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.

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.”

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.

University

Marina

Growing up, I’d been a little afraid of The University in Dovetail. It stood empty, save for a few Black Guards coming and going. I was barred from getting too close, for once an order from my father rather than Brayton.

Since Annalise reopened it, I still keep my distance because I’d spend every possible moment there if I could. The Masteros that survived have done an incredible job bringing the place back to life, and it’s filling daily with eager students from all over the country, who want to learn to harness the odd talents that for most of their lives they had to pretend didn’t exist.

Raymond has been flourishing and is going to be finishing his studies and becoming a Mastero soon. I’m absurdly proud of him, and the life he’s built with Evan Allred, who also studies, but as his father’s heir cannot take Mastero vows.

“Marina!” Raymond said as I walked into his lab, a large sunny room that we’d designed to be as close to a sea base as possible. “I was wondering what took you so long.”

“I’m sorry,” I said, “I didn’t realize it was urgent.” He rolled his eyes. “Nika’s here.”

“Ah,” he nodded. “Understood, Prior showed up today too, so you and Annalise will both be useless.” I stuck out my tongue. “Here,” he shoved a large orb into my hands. It was smooth and dark. “Hold that.”

“Raymond,” I said, “what is this?”

“It’s obsidian,” he muttered, “Tristan brought some last time they were in Failan because I asked for it. I think it will help.” I raised my eyebrows, “fill the pores with light, if you please.” I exhaled and shot my power through the porous stone. “OK,” he mumbled and swept a small cloud of smoke around it, but it wouldn’t settle on the stone.

“Goddess,” I whispered. “Raymond, that’s incredible. Do you know if it will work with shadow?” He shrugged.

“I can’t conjure shadows,” he pointed out, “maybe Nika can help with that test? But I think so.”

“Obsidian weapons,” I mumbled, “wielded by soldiers with gifts, Athena is going to kiss you.” He laughed.

“Or even rangers where one partner has a gift and the other doesn’t,” he shrugged. “Or if I can figure out charging.” I laughed. “How are you?”

“I’m fine,” I said, repeating what I’d said to Annalise, to Nika, but Raymond knew better and frowned.

“I haven’t heard from them either and it’s worrying,” he muttered. “I tried writing to my sister, but it was just more platitudes about how until I am freed from my unfair holding, they can’t risk Eric’s safety and blah blah blah,” he frowned. “Sometimes I think I should go back, bring Evan, live openly. They couldn’t really stop me, not anymore.”

“No,” I said, “they couldn’t, but we’d miss you.” He smiled. “We’re having a dinner when everyone arrives nothing formal.” He groaned.

“What did you say to him?” Evan walked in. I laughed at him. “He usually only makes that noise when someone tries to come into the house.”

“You have to come to a dinner at the palace,” I raised my eyebrows.

“Oh, well he can survive that,” Evan laughed and rested his head on Raymond’s shoulder.

“I can’t,” Raymond mumbled.

“You will,” I said. “Also, you’re a genius.” He grinned at me. “Raymond, I,” I swallowed, “you’d tell me, wouldn’t you if something happened,” I exhaled, “I mean, if you knew he wasn’t alright?”

“Oh Rina,” Evan said softly, I was trembling and swallowed the tears in my throat. “I’m sure he’s alright.” He hugged me tightly. “Raymond, reassure her!” Raymond looked at me.

“I wouldn’t keep it from you,” he said gently. “My best guess is they’re in Rastan, honestly, with the news of the king’s health failing, Eric would want Karina and Kristoff’s engagement settled, and Katrin basically serves Karina the same way Lefty does, well did Eric.” I nodded.

“I’m sorry, I,” I swallowed, “I’ve been so worried and today Lisette was asking, and then Nika and, I can’t,” I swallowed, “I feel like I can’t breathe anymore.”

“I know,” he whispered, “it’s alright, it’s going to be alright.” I swallowed. “You should go home.” I frowned. “I mean it, you’ve been landlocked too long, I think you need the sea.”

“I can’t,” I hiccupped, “We have to go to Westran, for Brea and Harran’s wedding.” Evan frowned.

“I’m sure you can be excused from that,” Evan said. “If you need to be home.”

“I’m sure I can’t miss it,” I said, “it would be very insulting to the tribes, and the Witches in particular, and Nika’s whole family.” I wiped my nose. “I’ll be alright.” I kissed him on the cheek. “You ought to come tonight though, to see your cousin.”

“I seriously doubt Prior has any interest in speaking to me, but I’d like to see Nika, so I’ll come,” I kissed him on the cheek. Raymond looked at me. “He’ll come too.” I laughed.

Discontented

Carolina

I woke up with sunlight peaking through the curtains and pulled the covers over my head.

“Caro,” Tristan’s voice sing songed. I peaked back out. “Are you awake?”

“I am not,” I said firmly. He laughed and kissed me. “I’m sleeping, go away.” He kissed me again.

“But I’m home,” he said, sliding under the covers with me.

“You’ve been home for three days,” I reminded him, “and I’ve enjoyed it, but you’re rather tiring my love.” He smiled and kissed my neck.

“Ah,” he said, pulling my hips to him. “But I was in the wilderness for four months,” I giggled, “and the thought of tiring you out was the only thing keeping me sane.” I kissed him again.

“The only thing?” I said. He nodded. “Your mission didn’t come into your mind?” He sighed and kissed me.

“Tragically,” he shook his head, “you know I tend to be singularly focused, and this round it was, ‘I am going to go home as soon as possible and make my wife moan for three days straight.'” I laughed.

“Well Commander, you succeeded beautifully,” I kissed him. “But I ask for a slight reprieve.” He sighed. I kissed him. “Now, we can’t put off everything else we have to do.” He groaned as the door opened.

“Lady Dugarry,” our maid, Elsie smiled dropping a tray on the table, “Sir Tristan.”

“Thank you Elsie,” I said standing up and opening the curtains. Tristan pouted at me. “As you can see, Sir Tristan is behaving like a child this morning.”

“Yes, ma’am,” Elsie laughed. “Shall I send word to the Countess not to expect you, again?”

“You can send word to the Countess that she can hang in the village square for all I care,” Tristan grumbled, “as if my sister would attend a godsdamned dinner party after a four month ranging mission.” I kissed him gently.

“We can’t put them off again,” I said, “please tell the Countess we look forward to seeing her tonight.” Elsie nodded and left. “You know,” I said slipping back into bed and straddling him, “when Alex and Emily came through I bought several new gowns and I haven’t gotten to wear them at all.” He laughed at my pout.

“The gowns can hang along with my sister,” he said and flipped me onto my back. I groaned as he started touching me. “When we go to Dovetail, we’ll hardly have any time alone, here,” I whimpered, “I have you all to myself, just as I prefer it.”

“Oh Tristan,” I sighed. I’m weak. I know I should tell him no, that we’ve delayed long enough and we can’t spend another day simply making love.

But I’ve missed him too. Four months is the longest we’ve ever been apart. And his times out in Westran or east in Failor were getting longer.

“Tell me you like it,” he whispered in my ear.

“You know I do,” I teased and nibbled on his bottom lip. He smirked as he pressed into me. We always have this. The physical distance between us can become emotional, but in when we’re in bed, it’s the same as when we first met. We want each other and everything else doesn’t matter. “Tristan, oh gods,” I moaned, arching up into him. “I can’t, I’m going to,” I exhaled and clenched around him.

“Hang on a bit longer, sweet,” he said, “stay with me.” I nodded and cried out as we both finished. “I missed being with you so much, Caro,” he whispered. “Sometimes I thought I was Dreaming.” I smiled and kissed him.

“I felt that too,” I said softly, resting my hand on his chest. “We still have to go to the manor tonight. Athena’s likely to break down our door and then make Aaron evict us if we avoid it any longer.” He laughed.

“I don’t think he can evict us,” Tristan said, “the house was a part of our wedding contract. Unless someone in Dorin takes Andrei’s challenge seriously, he can’t get rid of us.” I barked out a laugh.

“Well, then we’re perfectly safe, since Alex has everyone in Dorin fully convinced that Andrei is out of his mind,” I said. “But we’d better not risk it.” He sighed and I kissed him. “Tristan,” I whispered, “please.”

I knew why he wanted to stay in bed, what he hoped it would lead to.

“Have you spoken to Marina about it?” He whispered. I nodded. “And?”

“Well, she said it will happen on the goddess’s timeline, not ours,” I slipped a robe on.

“Which is Marina for, be patient, the baby will come?” He asked. I shrugged.

“I think,” I kissed him, “it also means that even if we spend every moment we’re together having sex, only being together for a few days every few months, means we can’t count on anything.” He sighed and sat up. I straddled him and pressed my hands against his chest. He had so many scars now. There had been a few I’d always known, the one on his side from taking Dovetail, the small one on near his eyebrow, from a time Athena accidentally cut him as a child. But there were two on his right pectoral now, several on his back. Three on each thigh.

And I was never there for the healing, for his pain. I hated that, I wanted to be, so badly, but it was something he kept hidden away, like so many other parts of himself.

“You’re right,” he sighed. “But I know how badly you want it.” I smiled.

“I do,” I said softly. “But you’re home, and safe, and I can’t ask the gods for more than that,” he kissed me. “This one is new,” I said softly brushing his shoulder.

“Mm,” he nodded, “we walked into a briar nest, it was fine.” I nodded.

“Why didn’t Prior come here with you?” I asked. Tristan’s ranging partner sometimes came here. He frowned.

“He was in rather a hurry to get on to Dovetail,” he muttered. I frowned.

“Oh,” I said softly, “I hadn’t realized they were still,” he shrugged.

“She has to entertain herself somehow,” he sighed.

“Tristan,” I said quietly. Though that at least got him out of bed. I wanted to say something, but anything I’d say on the subject would sound hollow, jealous. She isn’t replacing you, no one could. I have to believe that. Annalise’s lovers have nothing to do with Tristan, because if they do, then what does our marriage mean? I know I can’t be what she was to him. I’d never even bothered to try.

“I’m sorry,” he said, “I know you didn’t mean,” I kissed him. “I’ll get dressed, we’ll walk into town, and then to the manor.” I nodded. “I brought some things for Calla.” I grinned.

“She’s missed you too, you know.” I said. “Annalise is considering giving her the circlet soon.” He looked at me.

“That’ll be sure to calm the Phanians down,” he said. I shrugged.

“Nothing else has,” I sighed, “we got some word that Lord Lestoff is rebuilding his launches, that’s good news, if the ferries start running.” He smirked.

“Any news from Brinecliff is good news,” he muttered. I shook my head.

“You don’t get to resent Annalise having Prior and Marina pining for Lieutenant Lestoff at the same time, love,” I teased. He laughed. “And us not having a child. It’s too much. Even you can’t sustain that level of brooding.”

“I’m very good at it though,” he grinned. I shook my head. “What is it you want to do today, besides dinner?”

“I have to go into town,” I said, he groaned. “I haven’t checked in in a few days, something may have happened.”

“I won’t speak to him,” he said.

“Oh that will be new a different,” I grinned. “You two are usually on such good terms.” He glared at me. “Tristan, he’s a useful contact. I can either do my job well, or I can ostracize William, it cannot be both.”

After I was inducted into the guard, it became abundantly clear that I was not a fighter. But Dowager Countess Olivia quickly observed how my merchant trained manners set people at ease, and how my contacts through Alex and Emily could keep the army up to date. So instead of a soldier I became a spy. I’m very very good at it.

Tristan hates it.

That is the least of our problems.

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.

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.”

Proposal

After waking up and lining up our ducks. (I sent Marina and Aaron to greet them. They’re good at people and manners and I need to catch my breath.) Olivia was helping me dress. Marina had chosen the clothes, a green uniform dress and the crown of the goddess. I was supposed to look splendid and terrible. I mostly felt ridiculous.

He looks different than my visions, but I knew him immediately. And I felt at ease. Eric. Prince Eric, My Eric, I probably shouldn’t drop the title. But it was like everything felt easy, when he took my hand.

Marina is sitting studying in the parlor now. I walked out and sighed loudly and flopped on an armchair.

“Can I help you?” She asked not even looking up from her books.

“What time do I have to change tonight?” I asked.

“Around 7 I suppose,” she said. I frowned. “You could try taking a nap.” I wrinkled my nose. “Annalise, I can either keep working and unlock the battle magic secret or entertain you this afternoon.” I laughed. “Go bother Aaron, I’m sure he’s plenty bored too.” I stood up and kissed her on the cheek.

“I am sorry for bothering you,” I said and she swatted at me and giggled. She’s changed so much in the past few months, and it’s a good change. I walked out into the gardens, wondering who if anyone I’ll come upon. I want to spend more time with the courtiers, but I think they all think I’m odd.

“Lisette,” Prince Harran called to me from across the lawn, he was standing with Tristan. I wanted to be furious with him after this morning, but seeing him, “That is, Your Majesty. Did I tell you, Captain Dugarry about my great shame when I first met our queen.”

“My great triumph,” I said straightening my shoulders. Tristan raised his eyebrows. “Prince Harran came to Pantona, when I was fourteen, with some very potent whiskey.”

“Ah,” Tristan nodded, “And Queen Annalise, or Lady Lisette as she was then,” he looked at me, that melancholy way of his, “drank most of it.”

“Here was this little girl, charming of course, and very beautiful,” Harran said, “and she sat down with me in Pantona’s study as I opened the bottle and asked for some. And then, I think it may have been at the Viscount’s urging, we wound up in a contest, and I found myself unable to stand while Lisette continued to pour herself drinks.” I giggled.

“it was not ladylike, but I was proud of myself,” I said. “I’m glad you’ve come.”

“The Chieftans insisted, my brothers were put out,” he said. “They want to court you,” I laughed. “Harran’s already had his chance at Pantona! I said they can line up behind half the men in Cammadan and most in Rastan and Phania.” I smiled.

“It’s a lot to handle,” I said, seeing Tristan’s face darken. “Which is why familiar faces and old friends can be helpful.” He nodded and bowed. “You’re still angry.”

“I’m frustrated,” he said. “Harran’s right by the way and it’s been hell.” I took his hands and lead him away from the crowd. We kissed then. “Last night, I thought we could change all that.”

“I want to,” I said, “Tristan I do, really.”

“So marry me,” he spit out. I kissed him. “I’m serious.”

“I can’t,” I said, “you know why I can’t, we’ve talked about it!” He frowned.

“Because the court wouldn’t like me, and Rastan and Phania’s honor must be served,” he frowned. “You sent away all the Provenance heirs, except Aaron, obviously.” I sighed. “Lisette, don’t argue with me, just,” I closed my eyes.

“Tristan, I can’t marry you,” I said, “I thought I’d always made that clear,” I wanted to cry, I might have been crying, come to think of it. “I love you, only you but, I can’t,” he nodded.

“Fine,” he whispered and kissed me again and then walked away. I feel like my heart is torn in two. I ran inside and luckily Marina had left. I walked into my room flopped on the bed and kept crying. I didn’t hear the door open, but then I heard Athena’s voice as she sat down and stroked my hair.

“That idiotic boy,” she muttered, “I’d strangle him if I could bring myself to.” I sat up and looked at her. “Honestly, I know he’s my brother, but he doesn’t deserve you and you don’t deserve any of this.” I smiled.

“Did they send you to fetch me?” I said. “I have a lot to do, I know, but I just,” she shrugged.

“It’s alright, we’ve told everyone you’re worn out,” she shrugged. “I don’t think it’s untrue, but you still need to make an appearance tonight.” I wiped my eyes. “What do you think of him?” I looked at her.

“I don’t know yet,” I said softly. “I was so surprised this morning, I thought I had  more time.” She nodded. “Athena,” I whispered, “don’t tell anyone, about what Tristan asked. Not Aaron or Martin, please, I couldn’t take it.” She pressed her lips into her mouth.

“Alright,” she said. “What about Marina?” I sighed. Marina and I were at an understanding about Tristan finally, this morning not withstanding, but this was different.

“I’ll talk to Marina,” I said softly, “eventually.” She nodded.

Long Live Annalise of Cammadan

I’m crowned now and I know I should be greeting my guests, but all I can do is lay on my bed and breathe deeply. I want to scream. I want to laugh. I want to cry. But I just breathe. I’m still in the simple green uniform dress I wore for the ceremony though the more ornate ballgown is staring at me, hanging outside of my wardrobe.

I dressed myself this morning, for the first time since we got to Dovetail. I’m going to insist on it more I think. At least on more casual days, I don’t want to become spoiled or useless. An ornament. I’m not just a figurehead, I’m the sword of the goddess.

“Lisette,” Olivia said walking in, I sat up. “I thought I’d help you dress.”

“Marina?” I asked.

“She’s taking a nap,” she smiled and sat down and pulled a comb from her belt and began untangling my curls. “Well earned, I’d say.” I smiled.

“Mm,” I said, “Can you braid it?” Thinking of my hair.

“Not in elegant enough fashion,” she frowned at me. I sighed. “Perhaps we should bring someone over from Phania for your hair. Your mother had Sister Mara.” I looked at her. “I’m proud of you, love, really. You did so well today.”

“I wish Caleb was here,” I said. She nodded. “I suppose you have to back to Pantona soon.”

“Yes,” she said, “I might stay too,” I frowned at her. “Darling, it’s my home.”

“But Aaron and I will be here,” I said. She laughed. “And, well, what about Martin.”

“What about him?” She said. I shook my head.

“He can’t go to Pantona, I can’t spare him,” I said standing up, “and I don’t think it’s terribly fair of you to,” she shook her head.

“Thomas and I have no understanding,” she sighed, “beyond our grief and shared history I doubt we have much in common.” I grinned at her.

“Yes, and what is thirty years of shared history and grief, nothing at all,” I teased. She sighed.

“Impertinent girl,” she said, pulling the laces on the back of my dress.

“Can I be impertinent, now?” I said. She laughed. “I don’t think I can. Maybe to the gods.” She smiled and tightened my corset. I inhaled.

“Serves you right for teasing,” she said, I giggled as we continued dressing me. “Now, you’ll hate me for lecturing but you know that you have to circulate tonight.”

“I know,” I said softly. I exited my bedchamber where Athena and Aaron were waiting.

“Took you long enough,” Aaron said as we all stepped into the hallway I punched him in the arm. “Look at me, Lisette,” I did, “I love you, and I’m going to do everything I can, everything Father would have,” I stopped him and kissed him on the cheek.

“No tears tonight,” I said. He nodded.

“Captain,” he offered Athena his arm.

“Count,” She smiled taking it and they walked off, “See you on the other side, Your Majesty.” She turned around and winked. I sighed, realizing I was alone. I walked towards the ballroom and glanced up the large stairs. I smiled seeing Tristan walk down. He was in full dress uniform, it suited him, his face relaxed, which for him was still serious.

“I’m too late?” He said. I smiled and took his hands. “I wanted to escort you, Athena said you were still dressing.”

“No,” I said, “you can still escort me.” He smiled and we entered the ballroom. It was already loud and rowdy, which I was glad of. There was no fanfare, I’d asked not to have one. We made our way to the head table and ate. And danced, and drank.

“You’ve restored joy,” Duchess Norvine said to me at one point, “and life. I never thought I’d hear this sort of thing again.” I was glad to know people approved. I was worried it was too loose, to full of life, not respectful.

As the music and crowd died down, I saw Tristan leaning against a pillar, I walked over to him and smiled.

“Well hello,” he said. I kissed him. “Lisette, not here.”

“The come,” I said guiding him up to my room. He sighed and we kissed again. We started undressing.

“You’re sure,” he asked.

“Are you?” I returned. He laughed and we fell back onto the bed. It felt so natural, so right, to be lost in him again. When we finished I looked at him. “I suppose we should make plans.”

“Plans?” He said. I nodded. “Of what kind?”

“How you can be here,” I said, “at night.”

“To be fair, Lisette, that’s not terribly complicated,” he grinned. “I order the guard at your door to stand aside and they will. My people are well trained.” I laughed and straddled him. “But I suppose we should be more discreet.”

“Mm,” I nodded running my hand down between his legs, “perhaps a bit.” The door swung open and Marina was standing in front of us, in her nightgown and robe.

“I’m sorry,” She said, “I didn’t,” she met my eyes and started giggling. I exhaled and started to laugh myself as I rolled off Tristan. He was furious with us both as he dressed and quickly excused himself.

It was too funny, I assured Marina, but I stopped laughing when she told me why she’d come in.

He was here, I realized, we both knew what it meant.

Suddenly what the Goddess said to me rushed into my head, “I do wish you’d hurry up.”

Without You

The council was arguing about a seating arrangement for the fifth coronation ball. (Five! There are going to be balls five nights in a row after I’m crowned. We’ve had feasting and dancing almost every night since we got to Dovetail and I’m exhausted just thinking of it.) I’m distracted, earlier today we received word that King Daniel and Queen Elana were declining their invitation, as was Crown Prince Ranier of Rastan. (Ranier has been his father’s regent for the past three years, the King is quite old and ill.) I don’t know whether to be relieved or worried.

The border tribes and their leaders arrived yesterday. I’m looking forward to that feast. Prince Harran, the one closest my age visited us at Pantona once. We had a drinking contest and I beat him. Caleb and Olivia very much disapproved.

“Does Your Majesty have an opinion?” Duchess Norvine asked. I looked at her.

“No,” I said, “whatever you all think is best.” I walked outside to the balcony. I looked out over the courtyard. Marina had asked to be excused from council, I’d assumed to study, but I saw her walking hand in hand with William and smiled. I was glad for them.

“Your Majesty?” Tristan said. “Did you want to dismiss them?” I sighed. I nodded. He went back in and I suppose relayed the message, then he returned. “Is there anything you need?”

“I need you to stop acting like a toy soldier,” I snapped at him. He frowned. “You promised you know, and you’re breaking it.”

“That isn’t fair,” he said softly. “You’re the one who pointed out we needed to keep our distance,” I nodded. “I did promise to tell you the truth. So what truth telling do you need today?”

“I’m not talking about,” I sighed, “you said you’d stand by me.” He looked at me. “Tristan, please.”

“Lisette,” he whispered, I stepped towards him and we kissed. It felt good to be in his arms again.

“I’ve missed you,” I said. He smiled.

“I’ve missed you too,” he said. “But what’s the point?” I looked at him.

“I’ll figure it out, I will,” I whispered, “I just, need time.” He nodded.

“I was trying to give you time,” he said softly. I nodded. “Are you ready for tomorrow?” I laughed.

“Not remotely,” I said. He nodded and kissed me again. “I’ve been talking to Brayton.” He pulled back.

“You’ve what?” He said. “Lisette have you lost your mind?”

“No,” I said softly. “Listen, I needed to, I need to, there’s something he has to teach me.” He frowned. “I’m being careful.”

“If you say so,” he muttered, “I don’t like it.”

“It isn’t up to you,” I said. I looked back at the now empty council chamber. “I have to go.” He nodded. I walked out through the palace, and to the room where the crown was waiting. I took a deep breath and stared at it.

“Well, it’s nice isn’t it?” I jumped and turned around seeing the Goddess next to me. “My brother is so very showy.”

“I like it.” I nodded. She laughed. “Is there something you need, My Lady?” She reached out and stroked my face.

“No,” she said softly, “not in particular, I suppose I just wanted to see you.” I smiled. “I hope you don’t delay much longer my dear.” Then she was gone.

Well, what precisely am I supposed to do with that?