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.

Worth The Wait

Annalise

“What brought about this metamorphosis?” Harran asked, as we sat beside one another in the large and very opulent dining hall. If the palace in Dovetail is a marvel, The Summer Palace in Brightcoast is a delicate gem. Everything feels deliberate and luxurious and beautiful, if there’s anyone who looks out of place there it’s certainly Harran, who still wears his simple leggings and loose fitting tunics.

“I’m not sure what you mean,” I said and took a sip of my wine, a light pink vintage that it turns out the region makes loads of. He shook his head. “Do you mind?”

“Not a bit,” he said sipping his own. We both glanced down the table to Eric who was glancing over occasionally. “I didn’t think I’d get to spend any time with you, frankly.” I smiled.

“I’m sorry about that,” I said, “my priorities have been skewed. Can I make it up to you?” He smiled.

“I think we can come to some understanding,” he whispered, his voice low and husky. Suddenly I’m fourteen in the parlor at Pantona again, desperate for his attention, for him to kiss me, tell me I’m special, touch me. “If you’re interested,” his hand slipped to my thigh.

“Yes,” I said softly, “I am.” He grinned and carefully fingered the light silk of my dress.

“You’re sure?” He said. I nodded. “I’ll come to you tonight then.” I smiled.

“I look forward to it,” I said and took another long sip of wine. After we ended dinner people broke off to go to various places. Probably my favorite thing about this summer court is how casual it is. There is of course traditional coffee and some music in the parlor, and whiskey, cards and conversation in the library. But as many people adjourn for long walks on the beaches, or nights in the town, or just go to their rooms. In Dovetail it’s not nearly so easy, with the long banquets, the entertainment staying in the hall and everyone asking for access. Tonight I made a brief appearance in each of the main gatherings before heading towards the grand staircase to go to bed and not alone.

“If you’re looking to punish me, you could be more subtle about it,” Eric called out from an alcove, walking out, holding a bottle and then taking a big swig. I looked at him and sighed.

“Are you drunk?” I asked as he stepped closer to me. He shrugged. “That’s not like you, Eric.”

“I thought you liked this sort of thing,” he said and wrapped his arms around my waist. I looked up at him. “You do look lovely, Annalise,” he whispered. “And if the flirting was to make me jealous, it worked.”

“And if it wasn’t about you at all?” I said sharply. He laughed.

“Then it wasn’t,” he said, “and I’m still jealous.” I broke away from him.

“You didn’t have to be,” I said, “so you can comfort yourself with that.” I turned away and rushed up the stairs and then after turning the corner and being sure he hadn’t followed I slowed down and reached my room and took a deep breath and turned the knob. Harran was already waiting and I smiled nervously.

I felt shy all of a sudden. But he stood up and took my hand and then kissed me gently.

“I’ve wanted this for so long, Lisette,” he whispered. “But if for a moment you aren’t feeling good,” his hands slid gently down my sides lingering on my breasts, “I need you to tell me. I want to make you feel so good, Beautiful,” he kissed my ear then and I exhaled gently as he moved to my neck and we moved in unison past the threshold of the sitting room to the bed and falling back onto it.

I grabbed the back of his head and kissed him deeply. He grunted and slid the straps of the gown down and slipped it past my breasts tearing as he did, he paused.

“It’s alright,” I said and pulled his shirt over his head, “don’t stop, please.” He smiled and pulled the rest of it off.

“Marina might kill me,” he said with a cheeky grin. I laughed and slid my hands over his chest which was so perfectly sculpted I thought I was dreaming.

“I promise she’ll understand,” I said, “I’m reasonably sure that was the desired effect of the thing.” He grinned and slid one hand to my hip and used the other to spread my thighs, before moving one finger into me, I whimpered and threw my head back.

“It was very effective,” he whispered, and then a second finger, “you walked in and I was hard.” I groaned and bucked against him. “Oh you like this, hm?”

“Yes,” I mumbled, “oh yes,” he laughed and kissed me. I moaned more as he kept moving his fingers into me, feeling and pinching. His mouth moved down me and found my nipple as he sucked and played with me I closed my eyes and was lost in it. In him. I groaned and whimpered, running my hands down his back and then I felt myself finish, letting out an involuntary moan and then, “oh Harran, gods.” He moved to be on his knees over me.

“I’m glad to have pleased you, majesty,” he whispered. I was panting and giggled up at him. I propped up on my elbows and smiled and kissed him.

“You have pleased me,” I said. “But we aren’t through yet.” He laughed as I pulled down his pants and then kissed him. He drew down and into me and then I exhaled, my legs wrapped around him. He pumped in and out of me and moaned my name softly. I needed to be closer to him, even then and grabbed onto his shoulders. He took the hint and took my thighs.

He’s so different from Tristan. Somehow he’s more attentive and yet seems to be thinking about it less. He’s hard and strong and doesn’t seem to be shying away from using that strength to move us. In fact he even lifted me up to ride him a while before grunting and finishing in me. After, resting his forehead on my chest.

“Gods,” he muttered, “that was worth the wait, I’d say.” I laughed and fell away from him back against the pillows as he rolled over and looked at me.

“I think so,” I said and brushed his hair off his his face and kissed him. “Harran,” I said softly.

“Yes, Lisette,” he said softly.

“Do you mind that I don’t love you?” I asked. He smiled.

“No, darling, I don’t think I do,” he said, “it’s enough for me that you want me.” I smiled and snuggled close to him, falling asleep feeling terribly safe.

Addisons

Marina

I think Damian is at least a little bit right about how I’ve been insulating myself. But after sixteen years of being insulated by others it is a hard habit to change. As we walk through town the life of the place even puts the market in Dovetail to shame. Everything is lit by torches and magic and there are people calling to one another, and there’s music spilling out and delicious food smells coming from cafes.

And more than anything, there are probably more dark skinned people around than I’ve ever seen in my life. Some much darker than I, and others lighter.

“Are you alright?” He asked. I nodded. “Come on, it’s right here.” I laughed as he enthusiastically took my hand and pulled me inside a door. What was inside stunned me. The ceiling was round dome, held up by what seemed like magic, and the there were two floors of balconies swirling around a large open floor.

And people were dancing. The music was festive and loud and I didnt’ recognize the tune, but the dancing was fast and lively. It was overwhelming but in the best way.

“Can you teach me the dances?” I stood on my toes to reach his ear and yell over the music. He grinned and nodded.

“Of course,” he said, “but let’s get a drink first.” He took my hand and pulled me through the crowd to the bar and the girl working behind it, saw us and lit up.

“I was wondering when we’d finally see you,” she said leaning forward and then pulling him close by his shirt. “The Glory’s been in port for weeks.” He cleared his throat and then she noticed me. “Ah,” she nodded and pulled back.

“I’m sorry for your anxiety,” he teased, “May I present Duchess Marina Sanpierre, and Rina, this Elaine Addison. Lainey and I have known each other since childhood.” She sent him a look and rolled her eyes.

“Welcome, My Lady, we’re glad to have you,” she smiled softly, “be careful of this one, hm?” Damian laughed and I felt immediately small and insecure. The way she’d grabbed him had been intimate, and not friendly. I thought of how early on Raymond had made jokes to him about Brightcoast. She quickly poured two drinks and headed to another end of the bar. I scowled at him as he handed me the cup.

This was new. I wasn’t used to feeling jealous around him. I glanced back down at Elaine. Why was I jealous at that? She’s not beautiful, not unattractive, but her nose is a little off center and her hair is covered so I can’t judge that. And I knew he had a past, but having to see it is piercing.

“Lefty!” A man called out and walked over, “one more night and we were going to send out a search party!” He stopped and looked at. “Glora’s wing,” he shook his head, “I beg your forgiveness, Duchess,” he bowed, “I ought always to greet a lady first.” He wedged himself between us. “My name is Dorian Addison and I am your and Her Majesty’s humble servant.” I smiled and offered my hand which he took and kissed.

“I accept your service gladly, Mr. Addison,” I said, “on my own and my cousin’s behalf.” He smirked.

“I’m grateful to have you in my establishment,” he said, “though I have to admit my surprise at seeing you here with this lowlife.” He nodded to Damian.

“The lowlife can hear you,” he said, playfully pulling Addison away. I laughed.

“You own this place?” I asked. He looked young for it, his hair in long twists down to his shoulder. “It’s wonderful, regardless.” He laughed.

“Prince Eric owns it proper if you must know,” he said, “but only in that he gave me the money I needed, paying him back as I can. Hoping when he’s king he’ll just forgive the debt.”

“Hush, Addison,” Damian said, circling my waist protectively. “You’ll scare her off with political talk.”

“Do you mean King of Phania or Cammadan?” I jested back, ignoring Damian. “You should know Lisette is by no means certain, but by law he’ll inherit the island.” Addison laughed loudly.

“Lisette, you say? I thought you were Brightcoast, not Pantona!” He gestured and then called out. “Lainey, three more!”

“You aren’t the first flattering barman I’ve encountered since her restoration,” I shrugged. Damian twitched at that. Let him. Addison laughed and cupped my chin and then flicked it playfully.

“Any man would be foolish not to try to flatter you,” he said.

“If my brother tries to turn your head,” Elaine said walked over with a bottle and pouring the drinks, “ignore him.” I looked at her again. “Damian, will you sing?” I turned to him taking my second cup.

“You sing?” I said. He sighed.

“Only when provoked,” he said and kissed me. I was drunk enough to not fight him on the kiss.

“If I want to hear you sing, will you indulge me?” I whispered. He shook his head.

“Which would you prefer?” He whispered back, “to dance or hear me screech a Pharras folk tune you’ll hate?” I met his eyes.

“I want to dance with you,” I said softly, “Only you.” He smiled.

We did dance and dance some more after someone pulled him away I found myself back at the bar.

“You look like you could use some water,” Elaine said and poured mine. I nodded, realizing I must be flushed. I took a sip. “We don’t often get,” I held up a hand.

“I don’t often get to either,” I said, “never actually, it was different, in Dovetail.” She nodded, I swallowed. “I’ve never seen him this,” I tried to find the right word, “comfortable, I guess.” She nodded.

“It’s nearly home,” she pointed out. I looked at her and nodded. “He’s never brought anyone here,” she swallowed, I looked down, “I just want you to understand that.” I smiled.

“I see,” I said, “I didn’t know,” I exhaled, “Raymond,” I whispered, “he mentioned friends, never anything else.” Elaine rolled her eyes.

“I’m not surprised,” she said. She exhaled. “He’s the best man I know, My Lady.” The understanding that passed between us felt deeply familiar.

Images of that first night at Camp, when I’d idiotically thought Tristan’s accepting of my invitation was because he wanted to see me. Of William’s eyes following other girls as they entered court. Girls who wouldn’t stop him when his hands moved to his fly. Girls who didn’t worry about what came next. Only Damian, who’s love overwhelmed me, got me over that fear, and I was only one in a line to him.

“Excuse me,” I said softly and walked out.

“Marina,” Damian said, having followed me, “you shouldn’t have, run off, it isn’t exactly safe,” he looked around. I swallowed. “What did Lainey say to you?” I looked down.

“Nothing” I said, “only, it’s very clear that there is something between the two of you, and,” I looked down, “you belong here, and I don’t, and,” I sighed. “Who is she to you?”

“Lainey is an old friend. Our mother’s grew up together, we were together a lot as children.” He explained breathleslly, I nodded and his face fell. “And that wasn’t what you were asking.” I blushed and looked down. “We weren’t in love with each other, Marina,” he said gently. “It just became, a sort of habit when I was here or she was in Brinecliff.” I swallowed.

“You probably should have warned me,” I pointed out. He sighed wistfully took my hands and kissed them both. I giggled.

“You’re right,” he nodded, “I’m desperately sorry and beg forgiveness.” I sighed. “You didn’t deserve an ambush. And I shouldn’t have abandoned you.”

“I forgive you,” I said softly. He smiled. “And I did like them.” He smiled.

“I’m glad,” he said with a gentle smile. “Someday you’ll see the island, my love, and be overwhelmed.” I kissed him. “They are all counting on Eric being King of Cammadan though.”

“Even if they marry she might not make him king,” I pointed out. “Mariah wasn’t a Queen after all.” We’d begun walking back toward the beach and the manor.

“But Marie was,” he said softly. “I think you all don’t appreciate what she meant to the Pharras and the Phanians living here. What Annalise does, what you do.” I kissed him again softly this time. “They came here because there was no place at home for them, because the dream that life here might be better.”

“A dream of a better world,” I said, he nodded. “Aaron and I used to talk about it, before we took Dovetail back. We wanted to lead for her, build a place where everything we believed in could matter.” I closed my eyes and felt the breeze. “I never saw it, Damian.” I admitted. “Because it didn’t matter. As long as I wasn’t in the palace, at Brayton’s mercy, the world was better.” He gently circled his arm around me and rubbed my shoulder. “He could have named the day, and I had no power to stop him.”

“Look at me,” he whispered and I turned. “You are amazing, Marina,” he cupped my cheek. “That you survived and came out kind and true,” he pressed his forehead to mine, “you could be bitter and angry and not a soul could blame you.” I pressed my forehead to his chest.

“Do you love me?” I asked softly, “or do you love what they see me as?” He exhaled.

“I love you,” he said, “if you said you wanted to burn it to the ground and run into the Westran desert, I’d go with you.” I wrinkled my nose.

“I doubt the desert would suit my father,” I said, “and I can’t run away without him, he’d forget to eat.” Damian laughed.

“Fair,” he said, “Although I didn’t realize we’d be bringing your father.” I shrugged. He pulled me close. “I don’t want to lose you, Rina.”

“You never will,” I said.

The Manor

Carolina

“Red, I think,” Mother said, as a maid nodded going into my wardrobe as she herself tightened my corset. “It sets off your hair, and he won’t be used to it. As I understand it everyone in Dovetail wears blue and green.” I sighed.

“Mother,” I said, “I don’t want you to invest too much in this,” I didn’t want to. It was too much to hope for. A path away from the guilds.

“Nonsense,” Mother said taking the red satin dinner gown from the maid and sliding it over my head. “Your father already spoke to Trey Dumanis about the whole business.” She turned me and looked me in the glass. “You’ll be Lady Dugarry by midwinter, darling.” She kissed me on the cheek. “Hair up,” she instructed the maid sharply. “Her neck is her best feature.” She walked out. I slid my hand to my throat.

Arriving at The Dumanis House, a large palace like mansion on a promontory above Dorin city proper always feels like an occasion, even if this time it’s only for a small family dinner. We stepped out of the carriage and Emily giggled squeezing my hand. I nodded and went to follow after her when I felt my father’s hand circle my upper arm.

“Do not embarass me, Caro,” he whispered. I nodded. We walked in and were greeted and then escorted to one of the many parlors. Alex quickly swept Emily away to a corner. I looked around, it really was just us and the family. I took a drink off a tray and quietly sat down in an arm chair.

He wasn’t even here. I sipped lightly on my drink when Trey Dumanis walked over and sat down with me.

“You look lovely Miss DuKarras,” he said. I nodded. “And disappointed?” I blushed. “Tristan should be on his way. He had to go to the fort and pay his respects to the Garrison Commander.”

“Oh,” I said quietly. “I suppose that makes sense.” We didn’t mix much with the guards.

“He takes his responsibility very seriously,” Trey said, there was more affection in his voice than I’d ever heard from a member of The Dumanis. “Even if he is supposed to be on hiatus for his stay here.”

“I didn’t mean to assume,” I muttered, but Trey simply laughed.

“It wasn’t an incorrect assumption,” he said, “as much as we are very happy about that Alex has settled on well, anyone, and we especially like your sister, this particular honor is very much about making sure you and Tristan get to know one another.” I blushed again. “And speak of the devil.”

My next breath caught in my throat. He’d seemed attractive that afternoon in his travelling clothes, but walking into this stuffy room, in his simple, well cut guard uniform, it was impossible not to look at him. He looked how I imagine Cornan himself to look.

“Grandfather,” he walked over and cautiously bowed to Carland Dumanis, “I apologize, Commander Varys was enthusiastic for me to see her whole operation. I didn’t want to insult her by running off.”

“Of course, my boy,” Carland grinned and glanced over at me and winked. Tristan looked embarased and walked over.

“Hello Uncle Trey,” he said. “Miss DuKarras.” He took my hand and kissed it again. This I could get used to. “I’m very sorry for keeping you waiting.”

“It’s alright, really,” I said softly. He smiled and sat down next to me. “Your Uncle was saying you’re on Hiatus from the Guard?” He sighed and shook his head.

“An unfortunate stipulation of my grandfather’s,” he said, “and General Martin. If I were to stay active in The Guard I’d have to be residing in the fort, which was unacceptable.” I laughed at that. “It will be strange, it’s been my life since I was ten.”

“Ten?” I said. He nodded. Trey excused himself, with a cough then. “That is quite young. Is it normal?”

“No,” he said, “and yes. If Annalise hadn’t been,” he paused, “if things were as they were meant to be we might have been even younger. The protectors usually grow up with their charge.”

“Then why ten?” I asked.

“That was when my parents died and Trey and The General took us,” he explained. I looked at him. His face didn’t betray anything. Not grief, or regret.

“Why didn’t you come here?” I asked softly. He looked at me.

“Because,” he said, “I am a part of this family, but I’m also a Dugarry, and we serve Cammadan.” He smiled sadly. “And Athena would have murdered someone by now, probably. She carries a lot of aggression.” I laughed.

“It must have been lonely though,” I said. He shrugged.

“I had Athena,” he pointed out. I smiled. “And we had a job to do.” He looked down. “And my mother didn’t want this for us. I keep thinking she’d be very disappointed in me.”

“As someone who is a deep disappointment to her parents,” I smiled nodding towards mine, “I somehow doubt it.” He laughed.

“Tell me about you,” he said softly. I looked at him and sighed, a bell rang and we all stood up to go into dinner.

“There isn’t much to know,” I whispered, “I’m not that different from every debutante in Dorin.” He nodded, and pulled out my chair so I could sit.

“But that’s the thing,” he said, “I’m not from Dorin, the last time I was here I was seven.” I laughed. “So I am going to find everything you do endlessly fascinating and novel.”

“Or unbearably dull in comparison,” I pointed out. He grinned. “I read, and I go to parties and dinners like this one. I pick out clothes. You’re used to queens and warriors.” The grin stayed but his eyes became sad. “Is it true?” I managed.

“Yes,” he said, “I mean, I don’t know how much or what the stories,” he sighed, “but yes, we were. She, I,” he stopped, “it’s complicated.”

“Well, the only boy who ever showed interest in me moved on nearly instantly to my younger sister, so obviously, I understand complicated,” I stabbed a fork into the salad that had come been served. He nodded. “Not that I begrudge them, they’re much more suited than Alex and I.” He smiled. “Are you in love with her?” He looked me in the eyes then, and I swallowed, the intensity of his gaze is something else. He looked as though he were sizing me up, trying to decide if I could handle his answer.

“Yes,” he said simply, “I am.” I nodded. “Is that,” he frowned. “Does it matter to you?” I bit my lip.

“I don’t know,” I admitted. “I don’t think so. But I’m glad you were honest.” He nodded. “And it really doesn’t make to much of a difference as my father and your uncle have already discussed the situation.”

“I’m sure they have but my uncle isn’t my negotiator,” he said. I looked at him.

“It isn’t my business, but you should not trust Alex with that job,” I said softly. “He isn’t, well, reliable.” He laughed.

“No,” he said, “my sister.” I looked at him. “I’m negotiating for her too. Though hers isn’t particularly complicated. Her first born inherits Tumona, and the weapons are to be evenly distributed and if our grandfather ever sets foot in Pantona he is to be arrested on sight.” I laughed.

“And The Count’s demands?” I asked. He smiled.

“To and this is a direct quote, ‘stop being bothered about this nonsense Tristan, I mean it, I don’t want to hear it again,'” he shrugged. “The nobility considers the contracts passé. Especially the inner circle. Anton and Marie had a love match and it’s now unfashionable to claim anything else.” I looked at him.

These people were myths to me. Stories I’d heard third hand. They were his family, his whole world. He said Inner Circle like it was something he was outside of and yet told casual stories about The Count of Pantona and called the King and Queen who’d died when we were children by their first names.

Before this morning I’d expected to be the old lady who my sister’s grandchildren whispered about and threw pastries at at parties.

He couldn’t actually want me. It isn’t possible. But the way he’s looking at me and smiling feels earnest.

“I’m used to being unfashionable,” I said. He nodded and smiled awkwardly, then I paused. “Did you say that your sister is concerned about the weapons in her dowry?” He shrugged.

“The Dugarrys have been in the guard for nearly two hundred years,” he explained. “There are a lot of weapons.” I laughed again, mid sip of my wine and it went up my nose. My mother sent me a glare and I swallowed.

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.