Assignments

Annalise

The three of us walked out to the courtyard, and saw the others. Tristan had joined them and he smiled gently at me. I nodded and went to Harran.

“Walk with me,” I said. He smiled and we went out of the courtyard. “I need you to go home,” he sighed.

“Of course,” he said. I swallowed. “With a specific mission, or are you just tired of me?” I laughed.

“No,” I said, “I need to you to take your father and brothers’ temperatures, I need to know they’re with me.” He nodded. “And argue for me if they aren’t.”

“That I can do,” he pressed his forehead to mine. “I’ll be called a failure, you know. Twice I’ve not managed to keep you.” I laughed.

“I’m going to miss you,” I whispered. “Not nearly as much as Athena, but still,” he laughed then.

“She might never forgive you,” he admitted. “Brea and Nika?” I bit my cheek.

“I still need them,” I said, “we have to find Brayton, and after him Amina, probably.” He swallowed and kissed me. “Harran,” I whispered.

“Lisette,” he said softly. “Gods, if I’d been bolder four years ago.” I laughed.

“You’d have had a terrified little girl in your arms,” I said, “I’m glad we waited.” He frowned.

“But I’d have had you first,” he said, “and could hold some claim on you.” I smiled. “You have a wild heart, my queen, you needn’t tame it to suit others.”

“He doesn’t want to tame it,” I said, “but it is his.” I swallowed, “you said it yourself, I can’t keep fighting fate.”

“Yes, but when I said that you weren’t sending me away,” he pointed out. “And Tristan wasn’t back yet.” I laughed. “I’ll leave in the morning.”

“Good,” I said. I walked back over to the group. Marina was sitting with Nika, their foreheads together and they were whispering, Athena and Tristan looked at me.

“You two should go to,” I paused, “I’m sure Aaron and Carolina are worried.” Athena smiled softly.

“I’m sure they are,” she said, “but you need us.” Tristan nodded.

“This is what we do, Your Majesty,” he said. I laughed. “We protect you, we fight for you.” I swallowed and threw my arms around his neck. “I’ll die for you, remember. I swore.” I nodded.

“I’d really rather you didn’t though,” I muttered. He smiled. “I don’t know, if,” he cupped my face.

“I made another promise,” he said gently, “to tell you the truth,” I nodded. “You can handle this. You were born for it.” I swallowed. “We also have a favor to ask, though.”

“Anything,” I said softly. The twins made eye contact.

“We know,” Athena said, “that whatever’s next, we have to be with you.” I nodded. “And that any plans we might have had.”

“We want to get married,” Tristan spat out. I stared at him. “As soon as possible.”

“Oh,” I said. “Well, what do you need from me?” Athena smiled.

“Permission to do it on the palace grounds, mostly,” Athena shrugged. “Marina’s already agreed to perform the ceremonies.”

“Permission granted then,” I said softly. Tristan’s face relaxed. Did he think I’d say no? “I should speak to Eric.” I walked back to the palace and found him waiting in the apartment.

“Well?” He whispered.

“Something’s starting,” I said, “I don’t know what yet.” He nodded and kissed me pulling me close. Sex would be easy right now, to just be with him, to think of nothing and no one else. “How’s Lefty?”

“Restless,” he said, “worried, but unharmed.” I nodded. “Did you catch him?”

“We let him go,” I said softly, “he’s not important anymore.” I sat down and rested my head on his shoulder. “When do you go?” He exhaled.

“A week or so, I think,” he kissed me, “I’ll come back as soon as I can.” I slid into his lap. “Anya,” he said. “What’s wrong?”

“Don’t know me so well,” I teased. He laughed darkly. “I can’t just want you?”

“You can,” he said, “but in this moment, you don’t,” I exhaled. “Tell me,” I frowned.

“You’ll be angry,” I said. He sighed. “I sent Harran home,” I whispered, “and Tristan and I,” I pressed my forehead to his, “I don’t know, Eric, I love you, I want us to be together, but I can’t not love him. And I know you’ve said you can’t live with that.” He pressed his forehead to mine.

“I never said you shouldn’t love him,” he whispered, “I said I wouldn’t share you.” I swallowed. “I still won’t, but I trust you.” I wove my hand into his. “I’ve never loved anyone else, Anya, but you have. You love so fiercely, why would I want to change that?”

“We have a week?” I whispered. He nodded. I kissed him fiercely. “What will we do with ourselves in that time?”

“I think you’ll be rather busy,” he teased, I nipped at his bottom lip. I nodded. “As will I,” he groaned as I kissed along his jaw. “There are a lot of arrangements to make.”

“Mm,” I smiled. “Are there?” He nodded and stood up, carrying me to bed. “I don’t want to lose you.” He pushed his hands over my thighs.

“You won’t,” he said, “I swear it.” I smiled.

Interlude: Second Chances

Raymond

I’d been ignoring him. I’d forced him to come here and I’d dived so deeply into life here, I didn’t know as he slipped away, that he didn’t fit, didn’t belong.

It was my fault that everything would fall apart.

“You shouldn’t punish yourself,” Eric said, “we all trusted each other and you had no reason to believe Randolph wasn’t honest with you.” I nodded, but I didn’t hear him. “Talk to me, tell me what’s going on in that head of yours.”

“What if I’m wrong?” I said. “What if everyone here is wrong and everyone at home is right, and I’m broken and dangerous and,” he exhaled. “She’s calling to me Eric. Amina, and right now, what she’s offering me is tempting.” He nodded.

“I can’t make you feel like you aren’t broken,” Eric said, “I certainly can’t stop you from going to Amina, I don’t have nearly the power,” Raymond looked at him. “But I’d miss you, Ray, I’d miss you terribly.” He swallowed. I stood up and we stood in silence for a while before I walked back into the palace. I wanted to talk to Marina, to explain himself but she wasn’t anywhere.

“Sir Raymond?” I swallowed and looked at Evan Allred standing behind me. He joined us on the ride down from Dovetail. He looks like a lot of the midlanders, pink skinned and freckled and hair somewhere between red and brown. He was ostensibly supposed to be courting Annalise, but I’m not one hundred percent sure she even knows his name. “Are you alright?”

He’s also my age, and enrolling in the university when we go back to Dovetail as well, so we’ve been talking quite a bit.

“Hi,” I stumbled. He smiled. “I um,” I exhaled, “I think I will be.” He nodded. “You?” He shrugged.

“My father is going to be overly pleased,” he sighed and ran his hands through his hair, “if it gets you lot gone.” I laughed. “I’m waiting to tell him of course that it’s hopeless and I couldn’t be,” he cleared his throat, “I mean, she couldn’t be less interested in me, regardless of The Prince.” I looked at him. “Are you going home?”

“No,” my throat was dry. “No, I’m staying.” I looked down. “They won’t want me at home.” He frowned at me.

“Well, then they’re incredibly stupid,” he said, “who wouldn’t want you?” I really hope my eyes weren’t actually the size of my entire face because they certainly felt it.

“I um,” I swallowed, “ah, thank you?” He nodded and walked away, his face flushed. After another talk with Athena where she hugged me, which felt baffling. And then in my continued desire to find Athena, instead I found Randolph.

“You could have just told me you were unhappy,” I said walking up to him. He stared at me.

“When?” He shrugged. “Between mapmaking with the witch and your social calendar,”

“I wanted you to be a part of all of that,” I said, “I thought that was why we came here, instead of staying,” I exhaled. He took my hand.

“I thought that too,” he said, “but I don’t want that life anymore and I couldn’t,” he choked. I nodded. “I miss home, Ray, don’t you?” I blinked oddly at him.

“No,” I said, “no I don’t, at all. Well, except maybe my nieces.” He laughed and kissed me. I knew it would be the last time. “You don’t think you’ll what you’re looking for back home,” I whispered as our foreheads touched.

“Maybe not,” he said, “but I’ll know who I am, and can you say the same?” I frowned. I tried to think about how Marina or Annalise would answer that. Squaring her shoulders and ranting about The Goddess and being the most beautiful woman alive. Annalise is a Queen and that question is answered.

For once my cousins were not exactly the best models. Instead we just squeezed hands and he walked down towards the beach and walked inside. Marina walked over to me and smiled gently.

“Don’t do that,” I said. She sighed. “Athena’s being nice to me, it’s weird.”

“Before Brayton fell, Athena’s fiance told Brayton where resistance camp was and outlined some of the main hierarchy of the leadership and it lead to Martin being banished and running for his life,” she explained. “So I think she understands how you’re feeling right now.” I stared at her. “And I am sorry, Raymond.”

“I know,” I sighed. “But please don’t pity me.” She frowned.

“I’m not pitying you,” she laced her arm through mine, “I’m concerned, I care about you. It’s different.” I looked at her. “And I’m not the only one.” She nodded to Evan, who was animatedly discussing something with one of the sisters. I blinked.

“He’s, we’re, I’m,” I stuttered, “it’s not like that.” I managed. She shrugged.

“He likes you,” she said, “I’m not a particularly gifted aura reader, Lisette is better at it, but that’s patently obvious. He tries to hide it because he knew about you and Randolph. But I have a feeling things will become more plain now.”

“Maybe I’m not ready,” I said and shrugged. She smiled.

“Then you aren’t,” she said, “but just know that there are more people who care about you than you realize.” I smiled.

I came here to make a new life. I thought with him. But new does mean change. I guess I can be ready for that.

Hiding

Carolina

Tristan found me sitting in the library listening to some girl about fifteen trying to play the piano. She wasn’t doing well.

“There you are,” I said, he sat down with me, “what’s wrong?”

“I’ve made arrangements for you to stay here tonight,” he said softly. I looked at him.

“Whatever for?” I said, “I should be at the house in the morning you know how my father is about breakfast.” He exhaled.

“I need to know you’re safe, and the safest place is here,” he sighed. I squinted at him. “Come on,” I stood up and followed him. “Lord Brayton has escaped, and I can’t,” he touched my face. “I can’t be worrying about you.”

“Oh,” I said softly. “Of course not,” I swallowed, “Is Lady Marina alright?” He frowned.

“I don’t know,” he muttered, “Lisette and Athena don’t want to disturb her, which I think is wrong.” He shook his head, “you’ll stay here, though?” I nodded. He kissed me. “I have to go, I’ll find you later though.”

“Alright,” I managed softly. I went back into the library and nearly jumped out of my skin when a very pretty red haired girl settled in next to me.

“Oh, I didn’t mean to startle you,” she said, “I’m Mercy Graves, I believe you’ll be staying with me this evening.” I looked at her. “Of course he didn’t give you the details.” She rolled her eyes. “My Elodie will be on duty as well, that’s why I offered.”

“I understand,” I swallowed. “Does it always feel like this?” I asked. Mercy looked at me. “Like your stomach is on the outside of your body?”

“Unfortunately,” she said, “it isn’t an easy life.” I looked at her. “It’s worth it though.” I smiled. “You have it much worse than I do though,” she said as we stood up and walked down the hall, “Tristan’s not just a soldier, he’s a hero and thinks of himself that way.” I swallowed. “Elodie at least tries to stay safe, but that boy,” she shook her head. “I’m not helping, I’m sorry.”

“It’s alright,” I said. We reached her apartment. “How long have you and Captain Willis been together?” She sighed and flopped onto a couch.

“Two years,” she said, “she was away for six months, right before Annalise took the throne. I thought I might never see her again, it was hell.” I sat down. “Tell me, what makes a wealthy merchant daughter leave a whole world behind to come to court and be a soldier’s wife?” I sat down.

“I never fit, in Dorin,” I explained, “and I hate the guilds. I hate the way they turn everything into a deal and nothing can simply be. I hate negotiations and I hate being a commodity that my father wants to unload like cargo on one of his ships.” I frowned. “And I love Tristan. I didn’t expect to, but I do.” Mercy looked at me. “I love that he’s too serious, and that I’m the one who makes him smile and the way he’s always trying to solve the puzzle of every room he’s in,” I laughed, “and he’s doesn’t love me. He’s trying to, but he doesn’t.” I was crying. “He was honest about it, he told me he was in love with her, with the Queen,” she nodded. “The first night I met him, I asked and he answered, yes,” I swallowed. “I thought I could live with it. I still think I can.”

“Wow,” Mercy nodded. “I’ve always been jealous of him, you know.” I raised my eyebrows. “Marina loved him. She tolerated me.” I smiled.

“You have good taste,” I said. She laughed.

“I didn’t have many options,” she admitted. “But yes, I think so.” I laughed. “My father didn’t want me either,” she swallowed, “I was a girl, and queer besides, useless to him. He tried to change me.” I scrunched my face.

“I didn’t realize such things happened anymore,” I said. Mercy shrugged. “Where is your father now?”

“Dovetail,” she smiled, “he’s sided with Brayton until the end, you see, so while Annalise spared his life, he isn’t welcome at court.” I smiled. “Do you want to make sure yours is alright?” I sighed. “I’m sure you do,” she rang a bell.

“It’s really alright,” I shook my head. She raised her eyebrows. “I’m sure the guards have better things to do.” She nodded and I stood up. “What do I do if he dies?” I asked.

“Whatever you like,” Mercy shrugged, “your service was accepted tonight, but the Queen won’t hold you to it if you want to go home and marry that Rastani man who was skulking around earlier.” I stared at her. “I’m more observant than most. He’s very handsome, a little dim, I think, when I talked to him.”

“Not dim,” I shook my head, “and yes he is, handsome, I mean. He was my,” I stopped, “well, before Tristan.”

“Oh,” Mercy said, “well that is complicated.” I laughed. “He’s not going to die. If Tristan Dugarry were at all marked for death he’d have died a long time ago.” I smiled.

“You rang, Mistress?” A maid walked in. She looked at me.

“I think chocolate will do,” Mercy said softly. “Unless you want something stronger?” I shook my head. “Yes then, two hot chocolates.” She took my hands, “I know it’s awful,” I nodded. “But all we can do is wait, and love them fiercely when they’re with us.”

Final Decision

Athena

Aaron and I are standing on the landing, not talking watching as something gathers on the horizon. That’s what it feels like but it’s also physically happening, there are shadows over past the cliffs gathering.

“Are you alright?” He said. I swallowed and nodded. “Do you agree with Tristan? Should we go to Marina?”

“We’d only panic her,” I said. He looked at me. “I’m panicked. Our best were guarding him, Aaron, and Anselm? This isn’t like with Phania. This wasn’t a frustrated boy who wanted to go home. We can’t talk ourselves out of Brayton bringing shadows. Marina’s power has grown, and Raymond will be helpful but we still don’t know how she summoned that light last year, or if she can do it again.” He nodded. “And Lisette is distracted. Cornan tells me to wield her, she’d his sword, I’m his champion.” I sighed, “I don’t know how to do that, I don’t know what it means, and she doesn’t listen to me anyway.”

“She listens,” he said gently, and held me close. “But she doesn’t want to be a weapon. She never did.” I smiled up at him.

“You know that’s when I started falling in love with you,” I said softly, “do you remember, that day we went for a ride in the woods? And I was teasing you, about ghosts?” He smiled.

“Ah,” he nodded, “and I thought that you were ignoring her as a person.” I nodded. “I didn’t understand then.” He swallowed, “I think I do better now. I’ve been able to forgive my father for it.” I smiled and kissed him. “She’s a person,” he said, “but she’s a symbol too, and the sword. She needs to embrace that. I think Eric is helping.”

“My Lady,” I turned as a guard ran in. “Lieutenant Lestoff is here, he’s insisting he needs to see you alone.” I frowned.

“Alright,” I said, Aaron nodded and followed the guard out, Lefty stumbled in and collapsed on the couch, his eyes wide, and full of fear. “Lefty,” I said and knelt down next to him. “What happened?” He shuddered, I shouted for the guard. “Get Captain Willis.”

“No,” he said, “no he’s back, he’s here, Athena, he has her.” I looked at him. “You have to, she’s alone with him, she’s fighting him,” I swallowed.

“Look at me,” I said, “Brayton?” He nodded. “Were there shadows?”

“No,” he whispered, “but I couldn’t breath, I couldn’t think. It was so dark.” I nodded. “He’ll kill her.”

“No,” I said, “unfortunately, it will be worse than that.” I grabbed my sword, and spear. “You need a healer, Elodie will be here presently.” He swallowed.

“I left her,” he whispered, “she said to, but still,” he was shaking. I pressed my forehead to his. “I swore I never would, and I,” he swallowed.

“It’s alright,” I said. “She’ll forgive you.” He closed his eyes. “I have to go.” He nodded. “Lefty,” I said, “we need you to tell us if you’re feeling,” I swallowed, “not like yourself.”

“I’m no shadow, Lady Athena,” he said. I nodded. “Go,” I ran out into the hall, Nika, Brea and Harran were standing waiting.

“We felt it,” Brea said, “Nika and I, The Dark Lady is awake.” I looked at Harran, who was holding large staff. “The Shadow King is here?”

“He has Marina,” I said, “Lefty just came to warn us.” Nika folded and then unfolded her hands, creating a pair of whips of pure light.

“Marina is formidable enough for The Shadow King,” Nika said, “but his army is another thing entirely and if The Dark Lady comes herself,” she exhaled.

“I’m glad you’re here,” I said, meaning it from the bottom of my heart. Annalise walked down the stairs, in full battle armor. “We’ll never hear the end of it.”

“Trust me,” she said, sheathing the dagger from Caleb, alongside her father’s sword. “I considered that.” We walked down the beach, a legion of guards at our back. “Where is he?”

“Getting Carolina safe, probably,” I said. She nodded. Brightcoast Manor didn’t look different, but I felt it. The stillness and chill I’d felt everyday for years hung in the air. Brea looked at me. She moved her hands into a triangle form, flame circling out from them. It banished the coolness in the air. “Your Majesty?”

“Remember in Dovetail,” she said softly, “when I insisted that I go alone?” I nodded. “Have them stay, I need you.” I smiled.

“Nika, Brea, Harran,” I motioned to them, “if shadows fall, you know what to do?”

“Of course,” Harran said. We stepped inside. The hall was lit by silver flames in brazier, Marina’s magic. That was a good sign, but the light felt eerie.

“Marina,” I called out, I looked up and saw her descending the stairs, in a blue dressing gown. She looked placid. Annalise was frozen next to me.

“Hello Athena,” she said, her voice was cold, flat, wrong, “Cousin.”

“Rina,” Annalise said softly, “please, tell me you didn’t,” she stepped closer to us and cocked her head to the side.

“How many times have you Dreamed this?” Marina said softly. “You must be prepared.” I squinted at her, and I didn’t hesitate, I took my sword from my belt and quickly sliced at her neck.

“Athena!” Annalise shrieked as the woman in front of us disappeared into shadow. “It wasn’t her?”

“No,” I said.

“How did you know?” She asked. I swallowed.

“I grew up around the black guards,” I said, “I know how it feels near a shadow. Come on,” we walked up the stairs and into Marina’s chamber. She was standing, a few light ropes that resembled Nika’s whips in her hands, binding Brayton to a chair. She was shaking and sweating, but hadn’t broken.

“There you two are!” She said, sounding exasperated, “what kept you?” Annalise burst into a laugh and quickly took the rope. I ran and hugged her tight. “Damian?”

“Elodie is with him,” I said. She exhaled. Brayton looked at me.

“So it’s you then,” he said. “Cornan chose you.” I frowned. “Warren send his regards. He’s waiting on my signal.”

“Is he?” I said. “He’ll be terribly disappointed. He doesn’t breathe unless you say so.” He snorted.

“He’s loyal,” he said. “I promised him you, you know.” I tightened his bindings and he flinched.

“I’m not yours to promise.” I hissed. He smirked knowingly.

“Still, it’s about the only thing that motivates him,” he said. “Just you.” I looked down.

“That’s his misfortune, then,” I said softly.

“So cold,” he said, “That’s the DuManis in you.” I exhaled. “Anselm and your best guards couldn’t hold me because Amina is through waiting, what do you three think will be different now?”

“I didn’t understand before,” Marina smiled gently, “I think I do now.” She flicked her hand and the binding fell. “I’m the one she needs Brayton, not you.” His face went ashen. “So go to her, tell her I’m ready. I’m tired of waiting too.” He ran out of the room.

“I don’t know how wise that was,” Annalise grimaced. Marina looked at her.

“I’m tired of hiding,” she shook her head. “Tired of being afraid. I don’t think she’ll like that he failed again.”

“I’d take an open fight over all of this too,” I admitted. “Though Nika and Brea think we can’t take her.” Marina set her chin stubbornly and I smiled at her.

“We’ll get ready then,” she said. “Brayton was in my bedchamber, while I was with my lover, and almost killed him, I have no interest in deferring this any longer.” I nodded.

“Good then,” I smiled and picked up my spear, “I’m going shadow hunting.”

Nobody

Marina

“I think we need to talk,” Damian said flatly.

I stook blankly looking at him. The warm feeling in my stomach churned into guilt.

“I wasn’t expecting you,” I said. “When you weren’t at the palace.”

“Weren’t you?” He said softly. I swallowed. “You’re still upset.” It wasn’t a question. I appreciated that.

“Yes,” I said gently. “Why didn’t you come tonight?”

“I didn’t trust myself,” he whispered. “I behaved badly this afternoon.” I nodded. “I do trust you.”

“It didn’t seem like it,” I spit out. He looked at me.

“I know,” he rested his forehead against mine. “I keep expecting you to realize that I’m not worth all this. I’m not worth a war. Eric should realize it, he doesn’t either.”

“Damian,” I said softly and kissed him. “Oh my love, don’t say that.” He pulled me close. “You’re worth it. We’re worth it.” He kissed me again. Was it possible that he knew? He’s usually so in my head, so in sync with me. “Come to bed.” I said gently. He touched my face.

“Not tonight,” he said gently. I frowned. “I don’t want to, while you’re angry.”

“I’m not angry anymore,” I said softly. He shook his head. “Damian, what are you holding back from me? It’s been weeks and I feel like you’re just gone.”

“So you want me to make love to you just to prove I want you?” He raised his eyebrows. I wanted to scream.

“I want you to stop being so careful,” I said. “I’m not fragile and I thought you of all people understood that.”

“What do you want to hear then?” He said. “That I see you slipping away from me? That every minute you spend avoiding war, and hunting the gods, and weaving magic with Nika or Raymond, you become even more out of my reach than you always were.” I closed my eyes. “And then today I see you in his arms. Tristan Dugarry, a hero, who knows you better than you know yourself, who you always wanted.” He ran his thumb against my jaw. “You’re magnificent, and powerful and important, and I’m nobody.” I swallowed.

“You aren’t,” I said softly. He smiled.

“It isn’t up for debate, darling,” he said, “I could disappear right this moment and the people it would matter to could be counted on my fingers.” I went to argue. “I know you’re one of them, but I worry for how much longer.” I swallowed, thinking of the charge as Nika’s lips met mine.

“Where were you tonight?” I whispered. “And the first night Franz landed. And so many others?” He sighed. “I want to trust you, I do, but I know you’re lying and,” he kissed me.

“I know what you’re accusing me of,” he said, “and I can’t even blame you. But no, I haven’t been with anyone else.” I swallowed and realized I was crying. “I walk, and sometimes I go to see Dorian and Elaine, but I usually can’t even manage that.” I nodded. “I’ve thought about it. I know it wouldn’t be hard to find someone.”

“I’m glad you haven’t,” I whispered and kissed him. He smiled. “No matter how easy it would have been.” I swallowed. “You aren’t nobody. You’re mine and I won’t give you up willingly.” He laughed. I felt guilty, for denying him pleasure and release with someone else when I was thinking about it so much. We kissed and fell back into the bed.

“Yours,” he whispered. I nodded and went for his pants. “Gods, Marina,” he whispered softly. I guided him into me. I’d missed him. He kissed me softly and I whimpered against him. We were through quickly. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to worry you.”

“I know that,” I whispered gently. “Damian,” I said.

“Mm,” he exhaled.

“I know I’ve said I don’t want to dwell on the past,” I whispered. He sat up. “But there’s never been anyone else for me,” he nodded, “and I think, sometimes,” I closed my eyes, “I’ve spent so much time wondering if you’ll be tired of me, get restless, that it never occurred to me that I might.” He sat up on his elbow.

“Are you restless?” He asked gently. “Do you want to spread your wings a little?” I swallowed.

“I don’t know,” I said, “I want you, but I see,” I exhaled, “other people, and I wonder, what if I’d met them first? What if you hadn’t overwhelmed me so much?” He smiled.

“Well, that puts one fear to rest,” he said. I wrinkled my nose at him. “If I thought you were regretting Dugarry, I might not be able to take it.” He laughed. “Are these, hypothetical people?”

“No,” I said softly. He nodded.

“Do you want to end this?” His voice was gentle, not unkind, or afraid.

“I don’t know,” I said softly, “no?” He smiled. “Not yet.” I nestled my face into his chest.

“May I request,” he kissed my temple gently, “that until you decide, we remain exclusive.”

“You’re being very very understanding,” I said.

“I love you Marina,” he said, “If I’m going to believe as you do, that we’re meant to be together, I have to trust that you’ll come back to me, if you decide to leave,” I rested my chin on his chest and looked at him. “I’ve been ready for you to leave me since you first looked at me, love.” He swallowed.

“I’ll never not want you,” I said quietly. He kissed me gently, sliding his hands to my hips. I pulled closer. “Were the others all girls?” I asked. He stopped and looked at me.

“No,” he said and looked at me, “is that what this is? Do you want me and another man at the same time?” I giggled and shoved my palm against his face. “I’m not opposed, but I repeat, not Dugarry.”

“No,” I said quietly, “it’s Nika.” Saying it out loud to him, suddenly felt like a hole in my chest was sewn up. He nodded. “We’ve been working together, and today after we argued,” I swallowed. “And now I can’t stop thinking about her. And it isn’t fair to you.”

“I don’t know,” he smiled, “thinking about you and Nika seems quite fair to me actually.” I sighed. “I’m sorry, I shouldn’t make a joke out of this. It’s scary, the first time you realize it.” I nodded.

“For you?” I asked. He nodded. “Tell me,” it was the first time I’d asked about other lovers. Besides Elaine.

“It wasn’t a grand romance,” he said, “it was while we were in training. It’s forbidden, at home, you know. That’s why Eric was so eager to get Raymond here. It’s different for me, since I like girls too, and I’m, well, me, so no one pays much attention.” I looked at him. “Rory, that was his name, and he was, well, we had a lot in common, but he often even made me feel like a stick in the mud.” I laughed.

“I can only imagine,” I said. “Why did it end?” He shrugged.

“Like most of my stories before you,” he said, “it didn’t really, he was stationed elsewhere, when we saw each other we still got together.” I wove my fingers into his.

“Franz is demanding an ambassador,” I said softly. “I’m going to ask Lisette for the post.” He exhaled.

“Don’t,” he whispered, “not for me.” I pressed my forehead to his.

“It isn’t for you,” I said, “not entirely. I think I need to go. I think Rana wants me to.” He nodded. “Will you show me Brinecliff?” I whispered, “And Pharras?”

“There’s nothing in the world I’d want more,” he said. I smiled. “You could bring Nika,” he teased. I shook my head and kissed him.

“Enough,” I said. He laughed and pulled me close.

“Well this is cozy,” A drawl came from the terrace door. We both sat up, and I gasped, “hello, Marina,” Brayton was grinning. “Lieutenant Lestoff, I haven’t had the pleasure.” Damian lept out of bed and went right for his throat but was quickly tossed aside by power. “How tedious.”

I felt frozen, I couldn’t move.

“How?” I exhaled. He sat down at the foot of the bed and smiled at me.

“We can discuss that later,” he said. Damian stood up again. “Oh, he’s resilient.” I swallowed. He flicked a hand and a large black funnel restrained him.

“Stop,” I cried out and shoved a hand at him, a blast of light coming out and shattering his magic. He looked stunned as I ran to Damian. He was gasping for breath. “Run,” I whispered to him, “try to get to the palace, tell Annalise.” He nodded, and did make it out the door while I held a wall of light up.

“Well, that is impressive,” Brayton smirked at me. I swallowed and steeled myself.

“Thank you,” I said, my voice dripping with sarcasm, “you know how I always longed to please you.” He laughed. “Now, My Lord,” I said, “please explain your presence in my home.”

Escape

Annalise

I was glad it was over, even if it wasn’t really over at all, but at least the rest didn’t have to be in public. I felt awful, for kissing Tristan, for telling him I still loved him.

I didn’t even know I felt that way. I was sure I was over him, but being so close again, it was like everything was back.

“Is everything alright?” Eric asked me as we settled in to dinner. I looked at him. He doesn’t deserve this. He’s been so patient with me.

“I,” my voice cracked, “it’s been a long day.” He nodded. “Would you be very hurt if I said I wanted to be on my own tonight?” He smiled gently.

“No, love,” he said, “of course not.” I exhaled. “You’ll talk to me tomorrow though?” I nodded. “I don’t want to crowd you, on this Anya, but please don’t blame me for being a little fragile where,” he swallowed, “well where certain parties are concerned.”

“I don’t blame you,” I said. He nodded, and I leaned across the space and kissed him. He grinned. Since Franz had come our public interactions had cooled a little. But I was too tired today, I wanted to reassure him, and myself, that I was on the right course. “Feeling less fragile.”

“Greatly,” he laughed. “Do you like her at least?” I smiled.

“I do, actually,” I said, “she suits him. She seems quite serious, which he needs, but not, well,” I sighed, “I don’t know, she’s balanced in a way that I think will help him, and us, come to that.” He nodded. “Thank you, for not pushing. I know this is an impossible situation.” He smiled gently at me.

“It is,” he whispered, “and you’re doing quite well in it.” I smiled. “I’m worried about Lefty, it’s looking more and more like we’ll have to go home, even for a little while, and I don’t think he’ll take it well.”

“You’re worried about Lefty if you go home?” I smirked. “No yourself, and not me?” He sighed.

“If I worry about you my head will explode, love,” he shook his head. “As for me, I’d leave every part of myself that matters here in your care.” I lost my breath. I don’t deserve him, his love, and his patience.

“If you have to go home,” I said softly, “we should be engaged before you do.” He nodded.

“I think that’s sensible,” he grinned. “I’ll do everything I can to make you happy, you know that.” He kissed my hand and I smiled.

“Well, then it’s settled,” I laughed. He nodded and laughed with me. “Eric,” I said, “thank you.” He smiled. “Oh, Goddess, what will Franz do?” Eric burst into a loud laugh.

“Likely insist on a coronation on the spot,” he sighed, “or something else ridiculous that even my brother and sister in law wouldn’t even consider because he’s an idiot.” I laughed. “Which is why I’d have to go home.” I nodded.

“Lisette,” I turned hearing Aaron say my name, “I think when we break up dinner, we all need to talk.” I nodded. “Your highness, you’ll excuse your lack of an invitation?”

“Of course,” Eric’s voice was tight. I frowned. It wasn’t like Aaron and him to be at odds. I looked at them both. Dinner finished quickly and we all broke up, as we usually did, and I found myself in a library, with Aaron, Athena and Tristan.

“Where’s Marina?” I asked. Athena shook her head.

“She went home,” Tristan said gently. I raised my eyebrows.

“What’s wrong?” I said. “You all look like someone died.” Athena swallowed.

“We got a report from Anselm,” Athena said gently and handed it to me. I raised my eyebrows, took it and read.

Lisette,
I do not know what happened, nor do any guards. Brayton is gone from his cell. He is not in the city. I could not tell you what happened. I’m sorry for failing you. Please warn Lady Marina. Please stay safe. I’ll be to you in a few days.

SA

“What do we do?” I whispered. Aaron shook his head.

“We warn Marina,” Tristan said, “obviously, he’ll come for her, as soon as possible.”

“Probably,” Athena nodded, “and we need the Phanians to go, quickly.”

“That won’t be hard,” I said, and sat, “Eric and I agreed to get engaged, tonight, and he wants to go home to settle things with Daniel and his mother after that anyway.” Tristan stared at me. “How did he escape?”

“He’s chosen too,” Aaron said, his voice almost gentle, he sounded more like Caleb than I’ve ever heard. “Do you think that if you, or Marina, or Athena were imprisoned, Rana and Cornan would simply let you rot? Or would they use whatever they could to free you? And as far as we know Amina isn’t bound as they are, since she did the binding.”

“Of course,” I whispered. “I’ll speak to Marina in the morning, I don’t want her panicking.”

“She should know now,” Tristan said firmly. I glared at him. “What if he comes for her tonight?” Athena rolled her eyes.

“As if we could stop him when she can’t,” Athena said, “you just want to make sure she’s not with Lefty.” Tristan glared at her.

“I am engaged, Athena,” he said. I looked down. “Fine, you all gamble with Marina’s life, I have plenty to do.” He stomped out of the room.

“He’ll be fine,” Athena said as Aaron went to speak, “if he tries for her tonight there’s not much we can do that Marina’s household guards and she herself can’t.”

“I know,” I said, “I doubt announcing my engagement will help.”

“Probably not,” Aaron said, “although, who knows? No one has ever known what to do with him.” I nodded.

“I need a minute,” I said softly. They nodded and left. I sat down on the couch and started crying. The room where we were meeting had a large portrait of my parents, I looked up at it and swallowed. “I’m sorry, I thought,” I exhaled, “I wanted to be merciful.” I wept. I didn’t know what else to do.

Captain Arrain

Athena

“Maybe Tristan was right,” I said to Martin as we watched Tristan comfort a clearly shaking Carolina, “maybe they are scary.”

“He was absolutely right,” Martin said, “they are terrifying, but he was less right about how she’d handle it. She did well.” I nodded.

“Commander Dugarry?” A man with darker blonde hair and clear icy eyes walked over to me. I smiled at him.

“Can I help you?” I said. He looked at me. “We haven’t met have we? Do you work for my Uncle? Oh, Cornan, did Carlton send you?” He blinked oddly at me.

“Athena, this is Captain Andrei Arrain,” Martin said, “he was the one who’s ship we were on, on our way down.”

“Oh,” I smiled, “of course, thank you so much for the safe delivery of my family, Captain, how may I help you?” Martin nodded and walked away.

“I wanted to speak about Miss DuKarras,” he said simply. I frowned.

“Alright,” I said. He sighed.

“I thought you should know I mean to challenge the contract,” he said, “Carolina and I had an understanding, and while nothing formal,” I laughed.

“I’m sorry,” I said, “you’re going to challenge the contract,” he nodded. “For my brother’s marriage?” He nodded. “Carland Dumanis’s grandson? The favorite of your queen? And the brother in law to be to the Count of the second largest provenance in Cammadan?”

“Yes?” He said, his voice had gone up a register.

“Well, I wish you luck but I don’t think it will go well for you Captain Arrain,” I said, “may I ask on what grounds? Beyond this vague, understanding you’ve described.”

“Her father and I had begun negotiations,” he smirked, “and I was living in the family home.” I stared at him. “With all that that would entail.”

“Alright,” I set my drink down, “but then why was my brother even introduced to Carolina as a prospect?” His face fell. “My cousin Alex was incredibly confident she was free.”

“Having not lived in Dorin, you might not be aware of how your family,” he cleared his throat, “clears their own way, as it were.” I cocked my head.

“I am more than aware of that tendency,” I said sharply. “Nonetheless, I cannot allow,” I exhaled, “whatever this crisis of yours is to stand in the way of my brother’s happiness. Or Miss DuKarras’s for that matter, as she’s made her desires more than clear, despite wherever you were, erm,” I cleared my throat, “residing.” He nodded. “But again, I wish you the best of luck regarding your challenge.” I swept past him to where my grandfather and Mr. DuKarras were standing.

“Thena,” Grandfather smiled, “you look lovely. This is quite the spectacle. And all for us.”

“For Carolina,” I corrected him, “and Tristan.” He shrugged. He’s clearly decided that Tristan has become one of them. I hate that he might be right. “Mr. DuKarras, might I steal you away for a private word.”

“Of course,” he said and followed me into one of the smaller parlors, “is something amiss, Lady Athena?”

“Captain Arrain told me he intends to challenge the contract,” I said. He laughed. “I’d be amused if it didn’t appear he had decent grounds.”

“Andrei is impetuous,” he shrugged. “But yes, we had begun negotiations.” I swallowed. “Carolina’s mother did not believe he could provide for her, however, so they were cut short. He went to Rastan to prove he could provide and in the meantime your cousin brought Tristan, and the plans changed.” I nodded.

“He was living in your home?” I said. He smirked.

“I didn’t think Caro’s virginity was something you were overly concerned with,” he said. “Given your own reputation.” I started to seethe.

“I will not gamble with my brother’s future and happiness as it appears you did with your daughter’s,” I hissed. “Fix it. Or you can explain to everyone you try to do business with why your daughter was married by her husband’s commanding officer with no contract and her dowry was rejected.” I stomped out and slammed to door behind me.

“Someone’s in a mood,” Harran said as I stepped, less than lightly into the ballroom, “Tristan’s betrothed is,” he whistled, “if I weren’t already in a tangle, I might even flirt with her.”

“Don’t add to my worries,” I grumbled. He smirked. “How is your tangle?” He growled. “Oh that good?”

“Brea has decided that she will stay as long as I do,” he muttered, “she won’t accept the truth that I don’t want her.” I looked at him.

“You did once though,” I said gently. He nodded. “So what changed? And don’t say it was Lisette, you flirted and bedded plenty before you two took up.” He sighed.

“I don’t know,” he shook his head, “I just don’t think I’d make her happy.” I swallowed. I suddenly understood something about my friend.

“I think you should let Brea be the expert on her happiness,” I said gently. He shrugged again. “I”m glad you didn’t leave,” I said. “I like when you’re here.” He smiled softly at me.

“I like being here,” he said quietly. “And I like you Athena.” I smiled.

“Well of course,” I said, as Aaron nodded to me from across the room. “Everyone likes me.”

Presentation

Carolina

I was trying to remain calm standing next to Papa waiting for Tristan. Should I not have left them alone? I trusted him. But there was something nagging me about it. Duchess Marina had been pulled away and was now I noticed having a very animated conversation with the man she’d introduced as her cousin.

“Oh good,” Athena walked over. She looked beautiful, dressed in her formal uniform, the same jacket as I’ve seen Tristan in, but tailored to her curves, and a long green satin skirt rather than the crisp black pants. “You look wonderful. Are you nervous?”

“A little,” I admitted. I was happy with the dress. It was a simple gold satin, with a few flounces of lace. Ever since Emily took control of my wardrobe from Mother, I’ve been more comfortable. I suddenly felt a pang, wishing desperately that my sister was here. “She was very kind. Thank you for suggesting we talk before.”

“Mm,” Athena nodded. “Well, I’m glad. Where’s Tristan?” I exhaled. “Oh,” she said softly. “Well, I’m sure he’ll be along soon.” I swallowed and nodded.

“Will I have,” I looked her up and down. She looked down. “well, this?”

“Oh,” she laughed, “perhaps not this elaborate, but yes, you’ll have a dress uniform. Count Caleb gave Tristan and I ours when we were inducted. I’m sure you’ll be able to afford one.” She stopped. “Or perhaps I’ll give you one.” I nodded. “Hello, Mr. DuKarras.”

“Lady Athena,” Father smiled distractedly at her. I glanced across the room and saw Andrei lazily leaning against the wall, sipping out of a glass. I glared at my father. “I couldn’t well stop him from coming.”

“Clearly,” I gritted my teeth. Athena looked at me. Tristan walked in and the knot in my chest released. He looked vaguely worried but I hurried over to him. “What kept you?” His face immediately softened.

“I’m sorry,” he shook his head. “As you said, we had a lot to talk about.” I nodded. “I promise to tell you all about it.” I smiled and kissed him. “Are you alright?” He asked gently.

“Just nervous,” I said softly. “Andrei is here. I don’t know why.” He nodded.

“I think I do,” he said, his eyes sliding to his grandfather. He kissed my forehead. “Are you ready?” I nodded. A large bell was rung and two large doors I hadn’t noticed swung open. I watched Annalise walk through the ballroom, people sinking into bows and curtsied as she did.

I felt like I couldn’t breathe. The girl who I’d spoken to earlier seemed gone completely. In her place, might as well have been the Goddess herself, all poise and calm.

“I can’t do this,” I said. Tristan looked at me. “Tristan, you don’t understand, when we met, I’d already given up, you didn’t see the years before. Tripping over gowns, Alex apologizing for me when I said the wrong thing to your grandfather, ” He looked at me. “I can’t, I’ll fall on my face, and humiliate you.”

“Caro,” he said softly, “it’s alright. You’ll be fine. I’ll be with you, and you don’t have to do anything at all. We did the hard part. This isn’t really her, you saw the real her.” I swallowed and nodded. But I knew it wasn’t that simple. A few other people had walked through the crowd and gotten a nod. I noticed Count Aaron and his mother standing beside her.

Tristan’s hand was in the small of my back and I swallowed.

“Your Majesty,” he said gently and bowed, “Your Graces,” I also noticed a Phanian man on her left. “Your Highness,” Tristan’s voice seemed higher and tighter when he addressed the Prince. “I would like to present, my intended, Miss Carolina DuKarras.” I swallowed and sunk into a low curtsey.

“Miss DuKarras,” Queen Annalise smiled, “we are honored to have you here with us, and hope, that on your marriage you will choose to serve.”

“No-nothing could bring me more pleasure, Your Majesty,” I said, meeting her eyes. There was the softness in them, that had been there when she took my hands earlier and laughed. She nodded and I stood up.

“Sir Tristan,” The Dowager Countess said, “perhaps, you and Miss DuKarras would honor us all by opening the dancing.” He glanced at me. I nodded.

“We would be honored, Your Grace,” I said gently. My voice was barely above a whisper, it was all I could manage.

“Good then,” The Count winked at me, “you two will start, and I request at least one, Miss DuKarras.” The exasperated sigh The Queen let out then almost made me giggle. It certainly made me miss Emily less. We moved away then and I exhaled happily.

“That went well,” Trey walked over to us. I smiled at him. “You’re very pale, Caro, would you like some wine.”

“Oh Gods, yes,” I said, reaching for the goblet he held out. I took a long swallow. “That was awful. I never have to do anything like that again, do I?”

“Of course not,” Tristan said, “well, your induction, but that will be smaller.” I nodded and took another long sip. He laughed. “Please slow down,” I frowned at him.

“Fine,” I said softly. But the wine was wonderful, sweet and light, compared to heavier dark reds I drank at home. “But I will be dancing with the count.” He laughed.

“As if I thought I could stop Aaron from doing just as he pleases,” he said. I laughed. “You don’t mind, do you?”

“No,” I said, “I know he’s only teasing. I watched the sunrise in his eyes when he looks at your sister.” Like I saw in your eyes when you saw her. He smiled gently and kissed me. “Tristan, I don’t want to be a burden while we’re here.”

“You couldn’t be,” he whispered softly and kissed me again. “You’re upset, did someone say something to you?” I shook my head.

“I’m fine,” I said, “it’s been a very long day.” He nodded. “I want to dance. Like we’re back in Dorin.” He smiled then, and cupped my face.

“Of course, I want that too,” he said. “In Dovetail there’s usually food at these things and I’m starving.” I laughed, taking his arm and going in search of food.

Reunited

Annalise

“You’re very impressive tonight,” Mercy said, fastening a sash across my chest. I looked at her. “I understand it. I helped Marina pick her dress for tonight, and she might as well be Rana herself.”

“It’s mostly because between Franz and the merchants I can’t appear even human, let alone,” I swallowed.

“Sir Tristan looked well enough when I saw him,” Mercy grinned. I glared at her. “I’m only saying. And Elodie said he and Marina were practically dancing together when he came to camp.”

“You and Elodie see too much,” I grumbled. She giggled.

“Perhaps,” she said, “but neither of us have seen Miss DuKarras.” I rolled my eyes.

“Aaron said she’s perfect,” I mumbled and fidgeted with my necklace. She touched my wrist to stop me and took my hands.

“When my father used to parade me in front of his friends,” she said softly, “before I met Elodie,” I looked at her. “I made sure I couldn’t be missed. That was my armor. They would see me.” I looked at her. “I think you’re just hoping to be seen tonight, Your Majesty.” I kissed her on the cheek.

“Remind me to humiliate your father every night when we get back to Dovetail,” I said. She laughed.

“He won’t return to court,” she said, kneeling down to settle my skirts. “And I’m reasonably sure if he tried, Elodie would take a knife to him and that wouldn’t be much fun for me.” I laughed and the door opened.

“I’m sorry, I didn’t,” Tristan stopped and I turned and looked at him. “I thought you’d be dressed.”

“I am,” I said. “Thank you, Mercy.” She nodded and walked out, whacking Tristan in the arm.

“Mistress Graves,” he grimaced.

“Commander,” she said. He sighed. I held back a laugh. Mercy’s loyalty was unwavering.

“She’s never liked me,” he said. I smiled. “I wanted to,” I glanced at the bed and nodded and we stepped into the sitting room. And there she was. “Your Majesty, I’d like you to meet my intended, Miss Carolina DuKarras.”

“Oh,” I said softly. I didn’t know what I expected, but when our eyes met I felt two feet tall. She was beautiful, I’d Seen that. But she seemed to fit at Tristan’s side, he seemed to gravitate towards hers, and I wanted to hate her for it.

It was also impossible to miss that she looked terrified.

“Lisette,” he said, “Athena thought this would be be better,” he looked almost ashamed. Carolina looked at me.

“It is,” I finally managed and walked over. “Miss DuKarras, I’m so happy to meet you.” She swallowed and curtsied.

“Your Majesty,” she said, “I am honored. And I hope you’ll accept my service.” I grinned in spite of myself.

“Oh Tristan,” I shook my head, “please tell me you didn’t,” he shook his head. “Your service is accepted, please stand up.”

“What didn’t he do?” Miss DuKarras said and looked at me and then him. “Did I do it wrong?”

“You were perfect,” I said, lacing my arm through hers and walking her out onto the terrace, “when Tristan first learned who I was he dropped to one knee and pledged to die for me.” Tristan looked furious. “So clearly you two are well suited.” She burst out into a laugh.

“He didn’t tell me that!” She said and settled on a chair, “he told me about the lemon orchard in Pantona.”

“Well he comes off as a dashing hero in that story,” I shrugged, “so obviously that’s the one he’d tell.”

“He is right here,” Tristan grumbled and sat down with us. “Please don’t repeat humiliations to my bride, Lisette, she thinks I’m wonderful.”

“Hm,” she nodded, “he was rather wonderful when we were in Dorin. Though he often lost his temper when teased.”

“Oh he hates being teased,” I grinned. Tristan was flushed. “Thomas tells me you wish to enlist.” She sat up straight.

“Very much,” she said, “I want to do my part and I know as Lady Dugarry it will be expected.”

“I happily accept,” I said, “we’ll talk with Thomas in the morning about your assignment. Obviously if you and Prince Eric get on,” I stopped and looked at Tristan. “Well, I suppose we can cross that bridge when we come to it.”

“Yes,” Tristan said. “We should go downstairs,” he stood up, Miss DuKarras placed her hand on his arm.

“I’ll go,” she said, “I think you two need to talk.” I swallowed and nodded as she walked out. He watched her go and then cleared his throat.

“Lisette, I,” he started. I smiled.

“She’s wonderful, Tristan,” I said. He smiled. “You’re lucky.”

“I am,” he admitted. “I should have come to see you this afternoon, but there was so much,” I exhaled.

“I know,” I said. We were standing opposite one another. “It’s so good to see you, I was worried,” he nodded.

“Were you?” He swallowed. “Lisette, I,” I stepped closed and wrapped my arms around him. “Gods, I’ve missed you.”

“I’ve missed you too,” I said. “So much, Tristan. I was so lost sometimes, and I love Eric, I do, but, it’s not,” he lifted my chin.

“I know,” he said, “I love Caro, but it isn’t the same. It isn’t us.” I smiled.

“You must have coached her,” I laughed, “I couldn’t believe she practically, mirrored you.” He laughed.

“She didn’t promise to die for you, I still reserve that right,” he said, running a hand over my braids. “This suits you,” I smiled. “Rina almost feels like a stranger.”

“She has grown hasn’t she?” I laughed. “I’m so proud of her. Aaron and I fought and didn’t speak for weeks, did Thena tell you?”

“No,” he said, “what did you fight about?” I swallowed.

“I was,” I sighed, “well, Harran was involved.” He exhaled.

“Of course,” he said softly. I sighed. “I don’t want to,” he laughed. “This was always going to be impossible, wasn’t it?” I nodded.

“I think all of us acknowledging that it’s impossible is the first step here,” he smiled. On instinct I stood up on my toes and kissed him gently. We then passed gently pretty quickly as he pulled me close and I pulled him down onto the seat. It felt so good to be close to him again. He pulled away and sighed pressing his forehead to mine.

“And we probably shouldn’t do that again,” he said softly. I nodded.

“Yes,” I said softly, “that is absolutely the last time we do that.” He laughed and stood up. “Tristan,” I whispered and he looked at me. “I wish you’d said goodbye.”

“I wish I had too,” he said softly. “But that night, I just,” he exhaled, “I couldn’t, Lisette, I just needed to be away from you, and from Marina too. I could barely breathe, we were all so wrapped up.” I looked at him. “Why Harran?” He asked gently.

“Because Eric wanted something real, and I wasn’t ready,” I said softly. “And you weren’t here.” I swallowed. “And I wanted you, I mean, not that way.” We started walking. “I just wanted to talk to you. To ask why you loved me, why,” I exhaled. “Why I should keep trying.” He smiled.

“As if I could explain why I love you,” he shook his head, “loving you is like breathing for me, Lisette. Like I wasn’t even a whole person until we met.” I nodded.

“Don’t leave me again,” I said softly, “that’s an order.” He smiled.

“Understood, Your Majesty,” he said and opened the door and I walked past him.. He slid his hands to my waist and nuzzled against my neck. “I wanted you too, nearly every night.” I exhaled. “I dreamed about you. About us, about the first time I touched you, about your coronation night.”

“Tristan,” I whispered, “don’t,” I whimpered. “We can’t do this.” He sighed and let me go.

“I love you,” he said, “and I always will.”

“I’ll always love you too,” I said, “that doesn’t make it right.” I looked at him. “But we can’t go in circles anymore, and it isn’t just us anymore.” He swallowed. “I have to go. I have to welcome your intended to court.” I realized I was crying and I rushed away.

The Little Duchess

Carolina

I was fully dressed and pacing in the hall of the house we’d be staying in. It was lovely, I couldn’t argue with that. The dress I was wearing had been especially made for whenever I was being presented to the Queen and now I was so nervous I couldn’t breathe.

“Miss DuKarras?” A maid stepped in. “There’s a carriage here,” I nodded. “And The Lady Marina is in it.” I exhaled.

“Oh,” I whimpered, “I thought we’d be going soon. Has there been any word from Sir Tristan?” She shook her head. “Alright, the parlor, I suppose.” She nodded again and I walked into the parlor and waited.

She walked in, practically floating. Her hair was arranged artfully in curls and she was dressed in a silvery blue color and smiled so gently.

And she was tiny. I’d heard her teasingly called The Little Duchess and I could see why now.

“Your Grace,” I said softly and curtsied.

“Miss DuKarras,” she said and walked over to me and sat down. “I’m sorry I couldn’t greet you this afternoon, and I’m sure you were expecting Tristan but he’s been detained.”

“Of course,” I sighed, “I imagine he has a lot to catch up on.” She nodded. “I’m glad to meet you, finally. Tristan speaks of you often.”

“That’s nice to hear,” she said softly. “I don’t want things to be awkward between us. Tristan is my oldest friend and I adore him and it’s clear that you make him terribly happy which is nice because he’s almost never happy.” I laughed.

“You flatter me, Your Grace,” I said softly.

“Marina,” she said, “please.” I nodded and then Father walked in. “Oh, you must be Mr. DuKarras.”

“Yes,” he said shortly.

“Father, Duchess Marina came to meet us and escort us to the palace,” I said standing up and taking his arm. “Tristan was delayed by work, wasn’t it kind of her?”

“Very kind,” he said, “thank you, Your Grace.”

“Not at all,” she stood up and began walking out. “My own father won’t be there, I hope you won’t take offense. He absolutely refuses to attend any event that Admiral Franz will be present at for personal reasons.”

“What are those reasons?” I asked as we climbed into the carriage. “I thought your father was Phanian?”

“Oh he is,” she nodded, “but Papa is rather eccentric. And he deeply disapproves of Annalise and I and well, our attachments to the Island, shall we say. He thinks it’s dangerous.”

“He may not be wrong,” Father said. “I recall some of the talk around Phania when your aunt became queen, none of it particularly kind.” I looked at him. “You look shocked, Caro. You know I spent time in Vacana during my apprenticeship.”

“I long to go,” The Duchess sighed. “I think the Goddess wants me to, but she certainly isn’t being helpful.” I stared at her.

“Isn’t that disrepectful?” I said softly. She smiled at me.

“Oh terribly,” she sighed, “but while losing the blessing is traumatic, I sometimes think it might be worth it.” Father and I both stared at her baffled. “Ah, here we are!” I looked out the window and saw the palace. “Don’t be nervous, Annalise is wonderful, really. She might be a bit stand offish at first, but that’s because she’s a bit shy of new people.” She happily bounced out of the open door and I swallowed and stepped out.

Tristan was smiling waiting for me. I exhaled and took his hand.

“I’m sorry,” he said, “Rina insisted.”

“I did not,” she said sticking out her tongue. I laughed. “Mr. DuKarras, would you mind escorting me inside?”

“Of course not, your grace,” he said offering his arm. She winked at me and continued chattering to my father.

“Did she frighten you?” Tristan asked with a soft smile. “I warned her not to.” I laughed.

“No,” I shook my head, “no, she’s lovely. A bit odd.” He laughed.

“She is that,” he sighed. “She’s lived a peculiar life so far. I doubt it will get more normal.” I nodded. “I’ve missed you all day.”

“Don’t be silly, I’m sure you’ve been very busy,” I said and straightened his jacket. “I was worried when you didn’t come tonight, but Duchess Marina explained you were working.” He nodded.

“Yes,” he said, “and Athena had a thought. We’re going to see Annalise.”

“Well, yes,” I nodded as we started walking inside. “That is why I’m here.”

“No,” he sighed. “I mean, yes, but I meant now, before the presentation. I think it will be easier.” I stared at him.

“What?” I said, “Just waltz into the Queen’s bedchamber like,” I stopped. Of course, it wouldn’t seem at all strange to him. He looked down. “Oh Tristan, I don’t think it is a good idea.” I pressed my lips into my mouth. “I understand if you want to speak to her first, I can find my father and your uncle and be fine until,” I swallowed. “Duchess Marina said she’s shy of new people?” He smiled.

“I don’t know if shy is the right word exactly,” he said. “But she’s not good at it. Most of her life it was just her and The Count, you see, she never really could make friends.” I nodded. I was familiar with that idea.

“Alright,” I said softly. “I mean, I suppose so.” He smiled. “But my father,” I drifted. I was making an excuse, he knew I didn’t really care about my father’s comfort and it seemed he and the Duchess were getting along just fine.

“Caro,” he said softly, the softness in his voice, that he usually used just for me, returning, “it’s alright.” I smiled and nodded and followed him upstairs.