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.

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.”

Without You

The council was arguing about a seating arrangement for the fifth coronation ball. (Five! There are going to be balls five nights in a row after I’m crowned. We’ve had feasting and dancing almost every night since we got to Dovetail and I’m exhausted just thinking of it.) I’m distracted, earlier today we received word that King Daniel and Queen Elana were declining their invitation, as was Crown Prince Ranier of Rastan. (Ranier has been his father’s regent for the past three years, the King is quite old and ill.) I don’t know whether to be relieved or worried.

The border tribes and their leaders arrived yesterday. I’m looking forward to that feast. Prince Harran, the one closest my age visited us at Pantona once. We had a drinking contest and I beat him. Caleb and Olivia very much disapproved.

“Does Your Majesty have an opinion?” Duchess Norvine asked. I looked at her.

“No,” I said, “whatever you all think is best.” I walked outside to the balcony. I looked out over the courtyard. Marina had asked to be excused from council, I’d assumed to study, but I saw her walking hand in hand with William and smiled. I was glad for them.

“Your Majesty?” Tristan said. “Did you want to dismiss them?” I sighed. I nodded. He went back in and I suppose relayed the message, then he returned. “Is there anything you need?”

“I need you to stop acting like a toy soldier,” I snapped at him. He frowned. “You promised you know, and you’re breaking it.”

“That isn’t fair,” he said softly. “You’re the one who pointed out we needed to keep our distance,” I nodded. “I did promise to tell you the truth. So what truth telling do you need today?”

“I’m not talking about,” I sighed, “you said you’d stand by me.” He looked at me. “Tristan, please.”

“Lisette,” he whispered, I stepped towards him and we kissed. It felt good to be in his arms again.

“I’ve missed you,” I said. He smiled.

“I’ve missed you too,” he said. “But what’s the point?” I looked at him.

“I’ll figure it out, I will,” I whispered, “I just, need time.” He nodded.

“I was trying to give you time,” he said softly. I nodded. “Are you ready for tomorrow?” I laughed.

“Not remotely,” I said. He nodded and kissed me again. “I’ve been talking to Brayton.” He pulled back.

“You’ve what?” He said. “Lisette have you lost your mind?”

“No,” I said softly. “Listen, I needed to, I need to, there’s something he has to teach me.” He frowned. “I’m being careful.”

“If you say so,” he muttered, “I don’t like it.”

“It isn’t up to you,” I said. I looked back at the now empty council chamber. “I have to go.” He nodded. I walked out through the palace, and to the room where the crown was waiting. I took a deep breath and stared at it.

“Well, it’s nice isn’t it?” I jumped and turned around seeing the Goddess next to me. “My brother is so very showy.”

“I like it.” I nodded. She laughed. “Is there something you need, My Lady?” She reached out and stroked my face.

“No,” she said softly, “not in particular, I suppose I just wanted to see you.” I smiled. “I hope you don’t delay much longer my dear.” Then she was gone.

Well, what precisely am I supposed to do with that?

The Chosen

I woke early one morning and made my way to the dungeon. The guards looked concerned but they didn’t stop me.

I guess no one will ever stop me again. How odd. I walked up to Brayton’s cell. His hair had grown out a little and there were bags under his eyes.

I’m glad he was suffering though it still didn’t feel like quite enough.

“Your highness,” he smirked at me, “what have I done to deserve such an honor?”

“When you spoke to me in my mind the night you were captured,” I said softly. “You said you could teach me.” He smiled.

“My my,” he said, “what would Dear Caleb say?” I looked away. “Why me?”

“You’re chosen,” I said softly. “I don’t have anyone else who is.” He laughed.

“Thomas Martin is,” he said. I frowned. “Or he was, I suppose, Cornan isn’t terribly tolerant of failure. I’ve wondered who he’d choose next. Your Tristan is a worthy candidate, inflexible, powerful.”

“Stop it,” I snapped, “you’ll make me regret  this.” He smiled.

“Goddess,” he sighed, and leaned back against the wall, “you sound like your father. I look at your face and see my Marie, but then,” he frowned seeing the fury in my face I suppose.

“If you loved her,” I said, “why did you kill her?” He shook his head.

“You’re so young, Cousin,” he whispered, “you’ve never lost love, never seen it grow or change, or gods forbid curdle.” I thought of Tristan, how he couldn’t meet my eyes anymore, how he spoke through clenched teeth. “Marie’s death was avoidable, she knew it. I asked her to stand with me, she chose otherwise.” I swallowed.

“And Marina?” I asked. He smirked.

“Mm,” he exhaled, “Marina is mine. In ways she doesn’t even know, we’re bound. I nourished her power, saw it honed and trained. I know her, and she me, and this scares you I think.” I swallowed. “Fear isn’t natural to you.”

“No,” I said softly. “But you’re insane, so there’s that.” He laughed.

“Not insane, Your Highness, not that,” he sighed. “I wish sometimes, it might make the part I have to play easier.” I frowned. “That can be our first lesson I think, the gods choose us to play parts. A King, or queen in your case, a priest, a devil, a champion.” I frowned. “A sword. The wheel turns, Annalise, there’s no stopping it.”

“You stopped it,” I said.

“I cut a thread,” he sighed, “so we landed on another. We’re bound to the wheel and to fate.”

“I had a vision that you fell,” I said. He smiled.

“A false vision,” he said, “I didn’t fall. Amina requires me, so I cannot.” I looked at him. “Are these chats going to become regular, Annalise?”

“I don’t know,” I said. He nodded.

“What about Lady Marina?” He asked. I frowned.

“No,” I whispered, “no you won’t see her.” I swept out of the room and back up to the sunlight. Being around him sometimes makes me feel like the sun is gone forever.

“Lisette!” I heard a voice calling my name. I turned at the sound. It wasn’t Aaron or Athena so hearing the name shocked me and then I smiled seeing William walk towards me. “I mean, Your Highness!” He bowed. I laughed and hugged him.

“You came,” I said, “I’m so glad.”

“I told you I would,” he pointed out as we walked towards the palace. “Besides, General Martin sent out recruiters. I’ve been recruited.” I grinned at him.

“Well then,” I said, “you’re going to join the guard? We could find other work for you.” He shook his head.

“I think the guard is best.” He said. Aaron walked up to us from the hallway.

“Then you’ll have to talk to Tristan,” I said. William’s face fell. “Aaron, have you seen William?”

“I knew he was coming,” Aaron nodded, shaking his hand. “How’s home?”

“In deep mourning,” William said, “I’m sorry, Aaron, really.” Aaron nodded. “I have a note for you.” He reached in a pocket. Aaron frowned looking at it. “She insisted, I tried to explain.”

“Of course,” Aaron sighed. “I’ll write her back for all the good it will do. Your highness,” he poked my arm. “Should I be presenting William here to Tristan? I think that’s part of my job as his provenance leader.”

“It is,” I smiled, and kissed William on the cheek. “I’m glad you’re here.”

Duchess Norvine

I awoke a few days later, happily in my comfortable green and blue hued bedchamber in my apartment. The Grand Apartment. The bed alone was almost the size of my chamber in Pantona, and that wasn’t a small room. I stretched and rolled over.

It still felt strange, waking in the morning without Tristan there. Since we’d arrived he’d been quiet and withdrawn. Athena tried to make up for it by constantly chatting, but it doesn’t work. I miss him, I want him and I know I can’t have him anymore. They all tried to warn me. I sighed and pulled on a dressing gown and walked out into the parlor. Athena was already there of course.

I’m convinced that she doesn’t sleep at all.

“Good morning,” she said and poured me a cup of coffee.

“Morning,” I grumbled.

“Duchess Norvine came last night,” Athena smiled, “you’ll like her, I think, very no nonsense.”

“An heir?” I asked. I’d spent the past three nights smiling, nodding and pretending to laugh at the jokes of Provenance Heirs. They’re nice men and boys for the most part, but not what I want, and they’re all trying far too hard to ingratiate themselves.

“No, thank Cornan,” Athena sighed. “Her heir is her daughter, who is married and pregnant, you’re safe. No one’s going to betroth you to an unborn baby.” I smiled and sipped on the coffee. “At least I hope not, the Rastani might try, but they have ten others to throw at you first.”

“Yes, I got the letter,” I groaned and stretched. “Anything from Phania, yet?” She pressed her lips into her mouth.

“You have to stop asking at council,” she said, “the others,” the Provenance leaders other than Aaron and Uncle Les, that’s who she means by that, “are worried. I don’t think they understand.”

“Why should they, I barely do?” I snapped. “I’m sorry, I’m cranky.” She shrugged. “Have you seen Marina?”

“Can I help you?” Marina said stepping in. She was still wearing the nursing uniform she’d grown used to in camp. It suited her, she seemed more like the sisters at the temple of Rana than a great lady.

“I need help getting dressed,” I wrinkled my nose. She laughed and nodded following me back into my bedroom. “I feel like an infant.”

“I had a maid or one of the sisters dress me every day of my life before we left the capital,” she said, pulling my night gown over my head and a petite coat over that. “It was unusual even for my friends. We know why now.” I nodded. How Marina turned out as sweet and competent as she did when she was being groomed and trained to be Brayton’s wife amazes me. “Duchess Norvine today isn’t it?” I nodded. “This will work.” She pulled a green dress out of the wardrobe and tightened the corset. I’m always in green these days. I wonder what The Goddess thinks about it. “All done.”

“A crown, today, do you think?” I frowned.

“Just the circlet,” she smiled. “Anya Norvine isn’t fussy. She’s my cousin too, on my mother’s side.” I looked back at her over my shoulder. “I don’t know her well. She hated Brayton, so she wasn’t here much.”

“He allowed her to come and go?” I asked. She nodded.

“Papa was the only Provenance leader who wasn’t free, now that I think about it,” she said. “Caleb came and went. And Warren Corsar, and Duchess Norvine.” I nodded.

“Come with me,” I said, “to greet her.”

“I should change,” she muttered. I shook my head.

“Like you said,” I kissed her on the cheek, “not fussy.” She laughed and we walked to the throne room. A few moments later a woman, tall and proud looking woman in her mid fifties walked in.

“Your highness,” She said and dipped into a low curtsey.

“Duchess Norvine,” I said and extended my hand. She took it and kissed it. “Thank you, for returning. I imagine the northern coast is chaotic, with the change.”

“Lucky for you Carland Dumanis is fond of his grandchildren and they are loyal to you,” she said. “Otherwise, I’d be asking you to build a navy immediately.” I grinned.

“Yes, the twins are useful,” I laughed. “You know, Lady Marina, of course.”

“Of course,” she said and nodded to Marina, “I’m glad to see you free child.”

“I’m glad to be free, Lady Anya,” Marina said.

“We’re three women who rule in this land,” I said. The Duchess nodded. “We’re not unheard of, but still not common. I’m happy you’ve made your daughter your heir.”

“Your father made it the law,” she said, “although I’d have done it anyway. Leisle’s a smart girl, she married a fool, but it can’t be helped. Brayton narrowed her options.”

“I want to invite you to join my council,” I said. She smiled. “I understand if you refuse, if you’d rather return to Norvine, but I’m at a loss. Corsar is a good man but we don’t get on, and Marina and Count Aaron are as inexperienced as I.” She nodded.

“Youth is good for a country,” she said, “but I accept gratefully. I had great respect for Count Caleb, despite not knowing how much he did for all of us.” I looked at her. “I’d have helped, if they’d trusted me.”

“I expect they thought you had enough on your plate,” Marina said. The Duchess smiled. “But I will make Papa apologize. I made him apologize to me for not telling that she was alive.” The older woman laughed.

“Ah, Lady Marina,” she shook her head. “Your Papa knew his business. You were as skittish as a black cat in the palace anyway, if you’d held that big a secret you’d have jumped through the roof anytime a person said hello.” I laughed aloud at that.

“Truly, I thought Lady Athena was exaggerating.” I shook my head, “Marina I can’t imagine you so scared.” Marina blushed.

“Still, they were quite wrong about many things,” she shook her head. “Thank you, Duchess for accepting. We will need your wisdom.”

“Goddess hold you both,” she said. taking one each of our hands in both hers. I smiled, feeling safer already.

In The Palace

I was exhausted. The ride back to the city, the decision to imprison Brayton instead of execute him, and I still feel as though someone punched a hole in my chest and ripped my heart out over Caleb.

I want to go to bed, but as Olivia pointed out we even have to argue and decide over where that would be.

“Where do you all sleep?” I asked. She smiled.

“At Bano House,” she explained. I wrinkled me forehead. “The house my father left me, Lisette. Caleb and I never stayed in the palace, at least not once my father died.”

“Oh,” I sighed, “I can’t stay there?”

“No,” she said, “I suppose until it’s sorted our where in the palace you’ll live you could stay with your uncle and cousin.”

“I don’t want to impose on them,” I muttered, “where did my parents stay?”

“The reigning king stays in The Grand Apartment,” Athena chimed in helpfully, “but you’re not a king, so there’s the princess tower.”

“But she’ll only be Princess for a month or so longer,” Aaron said, “why bother moving into the tower only to move out again?”

“Did Brayton take the Grand Apartment?” I asked. Athena shook her head.

“No, like wearing the crown or sitting on the throne,” she said, “he knew he didn’t have a right to it.” I nodded.

“But I do,” I said simply, “I’ll go there.”

“One down,” Aaron smiled at me, and draped his arm over my shoulder, “something like a million to go.” I punched him in the side. “Very dignified your highness.”

“Shut up,” I said, “Have you seen Marina? This sort of thing is her job, isn’t it?”

“Officially?” Olivia asked. I shrugged. “If you’d like it to be. She’s a good choice for a Lady In Waiting. However, I think she’s gone to lie down.” I sighed.

“Of course,” I muttered, “I’d like to. But I suppose it will have to wait.” We walked into the throne room. It still felt eerie and haunted. Dark, but wrongly so. “Olivia,” I turned to her. “Were those tapestry always here?” She grinned.

“No,” she whispered. She gestured to a few guards, “please pull them back.” They nodded and did so, revealing large windows, which were murky but still shone light in. “Your father liked them too.”

“It’s much better,” I said and settled on the throne. It was too high, my feet barely touched the ground. “I suppose I should see them now?”

“If you like,” Athena shrugged, “I’d make them all sweat a few days if I were you.” I glanced at Tristan, who’d been so quiet, even for him.

“That would be cruel,” he said, “you’re going to pardon them, they should know.” I frowned, I wondered if he was talking about himself.

“Fine,” I sighed. Slowly a group of courtiers filed in. Older mostly, some even older than Olivia and Martin, who stood behind me. Each one of them stepped forward and bowed, introducing themselves, I nodded, assured them that they would not be prosecuted but were also free to come and go as they liked. I wondered how many had been compelled to stay like my Uncle and Marina had been. After it was through, Olivia whispered to me that my bed was ready.

“Alright,” I said, I stood up and walked out. Following Olivia so that I learned where I was going, Athena was chatting to me.

“Your highness,” A girl stepped in front of us. I heard Athena sighed loudly. She was pretty enough. Certainly fashionable, her light hair wrapped around her head like a crown. “My name is Mercy Graves, and my father, he,” she sighed, “he served Brayton, only, he didn’t know, so he didn’t come today.”

“Didn’t you hear her highness, Mercy,” Athena said through clenched teeth, Elodie glanced over from a corner, “every one is pardoned. Your father’s absence won’t change that.”

“Yes, but,” she stuttered, “you see, I don’t know if he’ll believe me, so perhaps, in writing?” I sighed.

“I will not be executing your father, Mistress Graves,” I said, “Or is it Lady Mercy?”

“Mistress,” she said softly. I nodded. “I’m a friend of Lady Marina’s,” Elodie walked over. “Is she alright?”

“Lady Marina is fine, Mistress,” Elodie said. Mercy looked at her and nodded. “And her highness was hoping for a nap, I believe?” I nodded, grateful to her. Once I got to the bed, I didn’t even bother to undress, I collapsed onto the bed and fell asleep.

“So he fell then?” the voice of a man, deep and full, filled a small room, lit with blue lit candles, he came into view from a doorway. He was dark, his hair long and pulled back. A woman was sitting on a stone floor, dressed in blue, breathing deeply.

“Alive still,” she said, “but fallen. Shall I write to my cousin? Welcome her back to the world?”

“Not yet,” he said, “though it’s a good development. Where is our brothers?” She smiled, a smile I knew well, it looked like mine and she stood up.

“North still, I think,” she said. “I could reach out to Raymond. Or would you rather simply write to Eric?” He sighed.

“I don’t know,” he said, “Lestat was a fool, we’d have had her by now.” She lit a long branch from a candle.

“The Goddess moves in her own time, my love,” she said. “Write to your brother, tell him to sail to Dovetail with as much haste as possible, without insulting Rainier if it pleases him, I don’t want to hurt Karina betrothal with rush.” He nodded and I woke with a start. I didn’t know who they were, the dream didn’t reveal them. But their use of “cousin” and “brother,” revealed them.

The King and Queen of Phania had plans for me.

The Question

I lay that night asleep in my tent, staring at the canopy. Tristan had moved his things, and I couldn’t blame him. I’m not an expert or anything, but I’m guessing that telling a boy you’ve been thinking about another boy who you’ve never even met, right after he has sex with you isn’t a wonderful way to keep him with you.

I closed my eyes and took a deep breath.

You’re curious I heard his voice echoing. I know it.

“This isn’t real,” I murmered. It was one of his illusions.

I can show you truth, Annalise, he said, You mourn him, which I suppose is natural, but he hid it from you.

I kicked the covers off and threw open my wardrobe. If he wanted to show me truth, he could show me truth, but I wasn’t going to let him have it on his terms. I grabbed the dress uniform that Athena and I had been tailoring for most of the summer and pulled it on.

The fit was awkward still, and when I glanced in the mirror I didn’t recognize myself, but I swallowed and held my breath for a moment.

“Why, Caleb?” I whispered. I wasn’t angry with him, I couldn’t be, anymore. He’d had his reasons for everything, I trusted that. I just wished I could ask him what to do now. But that was impossible and I knew who could help me. I walked quickly to Marina’s tent. She stirred and blinked at me.

“What are you doing here?” I looked at her. Even half asleep and exhausted she looked like an illustration in a fairy tale book. How was that fair? But maybe it was what I needed.

“Marina,” I said, softly, “get up! Get dressed!” I began rifling through her wardrobe mumbling to myself.  As we approached the tent I looked at Marina. She didn’t look afraid, but I knew she was. The whole encounter was frustrating, he didn’t answer questions, but I knew he wouldn’t.

And when Marina looking him in the eye and said, “You will die,” I was frightened, of her, of her certainty. And I knew that in the morning she would hate me. She stormed out and I looked at him.

“You can ask it of me cousin, I am Chosen too,” he said. I swallowed. “It is not an easy path.”

“You made it harder,” I said simply and left him behind. Marina stood leaning against a tree, she was shaking. I held her until she stopped and then made my way back to the tent. Tristan had decided to come back, but he was asleep. I curled up next to him.

“You were spotted,” he muttered, “couldn’t sleep.”

“No,” I whispered. He nodded and began to play with my hair. “Tristan,” I whispered.

“Mm,” he mumbled sleepily.

“I’m not going to execute him,” I whispered. He started then. “I can’t, I need him, and politically…”

“After all of this?” He said. I nodded. “What will you tell Marina?”

“I don’t know,” I sighed. “I think she’ll understand though.” He kissed me. “Do you?”

“You need to understand being Chosen, he is,” he whispered. I nodded. “And sparing him will cause a lot of the nobility, the ones that stayed at his side to exhale.” I nodded. “It’s a good plan but doesn’t sound like you.”

“It’s Caleb’s plan,” I whispered, “but I wish I could talk about it with him.” I realized I’d be saying that a lot, and that was the most terrifying thing. Knowing that I was planning to rely on him completely, that he’d lied and kept secrets from me, and that he was gone. But I fell asleep to the rhytmic sounds of Tristan’s breathing.

It was a problem for another day.

Vision In Smoke

The palace was eerie, quiet, looming above me, just as it always had in my nightmares. Tristan and Athena flanked me, I didn’t know where Caleb and Aaron and Martin were, fighting somewhere else on the grounds probably.

I wiped my face and swallowed.

“Lisette,” Tristan said softly, “we’re with you.” I looked at him and smiled softly and nodded. Athena reassured me with a nod, and the drew her sword.

“Thank you both,” I said softly, “but no, this I have to do alone.” Athena came and hugged me tightly. “Find Aaron, he’ll need you.” I don’t know how I knew, but I did, then, suddenly. But I couldn’t let my heart break yet. She ran off and Tristan smiled at me and I kissed him. I knew what was waiting for me on the other side.

“I love you,” he said.

“I know,” I whispered. We kissed again and I entered the doors, as I’d done countless times in my dreams, I suddenly felt very alone and wished more than every that Marina was with. I was trying not to resent her fear of coming here, to think of her as a coward. But how could she not face it?

I glanced around, it was dark, I could barely see, so I conjured a small ball of light. That was when I heart the laugh.

“Welcome home cousin,” Brayton’s voice, echoed through the hall. “I had expected a Queen in all her glory, what a pity you’re alone.”

“Where are you?” I called out, and he laughed again. The room filled with smoke and I wanted to scream, maybe I did, I don’t know. I thought of Marina’s vision of the city in flames.

“Tell me Lisette,” his voice was in my mind, I was terrified. And how did he know that name? “Do you know what thread we’ve landed on?” A vision began to form around me out of the smoke.

I saw a man, handsome, tall, with red hair and light skin, and grey eyes like mine, my father, charging at a dark haired man holding a woman, dark skinned, small and beautiful, as she crumpled to the ground. It was Brayton, and my mother. I turned quickly and saw Olivia, screaming, “Anton no!” as Brayton’s sword slashed through my father.

“I should have thought you’d be in Pantona,” his voice filled my mind again. “Olivia was always so besotted with your dear father, but Caleb resented it so I thought he’d never shelter you.” I swallowed. He was wrong about so much.

Another vision formed of a ten year old girl, serious and quiet in a garden. I recognized her immediately. Marina. She was planting flowers, praying over them and they blossomed immediately.

“You see?” His voice said in awe. “She has such great power. Greater than yours.” I swallowed and found my voice.

“Enough!” I shouted and scattered the smoke, I realized then that it was out of his control and something else took hold of it. It formed another image, more immediate, in front of me.

It was a boy, near my age perhaps, dark skinned and haired, with a silver crown on his head. I exhaled.

“Eric,” I whispered, as if I knew him, and yet I knew we’d never met.

“Annalise,” he said softly and extended his hand, I extended mine and our fingers touched. It was the most natural feeling in the world. “I’m on my way,” he smirked, as if it were a joke between us, one we would both learn soon, “wait for me?”

“Of course,” I smiled back, “forever.” He nodded and the smoke dissolved to mist and then cleared. The hall was just a hall now, the spell, whatever it had been, was broken.

Eric. I would have to wait to be amazed at so clear a vision of the future. Or the present? I don’t know what that was. I made my way to the throne room.

“Well, you made it through the smoke,” he was sitting in the throne.  My throne.  My father’s throne. “I’m impressed. I would have thought the memory of Marina would break you.”

“Marina doesn’t want the throne,” I said softly, “and you’ll never touch her.” He smiled.

“So you say,” he smiled and stood up, I drew my sword. “You don’t need that cousin, though it’s nice to see it again. Who had it? Martin or Caleb? Martin probably, Anton never trusted Caleb. I did, which was foolish I suppose.” I lowered the sword. “Better.”

“I don’t understand,” I shook my head. He smiled. His smile scared me.

“No,” he said, “I could help you to though.” I grinned now. Perhaps he could. I raised the sword again and hit him over the head, knocking him out. I grabbed the rope from around my waist and tied his hands and legs. The doors swung open and Athena, Tristan and Aaron ran in.

“Dead?” Athena asked. I shook my head.

“No,” I whispered, “You’re all alright?” They nodded, but I saw that Tristan was bleeding.

“We are,” Aaron said softly, “but Lisette, Father,” he didn’t say more.

“We’ll go back,” I said. My heart caught in my throat. Goddess, not Caleb, I needed him. We walked back to camp and I saw Tristan limping as we got closer. “Go on ahead,” I said to the others. They nodded and went. “Tristan,” I said and took his hands.

“Why didn’t you kill him?” He asked. I shook my head. “Lisette what happened?”

“I can’t talk to you about it,” I said softly, “I’m sorry, I,” he nodded and kissed me. “I love you,” I whispered.

“I love you,” he said, “everything is about to change.”

“This won’t,” I said, I was lying, he knew it. “I promise, it won’t, it can’t.” He nodded and Marina walked up. I looked at her.

“Lisette, I’m sorry, Count Caleb,” she looked so pale. So drained.

“Alright,” I said quietly, “we won, I’ll be queen. That will cheer him.” Tristan squeezed my hands.

“Yes, love,” he said. Marina met his eyes. “I’m alright Marina.”

“He isn’t,” I insisisted. “You can help him?” She nodded and I left, hurrying to Caleb’s tent, praying to the god and goddesses and my father and his that he would be alive long enough that I could say goodbye.