The Heir

Marina

Nika has moved her things out of my rooms. She didn’t speak to me while she did it, and I didn’t insult her by acting like I didn’t know why.

But it still hurt.

Now I’m sitting in council and listening to them argue about Calla. Annalise is taking it well, Aaron looks furious. I don’t blame him, every comment feels like a backhanded insult to him and his father.

“Of course no one can deny your family’s sacrifice and bravery, in taking the princess in, Count,” Elliot Frears said languidly, “but surely, The Queen’s own blood line is more suitable.”

“My cousin and I do not share blood on our Cammadie side,” I piped up. Annalise looked at me. “It makes no difference to me.” He scowled. “I am in full support of The Queen’s choice for Lady Calla, please do not consider my feelings in the situation.”

Aaron smirked.

“So it’s settled then?” Annalise rose. Everyone joined her and nodded. “Good, Count, Duchess come with me and we’ll discuss how to handle things moving forward.” We walked out into her private office and she collapsed. “Thank the Goddess that’s over.” She groaned. I laughed and poured myself a cup of tea.

“It always amazes me,” Aaron grumbled, “If my father wanted the throne so damn badly why would he have raised you as my sister? Makes no damn sense.” I laughed. “I am glad it’s settled though, and thank you.”

“It’s really a relief to me too,” I smiled at him. “What do you want from me? For Calla?” He sighed.

“She should be here more, but I can’t be away from Pantona more than I am,” Aaron sighed.

“She should go to Brightcoast too,” Annalise said. “Perhaps not this summer, but next.” I nodded. “Do you want to hand the household over to her, when she’s old enough?”

“That doesn’t need to be decided now,” I said, “I rather like running the household honestly.” Aaron laughed.

“That doesn’t surprise me,” he said, Athena walked in. “Hello dearest, how is your family?” She scowled at him.

“Oh no,” Annalise sighed, “what did they have to say?”

“Oh nothing particular,” Athena muttered, “apparently Reiniere wants to marry Marina after his father dies. Congratulations.”

“Goddess,” I murmured and sipped my tea, “a guaranteed proposal from someone I’ve never met, my very favorite thing.” Annalise snorted. “I appreciate your fury on my behalf Athena, but this is hardly unprecedented.”

“Then they started talking about contigencies,” she sighed, “involving Calla.”

“Oh,” Annalise said. Aaron sighed.

“I’m sorry love,” he said and kissed her forehead. “It isn’t as though they don’t know how you feel about it all.” She nodded.

“I’m just so tired of it,” she said. “I’d prefer an open fight to all of this.” I smiled at her. “I’m sorry Rina, really.”

“It’s alright,” I shrugged. “I made my decisions. This would all be settled if I’d simply gone to Vacana and married Kieran Franz. The fact that he’s disgusting and Damian would probably murder him halfway through the ceremony would have been a bit of a hindrance but it would have made all of your lives easier.” Everyone laughed.

“You would be a lovely queen of Rastan,” Annalise kissed me on the forehead. “Though I think I’d prefer Failon. Otto at least bothered to come here.” I laughed. “At least the debate about Calla as my heir is settled.”

“Yes,” I said with a smile, “will there be a ceremony. I didn’t have one, but that was a bit different.”

“She’s three,” Athena reminded us. “I think simply having her beside you whenever you hold court will suffice.” I smiled. “I doubt she could make it through a ceremony without wiggling.”

“Good,” Annalise said, “I’m glad that’s settled. Marina,” she looked at me, “we have to meet with seamstresses about Westran.”

“I have to go to the University,” I shook my head, “speaking of ceremonies, we have to plan Raymond’s vows.” She exhaled. “Not that I wouldn’t rather watch you stare at fabric samples.” She rolled her eyes. “Mercy will be there, she’ll do better than me anyway.”

“Calla is going to demand constant service from Althea, by the way,” Athena grinned. I laughed.

“Imagine having a little girl toddling after you demanding your attention all day long,” Aaron smirked, “sounds like a complete nightmare.” Athena sighed and looked at the two of us.

“It is a trial,” she teased. I shook my head.

“I didn’t bother you, I was too terrified,” I said.

“You bothered me plenty,” Athena said. I laughed. “Althea’s a good choice though. Elodie is in the guard, and it will help Mercy repair the damage done her family by her father.”

“Ooh, I’m going to use that,” Annalise said, “if Mercy puts up any resistance.”

“No faith in her,” I shook my head, “any of you. She’ll be thrilled.”

Family

Athena

I woke early and went to the training yard with Tristan and watched as the newest recruits worked. It had been a long time since we’d been here and it was crowded and full of life. Elodie saluted me from where she was stationed and I smiled back. I looked at my brother.

“I’m taking Calla to see Uncle Trey this afternoon,” I said softly, “are you coming?” He looked at me.

“Until Trey and Grandfather take Caro’s side over her father, I’m afraid I can’t,” he shrugged. I nodded. “Are Alex and Emily still there?”

“I don’t think so,” I said. “But if they are, I’ll invite them here, I know Caro would like it.” He nodded. “How is she?” I asked. He raised an eyebrow. “How are you?” I tried.

“Things are,” he exhaled, “They’ve been better, I suppose.” I looked at him. “I don’t know what to do anymore, Thena. She’s miserable and I can’t fix it.”

“You could stay put for two days in a row,” I said, “that might help.” He looked at me and sighed.

“It’s more than that,” he said, “I talked to Marina last night, and I can barely look at Lisette because I know it will upset Caro.” I nodded. “Do you think a baby would fix it?”

“She wants to be a mother,” I reminded him, “but she also wants to be your wife.” He looked at me. “It would fix her loneliness, and her feelings of purposelessness.” He looked down. “But she’s heartbroken, Tristan, I don’t think it can fix that.”

“Maybe this trip will be good for us,” he sighed, “I don’t know anymore.” I smiled softly at him. “This was all your idea, by the way.” I raised my eyebrows.

“You forming the rangers and never coming home was my idea?” I asked.

“The marriage was your idea,” he said. I smiled.

“You could have said no,” I shrugged, “spent you life mooning after Marina unencumbered by a wife.” He kicked dirt at me.

A few hours later I was standing in front of Trey’s townhouse, with my hand in Calla’s.

“Mama,” she said as I knocked, I looked at her. “Why didn’t Lady Althea come with us? Isn’t she supposed to come with me everywhere?” I laughed.

“Yes,” Athena said, “but today is so you can see Uncle Trey, I’m sure he’ll get to know Lady Althea in good time.” The door opened.

“Ah, Lady Athena,” the butler smiled. “Welcome home.”

“Thank you, Emmet,” I said and walked past him. “May I present my daughter, Viscountess Calla.”

“Your Grace,” Emmet bowed. Calla wrapped around my leg. “I see.”

“Emmet, can you see to it,” Emily DuCray waltzed through the door and her face broke into a wide smile. “Oh Athena!” She squealed and ran over and embraced me. “Oh I’m so glad you’re here. We’ve been frantic since you got to the city! I was going to send a note to Caro this afternoon.”

“Emily,” I said softly, “you know she can’t come.” She frowned. “But you and Alex must come to the palace.” She smiled sharply.

“Of course,” she said. She looked at Calla and knelt down, “Hello Viscountess, and how are you this afternoon?”

“Quite well, thank you,” Calla managed before sticking her thumb back in her mouth.

“Calla, love, this is Mistress Emily, she’s Aunt Caro’s sister,” I smiled. Calla brightened. “Is Uncle Trey available? I sent a note!”

“He and Alex and arguing over some deal with Failon,” Emily sighed, “Prince Otto claims the racing studs Lotte sent him are subpar and Lotte is insisting it isn’t her fault Otto over trained the foals and they were exhausted by the time of races. It’s a mess.” I laughed. “Would you like to see Carlo?”

“I would,” I said. “Calla, would you like to meet your baby cousin?” Calla nodded and we followed Emily into the nursery. Calla rushed to the little boy playing on the floor. Carlo was nearly a year and a half old by now, so he was hardly a baby. “He’s beautiful,” I said. Emily beamed.

“Thank you,” she sighed. “I’ll bring him when I come to the palace, I want Caro to meet him.” She shook her head. “My father is so obstinate. Not that the old man is any better, they’re both refusing to even have the fight, even though your grandfather is squarely on Tristan and Caro’s side.” I smiled.

“That’s good to hear,” I said. “I always thought the hearing of the challenge would end it.” Emily sighed.

“It has for everyone but Papa,” Emily shrugged. “Everyone in Dorin says he looks like Alex.” I smiled at her.

“So he does,” I nodded. “Everyone in Pantona says she looks like Olivia.”

“Mm,” Emily smiled. “I see it. That hair though! Not auburn like everyone else or blonde like us,” she shook her head. “Her debut will be interesting.” I snorted.

“Unless Lisette pulls herself together, I doubt the heir to throne will have the option to debut in Dorin,” I shrugged. Emily raised her eyebrows. “Council votes this afternoon, it’s done.”

“That is something,” she said, “won’t you grandfather be pleased?” I laughed.

“Oh terribly,” I muttered. “Aaron is too. It might be the only thing they agree on.” She laughed.

“Ah there they are,” Uncle Trey walked in and kissed me on the cheek, “hello Countess.”

“Uncle,” I smiled. “We were discussing Calla’s ascension.” He grinned.

“Ah yes,” he sighed happily, “Tom wrote me of it.” I nodded. “It’s quite an honor.” I looked at all of them, Emily nodded to a servant and we all walked into Trey’s office.

“What can you tell me?” I asked. Alex was leaning against the window. “Hello Cousin.”

“Hello,” he grinned. “There’s not much new. Rastan is jumpy with the king’s health. Raniere seems to want to marry as soon as possible after he’s crowned.” I nodded.

“Will he make an offer?” I said. This was more Aaron’s department but he was busy.

“Not to Annalise,” Emily shook her head. “He doesn’t want her building an empire on his back.” I exhaled.

“Marina then,” I said. Emily nodded. “Cornan’s beard, that’s complicated.”

“We know,” Trey said. “She has no reason to refuse a king, who’s the right age, who will at least claim to want a peaceful alliance.”

“Phania will hate it,” Alex said.

“Phania hates everything we do,” I shrugged, “Marina will hate it, that’s what’s trickier.”

“A delayed betrothal?” Trey suggested. I swallowed and my hand fell to my belly. “Like Queen Elana negotiated for Princess Karina.”

“Aaron won’t betroth Calla, or this one” I shook my head, “nor will I, or Annalise. It isn’t Cammadie.” Trey sighed.

“Your mother’s daughter,” he muttered, but he was smiling. “Of course, you’re right, it is not Cammadie to betroth children, but expectations are another thing entirely. This whole mess with Phania comes from Annalise and Eric being expected for each other, official betrothal or not.”

“So your suggestion, Uncle,” Emily said, “is that even should Marina refuse him, which, as it’s Marina is terribly likely, we mention the expectation of Calla for any of Raniere’s sons?”

“My daughter is not a bargaining chip,” I said. “That is end of the conversation.” I stormed out of the room and back to the nursery.

“Mama,” Calla ran over, “Cousin Carlo is a very nice baby, but might we go back now? He can’t even talk!” I laughed and scooped her up.

“Of course darling,” I said. “Would you be terribly upset by tea with some grownups first?” She sighed loudly.

“If we absolutely must.” She sighed dramatically. I suddenly understood why the protectors were usually placed so young with their charges. A friend in situations like this is invaluable. I always had Tristan, and while we didn’t get to be those people for Annalise, Aaron was. Calla is already cleaving to Althea.

I walked her into the parlor and she settled next to me. Normally I would make her be more friendly but I was frustrated with all of them. Suddenly every single moment, every barb Martin shot at Trey about our future, every protective gesture the Pantonas put over us, down to the uniform I still wear makes sense.

Trey loved us. He still would have sold us. I let him sell Tristan, it’s only Carolina’s strong heart that saved them both from becoming pawns.

Alex looks at me, and an understanding passes between us. He and Emily have to choose now. I’m finished mediating.

The Honesty Of It

Carolina

She’s not as good as you at hiding it.

There’s a certain irony to her saying that to me. All I could think of was three years ago when, after Tristan told me about their night together, I’d cornered her and screamed. Screamed about betrayal, screamed that I’d trusted her, screamed that hours after being in bed with my husband she’d dared to witness our vows.

And she took it. She didn’t apologize or beg for forgiveness. She’d simply stood, her brown eyes lightly filled with tears and listened. And then she’d explained.

“I love him, Caro,” were the only words. “I was alone, for so long except for him, and when I was alone again, he was there. If I’m alone again and he’s there, I can’t promise it wouldn’t happen again.”

I suddenly understood, and I couldn’t resent either of them, for whatever it was between them. A history full of wounds so deep that I’ll never understand them, or that string that held them tightly together.

“May I?” I asked softly, joining Nika on the terrace. She looked at me.

“Of course,” she said softly. “Are you here to tell me that I’m overreacting?” I laughed.

“No,” I said, “this is where I tell you there’s no point, if you can’t accept it.” I picked at my dress. She looked at me. “When I thought I couldn’t,” I looked down. “Annalise I could bear, because she’s so far away from him now, it’s all theoretical, which is sort of worse, and sort of better, you know?” Nika looked at me, her face inscrutable.

“Yes,” she said, “I could stand it if Lefty came back, then it would simply be over.” I nodded. “But this limbo, it hurts too much.” I looked at her.

“She loves you,” I said, “she’s with you, she’s chosen you. It has to be enough.” She looked at me and smiled gently.

“Does it?” She said. “I don’t know anymore.” She swallowed. We stood in silence.

“My ladies,” a page walked over, “dinner is being served.” I nodded and followed after him. I looked back at Nika who didn’t follow.

“She’s had a difficult week,” Evan said settling next to me. I smiled. “How are you? I saw your sister a few days ago, she and Alex were in town on their way down to the midlands.” I smiled.

“How did you find them?” I asked and sipped my wine.

“Well enough,” he shrugged. “Their boy is a fine little man.”

“I’m jealous,” I said, “I haven’t met Carlo yet.” He nodded. “I have to ask, and the others will laugh,” he raised his eyebrows, “are we supposed to give Raymond a gift? When he takes his vows?” Evan smiled at me.

“I don’t know if it’s traditional,” he admitted, “but nothing about Raymond is, and I think he’d appreciate it. Especially as you’re merchant, and he knows gifts mean a great deal to you.” I smiled at him.

“Thank you for putting me at ease, Lord Evan,” I said and raised my glass.

“My infinite pleasure, Lady Dugarry,” he grinned, clinking his glass against mine. Moving into this circle at the same time, we’d managed a careful friendship neither one of us wanting to upset the cart. “What would you give him?” I chewed my meat and frowned.

“I don’t know,” I sighed, “a book I suppose. If they’re in town, there’s seller who I think would know the proper history or esoteric magic book.”

“Please, I beg you, no more esoteric magic books,” Evan groaned. “We’re full up of those.” I laughed. “A history might be nice. Maybe something about Mariah’s connections to Phania. He’s found fragments but never anything solid.” I smiled and nodded. “But you don’t have to.”

“I’ll consider it.” I said. “And how are you? Apparently your father has abdicated council again?”

“Mm,” he nodded. “Prior seems worried about him marshalling separtist forces. Annalise thinks it’s impossible.”

“It is,” I smiled, “unless he’s found a way to make money appear from nowhere.” Evan nodded.

“It would also be far too much work,” Evan noted. “But your evidence is firmer, I’m sure.” I laughed.

“It is,” I said, “I watch your father closely. His tantrums are far too public not to.” Evan nodded. “I sympathize, by the way. My own father’s public fuming has made my life heinously complicated.” He nodded.

“Oh I know,” he said. “But at least yours is personal it’s not literally treason.” He sighed. “Annalise is patient with him, which I appreciate.” He paused. “Will you see your sister, while you’re both here?”

“I haven’t decided yet,” I said softly. “I want to but, there’s still a lot of hurt there.” Evan nodded. “What will your father do if Annalise marries your cousin?”

“Spontaneously combust from happiness and rage combining, probably,” he laughed. “It serves his ambition for our family but he hates her so much.” I laughed.

Patience

Marina

I was standing quietly as Bethany did up my laces and jumped hearing the voice.

“If you were more serene, you’d be an actual statue,” Tristan’s voice was flat. “Mistress Bethany.”

“Sir Tristan,” Bethany blushed. “Are you alright my lady?” I rolled my eyes.

“I am,” I said, “Thank you.” She nodded and bounced out. “What are you doing here?”

“Caro’s asleep,” he explained, ” andI barely got to see you before.” I nodded. “Is something wrong?”

“Of course not,” I said and pulled a dress over my head. “Do me up?” He nodded and walked over carefully strung the delicate pear buttons through their loops up my back. I suppressed a gentle shudder. That was behind us, and by the end of the night, my body might remember what my mind and heart knew. “It’s been a while since you saw me in my underthings is all.”

“True,” he nodded. “The view hasn’t changed much though.” I sighed and looked at him. “A bit more filled out, but pleasantly.”

“Tristan,” I said, “what in the name of Rana are you babbling about?” He looked at me and sighed.

“I need to talk to you about William Santino,” he said. I blinked oddly at him.

“About William?” I said. He nodded. “I haven’t spoken to William in,” I paused, “well, three years? When did he end his engagement? Stupid idea.” He raised his eyebrows. “What did you need to talk about?”

“What is appealing about him?” He asked. I laughed. “Rina, I’m serious.” I sat down with him.

“Something happened, between him and Caro?” I asked. He nodded. “Oh,” I leaned back, “I don’t think that I’ll be terribly helpful,” he looked at me, “I was fifteen Tristan!”

“You were sixteen when we were together,” he pointed out, “and when you met Lestoff.” I sighed.

“William is,” I exhaled, “attentive, I suppose is the right word. I’d spent so long sighing after you having someone pay attention to me was intoxicating.” He nodded. “And he knew how to kiss, and he was quite good with his hands,” I exhaled.

“Alright, enough,” Tristan sighed. “I don’t know what to do, Marina.” I looked at him. “I can’t hold it against her, I was away for so long, and well, there’s you, and Lisette,” I sighed.

“Poor Tristan,” I said and rested my head on his chest. “Poor Carolina.” He laughed and kissed my hair.

“I missed you so much, love,” he said.

“I wish I could help you more.” I said. I listened to his breath rise and fall. The door opened and I shot up as Nika walked in, her eyes narrowed. “Nika,” I said and walked over to her. “I thought that the blessing,” my voice felt feeble, and she looked unbearably hurt.

“It was fewer people than anticipated,” she said, “Commander.” She seethed at Tristan.

“Lady Nika,” he said softly, his voice full of shame, he straightened his coat. “I’ll see you both at dinner.”

“Tristan,” I said gently as he walked out. Nika looked at me. “He was asking me for advice.”

“And you needed to be in his arms to provide it?” She snapped. I frowned at her.

“Nothing happened, nor will it,” I said and reached for her hands, but she pulled them away.

“I don’t ask much of you,” she muttered, “but I won’t be made a fool of. Aside from that, it’s cruel, to Carolina, to Annalise, to each other.”

“We were talking,” I said. She rolled her eyes. “You’re being unfair.”

“It’s always just talking,” she shouted. I swallowed, “Or just a dance, or too long a glance at dinner, or just a touch,” she exhaled. “There’s no just about it, and I’m sick of pretending it doesn’t happen.”

“I don’t want Tristan.” She laughed. “I don’t, it’s the past, I can’t erase it, but it isn’t,” I inhaled, “I don’t, not anymore.”

“Now you’re just lying, my love,” she said. I swallowed. “Of course you want him,” I stared her down, her amber eyes dancing with fire. “Don’t pretend one hurried night quenched a lifetime of flames.” She turned around and left. I swallowed and sat down.

She wasn’t wrong. I did want him, desperately sometimes. But it didn’t matter. Nika was right, it was cruel. I looked in the mirror, straightened my gown and wiped my tears. I walked over to the Princess tower, where everything had been set for dinner.

“Marina,” Carolina rushed over to me and took my hands and kissed me on the cheek. I suddenly felt like my stomach had been ripped out. “I’m sorry I rushed off before, the last leg of the journey disagreed with me.”

“Nothing to be sorry for,” I said with a smile. She nodded. “How are you feeling?” She sighed.

“Much the same,” she admitted. “But now jealous too.” She looked at Athena. I squeezed her hands. “It’s wrong I know, but,” she sighed. I looked at Nika across the room. “Marina, I,” she sighed, “he said he talked to you and I know what you’re thinking,” I smiled softly.

“No,” I said, “you don’t know what I’m thinking, but you must know that I of all people am in no position to judge you.” She smiled. “And you have Calla.” She nodded with a sad smile.

“I do, and I adore her,” she whispered. “Nika seemed to have a storm cloud over her head when she came in.”

“I think she’s reached the end of her patience,” I sighed. “She’s not as good as you at hiding it.” Carolina laughed.

“It takes practice,” she admitted, “and a certain resignation to the facts.” I looked at her.

“I want so badly for it to be different,” I said.

“I know you do,” she kissed me on the cheek. “That’s why I can forgive it.”

Examination

Athena

“This is spectacularly unnecessary,” I said sharply as Elodie shove a pillow under my back on the bed, placing me in a reclined position. “Amanda examined me and said I was fine.”

“Amanda is useless,” Marina said and placed two hands on my belly.

“You two trained her,” I reminded them, “and placed her at Pantona.”

“Well, maybe not useless,” Elodie said, “but still, you ought to have told us, My Lady.” I smiled, all these years of friendship later, when she’s feeling waspish, Elodie reverts to the shy tavern keeper’s daughter who couldn’t meet my eyes.

“I knew this would happen,” I said, “and I don’t need it.” Marina glared at me and I sighed and lifted my dress and spread my legs. “The child is fine, I’ve done this before you’ll recall.”

“Yes, everything does seem to be fine,” she said. Elodie nodded. “You’re eating?”

“Yes,” I rolled my eyes. “Most everything is staying down too.” She nodded and stepped back. “There’s some pain, but not much yet, I know I’m starting to swell.”

“They’re strong,” Elodie said, “not surprising, knowing their mother.” I laughed. “Althea is going terrorize Calla into being her friend by the way.”

“I think Calla will be much more amenable to friendship after a rest,” I assured her. Elodie laughed. “She’s grown, Althea.”

“Like a weed,” Elodie shook her head, “Mercy’s determined to make her a lady, but I think it might be a lost cause.”

“She’s a sweet little thing,” Marina said, “but she is boisterous, and Mercy and I were such quiet little mice, it’s no wonder she worries.”

“You were a mouse,” I said standing up. “Mercy was more like some kind of silent poisonous snake.” We laughed. “Calla’s taken to finding every possible nook to hide in at the manor, so I’m sure the palace will provide endless entertainment.” We walked back downstairs to the large sitting room. Annalise was flopped in a chair, and Aaron was laughing at something Raymond had said.

“Look at them,” Marina smiled, and squeezed my shoulders. “We’re so glad you’re back, Thena, really.” I smiled at her.

“Has she been very bad?” I asked.

“Unsettled,” she said softly, “but better, I think,” I nodded.

“We were surprised to hear Prior came right here,” I said. “Is she serious?”

“Not that she’s told me,” Marina sighed. “I hope not. I don’t think they’d suit in the long run.” I looked at her.

“He makes her happy,” I said softly. “The politics are good,” Marina looked at me sideways. “Aaron thinks so.”

“Aaron thinks anyone besides Eric is good politics,” Marina mumbled, “he’s wrong.” I looked at her. “Prior wouldn’t suit the mandate.”

“You’re sure of this?” I asked her. She nodded. “Have you spoken with Goddess? Or had a dream?”

“I’ve met the man,” she said simply. I laughed. “He wants her, but he wants something she can’t give. Eric and Harran understood what she couldn’t give, I think even Tristan did, though he took it the most personally. Prior,” she shook her head, “he doesn’t see it. He sees a woman, even a queen, but he doesn’t see the sword.” I nodded.

“Perhaps she needs that though,” I tried. “Aaron didn’t know I was Champion when we fell in love.” She looked at me.

“It isn’t the same,” she sighed. “I wish it was, for her sake.”

An Injection Of Chaos

Annalise

“They’re here, they’re here!” Althea Graves-Willis exclaimed running into my office, followed solidly by her mothers. Mercy smirked at me, while Elodie scooped up their little girl, actually an orphan they’d adopted from Brightcoast. Althea was nearly five now, and positively doted on, not just by her parents but by most of court.

“Althea,” Mercy cautioned, “what did we say? If you could behave you could announce to Her Majesty.”

“I’m sorry Mother,” Althea sighed and wiggled out of Elodie’s arms and curtsied deeply. “Your Majesty, The Count and Countess of Pantona and their family have arrived in the city, if it would please you to greet them when they arrive at the palace.”

“Thank you, Lady Althea,” I bent down and kissed her forehead, “it does please me. As do you.” She laughed and ran off down the hallway. “You’re too hard on her Mercy,” I cautioned her. Mercy rolled her eyes.

“I won’t have her be a little savage,” she said, with a smile. “But she is excited to see Calla.”

“Of course,” I nodded, I looked at Elodie. “You’re ready to brief them, Commander?”

“Of course,” Elodie laughed, “not that Athena won’t have more questions than my briefing could possibly cover.” I smiled. We arrived on the palace steps and Marina was already waiting with Raymond and Evan. I wondered where Nika was.

“Some traders arrived and asked for a blessing,” Marina said, anticipating my question. I nodded.

“It’s downright eerie when you two do that,” Raymond grimaced. “I’m your cousin too, why can’t I guess what you’re thinking?”

“I haven’t any idea,” I said, “perhaps it’s from Mariah, not Tumona or The Goddess.” He rolled his eyes. The gates opened and I couldn’t help but grin widely as Aaron and Athena walked up in full dignity. They were followed by Olivia and Thomas, Olivia holding Calla in her arms. Tristan and Carolina were next.

“I’m going to kill her,” Marina muttered. I looked at her.

“I’m sure she had her reasons,” Elodie murmured. I exhaled, one of them was pregnant then.

“Your Majesty,” Aaron smiled and bowed, I nodded and he rose and kissed me on the cheek.

“Your Grace, Countess,” I nodded to Athena. “Countess, General,” I smiled at Olivia and Thomas, “Viscountess.”

“Your Majesty,” Calla squeaked shyly, and placed her thumb in her mouth.

“She’s rather sleepy from the journey,” Olivia smiled.

“Of course,” I said and kissed her. “I am glad you’re here, Lady Calla,” I whispered, the little girl nodded. “Commander Dugarry, Lady Dugarry,” I accepted their bow and curtsey. “Please, come in and get settled, we’re going to have a private supper tonight.”

“That sounds perfect,” Athena said cheerfully and Marina glared at her, “but I think I have to receive a lecture first.”

“Ah,” I nodded. “Congratulations,” she laughed followed me inside. “General, Commanders, if you don’t mind, Commander Willis has briefings for you.”

“Of course,” Tristan smiled at me and kissed Carolina and they walked through the hall and Carolina disappeared down the hall

“Is Mama in trouble?” Calla loudly asked. “Is it because of the baby?”

You told a child and then rode across the country without telling us?” Marina practically roared. Elodie’s nostrils were flaring.

“It’s almost as if I wanted to avoid this very interaction for as long as possible,” Athena sighed.

“The briefing can wait,” Elodie said, taking Athena’s hand and dragging her away, “we are examining you immediately.” Marina marched after her, Athena looked pleadingly over her shoulder and Aaron shrugged, barely containing his laugh.

“Your Mama is not in trouble,” I said gently. Althea nodded.

“My Mama helps all kinds of ladies with babies,” Althea said, Calla frowned. “Isn’t that right Mother?” She looked at Mercy who was laughing.

“It is indeed,” Mercy kneeled down to the two girls. Calla nodded and looked at Olivia, my heart broke.

“Come sweetheart,” Tristan picked her up, “why don’t you nap, and then you can tell Lady Althea all of your adventures on the journey from Pantona, hm?”

“I’m not sleepy,” Calla whined as he carried her away. I exhaled and moved into a sitting room and collapsed.

“I apologize for our lack of organization,” Aaron said, “I told Athena it was a bad idea to surprise the healers.” I smiled and poured tea for them.

“They’d have been hysterical no matter what,” Raymond shrugged.

“Where’s Prior?” Thomas asked. I exhaled.

“He’s leading training exercises today,” I explained. “He’ll be at dinner.” Aaron raised his eyebrows at me.

“At family dinner?” He said. “Has something changed?” Thomas shrugged. “You told them?”

“I shared some thoughts in a letter,” I said, “I haven’t decided anything. Just,” I exhaled, “considering some things.” He narrowed his eyes at me. “Much like Athena not telling Marina and Elodie she was pregnant, I was trying to avoid a lecture.”

“My father would be thrilled,” Evan piped up, “and you’d spare me and Marina.” Aaron snorted.

“Your father would put one of his horses on the throne and be thrilled,” Aaron said. “What about Calla?”

“Calla will be my heir,” I said, “until I have a child. Then she will be appointed protector, I won’t abandon her, or the new one. Or any children of Tristan and Caro’s.”

“How does Marina feel about it?” Olivia asked. I smiled.

“Relieved, I think,” I looked to Raymond who nodded, “gods know I rely on her for too much, taking one burden off her shoulders will surely help.”

“And how are your studies, Lord Raymond?” Olivia asked. Raymond preened a little.

“I’ll take my vow before we leave for Westran,” he said. I smiled at him. “I had hoped Mastero Anselm would come with you.”

“I excused him,” I said softly. “Is he doing better?”

“He’s weak still,” Olivia said gently, “but he’s improved.” I nodded. “Perhaps you can visit, that might cheer him up.” I nodded. It made me sad that my old teacher’s health was failing and I couldn’t be by his side. But the injection of chaos from my family was so welcome, I couldn’t help but feel joy fill my heart.

Off And Away

Carolina

We’d packed, and had two carts (a recent gift from Alex and Emily, to celebrate the birth of their son) full, plus a carriage for Calla, The Dowager Countess and myself to ride in. I’d never gotten used to the long over country rides, and Calla is too little for them, sitting with myself and her grandmother means that Athena can ride freely.

But before we leave tomorrow morning I found my way to the inn and walked back to William’s office. He wasn’t there so I found my way to a small terrace out back.

“What are you doing here?” He asked, his voice soft.

“I wanted to say goodbye,” I said stepping closer, tentatively. “We’re going in the morning.” He nodded, his figure outlined by the moonlight. “And then we’re off to Westran and I don’t when I’ll be back and I didn’t want to part,” my mouth was dry. “I want us to be friends again.”

“Friends,” he said, as if he was tasting the word, “the first time I saw you, four years ago, all I could think about was how Tristan Dugarry was probably the luckiest man to ever live. Maybe it was just jealousy, that drew me to you. Jealousy that he had Annalise’s love when she’d never even looked at me, bitterness that Athena shoved me away from Marina to clear the way for him,” I closed my eyes, “and now he had this beautiful bride, who looked at him like he was the sun, and he rode away from her at the first chance.”

“Well if you’re looking to push me away further,” I said, my voice flat, “telling me that everything between us was about Tristan and Annalise and Marina is certainly the way to do it.” He looked at me. “I cared for you. And I was lonely and sad and you used that, to get some petty revenge for imagined slights?”

“That isn’t what I meant,” he whispered and walked over to me. He turned up my chin. “I cared for you too, I still do. But were you ever going to choose me over your marriage? Over your duties?” I swallowed.

“No,” I said softly. “But losing you,” I swallowed and he nodded. “William, did I use you terribly?”

“No,” he said, “we’re both guilty here, sweetheart, no getting around it. Your shouldn’t have come to me, and I should have sent you away.” He kissed me, softly. “I won’t regret it, ever. Even just one night, that you were mine.” I pressed my forehead to his.

“William,” I whispered. He kissed me again. I realized if he’d asked then, months ago, when I was so tired and needy, if he’d asked me to run away with him, I would have. I might now, even. “Ask me,” I mumbled.

“Oh, Caro,” he whispered, “we both know you’d hate me in a week.” I laughed with a light sniffle. “It’s good you’re going away, sweetheart, when you come home I’ll be good again.” I looked up at him. “He doesn’t deserve you.” I swallowed.

“I don’t think it’s about deserving,” I whispered. “That isn’t how hearts work.” I pulled back and squeezed his hands and turned and rushed back to house. Tristan was waiting in his study, he looked at me as I walked in and I swallowed.

“I won’t insult either of us by asking where you were,” he said softly. I looked down. “How long was it going on?”

“Long enough,” I said simply, “and it’s over anyway.” He closed his eyes.

“Why him?” He said. I sighed and sat down. “I know why you, I understand my part in it,” he shook his head.

“He was here,” I said. “And good to me, I wish it were more complicated.” Tristan nodded. “I’m more sorry than you could know.”

“I think I know,” he whispered, “I remember that particular brand of sorry.” I smiled and poured myself a glass of whiskey. “Caro, look at me,” I looked at him. “I hate leaving you, every time. It feels as though I’m ripping my heart out.” I nodded.

“You could resign,” I said.

“I can’t,” he whispered, “you know I can’t.” I nodded. “But we’ll be together this time.” I slid close to him.

“Yes,” I said softly. “I wish you’d be angry, then I might feel less guilty.” He kissed my hair.

“I was plenty angry,” he said softly, “when I saw you with him last week.” I nodded. “But I’d rather forgive you and be with you, than be angry and distant.” I kissed him. “Besides, you forgave me.” I nodded.

“I made you work harder for it,” I said. He laughed.

“You did,” he whispered, his voiced edged with teasing, “but I’m clearly more magnanimous than you.” I whacked him in the chest and he laughed. “Do you love him?” I closed my eyes.

“I don’t know,” I whispered, “I don’t think so. It’s not like us. Not even like what I had with Andrei. It simply is.”

“And it’s over?” He asked.

“Yes,” I said, “it is.” He kissed me. That night after we went to bed he didn’t touch me. In the morning when we left, he kissed my hand gently as I got into the carriage and I smiled.

A sleepy Calla yawned and curled in my lap. I smiled and wrapped my arms around her. Dowager Countess Olivia smiled at me. That I risked this family might be my deepest shame about this whole thing.

Testing

Marina

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“They usually are,” I said.

Never Tired

Athena

I’m very lucky that my mother and sister in law are good hostesses, because no matter how hard I try, how many times I watch Olivia run even the smallest of gatherings, I’m not good at it. There are plenty of other things about being Countess I’m very good at.

But hostessing is just not one of them. And tonight is worse because Carolina is willfully ignoring William, who had staring at his drink like it might offer an escape, and then left quickly after dinner. It’s so unlike her.

Tristan standing with his hand on Carolina’s lower back. I looked at Aaron who shook his head at me.

“What is it?” I whispered.

“I’m not sure yet,” he admitted, “but it’s not good.” I sighed. “I had a letter from Harran today. He sent one for you too.”

“I read it,” I smiled. “I’m excited to see him.” He smiled at me. “I was wondering if we’d bring Calla?”

“Bring her where?” Caro settling in next to me. Tristan in a chair nearby. Something was wrong

“To the border,” I explained. “I don’t know if it’s safe.” Caro smiled at me.

“I think she can handle it,” Tristan smiled. “I wrote to Lotte, we ought to get her a pony.”

“She’s three,” I said. He shrugged. “You’ll spoil her.”

“She’s going to be a Countess,” Aaron laughed, “possibly even a queen, I don’t think she can be spoiled.”

“Don’t be silly,” Olivia settled in, “you complained plenty that we spoiled Lisette.” Aaron laughed. “She should learn to ride though, she loves horses so much.”

“We were five on ponies, Thena,” Tristan said. I glared at him.

“Perhaps I want Calla’s childhood to be different from ours,” I said. Carolina looked at me. “That still leaves two years anyway, but you’re right about talking to Lotte and Drea about it.” We talked for a little longer, some about going to The Border and then Tristan’s plans with the queen in Westran after.

“Will Marina be with you?” I said. Tristan shrugged.

“I suppose so,” he said, “I know Nika will be and I can’t imagine they want to separate.”

“They’re separate more often than their together,” Aaron said, “I think it suits them, honestly.” He was looking at Caro.

“I’m sure it does,” she said, meeting his gaze. “They’re both so busy.” Tristan looked at me.

“Of course,” Aaron said. He seemed angry with her, I wish I could figure out why.

“I’m afraid I have to ask you all to leave,” I said abruptly. Olivia stared at me. “My stomach is still often unsettled, with the baby.”

“Of course,” Tristan smiled and kissed me on the cheek and then Olivia. I embraced Caro and we made our way up to bed.

What is going on with you a Caro?” I asked Aaron as we slid into bed.

“I think something is happen with her and William,” he said. “She was incredibly upset this afternoon leaving the inn, and then he seemed on a another planet.” I laughed.

“Well, yes, he’s in love with her, he has been for years,” I shrugged. He stared at me. “Oh, don’t look at me like that. You must have seen it.”

“I really didn’t,” he muttered. “She isn’t,” he exhaled, “it’s not mutual?”

“I don’t think so,” I said, “but she is often lonely. And I know that she was furious when she found out about Tristan and Marina.”

“What about Tristan and Marina?” Aaron said. I sighed. “I mean beyond the usual, stare at one another intensely and make everyone uncomfortable thing that the two of them do occasionally.”

“Before their wedding, Tristan went to her to comfort her about Lefty and they slept together,” I said. “I think Caro found about maybe a year later? She almost left.”

“And you think she was with William out of revenge?” He frowned. “That doesn’t sound like her.”

“No,” I said softly, “I think that she’s been very unhappy recently, and you know what he can be like. If something happened, I’m sure he’s not making it easy for her to step away.” He frowned. “Love,” I rested my hand on his chest. “What are you thinking?”

“I’m thinking that it is bizarre that William and Tristan like the same women, every time, nearly without fail,” he muttered, “with Lisette and Marina I could have chalked it up to their similarities, but Caro too?” I laughed. He kissed me. “Were you really not feeling well?”

“No more than is normal,” I assured him. “I’ve been having trouble keeping richer food down, but that’s why I kept it simple tonight.” He nodded and he kissed me. I exhaled.

“Are you worried about Calla?” He asked. I bit my bottom lip.

“A little,” I admitted. “Lisette hasn’t declared she’s the heir, Aaron, and she’s no nearer children of her own. Which means Calla doesn’t have a place in Dovetail. She belongs here.”

“I know,” he said, “but I always resented my parents leaving me behind, and there’s no reason for us to leave her.” I smiled. “Marina said Council will vote on her being the heir this session.” I nodded. “There’s of course a third option, beyond the guard and being Lisette’s heir.”

“Don’t even tease,” I groaned, “she’s welcome to join the guild when she gets older, but handing her over now would please my grandfather far too much.” He laughed. “I want him to die wondering if Tristan and I will ever come back.”

“That may be the most terrifying thing I’ve ever heard you say,” he laughed and kissed me. I smiled and pulled close. “And that includes every time you offhand talked about cutting off my appendages when we first met.” I giggled. He kissed me.

“I’ve grown rather fond of those appendages,” I whispered. He smirked and rolled on top of me. “Aaron,” I whispered.

“Yes, love,” he said and kissed me, pulling my shift over my head.

“Don’t stop,” I whispered. He nodded, he kissed my neck and I wrapped my legs around him. I arched into him as he pressed into me. We moved with each other, I never got tired of how he felt in me.

We finished and I fell back against the pillows. Aaron curled up behind me and snuggled close, burying his face in my hair.

“Thena,” he whispered, “what are you thinking about?” I smiled.

“I’m barely thinking at all yet,” I said, “but I suppose I’m wondering if when I’m massive with this baby you’ll still want me.”

“I wanted you when you had Calla,” he laughed.

“Mmm,” I sighed, “yes, but maybe you’ve changed in three years.” He kissed me.

“I promise to still want you,” he smiled. I laughed. “Sleep well, Countess.” Every night for four years he’d whispered this in my ear. I would never ever get tired of it.

Thinking Politically

Annalise

“And if Your Majesty would consider it,” Liesel Norvine was sitting next to me, “I know it’s difficult with the trip to Westran, but Dorin,” I nodded at her. “Mama is concerned.”

“Of course,” I sighed, “is she feeling better?”

“A little,” Liesel shrugged, “she’s frustrated to be missing Council, I’m not sure she trusts me yet.” I laughed.

“I think she just misses lecturing me,” I grinned. “I even miss the lectures.” Liesel laughed.

“You may be right about that,” she said. “Have you heard from the others?” I shrugged.

“Lord Evan is sitting for his father, Count Aaron leaves in a few days I believe, Marina is here,” I said, “we can convene soon. Is something wrong?”

“No,” she said, “just impatient, I guess.” I nodded. “Evan’s sitting for Wyatt, not Captain Chastain?” I glanced down the table at Evan and Prior. “I’m surprised.” I glanced sharply at her. “Given their own family strife I mean,” she sipped her drink, “obviously.” I shook my head. She took after her mother, sharp tongued and observant.

“I haven’t, and won’t give Wyatt cover to marginalize Evan,” I said, “unless Evan asks for it.” We’d discussed that. His disinheritance would give him a chance to become a Mastero, to go wherever Raymond decided to settle.

I’d hate to lose him on council though.

As dinner finished some musicians began playing and I got up from my seat and walked out onto the terrace. I glanced, hoping to catch Prior’s eye.

“I think I’m a disappointment,” Nika teased coming beside me. I laughed.

“Never,” I shook my head. “If only because tonight was the first time I saw Marina smile in a month.” She nodded. “Do you have news for me, Lady Nika?”

“Only to tell you that your arrival at the border and in Westran is highly anticipated,” she smirked, “my sister is beyond honored at your acceptance of her invitation.” I snorted.

“I’m sure she is,” I mumbled.

“I refuse to feel sorry for you,” Nika shook her head, “you rebuffed him enough times, he was bound to finally turn his head.” I sighed. She wasn’t wrong. For a year or so, Harran and I carried on as if nothing had changed.

Then he asked me to marry him.

Now he was marrying Brea. It was my own fault. Then I couldn’t have seen it, I was still so sure Eric would be back.

“Have you seen anything interesting?” I asked. Nika shrugged.

“No,” she sighed, “nothing new at least. The Dark Lady is quiet. Shadows gather and then they disperse. I see nothing of their king.” I nodded. “It’s as if he disappeared entirely.”

“That’s not possible,” I said. She looked at me.

“No, it is not,” she said, “he’s somewhere, but he’s hiding too well.” I looked at her. “I know Marina is unhappy, I do my best.”

“You know that has nothing to do with you,” I said. Nika shrugged. “Nika, she loves you.”

“Yes,” Nika sighed. “She does. But like anyone you love, Annalise, it won’t be enough for her.” I stared ahead at the mountain.

“Sometimes I think you see too much,” I mumbled. She laughed. “Did Raymond show you the obsidian?” She shook her head.

“Rina told me about it,” she said, “I’m going tomorrow to test it against shadow.” I closed my eyes. “It would be a powerful weapon. And maybe a way to bind without destroying to question them, or even restore their humanity.”

“I hadn’t considered that,” I mumbled. She sighed.

“I consider it every time I watch one shatter,” she whispered, “each shadow was once a person, a soul, corrupted by Amina’s false promises.” She looked down. “It’s my honor to help you, you know that, but it’s not what I’m supposed to do. I’m supposed to settle the souls of the dead, I’m supposed to mind my people,” I nodded.

“I know,” I said, “and I want to get you back to that, Nika.” She nodded. “Your sister chose not to accept my hospitality this time?” Nika snorted.

“My sister,” Nika sighed. “No, I seriously doubt she’ll come to Dovetail again.” I nodded. That was probably for the best. My relationship with Brea could be described as cold at best.

“Of course,” I said, “please let me know when you all plan the test, I’d like to be there.” She nodded and I walked back inside.

I’d done my best to emulate the more casual summer court in Dovetail too, the problem is that the palace isn’t really set up for it the same way as Brightcoast. It was autumn now, and I longed for summer. I looked over at Marina, who looked better than she had that morning, standing talking to Raymond and Evan, but she was still too pale.

“Your Majesty,” Prior appeared at my side and bowed. I smiled at him.

“Captain Chastain,” I said, offering my hand and he kissed it. “Did you speak to your cousin?”

“I did,” he nodded, “and yours.” I smiled softly. “Anya thinks you should take your uncles seat on council.”

“An honor I could do without,” he snorted. “Sometimes I think Evan and I are fighting each other to not take on those responsibilities, rather than who has to.” His eyes moved down me. “I forget sometimes that for years I only saw you like this.”

“Did you think about me much, then?” I asked as we moved into the hallways and down the stairs. He shook his head.

“I thought about you all of the time,” he said, “That you were beautiful, and mysterious.” He took my waist and pulled me close. “And my uncle hated you,” I giggled. “And I used to hope one day you’d even know my name, let alone call it out the way you do.” He kissed me. I wrapped my arms around his neck. “And that was just being here, when you were with Tristan,” I looked at him. “If I’d seen you in Brightcoast, I might have actually lost my mind.”

“What do you want?” I asked gently. “From me, from this?” He pressed his forehead to mine.

“I want you,” he said softly. “I expect nothing else.” I nodded. “Annalise, I mean it, I know what this is,” I pulled away.

“I can’t put off marriage forever,” I sighed. “Aaron reminds me every time I see him.”

“Mm hm,” he nodded and we leaned against a wall.

“Politically,” I said, “I could do worse than you.” He laughed.

“You could do better,” he pointed out, “Otto over in Failan would take you. One of Harran’s brothers, one of the Rastani princes.” I shrugged.

“Council seems to want someone Cammadie,” I said. He laughed. “They were willing to stomach Eric or Harran, I think, but now,” I shook my head.

“Are you proposing?” He asked.

“No,” I said, “no, just thinking out loud.” He nodded. “If I were, what would you say?”

“I’m at your command,” he whispered and kissed me, “I’d refuse you nothing.” I smiled.