Rising Darkness

“I’m stunned,” Aaron said that evening, as he fastened a necklace on me. I shook my head. “Flabbergasted in fact,” he kissed my neck softly. I rolled my eyes. “It’s almost like no one saw this coming, oh wait, hmm,” I elbowed him lightly in the ribs and he laughed. “You’re upset?”

“A little,” I admitted. “It’s complicated.” He shook his head. “Aren’t you?”

“Not really,” he said, “it could be worse, and she’s happy. I like Tom.” He chewed the inside of his cheek. “I can be angry if you want me to be. How dare she dishonor my father, and all that noise.” I laughed and shook my head.

“No,” I sighed, “you’re right, I just,” I shrugged. He nodded. “I think Harran is going to get serious, he seemed annoyed this afternoon.” Aaron smirked as we started walking down to dinner. “What?”

“You like him too much,” he said. “You’re not seeing the situation clearly.” I sighed. “Westran is important, but we can’t alienate Phania.” I shook my head.

“Whatever you say,” I shrugged. We made it through dinner without arguing, and Martin kept glancing at me. I was avoiding his eyes, because I just wasn’t ready. Aaron was chatting with a few of the other leaders and Prince Eric was looking miserable.

I swallowed, I’d seen Annalise be subtle, if clumsy before. She and Tristan weren’t a secret, by any means, but they were discreet. She was not being subtle tonight. I glanced at Aaron and saw the frown and worry on his face.

This was what he meant that I liked Harran too much. I was thinking of my friends, not of the very careful rope she had to walk right now. I thought of the map that Martin had been looking at, the new Phanian Navy, ready to deploy at any moment. And what I was looking at now was the enacting of a fourteen year old girl’s fantasy.

A young girl, might be fickle. I hated when they were right. I hated it so much.

I wanted Tristan. I missed him so much. I wanted my brother to listen to me scream and then laugh at me for it and hug me. After dinner I found my out to the beach and paused seeing Lefty walking back up from his night out with Marina.

“Early for you,” I said, “you make quick work.” He sighed and sat down next to me.

“I messed up tonight,” he said. I nodded. “What are you doing out here, shouldn’t you be glaring at the new guards and then giggling in Aaron’s ear.” I looked at him.

“I wish I disliked you more,” I narrowed my eyes at him. He laughed. “I need you to tell me the truth, Lefty. If she sends him away,” he looked at me.

“The ships will come,” he said. “You know it, Athena.” I nodded and hugged my knees. “Whether they’d attack or just come intimidate, I can’t say. But they’ll come.” I closed my eyes. “You don’t have a navy.”

“We don’t,” I said, “my grandfather does.” He laughed darkly. “She’s with Harran tonight. She wasn’t flirting, I’ve seen that,” he exhaled. “You know him best, could he forgive it?”

“Eric doesn’t have a temper,” he explained, “he lets things sit, and simmer, he doesn’t act until he can’t help it.” I nodded. “I had a feeling that might hurt him with her.” I sighed. “I don’t know if he could forgive it, but he won’t act rashly. He’ll make sure that she’s as safe as she can be before he walks away.” I nodded. “He loves her, though, which is new. That’s never been the case before.”

“How did you mess up tonight?” I said. “I was under the impression that Rina thought you hung the moon?” He smiled.

“Moon hanging aside,” he smiled, “she needed some space tonight. I can’t lose her.” I looked at him.

“Did you really come here hoping to bed me?” I asked.

“I most certainly did,” he grinned. “We spent a good deal of time in Dorin, stories about you spread and I was intrigued. I’d seen your portrait at your grandfather’s so I knew you were beautiful,” he sighed. “Admit it, if you weren’t with Aaron we’d have had fun.” I laughed.

“If you hadn’t still been entranced by Marina’s doe eyes, that is,” I said. He smiled. “So love got in the way of our fun.” I shrugged.

“Inconvenient, that,” he grinned. I laughed. “I’ll do my best to smooth things with Eric.” He leaned over and whispered in my ear. “I don’t want to leave either.” I smiled as he stood up and walked away. I leaned back and took a deep breath.

How had we come so far in a year? I swallowed and stood up and walked back inside. Aaron was waiting with a smile when I got to bed. I nestled my head into his chest.

“I wish you’d tell me what’s going on,” he said softly. “I get it if you can’t, but I’m here.” I looked up at him.

“There’s this darkness inside of me,” I said quietly, “and I don’t know, I can usually beat it, but it seems to be winning lately.” He lifted my chin.

“I don’t see that,” he said, “I see your light, every day, my love. I won’t let you lose it.” I smiled. “What do you need from me?”

“Just this,” I said, softly, “us.” He nodded. I snuggled close to him and pressed my forehead against his chest. And fell asleep.

I kept dreaming of entering a dark cave, seeing the wheel and the bindings, hearing Tristan calling my name behind me. I woke with a start. I didn’t know what it meant.

Wallflowers

Carolina

“I heard he cut off Lord Brayton’s head himself, even after Her Majesty ordered he live,” I heard Cassidy Mainer whispering to Annabeth Weirs, two girls my age, as we walked into the Manor ballroom, “and that’s why he had to leave Dovetail.”

“I heard she found him in her cousin’s bed,” Annabeth giggled. I pressed my lips into my mouth. “And insisted he be dismissed from the guard.” Tristan was standing beside his grandfather, looking what to most probably seemed stoic, but I knew was likely him trying to mask awkwardness. “Not that I blame her.”

“The Queen or her cousin?” Cassidy giggled.

“Both,” Annabeth said, “or either. Gods, he’s perfection.” We reached the room and I made eye contact with Tristan.

“Caro!” Emily exclaimed running excitedly up to me. “Come on, Alex said Sir Tristan is going to open the dancing.”

“With Mistress DuFrey and you, surely,” I said. It was what made the most sense. I was fond of Charlotte Dufrey, for all that she was ten years older than us, she was always kind. Tristan walked over and smiled at me. Cassidy looked at him. “Sir Tristan,” I curstsied.

“Miss DuKarras,” he bowed, “I apologize, perhaps I should have sent a note?” I smiled at him. “I’m being unspeakably rude. Commander Trisstan Dugarry,” he nodded to Cassidy and Annabeth.

“Oh,” I said, “this is Miss Cassidy Mainer and Miss Annabeth Weirs. What would this note have entailed?”

“That I’d like to dance with you, first, if you don’t mind,” he explained, “Charlotte isn’t feeling well and retired early.” I smiled.

“I’d be honored,” I said softly. He nodded.

“Ladies,” he bowed to Cassidy and Annabeth, and quickly departed. They both looked at me.

“Are you serious?” Annabeth’s voice was so high pitched I could barely hear it. I shrugged as non chalantly as I could. Cassidy’s mouth was still hanging open in disbelief. “How do you know him?”

“Alex came by to call on me,” Emily explained, “and Sir Tristan came with him. Then we came to dinner here last night.” She looked deeply proud, “I should find Alex, at that.” She bounced away.

“Is he courting you?” Cassidy managed. Unlike Annabeth’s shriek this was more of a disbelieving hiss.

“It isn’t that serious yet,” I said shaking my head. “From my understanding he’s quite shy is all, so because we were introduced,” I shrugged again. “Excuse me.” I walked over to the front of the room, feeling like I had clouds under my shoes. Tristan smiled at me. “How did you know to do that?”

“Oh,” he said, “well, I saw you standing there, looking absolutely lovely, by the way,” I blushed, “and I saw those two whispering and I know the type.” He looked down. “You seemed to need a rescue.”

“They’re furious,” I admitted. He chuckled. “I was certainly not supposed to be the one you noticed first.” He looked at me and then back across at Annabeth and Cassidy. “Are you prepared for jealousy and rumors as part of our little game here?”

“After nearly a lifetime under Brayton,” he offered me his hand as the music started, “I think I can handle it.” I smiled as we danced. “I plan to pump them for information about you when I’m forced to dance with them.”

“Mm,” I nodded. “You will be deeply reassured that I’m nothing special. Also, that I’m shy and snobbish,” I shrugged.

“Well, then we have lots in common,” he said. “I am stoic and stand offish, and have been instructed many times to remove the stick from my,” he cleared his throat and I giggled. “Regardless, I’m happy to be of help.” I looked at him.

The music started, and he took my hand and started the simple steps. Emily giggled as Alex danced with her. I looked over at Cassidy and Annabeth. Cassidy was still staring daggers at me, while Annabeth had started scanning the room for open partners.

“Can I call on you?” He asked as we finished. “Alex tells me this is what I’m supposed to do next.” I smiled and nodded.

“It is, and you certainly can,” I said, “what would be next in Dovetail?” He grinned sheepishly at me.

“My experience was atypical,” he admitted. “But it amounts to the same,” he kissed my hand, “spending time together.” I nodded.

“You should see to your other guests,” I said and started walking away.

“Carolina,” he called after me, I turned, “Do you have a favorite flower?” I smiled widely.

“Yellow roses,” I said softly. He nodded. I stepped out onto the balcony and pressed my hands against my face, which felt unbearably hot.

“So I’ve done well,” I rolled my eyes seeing Alex appear next to me. “Grandfather is thrilled.”

“We all live to please your grandfather,” I said. He nodded. “You shouldn’t neglect Emily.”

“Emily couldn’t possibly care if I spend five minutes on you,” he pointed out. I frowned. “Is Tristan not a big enough sacrifice to absolve me?” I looked at him.

“I forgave you a long time ago, Alex,” I said. “Now you just irritate me,” he smiled and leaned against the railing.

“I kissed you here,” he smiled.

“I remember,” I said softly. “I was so embarrassed.” He nodded. “Don’t break my sister’s heart, Alex.”

“For you,” he whispered and pushed a hair off my forehead. “Anything.” I swallowed and looked away and walked inside. Tristan had been swarmed. I giggled as he sent me a pleading look.

“Miss DuKarras?” A page walked over.

“Yes,” I said. He handed me a small box and I opened it, revealing a clearly hastily cut yellow rose with a white ribbon ties around it. “Thank you,” I whispered. He nodded and left. I smiled and stuck the flower into my sash. It didn’t quite go with the soft pink of my gown, but I couldn’t bring myself to care.

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.

The Girl Queen

I entered the tent and Aaron and Olivia were already seated by his bedside. I sat beside them and Caleb looked over and smiled at me.

“We’ll leave you,” Olivia said softly, and they stood up. I swallowed and placed my hand on his.

“You look sad, Little One,” he said. “But you’ve had a great victory.” I smiled.

“You can’t die,” I said simply, “I refuse to allow it. I order you to live.” He smiled.

“I will try then,” he said, “Your Majesty,” he kissed my hand. “Oh my darling girl, how I’ve loved having you as mine.”

“Caleb, how can I do it without you?” I said.

“Trust the others,” he said, “they will guide you.” Not as he would have though. He hugged me. “Aaron said you spared Brayton.”

“Yes,” I whispered, “as you said to.” He smiled. “He showed me things. Visions.” He swallowed.

“In the smoke?” He said. I nodded. “An old trick, my love, you’re stronger than that.”

“I broke the spell,” I whispered. He nodded. “Caleb, my father,” I inhaled, “Olivia and my father.”

“No, love,” he shook his head, “no, it wasn’t what he thinks, it wasn’t what anyone thought. Ask her, she’ll tell you.” I nodded. “I am so proud of you, Lisette.”

“May I still be Lisette sometimes?” I asked him softly. A child’s question, what I’d asked him when he first told me who I was when I was seven.

“And Aaron must do whatever you say,” he smiled. I began crying and Olivia came back in. “Hello Livvie.”

“Caleb,” she whispered. “You’re a liar, you know, you promised to stay with me always.” He grinned.

“Forgive me then,” he whispered. “I love you.” She pressed her forehead to his and I felt his life leave him. We both stood quietly for a few moments.

“I can leave, if you’d like,” I finally said. She looked at me.

“No,” she said and stretched her hand out to me, “no stay with me.” I nodded and knelt with her beside him. “My Caleb,” she said softly. I looked at her, thinking of the scream I’d heard in my vision, her screaming my father’s name as he ran to his death.

“Where’s Aaron?” I asked.

“He went to see Athena,” she said softly. “That’s for the best, I think.” I nodded.

“I need to do something.” I said. She looked at me.

“Lisette,” she said, her voice changed, “you need to be very careful.” I nodded and went back to my tent. Tristan was waiting for me. I smiled and ran into his arms.

“It’s over?” He whispered. I nodded and pressed my face against his chest. “I’m sorry, Lisette, I will miss him.” He kissed me. “Do you want to be alone?”

“No,” I said softly, “I want you with me.” I was lying but I wasn’t unhappy that Tristan was here. His arms and his kisses were comforting, but not as comforting as sitting with Aaron and Olivia and lighting candles and whispering the names of the counts and countesses of Pantona asking them to accept Caleb into the ether. I went to the cot and lay down and he lay down with me. I curled into the space in between us. “Did Marina fix you?”

“She did,” he whispered, “she’s afraid you’ll blame her, for the Count.” I looked up at him. “Understand Lisette, this is new to her, she doesn’t know you,” he sighed, “she doesn’t know what this means for her.”

“I don’t want to talk about Marina,” I whispered and kissed him. He nodded and pulled me close. We lay there in silence, kissing, touching, until we inevitably made love.

We both knew what it was, the end of something. After, I pressed my forehead to his.

“I have to tell you something,” I whispered. He nodded. “I had a vision today.”

“A dream?” He asked. I shook my head.

“No, it was different,” I sighed, “but I Saw, well,” I sighed, “I love you, but you know,” he drew back, “you see I’ve had visions and Dreams about the prince of Phania for a long time, and I saw him so clearly today.”

“I see,” he said softly, “so before, that was what? You trying to forget it?”

“No,” I shook my head, “only, well, I don’t know what it means, and I,” I sighed, “I have to find out is all, he’s coming here, I don’t know when, but he is, and for us,” he kissed me again. “And while I figure that out I think I need, well, time, and space.” He pushed my hair off my face.

“You’re sending me away then?” He whispered. I closed my eyes.

“When I’m with you, there’s only you,” I explained, “I breath you in, I feel you, and I can’t have that and figure out what all this is.”

“What changed, in the past hour?” He asked softly.

“Caleb,” I admitted. He nodded. “He was supposed to help me with all of this, I wasn’t supposed to do it alone, I was counting on,” I choked on the tears.

“I understand,” he said, wiping my eyes, “Lisette, really,” I nodded, “but you aren’t alone, my love, you’ll never be alone, I’ll always be here.” I smiled. “Do you want me to go?”

“For now,” I whispered. He nodded stood up and left, I fell back against the pillows, and tried to sleep, but I could hear cheers and songs throughout the camp.

All Hail The Girl Queen! A few voices echoed. That had been what Caleb and Anselm had jokingly called me. I cried until I fell asleep.