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.

Testing

Marina

It was dusk the next day, when I was sitting with Nika, Annalise and Evan in Raymond’s lab, to test a shadow against his new technique. Nika unwound her scarf a little and pressed her hands together.

“Are you two ready?” She looked at me. We nodded. If she lost control of the shadow, we’d have to harness it. Annalise picked up the block of obsidian and filled it with light and Nika’s pulled her hands apart and a shrieking shadow appeared. I flinched and Evan put his arm around me.

I’m grateful for him and his steady presence right now. I’ve never gotten used to shadows. Every single time we face one, I shudder, and right now hearing it’s voice hissing in my mind, it’s taking all my strength to not scream.

He’s coming for you, My Lady. His patience wears thin. I look forward to watching him bind you.

Annalise carefully pressed the brick into the shadow and it shrieked and broke up, Nika collapsed and looked pale, I ran to her and cupped her face.

“What did it say, my love?” I whispered. She looked at her.

“I betrayed her, abandoned them,” she sniffed. “The Dark Lady will make me pay for my arrogance.” I pressed my forehead to hers. “You?”

“He’s coming for me,” I whispered, “the shadows long for my binding.” She nodded and I kissed her. “You betrayed no one.”

“I would die before I let him take you,” she whispered. I nodded. I loved her so much. I would have died without her these past few years, I’m sure of it.

“Glad you’re both alright,” I turned hearing the singsong laugh in Annalise’s voice and then saw the beam of pride on Raymond’s face, “but more importantly, it worked!”

“It did,” Nika said, standing up. “It didn’t take too much out of you?” Annalise shook her head. “That’s good. When Athena gets here we should discuss weapon design.”

“Absolutely,” Raymond said. “But I think you two need to go lie down.” I nodded.

“Come on,” Evan said putting his hand gently on my shoulder. “I don’t think you should try to get back to the palace.” We walked carefully back to their little house and settled on a bed in their spare room.

I slept for a while in Nika’s arms, and found myself struck into a Dream. I shouldn’t have been surprised after dealing with magic all evening, but it’s still always jarring.

I was running through the black marble palace of Amina. I knew it as well as Dovetail now. I heard the laugh, Brayton’s cold, detached laugh.

Then I found a mirror and saw myself, dressed in white and vieled, a bride. I closed my eyes and opened them to Brayton behind me, his hands around my waist.

“Oh sweet one,” he whispered in my ear, “you’ll be mine so soon.” I woke with a start, and looked at Nika, glad I hadn’t woken her. I stood up and walked out into another room, where Evan was sitting with a book, and he smiled at me.

“A Dream?” He asked closing it. I nodded. “I felt the table rattle. I assumed it was one of you.” I laughed and sat down.

“It might be all of us,” I admitted, he poured me a glass of the wine he was drinking. “Thank you,” he looked at me.

“I’m worried about him,” he said softly. I nodded and took his hand. “Rina, I mean it. Not hearing from Karina or Lefty, his sister just repeating herself.”

“I know,” I said quietly, “but he’s working so hard, he’ll take vow soon.” Evan laughed.

“Yes, any day now,” he shook his head. “My father sent instructions for my council voting, I’m supposed to fight against Calla.” I bit my bottom lip.

“Does he have an alternative?” I asked. He sighed and pointed to himself. “Goddess.”

“Well, I’m also supposed to marry you, obviously, solidifying both of our claims,” he laughed darkly. “Are you interested? I don’t know how Raymond and Nika would feel, but I imagine the wedding itself would be fun.” I laughed and sipped my wine.

“Oh it would be very grand,” I nodded. “Raymond would perform it, I assume.” Evan nodded.

“If not the Queen herself,” he laughed. I smiled. “Of course, I imagine you’d get halfway through your vows and Damian Lestoff would simply appear, powered by pure anger.” I smiled.

“He would not be thrilled,” I shrugged, “but he’d prefer you to others, at least he’d still feel he could be my lover then.” He laughed. “If your father’s whole plan hinges on our marriage, I’m even less worried than I was before.”

“Mm,” Evan smiled. “He is predictable, and underwhelming. I think Prior being made consort is his backup.” I snorted.

“It’s more likely than us marrying, but not by much,” I sighed. “How does Prior feel about it?” Evan sighed.

“My cousin adores Annalise,” Evan admitted, “but if he has any hopes for the future, he keeps them to himself.” I nodded. “I’m worried about Raymond.” I sighed.

“I know,” I said, “I am too. And he’s worried about me, and Nika’s worried about you, and it goes around and around.”

“The wheel turns,” Evan nodded. I smiled at him. “The Border and Westran will be interesting.” I grinned.

“They usually are,” I said.

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.

Proposal

After waking up and lining up our ducks. (I sent Marina and Aaron to greet them. They’re good at people and manners and I need to catch my breath.) Olivia was helping me dress. Marina had chosen the clothes, a green uniform dress and the crown of the goddess. I was supposed to look splendid and terrible. I mostly felt ridiculous.

He looks different than my visions, but I knew him immediately. And I felt at ease. Eric. Prince Eric, My Eric, I probably shouldn’t drop the title. But it was like everything felt easy, when he took my hand.

Marina is sitting studying in the parlor now. I walked out and sighed loudly and flopped on an armchair.

“Can I help you?” She asked not even looking up from her books.

“What time do I have to change tonight?” I asked.

“Around 7 I suppose,” she said. I frowned. “You could try taking a nap.” I wrinkled my nose. “Annalise, I can either keep working and unlock the battle magic secret or entertain you this afternoon.” I laughed. “Go bother Aaron, I’m sure he’s plenty bored too.” I stood up and kissed her on the cheek.

“I am sorry for bothering you,” I said and she swatted at me and giggled. She’s changed so much in the past few months, and it’s a good change. I walked out into the gardens, wondering who if anyone I’ll come upon. I want to spend more time with the courtiers, but I think they all think I’m odd.

“Lisette,” Prince Harran called to me from across the lawn, he was standing with Tristan. I wanted to be furious with him after this morning, but seeing him, “That is, Your Majesty. Did I tell you, Captain Dugarry about my great shame when I first met our queen.”

“My great triumph,” I said straightening my shoulders. Tristan raised his eyebrows. “Prince Harran came to Pantona, when I was fourteen, with some very potent whiskey.”

“Ah,” Tristan nodded, “And Queen Annalise, or Lady Lisette as she was then,” he looked at me, that melancholy way of his, “drank most of it.”

“Here was this little girl, charming of course, and very beautiful,” Harran said, “and she sat down with me in Pantona’s study as I opened the bottle and asked for some. And then, I think it may have been at the Viscount’s urging, we wound up in a contest, and I found myself unable to stand while Lisette continued to pour herself drinks.” I giggled.

“it was not ladylike, but I was proud of myself,” I said. “I’m glad you’ve come.”

“The Chieftans insisted, my brothers were put out,” he said. “They want to court you,” I laughed. “Harran’s already had his chance at Pantona! I said they can line up behind half the men in Cammadan and most in Rastan and Phania.” I smiled.

“It’s a lot to handle,” I said, seeing Tristan’s face darken. “Which is why familiar faces and old friends can be helpful.” He nodded and bowed. “You’re still angry.”

“I’m frustrated,” he said. “Harran’s right by the way and it’s been hell.” I took his hands and lead him away from the crowd. We kissed then. “Last night, I thought we could change all that.”

“I want to,” I said, “Tristan I do, really.”

“So marry me,” he spit out. I kissed him. “I’m serious.”

“I can’t,” I said, “you know why I can’t, we’ve talked about it!” He frowned.

“Because the court wouldn’t like me, and Rastan and Phania’s honor must be served,” he frowned. “You sent away all the Provenance heirs, except Aaron, obviously.” I sighed. “Lisette, don’t argue with me, just,” I closed my eyes.

“Tristan, I can’t marry you,” I said, “I thought I’d always made that clear,” I wanted to cry, I might have been crying, come to think of it. “I love you, only you but, I can’t,” he nodded.

“Fine,” he whispered and kissed me again and then walked away. I feel like my heart is torn in two. I ran inside and luckily Marina had left. I walked into my room flopped on the bed and kept crying. I didn’t hear the door open, but then I heard Athena’s voice as she sat down and stroked my hair.

“That idiotic boy,” she muttered, “I’d strangle him if I could bring myself to.” I sat up and looked at her. “Honestly, I know he’s my brother, but he doesn’t deserve you and you don’t deserve any of this.” I smiled.

“Did they send you to fetch me?” I said. “I have a lot to do, I know, but I just,” she shrugged.

“It’s alright, we’ve told everyone you’re worn out,” she shrugged. “I don’t think it’s untrue, but you still need to make an appearance tonight.” I wiped my eyes. “What do you think of him?” I looked at her.

“I don’t know yet,” I said softly. “I was so surprised this morning, I thought I had  more time.” She nodded. “Athena,” I whispered, “don’t tell anyone, about what Tristan asked. Not Aaron or Martin, please, I couldn’t take it.” She pressed her lips into her mouth.

“Alright,” she said. “What about Marina?” I sighed. Marina and I were at an understanding about Tristan finally, this morning not withstanding, but this was different.

“I’ll talk to Marina,” I said softly, “eventually.” She nodded.

Long Live Annalise of Cammadan

I’m crowned now and I know I should be greeting my guests, but all I can do is lay on my bed and breathe deeply. I want to scream. I want to laugh. I want to cry. But I just breathe. I’m still in the simple green uniform dress I wore for the ceremony though the more ornate ballgown is staring at me, hanging outside of my wardrobe.

I dressed myself this morning, for the first time since we got to Dovetail. I’m going to insist on it more I think. At least on more casual days, I don’t want to become spoiled or useless. An ornament. I’m not just a figurehead, I’m the sword of the goddess.

“Lisette,” Olivia said walking in, I sat up. “I thought I’d help you dress.”

“Marina?” I asked.

“She’s taking a nap,” she smiled and sat down and pulled a comb from her belt and began untangling my curls. “Well earned, I’d say.” I smiled.

“Mm,” I said, “Can you braid it?” Thinking of my hair.

“Not in elegant enough fashion,” she frowned at me. I sighed. “Perhaps we should bring someone over from Phania for your hair. Your mother had Sister Mara.” I looked at her. “I’m proud of you, love, really. You did so well today.”

“I wish Caleb was here,” I said. She nodded. “I suppose you have to back to Pantona soon.”

“Yes,” she said, “I might stay too,” I frowned at her. “Darling, it’s my home.”

“But Aaron and I will be here,” I said. She laughed. “And, well, what about Martin.”

“What about him?” She said. I shook my head.

“He can’t go to Pantona, I can’t spare him,” I said standing up, “and I don’t think it’s terribly fair of you to,” she shook her head.

“Thomas and I have no understanding,” she sighed, “beyond our grief and shared history I doubt we have much in common.” I grinned at her.

“Yes, and what is thirty years of shared history and grief, nothing at all,” I teased. She sighed.

“Impertinent girl,” she said, pulling the laces on the back of my dress.

“Can I be impertinent, now?” I said. She laughed. “I don’t think I can. Maybe to the gods.” She smiled and tightened my corset. I inhaled.

“Serves you right for teasing,” she said, I giggled as we continued dressing me. “Now, you’ll hate me for lecturing but you know that you have to circulate tonight.”

“I know,” I said softly. I exited my bedchamber where Athena and Aaron were waiting.

“Took you long enough,” Aaron said as we all stepped into the hallway I punched him in the arm. “Look at me, Lisette,” I did, “I love you, and I’m going to do everything I can, everything Father would have,” I stopped him and kissed him on the cheek.

“No tears tonight,” I said. He nodded.

“Captain,” he offered Athena his arm.

“Count,” She smiled taking it and they walked off, “See you on the other side, Your Majesty.” She turned around and winked. I sighed, realizing I was alone. I walked towards the ballroom and glanced up the large stairs. I smiled seeing Tristan walk down. He was in full dress uniform, it suited him, his face relaxed, which for him was still serious.

“I’m too late?” He said. I smiled and took his hands. “I wanted to escort you, Athena said you were still dressing.”

“No,” I said, “you can still escort me.” He smiled and we entered the ballroom. It was already loud and rowdy, which I was glad of. There was no fanfare, I’d asked not to have one. We made our way to the head table and ate. And danced, and drank.

“You’ve restored joy,” Duchess Norvine said to me at one point, “and life. I never thought I’d hear this sort of thing again.” I was glad to know people approved. I was worried it was too loose, to full of life, not respectful.

As the music and crowd died down, I saw Tristan leaning against a pillar, I walked over to him and smiled.

“Well hello,” he said. I kissed him. “Lisette, not here.”

“The come,” I said guiding him up to my room. He sighed and we kissed again. We started undressing.

“You’re sure,” he asked.

“Are you?” I returned. He laughed and we fell back onto the bed. It felt so natural, so right, to be lost in him again. When we finished I looked at him. “I suppose we should make plans.”

“Plans?” He said. I nodded. “Of what kind?”

“How you can be here,” I said, “at night.”

“To be fair, Lisette, that’s not terribly complicated,” he grinned. “I order the guard at your door to stand aside and they will. My people are well trained.” I laughed and straddled him. “But I suppose we should be more discreet.”

“Mm,” I nodded running my hand down between his legs, “perhaps a bit.” The door swung open and Marina was standing in front of us, in her nightgown and robe.

“I’m sorry,” She said, “I didn’t,” she met my eyes and started giggling. I exhaled and started to laugh myself as I rolled off Tristan. He was furious with us both as he dressed and quickly excused himself.

It was too funny, I assured Marina, but I stopped laughing when she told me why she’d come in.

He was here, I realized, we both knew what it meant.

Suddenly what the Goddess said to me rushed into my head, “I do wish you’d hurry up.”