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.

Council

Marina

Aaron is pacing nervously and I shook my head.

“You’re doing the thing,” I said. He frowned at me. “You’re doing the thing where you’re thinking as her overprotective brother rather than her advisor.” He rolled his eyes. “Aaron, she’ll be fine. This will all be fine.”

“I think you’re taking your soothing spiritual leader role a little too personally,” he said. I rolled my eyes at him. “If Eric decides to leave, it’s bad Rina.” I nodded.

“I know,” I said and straightened my skirt. “And I’ve been thinking about that, probably more than anyone.” He sighed and sat down next to me.

“Of course you have, I’m sorry,” he said. I looked down.

“I’d go with them,” I whispered. He stared at me. “Not permanently, but,” I exhaled, “I’d go to Tumona, go home.”

“This is your home,” he said, “and we need you here, Marina!” I exhaled.

“We need to keep King Daniel happy,” I said. He nodded. “Or at least, convinced we’re still serious about a real alliance.”

“Yes,” he said, his tone careful. I looked down.

“Well, Annalise isn’t the only one available for that sort of arrangement,” I said softly. He exhaled.

“Marina,” he whispered, “I can’t ask that of you,” I stood up and walked over to a small portrait of my aunt, it really was like looking in a mirror. “And I doubt Lefty and Eric,” I looked over my shoulder.

“They’ll play along,” I said softly, “they don’t want war anymore than we do.”

“So you go South,” he said. I nodded. “Athena and Annalise go west to hunt for the gods?” I nodded again. “And if they need you?” I sighed.

“I don’t know,” I said, “I do know we’ll get nowhere with the mandate while fighting off a Phanian invasion of Brightcoast.” He sighed. He kissed my forehead.

“We don’t deserve you,” he said, “you know that, hm?” I laughed and patted his hand carefully.

“I know,” I said softly. “I love you though, so that makes you worth it.” He laughed sadly. “So I hear you’re going to have a stepfather.” That lead to a bark of laughter.

“Athena is not pleased,” he said. “Meanwhile, I’m just glad my mother is happy.” I smiled.

“Athena is protective of her people,” I said, “that now includes your mother as well as The General, I can’t imagine it’s an easy equation for her.” He nodded. “I think it would be good for my father, to go back.”

“If you think so,” he nodded. “It always seemed to me he was happy to never go back.” I swallowed. “And if Eric doesn’t leave?”

“I might still go,” I said softly. “Damian wants me to see it,” I admitted, “and Pharras. I want to, too.” It was the first time I’d said it out loud. I did want to. I felt at peace here in Brightcoast, but I knew there could be no real peace until we free the gods, so I was building in restlessness. Or maybe it was real. Who could say?

Rana had been frustratingly quiet lately. Lisette said the same. Raymond too. Though he was more concerned with the whispers in his sleep from Amina. I couldn’t tell Aaron about that, though I desperately wanted to. It wasn’t my secret to confide.

“Ah,” Duchess Norvine walked in with the others trailing behind her, “Duchess Brightcoast, nice of you to join us for a change,” I blushed.

“I apologize for my absence,” I muttered taking my seat. “As it turns out the people my father had in charge were less than reliable.” She nodded. Harold Friers scowled at me. He’s less than thrilled with our treatment of his son, but it can’t be helped that he’s too young and too shy, and frankly, if the way his eyes follow Raymond are to be believed he’s probably even less interested than we are.

“Will Queen Annalise be joining us?” Friers said. Aaron looked at me.

“She was alerted to the meeting’s importance,” he said, “I’m sure she’s on her way.”

“The matter of her marriage needs to be settled,” Duchess Norvine said, “or at least addressed. If she’s set on the Phanian or he border tribes boy, that’s all well and good, but if she hasn’t someone needs to reach out to Rastan.” She glanced at me. “They can’t be ignored forever.”

“If this is literally another meeting where we discuss nothing but whether Annalise is going to get married soon,” Aaron groaned, “I’m leaving. Harvest is coming, I should be in Pantona supervising.”

He looked miserable I realized. He was listening to this group squabbling about Lisette’s love life, when all he wanted was to be home, doing the thing he was good at.

Lisette walked in then, looking regal and confident and took her place at the head of the table as everyone rose.

“I was told this was a very important meeting of this council,” she said, her eyes never leaving Aaron’s, I so often wondered what passed between them. “What could be so urgent?”

Duchess Norvine cleared her throat.

“My people managing in Dorin are confident that The Dumanis will be on your side given any need for naval intervention,” she said simply, “if that’s still something you want.” She nodded.

“It is,” she said. “For now, at least. In the future, however, I’d like the crown to be as independent of the guilds as possible.” She glanced at me and I nodded. “And as we’ll be intimately connected with Phania, I don’t see building and training our own navy as terribly difficult.”

“You’ve decided then,” Friers said. She looked at him.

“I haven’t decided anything,” she shrugged. “Lady Marina however,” I swallowed.

“I, well,” I stuttered as they all stared at me. I wanted to murder her. “Lieutenant Lestoff and I have discussed a few possibilities, of course, but, well,” I was flushed. She thought she was helping, that was the worst part.

“Let’s move on,” Aaron said, sending a sharp look around the table. “Before you came in I mentioned harvest, and from most of the midlands, wheat looks particularly strong this year.” Friers began talking about his orchards then and I zoned out. We provided fish, and it was going well for the summer, this was known. After we adjourned everyone left except the three of us. “What were you thinking?” He hissed at Lisette.

“What?” She said, “We’ve talked about it, and I thought you were settled,” she paused.

“She’s not settled,” Aaron snapped, “I thought we got through to you this morning, Lisette, nothing is settled until you are. Everything hinges on you. Marina’s future, Tristan’s life, Athena and my marriage,” I swallowed. I’d never seen him this angry. “I understand you hate it, but it’s what it is.” She stared at him.

“Marina will you excuse us?” Annalise said softly.

“No,” Aaron said, “forget it, Marina stay, I’ll excuse myself.” He gathered his things and stopped in the doorway. “That is with your permission?” He was so sarcastic the room got colder. She nodded tersely.

“He’s not wrong,” I said softly, “we just came up with an elaborate feint to keep the Phanians at bay if Eric decides he’s had enough.” She looked at me. “And you may have just destroyed any chance of it working.” She closed her eyes and nodded. “He’s never asked me,” I whispered. “Not once, because he knows I can’t say yes, and I don’t think his pride could take it.”

“I’m sorry,” she said softly. I nodded. “I’m going to talk to Eric.” I nodded.

“You do that,” I said and walked out of the room. I found my way to the small apartment that Papa and I had here. We didn’t use it much, Papa really never. Damian was waiting for me, balancing a pen between his knuckles, I sat down next to him and put my head on his shoulder.

“Good morning to you too,” he smiled. “It went that well, hm?” I looked at him.

“Is Eric angry?” I said softly. “I hate using you as a go between, but, well,” I sighed. He nodded.

“Eric is, at the moment,” he snickered, “indisposed. When I got to our rooms last night, he was falling down drunk, and he’s unable to do much but vomit.” I laughed and kissed him gently. “What’s Annalise thinking?”

“I barely got to speak to her,” I said, “But I think she wants you to train any navy we might build.” He leaned back and looked at me.

“Hm,” he nodded. “That’s interesting.” I laughed and kissed him again. “Are you still upset with me?”

“I was never very upset with you,” I said softly. He smiled. “I’m glad you introduced me to them, really, Damian, I want to be a part of your life.” He cupped my face.

“You are my life, now,” he said softly, “I hope you know that.” I curled into him. He kissed my hair.

“If you leave, I’m going with you,” I said. “I can’t bear the idea of being without you.” I felt him tense around me.

“We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it, love,” he whispered. “But I’m glad to hear it. I don’t want to be without you either.”