,” he exhaled, “it’s not mutual?”

“I don’t think so,” I said, “but she is often lonely. And I know that she was furious when she found out about Tristan and Marina.”

“What about Tristan and Marina?” Aaron said. I sighed. “I mean beyond the usual, stare at one another intensely and make everyone uncomfortable thing that the two of them do occasionally.”

“Before their wedding, Tristan went to her to comfort her about Lefty and they slept together,” I said. “I think Caro found about maybe a year later? She almost left.”

“And you think she was with William out of revenge?” He frowned. “That doesn’t sound like her.”

“No,” I said softly, “I think that she’s been very unhappy recently, and you know what he can be like. If something happened, I’m sure he’s not making it easy for her to step away.” He frowned. “Love,” I rested my hand on his chest. “What are you thinking?”

“I’m thinking that it is bizarre that William and Tristan like the same women, every time, nearly without fail,” he muttered, “with Lisette and Marina I could have chalked it up to their similarities, but Caro too?” I laughed. He kissed me. “Were you really not feeling well?”

“No more than is normal,” I assured him. “I’ve been having trouble keeping richer food down, but that’s why I kept it simple tonight.” He nodded and he kissed me. I exhaled.

“Are you worried about Calla?” He asked. I bit my bottom lip.

“A little,” I admitted. “Lisette hasn’t declared she’s the heir, Aaron, and she’s no nearer children of her own. Which means Calla doesn’t have a place in Dovetail. She belongs here.”

“I know,” he said, “but I always resented my parents leaving me behind, and there’s no reason for us to leave her.” I smiled. “Marina said Council will vote on her being the heir this session.” I nodded. “There’s of course a third option, beyond the guard and being Lisette’s heir.”

“Don’t even tease,” I groaned, “she’s welcome to join the guild when she gets older, but handing her over now would please my grandfather far too much.” He laughed. “I want him to die wondering if Tristan and I will ever come back.”

“That may be the most terrifying thing I’ve ever heard you say,” he laughed and kissed me. I smiled and pulled close. “And that includes every time you offhand talked about cutting off my appendages when we first met.” I giggled. He kissed me.

“I’ve grown rather fond of those appendages,” I whispered. He smirked and rolled on top of me. “Aaron,” I whispered.

“Yes, love,” he said and kissed me, pulling my shift over my head.

“Don’t stop,” I whispered. He nodded, he kissed my neck and I wrapped my legs around him. I arched into him as he pressed into me. We moved with each other, I never got tired of how he felt in me.

We finished and I fell back against the pillows. Aaron curled up behind me and snuggled close, burying his face in my hair.

“Thena,” he whispered, “what are you thinking about?” I smiled.

“I’m barely thinking at all yet,” I said, “but I suppose I’m wondering if when I’m massive with this baby you’ll still want me.”

“I wanted you when you had Calla,” he laughed.

“Mmm,” I sighed, “yes, but maybe you’ve changed in three years.” He kissed me.

“I promise to still want you,” he smiled. I laughed. “Sleep well, Countess.” Every night for four years he’d whispered this in my ear. I would never ever get tired of it.

University

Marina

Growing up, I’d been a little afraid of The University in Dovetail. It stood empty, save for a few Black Guards coming and going. I was barred from getting too close, for once an order from my father rather than Brayton.

Since Annalise reopened it, I still keep my distance because I’d spend every possible moment there if I could. The Masteros that survived have done an incredible job bringing the place back to life, and it’s filling daily with eager students from all over the country, who want to learn to harness the odd talents that for most of their lives they had to pretend didn’t exist.

Raymond has been flourishing and is going to be finishing his studies and becoming a Mastero soon. I’m absurdly proud of him, and the life he’s built with Evan Allred, who also studies, but as his father’s heir cannot take Mastero vows.

“Marina!” Raymond said as I walked into his lab, a large sunny room that we’d designed to be as close to a sea base as possible. “I was wondering what took you so long.”

“I’m sorry,” I said, “I didn’t realize it was urgent.” He rolled his eyes. “Nika’s here.”

“Ah,” he nodded. “Understood, Prior showed up today too, so you and Annalise will both be useless.” I stuck out my tongue. “Here,” he shoved a large orb into my hands. It was smooth and dark. “Hold that.”

“Raymond,” I said, “what is this?”

“It’s obsidian,” he muttered, “Tristan brought some last time they were in Failan because I asked for it. I think it will help.” I raised my eyebrows, “fill the pores with light, if you please.” I exhaled and shot my power through the porous stone. “OK,” he mumbled and swept a small cloud of smoke around it, but it wouldn’t settle on the stone.

“Goddess,” I whispered. “Raymond, that’s incredible. Do you know if it will work with shadow?” He shrugged.

“I can’t conjure shadows,” he pointed out, “maybe Nika can help with that test? But I think so.”

“Obsidian weapons,” I mumbled, “wielded by soldiers with gifts, Athena is going to kiss you.” He laughed.

“Or even rangers where one partner has a gift and the other doesn’t,” he shrugged. “Or if I can figure out charging.” I laughed. “How are you?”

“I’m fine,” I said, repeating what I’d said to Annalise, to Nika, but Raymond knew better and frowned.

“I haven’t heard from them either and it’s worrying,” he muttered. “I tried writing to my sister, but it was just more platitudes about how until I am freed from my unfair holding, they can’t risk Eric’s safety and blah blah blah,” he frowned. “Sometimes I think I should go back, bring Evan, live openly. They couldn’t really stop me, not anymore.”

“No,” I said, “they couldn’t, but we’d miss you.” He smiled. “We’re having a dinner when everyone arrives nothing formal.” He groaned.

“What did you say to him?” Evan walked in. I laughed at him. “He usually only makes that noise when someone tries to come into the house.”

“You have to come to a dinner at the palace,” I raised my eyebrows.

“Oh, well he can survive that,” Evan laughed and rested his head on Raymond’s shoulder.

“I can’t,” Raymond mumbled.

“You will,” I said. “Also, you’re a genius.” He grinned at me. “Raymond, I,” I swallowed, “you’d tell me, wouldn’t you if something happened,” I exhaled, “I mean, if you knew he wasn’t alright?”

“Oh Rina,” Evan said softly, I was trembling and swallowed the tears in my throat. “I’m sure he’s alright.” He hugged me tightly. “Raymond, reassure her!” Raymond looked at me.

“I wouldn’t keep it from you,” he said gently. “My best guess is they’re in Rastan, honestly, with the news of the king’s health failing, Eric would want Karina and Kristoff’s engagement settled, and Katrin basically serves Karina the same way Lefty does, well did Eric.” I nodded.

“I’m sorry, I,” I swallowed, “I’ve been so worried and today Lisette was asking, and then Nika and, I can’t,” I swallowed, “I feel like I can’t breathe anymore.”

“I know,” he whispered, “it’s alright, it’s going to be alright.” I swallowed. “You should go home.” I frowned. “I mean it, you’ve been landlocked too long, I think you need the sea.”

“I can’t,” I hiccupped, “We have to go to Westran, for Brea and Harran’s wedding.” Evan frowned.

“I’m sure you can be excused from that,” Evan said. “If you need to be home.”

“I’m sure I can’t miss it,” I said, “it would be very insulting to the tribes, and the Witches in particular, and Nika’s whole family.” I wiped my nose. “I’ll be alright.” I kissed him on the cheek. “You ought to come tonight though, to see your cousin.”

“I seriously doubt Prior has any interest in speaking to me, but I’d like to see Nika, so I’ll come,” I kissed him on the cheek. Raymond looked at me. “He’ll come too.” I laughed.

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.

Brother

Athena

I sat on the bed as Tristan started unpacking his trunks. I frowned, seeing how he’d come back with four more than he’d brought.

“You travel like Alex now?” I said. He looked at me.

“You’d be amazed,” he said, “Alex is practically a minimalist compared to the people up there.” I nodded. “Most of these were gifts, Thena, from when we got engaged. Which is more about Grandfather than me.” I raised an eyebrow and he sat down. “You don’t approve?”

“It doesn’t matter, how I feel,” I said, “you seem changed, though, mostly for the better.” He looked at me. “Maybe I’m being unfair.”

“You aren’t,” he said. “I feel it too. I don’t know how I’ll fit anymore.” I looked at him. “And I have no idea what I’ll say to Lisette.”

“What did Marina say?” I asked. He frowned and stood up. “What did you do?”

“I didn’t do anything,” he said, “Lestoff showed up and she seemed rather annoyed.” I nodded.

“They’ve been arguing quite a bit,” I said. He frowned at me. “She talks to me, we’re friends now. I thought that was what you wanted.”

“I don’t want you telling me these things,” he fell back against the bed and I stood up. “Part of why it was so easy for me to let go was thinking that they didn’t,” he drifted off.

“Are you really just going to escort Carolina into that room without talking to Lisette first?” I raised my eyebrows. “You already didn’t say goodbye when you left. Just reappearing probably won’t help.” He glared at me. “And Marina is most certainly over you, though she was on her way even before you left. Lisette,” I stopped. “I don’t know that she ever will be Tristan.” He was just staring upward.

“Of course she won’t,” he said softly and I looked at him. “I won’t ever get over her either. I think that’s what you all don’t understand. How we love each other is permanent, Thena.” I frowned at him. “It isn’t that I don’t love Caro, that I don’t want to marry her, that I’m going to throw all of that away. It’s simply a fact of my life. I love Lisette and she loves me.”

“That sounds terrible,” I said.

“It really, really is.” He groaned. “I’ve been trying to tell you for a year how terrible it is, and you thought I was being ridiculous.” I laughed. “What about you?” I sighed and stretched. “Aaron said it was bad for a while.”

I sighed.

“It was,” I whispered, “it was dark, and he was wonderful about it.” Tristan smiled. “I never realized how much I relied on you, when it was bad. I’m sorry for that.”

“Athena,” he said, “it was never a burden. I was worried about you though. There were a lot of changes all at once, and that usually makes it worse.” I smiled. “Do you disapprove of the wardrobe?” He sighed.

“I don’t disapprove,” I said, “but I am going to tease you about it, forever. It used to be a struggle to get you into a clean shirt.” He laughed.

“Even when I wore some of it,” he said, “Caro didn’t like it. She likes the uniform.” I smiled.

“Oh, she and I are going to get along very well,” I said. “Come on, time to reintroduce you to the troops, Commander.” He groaned. “Unless you want to continue your hiatus. I’ll recommend whatever you want.” He followed me out the door.

“Do you know how weird it was to go up to the Fort in Dorin and see everyone and then go back to that damn house,” he said and shook his head. “I did manage to keep up some training, but I’m going to be rusty.”

“Hm,” I nodded. “Well, we’ll whip you into shape.” He laughed when we reached the hall and Marina was running in. “Oh, is it that late already?” I asked. She looked at us.

“Mercy said we have to pick her clothes at least,” she shrugged. “And then I have to change.” I sighed.

“Why don’t you get changed?” I said, “and go down into town and retrieve Tristan’s bride.” Tristan stared at me.

“I hate that idea,” Tristan said flatly. “You’ll terrify her.”

“I will not!” Marina said. “People very much enjoy me.” I giggled. “And then you’ll introduce her to Lisette.”

“Yes,” Tristan said, “that is the point of this whole evening.”

“No,” I said, “not the presentation. Take her to go see her. You’re worried Marina will terrify her. Lisette in full Sword of The Goddess, Protector of the Realm mode is the scariest thing in the world.” He frowned.

“I think she’s right,” Marina said and kissed Tristan on the cheek. “What a wonderful idea, Thena.” She bounced away. I grinned at Tristan.

“I have officially decided I do not like you two as allies.” He grumbled. I giggled.

“Come on,” I said, “we have work to do.” I pulled him outside.