The Bruise

Marina

I was sitting quietly writing as we’d settled in for the night when Nika walked into my tent. She looked unsettled.

“What are you doing here?” I asked. She frowned.

“I have to ask you a favor,” she said.

“Alright,” I smiled. She was being overly serious. It made me want to tease her terribly, but I knew it wasn’t my place anymore. “What’s the favor?”

“When we arrive at the keep,” she frowned. “I need you to pretend we’re still together.” I gaped at her.

“You want to lie?” I said. She nodded. “About us? That’s not like you.”

“I know,” she said, “But I can’t do it. I can’t go through this wedding and these visits, with my sister and parents, having abandoned my people, my duty to them for a love that failed.” I stood up and went and held her hands. “So perhaps we could simply, pretend?”

“Of course,” I said quietly. “Or we could,” I choked on the words. I missed her. “We could not pretend, we could be together again.”

“No,” she whispered, “no, I can’t,” she swallowed, “I can’t do that anymore.” I nodded, trying to understand.

“I am so sorry, Nika,” I whispered, “I wish I were different, I do.” She put her hands around my face.

“I don’t,” she said, “oh, I would never wish you were different. I love you.” We kissed softly. “I just know you don’t love me, and I can’t take it anymore.” I pressed my forehead to hers. “I thought I could live with it, I really did. I thought that you wanting me, and me loving you and us having our life together would be enough.”

“I do love you,” I whispered.

“You love me as you love Annalise and Athena,” she whispered, “as your friend, and compatriot, but you don’t love me the way I love you, the way you love Lefty and Tristan.” I swallowed. “It’s alright, I made peace with it a long time ago, I just can’t do it anymore.” I nudged my nose against hers.

“Come to bed,” I whispered. She sighed. “Let me show you how I love you.”

“Sex isn’t love, Marina,” she said. “I never doubted you wanted me, or how good our sex was.” I blushed a little. “I think it might be the only way I am above the others in your estimation.” I laughed. “I mean, I have no doubt both Tristan and Lefty are both satisfactory lovers, the way you whimpered that it had never been like this our first time, was quite gratifying.”

“Alright, fine,” I sighed throwing up my hands. “Sex isn’t love, but you could still come to bed.” I took her hand and led her back.

“Rina,” she whispered.

“Nika,” I smiled and kissed her. “I miss you.” She sighed. “You won’t even talk to me.”

“I have nothing left to say,” she whispered. “What happened today?” I looked at her. “With Annalise?” I sighed.

“I suggested that you and Prior form a club,” I teased. She laughed. “Everyone saw, is all that happened.”

“Poor Carolina,” Nika said softly. I nodded. She took one of my curls around her finger. “Poor you.” I smiled.

“I’ll survive it,” I said. She nodded. “You’re wrong you know. I do love you.” She sighed and looked at me. “I’d have died without you, Nika. You saved me from despair a hundred times these past four years.” She kissed me.

“So you’ll save me this time?” She whispered. I nodded.

“I’ll be perfect,” I said and kissed her. “I might even fool you into taking me back.” She rolled her eyes and onto her back, I straddled her.

“Rina,” she warned, but there was a laugh in her voice. I grinned down at her and we kissed. “This is not going to be a regular occurrence.”

“Absolutely not,” I said, unwinder her veil and running my hands over her hair. “Only tonight.” I kissed down her neck and opened her robe, then down her breasts. “I will be perfectly behaved.”

“Mm,” she exhaled, letting her arms drift over her head. I took her breast into my mouth and sucked gently. “Oh gods,” she exhaled. I wanted to make her shake and moan, worship her body.

I traced kisses down her belly to her sex and licked and kissed gently. She inhaled and then let out a moaning sigh. She tasted so sweet. The tiny hitches in her breath, as I tasted her, pleasured her, everything about Nika is so controlled, except here, except with me.

“Marina,” she lifted her hips. “Oh, my love,” I pulled back and looked at her.

“Let go,” I whispered, working my fingers into her. “Just be with me.” I kissed her and she pulled me close as she came on my hand.

“Rina,” she mumbled as I slid beside her and held her. “We can’t.” I kissed her hair.

“I know,” I said softly. “But I want you.” She rested her head against me.

“You’re spoiled,” she mumbled. I laughed. “Getting everything you want.”

“You love me,” I whispered and then kissed her.

“Unfortunately for me,” she rolled over in mock submission. “Yes, I do.” I slid into her arms and she pulled me close. “It hurts, so much, Rina.”

“I know,” I said. “I want to make it stop hurting.”

“You can’t,” Nika said gently. “You’re the bruise and being with you is just pressing on it.” I understood now.

“You’ll have to tell them eventually,” I whispered. She sighed. “Brea might even guess.”

“Brea will not guess,” she said, “Brea won’t be able to see five feet in front of her. Brea is about to marry Harran, which is everything she’s wanted since she was five years old. That this is the only thing that matters to Brea right now.” I laughed.

“She once told me that she knew many curses that would make me wish I’d never been born,” I said softly, “if anything ever happened to you, if I ever hurt you.” She looked at me.

“Really?” She said. I nodded. “Brea doesn’t actually know any curses.” She paused. “I don’t think so at least.” I laughed and kissed her.

“I’d really rather not risk it,” I smiled. She pulled me into her lap.

“Then stop hurting me,” she grinned. I sighed.

“I am trying,” I whispered and kissed her again.

“I know you are,” she said. “You’ll do this for me?” I nodded. “Thank you.”

Unscathed

Annnalise

We’d be riding for a week or so, with full court. It had been a while since we’d done this going anywhere but Brightcoast and I’d forgotten how tedious it was to move with so many people.

It was made a little more pleasant by the fact that I was slowly getting court used to Prior. He was riding beside me, which we’d never done before and he was just as pleasant there as he was everywhere else. He chatted and challenged and made me smile. And at night we shared a tent and his skills as a lover relieved me from the long days.

He could be my husband. This could be the rest of my life, I realize as I wake up to sun peaking through the flaps of the tent and he’s pressed against me.

He adores me. I’d be happy.

“Mm,” he stirred, “Annalise, go back to sleep.” I shook my head.

“You can,” I said and kissed him. He nodded, and rolled over and I slipped out, my swords on my hips. Thomas was already waiting for me.

“You and I need to have a conversation,” he said.

“Can we have it while sparring?” I asked brightly. He frowned at me. “Thomas, what could you possibly be this worried about right now?”

“Do you think this trip is going to yield anything?” He asked. I sighed.

“It will at least keep the tribes happy,” I pointed out. He nodded. “I thought you were going to lecture me about Prior.” He snorted.

“Absolutely not,” he said, “that is a part of your life I have never wanted any control of.” I smiled. “Are you happy?” I nodded. “Good. Now, you want to spar?” I nodded. We were eventually joined by the twins and Prior. I never get tired of watching Athena spar with people, she moves so effortlessly, like a dancer. Tristan matches her each step, and the group that’s joined around them.

“What do you think, Your Majesty?” Tristan smirked at me. I grinned and went for him, sliding down towards his legs, he jumped and landed before I could take out his knees. “You’re wily, but I know that one.” I rolled my eyes and stood back up and engaged him. One strike on his sword, then two. My swords carefully caught his blade and our eyes met.

We hadn’t been this close in along time. Even if it was a fight it felt right. He raised his eyebrows.

“Yield?” I said. He nodded and bowed.

“Yield,” he said. I smiled. “You’ve gotten better.”

“You’re rusty,” I grinned and sheathed my swords. “Or getting slow in your old age.” He laughed and swung around his sword pausing right at my throat.

“Slow?” He said. I glanced over at the crowd that had formed. Both Prior and Carolina were among them and I lifted my swords and clanged against his again and we moved closer. “I am not slow.” I was breathing heavily with his face close to mine. “Yield?”

“Yield,” I said and pulled back. This is why we can’t be close. Because now all day my mind will be full of Tristan. Of memories and fantasies of his hands on me, of kissing him, of him inside of me. Of his smile and his scowl and his body and chat (as little of that as there is.)

And all the while Caro’s kind smiling eyes will be watching me, knowing what I’m thinking and it’s horrible.

It’s why I can’t be close to Tristan. I looked over and saw Prior, our eyes met and then he looked away.

“Lisette,” Tristan said softly, so that only I could hear.

“Don’t,” I said. “It was a good fight.” I sheathed my swords and walked off the practice field.

“Annalise,” Prior followed after me. “Annalise,” I looked at him. “What was that?”

“Sparring?” I tried. He raised his eyebrows. “That was me and Tristan.”

“I’ve seen you and Tristan,” he said softly.

“Apparently you haven’t actually.” I said. He frowned. “It was stupid, we should have known better.”

“Than to spar?” He asked. He seemed actually angry. I’ve never seen him angry. “You two can’t spar?”

“No,” I said and crossed my arms and shrugged. “We can’t spar, or dance or ride or be alone together, or anything.” He nodded. “I thought you knew.”

“I didn’t,” he whispered. “Now, I do.” I swallowed. “Are you still in love with him?”

“It’s more complicated than that,” I said softly.

“I don’t think it is actually,” he said, “I was willing to be your second choice. The convenient one, with Prince Eric gone.” I looked away. “I understood that. But this,” he said, “he’s my friend, Annalise, my partner.”

“I know,” I said sharply. “He’s also married and in love with my cousin, and the only person who’s ever seen all of me and it is complicated.” He looked wounded. “I’m not choosing you over him, which is what you’re about to ask me. Eric did too. But he isn’t a choice. Tristan is simply a fact and one I do what I can to avoid making a problem. I thought you understood that.”

“Whatever you’re doing,” he said, “it isn’t working. This is a problem, Annalise.” He walked away.

I exhaled and walked back to my tent. Marina was sitting, with her small loom working on her bandages.

“That was interesting,” she smirked at me.

“You of all people don’t get to lecture me,” I said and plopped next to her.

“I actually came to see if you were alright,” she said. I shrugged. “Perhaps Prior and Nika can form some sort of society or club.” I laughed. “I bet Harran would join too. Maybe Caro. Certainly Damian, though I think Eric would be above it.” I shook my head.

“That was reckless,” I muttered, “I’m normally better about keeping distance.” She looked at me. “It’s easier to pretend when I’m not right near him.”

“I know,” Marina whispered. “You’re stronger than I am in that regard.” I looked at her.

“It isn’t my strength, Rina,” I whispered. “He wants you. So he’s less able to stay away.” She sighed.

“I thought I wanted him,” she said softly. “But now I just,” she exhaled. “I want Nika. I miss her.” She rested her head on my shoulder. “It’s all so broken.”

“I know,” I whispered. “I don’t love Prior.” She nodded.

“I know,” she said.

“I asked him to marry me,” I mumbled, “but I don’t love him. I’m terrible.”

“Prior knows you don’t love him, Lisette,” Marina said gently. “I think he just, didn’t realize how you felt about Tristan.” I looked at her. “I can’t blame anyone for not wanting to be a part of that. Especially not someone who loves you both as much as he does.”

“As much as you do,” I said. She looked at me.

“As much as he does,” she whispered. “Harran and Eric could wish Tristan away, when they saw you keeping your distance. They could cut him out,” she looked down. “Prior can’t do that. He loves Tristan. Tristan is his friend. He loves you, and wants to be with you. Until today I don’t think he thought the two things were incompatible.”

“We make it work,” I said.

“We’re different,” she said. I looked at her. “You know that. You know it’s different.” Tristan walked in. “You two need to talk.” She stood up and kissed him on the cheek. He pressed his hand to her wrist. Everything they do is so intimate, it’s impossible to ignor.

“Are you going to marry him?” he asked. I sighed. “Lisette.”

“I don’t know,” I said. “I want to.”

“Did you want to before you realized that you were attending the wedding of your former lover to a woman you can’t stand?” He asked. “It doesn’t feel at all, say jealous or opportunistic?”

“You sound jealous,” I said, “and it’s an interesting moment for that as well.” He scoffed. “For a year you’ve showed no interest in my relationship with Prior.”

“For a year I didn’t think you’d completely lost your senses but I’ve been wrong before,” he said. “Five years ago I asked you to marry me,” I swallowed, “and you said it was impossible. What’s different now?”

“You know that answer,” I said. He stared me down. “I am supposed to remain miserable until Daniel makes a damn decision and I can have what I actually want? It may never happen.” He sighed.

“Lisette,” he whispered, “don’t do it. It isn’t fair.”

“To who?” I said. “To you? You left me five years ago, Tristan. You married someone else.” He sighed.

“It isn’t fair to Prior,” he said. “Or to you, frankly, but as you’re the one with less to lose, it’s more to him.” I looked at him.

“I’m sorry that you and Carolina are unhappy but that doesn’t mean,” I started and he wrapped his arms around me.

“It does, actually,” he said, “I was never going to be happy without you,” he whispered, “and I dragged Caro down with me and it was wrong. Don’t do it.”

“I’m not you,” I said. He nodded. “You barely know me anymore.”

“Lisette,” he said softly. “I know you,” he kissed me then. I was surprised but it was so clear, so familiar, “I know you more than anyone ever will. And you made me swear to always tell you the truth. So let me tell you.” I pressed my forehead to his. “You’re hurting yourself and him, and I care too much about both of you to let it happen without saying so.” It had been so long since he’d held me, or kissed me. I hadn’t even realized I missed it. Missed him.

“You’d have said the same about Eric,” I said. He smiled.

“No,” he whispered, “I don’t like it, but he’s right for you. The short time I saw you together you were so strong, and sure of your course, my love,” I closed my eyes tightly. “You’re lost, and I don’t blame you for looking for a light, and Prior is a damn good one.” I sniffed. “But you’ve fought so hard, why give up now?”

“I do care for him,” I whispered. He nodded. “And I’m so tired. I’m sorry you’re unhappy.” He sighed.

“We had our chance to go another way,” he admitted, “we didn’t take it.” I looked at him and nodded. The door opened and Prior walked in. “Is that all, your majesty?” Tristan said, clearing his throat.

“Yes, Commander, thank you,” I smiled gently, “as always.” He nodded and left. Prior looked oddly at me.

“What did he want?” He asked. I exhaled and looked up at him. “Annalise,” he said, “Talk to me, please.” I swallowed. “I shouldn’t have walked away before, I was just,” he shook his head. “I thought it was over.”

“It is,” I pulled away. He sighed. “Except that it never will be, if that makes sense.” He nodded. “And now, he’s worried, about you. Because he loves you.”

“Was Tristan telling you he thinks that you marrying me is going to destroy my life and leave me a hollowed out miserable shell of a man?” He said. I turned and stared at him aghast.

“Nearly exactly,” I nodded. He laughed. “He’s brought this up before?”

“He’s extremely worried about it in point of fact,” he said, flopping into a chair. “He is very protective, as you know.”

“Well,” I blinked, “yes, but I thought he was grumpy about it all because well, you’re a man, who’s not him.” Prior smiled gently.

“Darling,” he walked over and cupped my face, “Tristan is quite confident in your abilities to annihilate me emotionally, and walk away unscathed.” I laughed.

“Truly?” I whispered.

“Mm,” he nodded and kissed me. “I thought I was made of sterner stuff, but after this morning, well, I’m less condfident.” I looked down.

“Prior,” I whispered.

“Yes, My Queen,” he smiled.

“Take me to bed,” I grinned. He laughed.

“Of course,” he said and swept me off my feet. He placed me on the mattress and kissed me. “What do you think, Annalise? After this week, we’re moving into my territory.”

“Mm,” I smiled as he touched me. “Are you suggesting the ranger is a different lover than the courtier?” He grinned down at me.

“Something like that,” he whispered and kissed me. “And the ranger,” he slid my gown down my shoulders, “is far less patient,” we kissed, “a good deal less obsequious,” and he pushed into me, “and much rougher.” I exhaled in a groan.

“I look forward to meeting him.” I moaned. It felt good, to be lost in the oblivion of sex. He finished. “Prior,” I whispered, and he touched my face gently. “I wouldn’t be unscathed.” He pressed his forehead to mine.

“Well that’s a start,” he mumbled. I giggled.

The Conversation

Carolina

I walked into our apartment and saw Tristan at a desk, working through a report. I slid my hands against his chest from behind.

“Caro,” he said gently, “I have to,” I kissed him gently.

“It’s late,” I whispered, “come to bed.” He shrugged me off. “Tristan,” I said, “please look at me.” He turned. “Come to bed, touch me, make love to me, please.”

“I can’t,” he said. I closed my eyes. “I look at you and I,” he exhaled. “Why would you want me?” I looked at him.

“Because I do,” I said. “Because no matter what else happens, I want you, and you wanted me. You stripped me in a park and you pushed me against bookcases and you didn’t even look at the hundred other girl who they paraded in front of you.” I swallowed. “And I broke it, I know I broke it, Tristan. But he looked at me, and I was so lonely and being wanted again, felt so good,” she looked down. “But I didn’t want him, not really, I wanted you, I always want you. And if you don’t want me anymore please let me go, I’ll leave, I’ll go home with Emily and Alex, but please,” he grabbed my face and kissed me.

“I don’t want you?” He whispered. “You think I don’t want you?” I swallowed. “I have wanted nothing but you since the day we met.” He pressed his hands down my body to my lower back. “I spend every minute I’m not with you, on fire, wishing I was with you.” I exhaled and we tumbled back onto the couch. He rushed his hands below my waist pushing my skirts up, tearing my underthings down. “From the minute you walked into your mother’s stupid, overly starched parlor. I could barely speak, I wanted you so badly.” We kissed and I undid his belt.

“You pulled out my chair,” I exhaled and he kissed my neck. “That night, at your grandfather’s you pulled out my chair, and I couldn’t stop looking at you hands, and I wanted them on me.”

“At that damn ball my aunts threw,” he whispered and pushed into me. “I had to dance with those girls,” I gasped for air. “I had to make conversation, when all I wanted to be doing was this.”

“When my father backed Andrei’s challenge,” I moaned. “And the idea of not having you in me again made me feral.” He kissed me deeply. “Oh gods, Tristan,” I screamed out. He said my name over and over again as he moved in and out of me. It was so good. He finished and collapsed on top of me.

“Do you believe me now?” He whispered, I giggled and he rolled off of me. “I have wanted to do that every day since,” I looked at him.

“Tristan, sex has never been our problem,” I said. He smiled. “I mean, until recently.” He nodded. “I love you,” I said, “and you don’t love me,” he cupped his hand against my face.

“I do love you,” he said softly. “Caro, you brought up the challenge,” I nodded. “Do you remember when Uncle Geno sat in judgement of Andrei’s challenge?” I nodded. “It was right after I’d told you what happened with Marina, and I stood in the guild hall, watching you sitting with Emily and your mother, and you hadn’t spoken a word to me in weeks, and Andrei stood there, telling half the city how you’d pledged yourself to him and lived as his wife for months before your contracts.”

“What does this have to do with anything?” I said. Recounting that humiliating day, and how angry I was that I’d almost just told Geno that I had been Andrei’s wife, so that I could get away from Tristan. But I wasn’t angry right now, I was just sad.

“I wanted to tear him to pieces,” he kissed my forehead. “I wanted to take my sword and cut out his heart but not before forcing him to his knees to beg you for forgiveness for his treatment of you, for how he took you for granted.”

“Tristan,” I said softly.

“I’d do it to myself,” he said, “I’d cut out my own heart and fall at your feet, Caro, but it won’t be enough will it?” I sighed. “No, it wouldn’t be. You can’t forgive me for loving her and I can’t stop loving her. I’ve tried!”

“Then why did you marry me?” I whispered. “Why didn’t you let me go three years ago? Why have you kept me? Why did you let me love you so much and be a part of your family?” He closed his eyes.

“I married you because I wanted you,” he whispered. “I wanted you and then I fought for you because I love you.” I wrapped my arms around him. “As for you being a part of my family,” he laughed lightly. “If Aaron and Athena didn’t want you for family, no force in this world or any other could have made them take you.” I laughed. “And now, if you went away,” he sighed, “there would be a hole too big to ever fill.” I rested my head against his chest. “Athena and I have lost so much family, Aaron lost his father,” I exhaled. “And if we lose you, I don’t know what our family will be Caro.” I closed my eyes.

“Alright,” I said and stood up.

“Alright?” He said. I nodded.

“There’s nothing else to say, Tristan,” I whispered.

“You had an affair!” He smirked.

“You have been in love with someone else our whole marriage,” I giggled. He sighed. “How much do you want to know about it?” He looked at me.

“Everything,” he said softly. “I want to understand.” I looked at him.

“When I first came to Pantona,” I exhaled, “and our home, I was so sure everything was going to be perfect. That new life I’d always dreamed about, I had it.” He nodded. “And then you founded the Rangers, and I was so proud of you.” He pressed his forehead to mine. “But it took you away, and I didn’t belong in the guard, that was so clear. And then the spying and code breaking, and I felt useful, but you disapproved, and it put up another wall between us besides the physical distance,” I exhaled, “and William was there, and he listened to me, and flirted with me and,” I swallowed, “and two months ago, you wrote that you were staying away longer and I just wanted you,” I sighed, “I wanted anything, I wanted to be wanted. And I knew how William felt. So I went to him, and he knew what it meant, and then we,” I sighed, “it was only the once. And it was a wonderful night,” he nodded. “But in the morning I knew, that it didn’t matter because I only wanted you. I wanted our life.” He kissed me. “That night that I came home, and you asked me,” he sighed again.

“If I could take back that conversation I would,” he whispered. “I didn’t handle it well.”

“He asked me to run away with him,” I said. “And I considered it.” He looked at me. So hurt. “I, even after we talked, I was thinking about it.” I exhaled. “I still think about it. But I’d lose so much more than just you and losing you would be enough to break me in half.”

“If I lost you I’d lose everything,” he whispered. “I’d be dust. I wouldn’t have a heart anymore, I’d be like a shadow.” I smiled and snuggled into him. “I’ll leave the rangers, I’ll leave the guard even, if that’s what you want.”

“No,” I whispered, “that isn’t what I want. Your work makes you happy, gives you purpose, I don’t want to take it from you.” He exhaled. “But I want you home, Tristan, I want the life we talked about. I want to be your wife, and have your children.” He cupped my face. “But I can’t do either with you away so much.”

“Calla will need a protector,” he muttered.

“They chose Althea,” I said. He smiled.

“Yes,” he said, “but Athena and I weren’t placed in Annalise’s cradle without someone really protecting her, Caro.” He said. I smiled.

“You’d train Althea,” I said. He nodded. “But Calla will be either here or at Pantona.”

“Sometimes Brightcoast,” he grinned. “If you could stand it.” I giggled and tackled him to the floor. “I’ll hand the rangers over to Prior and Elodie. They’ll prefer it.”

“Thank you, Tristan,” I kissed all over his face. “Thank you, thank you!” He smiled. I could live on this smile.

The Mandate

Athena

Althea and Calla sat on the floor watching Baby Carlo play after dinner. They seemed amused by him, certainly more than Calla had been that afternoon. I glanced at Alex, talking with Olivia a few times, he met my eyes and I stood up and walked outside onto the terrace.

“Did you know I asked Uncle Trey for permission to court you?” Alex said. I looked over my shoulder.

“What?” I laughed. He smiled.

“I was fifteen, I think,” he said. “So you would have been, thirteen?” I nodded. “And you were dazzling, even then. I had a whole plan, for how it would consolidate the family’s power, fully unite the Dumanis with the guard.”

“What did Trey say?” I smirked.

“That if I could beat you with a sword, I was welcome to try, but that would be what it would take,” he laughed. I smiled. “So I moved on.”

“To Caro,” I said. He nodded. “And then Emily.”

“I was powerless, when I realized I loved Emily,” he sighed. “I hated myself for it. I hated myself for hurting Caro and leaving her open to ridicule. I hated myself for giving up on loving you. That was my plan you know, like something from a novel, I would love you, while doing my duty while you became a countess.”

“Why are you telling me this?” I asked him.

“Because we don’t always get to choose, Athena,” he said softly. “I know you don’t like it. I know there’s too much Dugarry in you, too much of Martin,” she looked down. “But Calla is a part of this family, you are a part of this family.” She nodded.

“Calla may be Queen of Cammadan,” I said simply, “she will be Countess of Pantona.” He nodded. “She isn’t a Dumanis, Alex, and her future isn’t yours or Uncle Trey’s or Grandfather’s, or even mine to dictate. She’ll make her own way.”

“And what has that attitude gotten all of us?” He said. “Anton married Marie, making his own way, and it lead to estrangement from her homeland, our closest neighbor, it lead to Brayton’s rage and their deaths and over a decade of destruction.” I stared ahead at the mountain. “We won’t survive something like that again.”

“Our family?” I said. He looked at me.

Cammadan,” he said. “Annalise’s control is precarious, everyone knows it. She has no allies outside the country besides Harran,” I swallowed. “Her stubborness regarding her marriage, and Marina’s? Naming your and Aaron’s child her heir? These aren’t the choices of someone who is thinking long term, or outside of herself.” I looked at him.

“You don’t understand,” I shook my head.

“Maybe not,” he said. “But I can’t imagine what I’m missing out of the picture.” I sighed. “Tell me what I’m missing.” I looked at him.

“You’re missing the mandate. You’re missing that none of the politics matter if we don’t free the gods, if Amina comes and we can’t stop the shadows, if we can’t free the gods, it won’t matter that Otto of Failon was insulted that Marina wouldn’t marry him, or Daniel of Phania thinks he’s too high for us. It won’t matter, Alex,” I said. “Because we’ll all be dead, the world will fall into darkness. Annalise has to follow her heart because if she isn’t free to, she’ll be blind to the path she needs to go down. Marina can’t solidify an alliance with another throne because she has to be at her side. My daughter has to be Annalise’s heir so that my bond to Cammadan’s home soil is maintained if I fall in battle, so that Cornan can stand against his sister for his chosen home.” He stared at me terrified. “You’re missing the mandate, Alex, you’re forgetting the gods.” He looked down. “Don’t do it again.” I turned away and walked inside and wiped my eyes.

It was the first time I’d said it out loud and I felt like I’d cut my wrists open. I slipped past the group and into the same small lobby where Marina had bound the three of us years ago.

“Athena?” She walked in, all of her serenity focused on me. Sometimes it was just frustrating, but right now it felt soothing. “What’s wrong?”

“It’s nothing,” I said, “just, it’s been a long day.” She smiled and sat down with me. “It was all supposed to be over by now.”

“I know,” she said softly.

“I yelled at Alex,” I said. She smiled. “It’s not his fault though.”

“I don’t think it’s anyone fault, Thena,” she whispered. “Maybe Brayton’s or Amina’s.” I smiled. “I know you’re worried.”

“I was worried five years ago,” I said. “I’m terrified now, it’s paralyzing, Marina.” She nodded. “I don’t want to leave behind a broken world for Calla and this one,” I said, my hand on my belly.

“I know that,” she said. She sat down. “None of us do.” I looked at her. “I have visions sometimes,” I nodded, “of other threads, and there’s a few,” she looked down, “I have son. With Brayton.”

“What?” I stood up.

“It’s over and over,” she explained, “A little boy, with grey Dovetail eyes and curls like mine and my father’s smile.” I blinked at her. “And he’ll never exist, not in this world.” She hugged herself. “And that’s what I’m fighting for, I’m fighting so that he never exists. And so that your children will be safe and whole.” I nodded. “You aren’t the only one who’s paralyzed by terror at what we have to do.”

“Marina,” I said softly. “I’m sorry, I didn’t,” she shook her head.

“No it’s alright,” she whispered. “I’ve never talked about it before. With anyone. I wrote it in a letter to Damian once, and then burned it before I could send it.” Her knees were curled to her chest. “Caro is miserable because she can’t have a baby. Elodie and I treat women who’ve lost their’s all the time and I am fighting so that my little boy is never born and the world stays whole for yours.”

“My boy,” I whispered. She nodded. “How long have you known?” She laughed.

“Just now when I said it,” she shrugged. “It isn’t particularly precise, that magic.” I laughed. “But yes, you’re carrying a boy, it seems very obvious now.” I smiled.

“My boy,” I whispered softly. She nodded. “I’m sorry.” She shrugged. “You don’t want to have Brayton’s child?”

“No,” Marina said, “no, because that would require many terrible things.” She looked sad. “I would like to have a child. Nika doesn’t, and I have no idea what Damian,” she looked down. “And he has my father’s smile.” I wrapped my arm around her.

Proud

Marina

“And then I’m going to anoint you,” I said going over the ceremony for Raymond’s Mastero vows. He was the first in nearly twenty years to do it. “Rose oil and mud mixed from the soil of the valley.”

“You anoint me with mud?” Raymond said. I shrugged. “Cornan’s so weird.” I laughed. “Then I say the vow, ‘I am at the service of the gods and their knowledge in this world, blah blah blah,” I nodded. “And then I’m a Mastero.”

“And then you’re a Mastero,” I said and smiled at him. He sighed. “We’re all very proud of you. I’m sure Eric and Damian are too.” He smiled.

“Will your father come?” He asked. I smiled. Papa was already on his way.

“It was meant to be a surprise,” I stood up. He laughed. “Evan is worried.”

“About me?” He said. I nodded.

“He said you’ve been Dreaming,” I explained. “More violently than usual.”

“Oh,” he said softly, “that.” I sighed.

“Yes,” I matched his tone. “That.” He sighed.

“It’s nothing new, the wheel, the two of them screaming. Karina on a throne engulfed in flames,” he sighed. “I’m supposed to help her but I don’t know how.”

“We’ll both help her,” I assured him. He nodded. “I’m a little jealous,” I admitted, “before the other week with the shadow, I hadn’t Dreamed in months.” He squinted at me.

“You don’t miss it?” He was disbelieving. I shrugged. “Gods, Marina, I thought we all hated it.” I smiled. “Have you and Nika made up yet?”

“No,” I said softly, “I don’t think we will honestly.” I sat down again. “I keep thinking about Damian. How much I miss him, and how he wouldn’t have been angry at me,” I frowned.

“You’re deluding yourself if you think Lefty finding you half dressed with Tristan Dugarry wouldn’t make him the angriest person to ever live,” Raymond said. “I know it’s been four years, but have you completely forgotten what he’s like, especially when it comes to you?”

“He wouldn’t!” I argued. “I mean he did, not the half dressed part. And I wasn’t half dressed that night,” I looked at him. “He was very understanding.” I crossed my arms.

“You’re romanticizing because you miss him,” Raymond said, slowly, as if talking to a child. I glared at him. “If you walked into a room, and saw Elaine Addison draped over Lefty, him whispering to her, you wouldn’t care?” I glared at him.

“I once walked into Lisette’s bedroom and she was riding Tristan while naked,” I pointed out. “And all it did was make me laugh.”

“I’m not talking about Tristan,” he said. “I’m definitely not talking about Tristan and Annalise. I’m talking about the person you love and gave your whole self to, with the person who you worry they’ve given more to.” I looked down. “Nika gave up her whole world, to be with you. And she left you, and now you’re here talking about someone else.”

“Stop being so damn wise,” I grumbled, “it’s annoying.” He laughed. “You’re wrong.” He said.

“Maybe,” he said, “but you never gave in to her, the way she did to you, because you’ve just been waiting. Waiting to find the gods, or Brayton, or for Lefty to come back.” I looked him. “But Nika gave up her life for you, you should be sensitive to that.” I looked at him.

“Do you feel that way?” I asked. He shrugged.

“Sometimes?” He admitted. “I could have gone home, been with my family, with Lefty and Eric and I wouldn’t have Evan, or you or have become a mastero,” he shrugged. “But I’d be safer, in ways.” I rested my head on his shoulder.

“I’m so proud of you,” I said softly. He nodded. “Do you know the thing I hate Brayton from taking me from the most?” He looked at me. “I hate that he took you and Lisette from me. I hate him for it, more than anything else. We could have grown up together, we could have had inside jokes and played and known each other better than anyone.” She exhaled. “And he took that from us. He took it when he killed Lisette’s parents, when he imprisoned my father and refused to let him take us back to Phania. Over and over again.” He looked at me. “He took so much, but the thing I hate him for the most was taking that from the three of us, what we could have had, what we could have been.”

“I’ve never thought about that,” he admitted. “I wish we’d grown up together too.” I sighed. “Have you tried apologizing to her?”

“Yes,” I mumbled. “She won’t even talk to me.” I frowned. “Some of the people arguing against Calla today,” I shook my head, “I had no idea that they were on my side. How could I not know that?”

“I don’t know,” he said, “They probably aren’t, they probably just hate Aaron.” I laughed. “I’m going to be a Mastero, Marina. When I came here, I thought I had no future. And now I’m a Mastero. We can change anything, we’re not bound to fate.”

“I know,” I smiled and hugged him. “I’m proud of you, like I said, I don’t think I’ll ever say it enough.”

Recollections

Annalise

“Are you going to wear a veil?” Mercy asked as she fingered the light green material in front of her. I glanced at Nika.

“It would be respectful,” Nika said, “for the wedding itself and maybe the first meetings with each tribal leader, but I don’t think you need to be veiled the whole time.”

“Brea doesn’t wear the veil,” I pointed out. Nika smirked.

“Brea will be veiled at her wedding, Your Majesty,” she said, “quite elaborately. I’ve seen the designs and the beginning of the weaving.”

“Mm,” I sighed, “alright then, have a few made, but nothing too ostentatious.” Nika smiled at me as the seamstress left. “I hate this.”

“You’ve gotten better at it,” Mercy said. “Your first year I would sometimes cry over how hopeless you were at picking your clothes.” She looked at Nika. “She tried to wear a uniform to her coronation ball.”

“And this is bad?” Nika’s raised her eyebrows. Mercy sighed.

“Marina would understand,” she said and then stopped. “That is,” Nika rolled her eyes.

“I’m not going to fall apart at the mere mention of her,” Nika said. “I’m angry and sad not suddenly fragile.” I smiled at her. “How was the council vote?”

“Mercifully brief,” I said with a smile. “Calla is now my heir. Mercy, I do need to talk to you and Elodie though.”

“About Althea being her protector?” Mercy said. “I think it’s a very good idea.” I smiled. “You were worried I’d be resistant?”

“A little,” I said, “I assumed Elodie would be enthusiastic.”

“Yes, well,” Mercy said, “among other things it’s what Althea wants, and I’d like my daughter to grow up happy.” I looked at her and she sighed. “Children deserve that from their parents.” I smiled at her.

“Of course,” I smiled. Nika nodded. “I should wear more blue, shouldn’t I?”

“Some grey,” Nika said, “remind everyone you don’t favor any god in particular.” I glanced at her. “Annalise,”

“Amina is my enemy even if she isn’t yours,” I pointed out. “I won’t honor her, even to make the tribes comfortable.”

“I can’t imagine anyone in any tribe expecting a daughter of Anessa and Mariah to honor Amina,” Nika shook her head. “But they’d be more favorable to Rana than Cornan.” I nodded. I looked at her.

“Are you alright?” I said softly. She sighed.

“No,” she muttered, “but I will be.” I hugged her. “How did you forgive them?” I laughed.

“I met Eric?” I exhaled. She sighed. “Not particularly helpful advice, I know.”

“Carolina advised patience and acceptance,” she mumbled.

“Well,” I frowned and picked up a pieced of blue lace and wound it around my hair, “Carolina is a saint. We’re merely human.” She laughed. “The first time I found them together I went back to my room and broke a mirror.”

“You said that was a Dream!” Mercy gasped. I rolled my eyes at her.

“I lied,” I giggled. “Of course before that anytime Tristan brought up her name I made him change the subject.” Nika sighed.

“It’s odd,” she muttered, “if I found her with Lefty, I’d forgive her in a moment, but I saw her lying in Tristan’s arms and I lost my mind.”

“Of course,” Mercy said, sitting next to her, “she admits her feelings for Lefty. She’s in complete denial about Tristan.” I looked at her. “I’ve known her longer than both of you. And I loved her first.” She kicked her feet onto the table. “Nika, have you any idea how jealous I was, the first time I saw Marina kiss you? If I’d known she liked girls, well,” she huffed, “our girlhood would have been quite different, I can tell you.” I laughed.

“I had no idea,” I said. Mercy shrugged.

“I got over it,” Mercy said, “I met Elodie. But still, old wounds.” I thought of my own old wounds.

“Really?” Nika said. “You never even kissed her?” Mercy giggled.

“If you think she’s preoccupied by him now!” Mercy said. “You have no idea what it was like when we were younger. She basically a ghost unless Tristan was talking to her.” I looked at her. “But she trusted me, and that was enough. I was jealous of her, because her father wasn’t trying to marry her off to some old man who worshipped Brayton.” I looked at her. “But she was also so beautiful, just being near her,” she shook her head. “I’m just saying I don’t blame him. It was dark here, and she was a very bright light. It’s a hard habit to break.”

“Habit or not,” Nika frowned, “I’m done indulging it.” I looked at her and circled my arm around her. “I just want to go home. I want to be with my sister, and my people and,” she exhaled. “It doesn’t matter, are we finished?” I nodded. “Thank you for trusting me with this, Your Majesty.”

“Of course,” I said as she left. I collapsed next to Mercy. “If we don’t find the gods on this trip I’m going to the sea, drowning myself and asking Rana what in the hell her problem is.” Mercy laughed. I sighed. “I don’t want to go to this wedding.” I groaned.

“Maybe Harran will pull a Tristan,” Mercy raised her eyebrows. I looked at her. “Get all in his feelings and take you to bed before going through with it anyway.”

“That is terrifically unlikely to happen,” I said softly. “And if Tristan had come to my bed instead of Marina’s he would not have gone through with the wedding.” She patted me on the thigh.

“Whatever helps you sleep at night, Your Majesty.” She stood up.

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.

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.

At Sea

Carolina

It had been two days at sea and I was only growing more anxious by the minute. I’m not doing well when it comes to the voyage. I’ve been sick every day, and Papa appears to be punishing us for insisting on me coming by placing us on Andrei’s ship.

“How are you feeling?” Tristan walked into my cabin. I smiled at him and held out my hand and he came and walked over to me.

“Better,” I said softly. “The waters seem calmer, don’t they?” He nodded and kissed my hand.

“We’re closer to Brightcoast,” he said, “I think Rana’s kinder here.” I laughed as he lay down next to me and kissed me.

“I think so too,” I whispered. “Are you nervous to arrive?” He sighed.

“I’m excited,” he said softly. “Nervous too, but mostly excited. I’ve missed my friends, and Athena.” I smiled and he kissed me again. “I’ve missed you so much.” I whimpered and pressed against him.

“I’ve missed you too,” I said. Between my sickness and not wanting to alert my father, sex has been off the table for us. “Tristan,” I whispered as he he slid my skirts up and his hand in between my thighs. I whimpered as his fingers worked their way in me. I pressed against him.

“I don’t know why I bother with this,” he whispered in my ear and then kissed it. “You’re always so ready for me.” I giggled and kissed him.

“I do like it though,” I whispered.

“I know you do,” he muttered. He started moving faster. I gripped the sheets and groaned. “That’s right, Caro, let go for me.” I kissed him and pulled away.

“I want you,” I said softly. He smiled. “I want to come with you in me.” He nodded and rolled me onto my back. He pressed into me.

“Like this?” He whispered and kissed me, sliding arms above my head. I nodded. “I need your voice, Caro.”

“Yes,” I said as he started stroking in and out of me. “Faster,” I moaned and he obliged, “oh gods, Tristan,” I cried out. He hands curled around my wrists.

“I love you,” he groaned and grunted. I tightened around him, letting go and falling backwards away from him as he finished. He swallowed and held me close. “You finished?”

“You didn’t feel it?” I teased him. He laughed. I stretched and rolled onto my side and looked at him. “I had missed it.” He kissed me gently.

“Me too,” he whispered. “Your Captain Arain says we should be in Brightcoast by tomorrow.”

“Don’t call him that,” I said. He pushed my hair behind me ears. “I know you’re teasing but I don’t like him being my anything.”

“I’m sorry,” he said and kissed me. “I don’t like being near him when I can’t strangle him.” I laughed and sat up.

“I admire your restraint,” I whispered. “You can take your satisfaction in knowing I never,” I rolled over and kissed him, “ever,” I slid my hand down and gripped him, “felt as good with him as I do now.” I kissed him and he groaned.

“That does take the sting out of it,” he smirked. The door opened and I squeaked pulling the sheet over myself.

“Well this looks cozy,” Andrei said lazily. “You’re feeling better, then, Miss DuKarras.”

“Yes,” I squeaked, grabbing a robe. Tristan was blushing and rushing for his pants. “Much.”

“Hm,” he nodded, “Captain Dugarry, General Martin was looking for you, something about making sure tomorrow’s landing is handled properly.”

“Alright,” Tristan said, “thank you.” He left quickly and Andrei stayed looking at me.

“Can I help you?” I said, having recovered my voice.

“Just remembering,” he smirked. “Tell me Caro, did it take him all three nights? Or did you move up your time table?”

“You’re a pig,” I said. He looked down. “Did it really mean so little to you? I was terrified, and I thought,” I swallowed.

“It meant a great deal to me,” he said softly. “I had every intention of marrying you.” I looked at him. “Rastan didn’t pan out how I’d hoped.”

“You could have written me,” I said. He frowned.

“Is that what’s different?” He said softly, “with him?”

“What’s different with him is that he refused to leave me behind at all.” I said. “But then again he also doesn’t answer to my father, so that’s a benefit.” I went to walk past him and he grabbed my arm.

“I am sorry,” he said softly. “Please know that.” I swallowed.

“What possible difference could that make now,” I said and slipped past him. I walked up on deck and paused, hearing voices.

“Who do you think it will be then?” Tristan said. “Surely not Lisette?”

“No,” the General said. “She’ll be busy. Marina maybe, certainly Aaron and Olivia.” Tristan sighed.

“He won’t like that,” Tristan frowned, “her snubbing him.”

“Trust me, I’m aware,” the General sighed. “Olivia wrote that everything social has moved from the palace to the manor, but I doubt he’ll like that either. But we’re trying to avoid war, and he’s already too involved.”

“Right,” Tristan said, I could hear his frown but I rounded the corned then.

“Hello Miss DuKarras,” The General smiled at me. “I see you’re feeling better.”

“Yes,” I said softly. “I am, I overheard, you’re worried about the old man?”

“Not in any real way,” Tristan said. “Just that he’ll be irritated we aren’t making enough of a fuss.” I laughed.

“Oh,” I smiled. “I think I can help with that.” Martin looked at me.

“He does seem to like you,” Martin said, “what’s that like?” I laughed. “How would you help?”

“Well,” I swallowed, “I could make a fuss. How grateful I am to be allowed to come along, knowing how it isn’t normally done this way, but it means so much to us, and how grateful Tristan I are at his unfailing support of our future, especially his,” Tristan beamed at me.

“Cornan save me, you both found politicians,” Martin mumbled. “Yes, that will work.” I giggled and kissed Tristan. “If you’ll excuse me, I’m going to attempt to get some sleep, lest Olivia and Athena lock me in a bedroom for a day when we arrive.”

“Of course,” Tristan said and we walked over to the railing. “Are you alright?” I nodded. “What happened with Andrei?” I shrugged and leaned forward.

“He called me a slut and then apologized for abandoning me,” I said. “So old territory.” Tristan frowned and cupped my face. “It doesn’t matter.”

“It does,” he whispered. I swallowed. “I hate that you would ever think such a thing about yourself.” I looked at him.

“I don’t,” I said softly. “And I love that you didn’t.” He smiled. “You don’t think the Queen will greet us?”

“It’s unlikely,” he sighed and ran his hand through his hair. “She didn’t even greet Prince Eric herself. She sent Marina and Aaron. That’s what’s most likely for us too.” I nodded. “And that wasn’t even because she was in war meetings, that was just because we,” I smirked at him and he cleared his throat. “Let’s just say what happened earlier is something of a theme for me.” I giggled.

“I see,” I smirked. “Well, we’ll have to ensure our privacy from now on.” He laughed. I thought of him how I’d first met him. So serious and awkward. He seemed lighter now, although not as light before we learned we had to leave Dorin.

“You’re sure your father is going to insist you stay with him,” he asked. I frowned.

“Yes,” I sighed. He sighed.

“Maybe I can convince Lisette to take you into the household, that’s how we freed our friend Mercy,” he started. I took his hands. “I just want to be near you.”

“You’ve said it yourself,” I whispered and kissed him gently. “We have our whole lives. This will only be a few months. We’ll survive.” He sighed. “Tristan,” I whispered.

“Caro,” he said softly. “You’ve asked me a hundred times how I feel about this.” I nodded. “How are you feeling?”

“I um,” I sighed, “I don’t know. I know it’s awful, that it’s because we’re probably going into war, but it’s also,” I exhaled. “It’s what I’ve always Tristan.” He kissed my forehead.

“Good,” he said. “Taking you away from everything you’ve ever known is not how I wanted this to go.” I smiled. “Alex told me I was overthinking it.”

“Well, by Alex’s metrics you overthink everything,” I shrugged, “because you think about things at all.” He laughed and kissed me. “You should get some sleep. The General is right, your sister will be furious with me.”

“Oh Athena doesn’t care if I sleep,” he chuckled. “That fussing is reserved for Martin.” I smiled. “But for you, I will.” I smiled.

Resolution

Annalise

I don’t know that I’ve ever sat at a dinner this awkward. Everything is being done formally, which Olivia saw to, not something we’ve done since coming to Brightcoast. Since we’re honoring Brea and Nika they’re sitting on either side of me, and Harran walked in with Brea on his arm.

I’m trying to will myself to be jealous, but it simply won’t rise in me. It’s more annoying, that he has another demand on his time and a bit frustrating that he didn’t tell me that he’d sent for someone he had a history with.

And as if it wasn’t enough to have her staring daggers at me, and Harran not meeting my eyes, Eric’s decided to return to being seen in public tonight. My heart stopped in my chest when he walked in, he didn’t look terribly well, better perhaps than when we last talked, but it was clear that anger didn’t suit him at all.

I found myself longing for a smile and wink from him to get me through the night. It wouldn’t come, I knew that much.

“Your Majesty,” Nika said softly and I turned to her, “I think we all got off on the wrong foot this afternoon.”

“Yes, I think we did,” I said softly. “I’m sorry, I often feel pulled in ten different directions.” She smiled and nodded. “We do need your help though, rather desperately. Marina and I have something of an adhoc magical education. Mastero Anselm did as well as he could on his own for me, and I think the sisters in Dovetail went as far to the line as they could safely with her.” Nika nodded. “But it was lonely, and we’re often simply muddling through.”

“Of course,” Nika nodded. “And we are here to help.” She sighed. “Are you really sure, about the gods?” I nodded.

“Reasonably,” I sighed. She made a quick sign against evil. “Harran said you serve Amina, or at least, don’t shy from her realm?”

“The Dark Lady is as much a power as her siblings,” she shrugged, “she must be honored for that, her realm is crucial to any balance in this world.” I looked at her. “Have you ever seen a ghost, Majesty?”

“I used to hear my mother,” I admitted softly, “her voice, screaming as she died.” Nika nodded.

“Our time honoring the dark lady is about helping shades and ghosts cross over,” she explained, “it’s about them, not about her. But she’s vain, she likes tribute.” I laughed.

“I suppose she and I might have more in common than I initially gave her credit for.” I smiled and Nika laughed.

The final course was served and some music started, there was dancing, but it wasn’t formal, I put my foot down at a full formal ball. There was one planned for high summer in a week. I stepped out of the room onto the terrace and breathed in the air.

“If you keep carrying the weight of the world you’ll break in half,” I turned and saw Eric, leaning against the door. “And you’re so tiny, Anya, how will you manage?”

“I have to, if you’ll recall,” I shrugged, “Sword of The Goddess, and all.” He nodded and made a soft affirmative noise. “Eric,” I whispered as he stepped over to me. He pressed his forehead against mine. “I’m sorry.”

“I know,” he said, “I accept your apology, I do, I don’t know if I can forgive you.”

“Yet?” I whispered. He sighed.

“Yet,” He mumbled, “or ever.” I swallowed. “I wish I loved you less. Then I think I could let it go, for everyone’s good. But Gods, Annalise I love you, and I want you to love me. Maybe it’s unfair that I want you to only love me.” I swallowed. “But I can’t change that. I won’t share the parts of you I don’t have to. You’re already a queen and hero, there’s already such a small part of yourself that you even can give to a lover.” I swallowed. “And I want it to myself.”

“But I do only love you,” I said. He sighed. “I just can’t be as cautious as you, it’s not who I am.” He kissed me and pulled me close. “Eric,” I whispered, he was holding me so close.

“I want you so badly, my darling,” he said, “I’m sorry if you ever felt like I didn’t.” I looked up at him.

“What do you need from me?” I asked. “If my saying it can’t convince you, what do you need me to do?” He sighed and pulled away. “I can,” I swallowed, “I can send him away, if you,” he looked at me.

“No,” he shook his head, “no that’s clearly not the answer. Tristan’s gone, after all, and that didn’t fix anything.” I swallowed, “I won’t leave, I’m not giving up on you, on us,” I nodded.

“Hold me again,” I said gently. He smiled sadly and pulled me close. “I’ve missed you so much.”

“I’ve missed you too.” He said and lay a gently kiss against my neck. “I should go.” He went to pull away and I pulled on his shirt to keep him close. He exhaled and looked down at me. “Anya,” he whispered, his voice thin, but he was smiling.

“Kiss me again,” I said. He kissed me deeply. I arched into him. “I’m aching for you.” I whispered.

“Your bed is a bit crowded at the moment, isn’t it?” He said. I swallowed. He ran a single finger across my jaw, then down my neck. “Are you aching for me, or simply aching?” I looked at him. “This is what I can’t forgive, Annalise, I know it’s unfair, but if you wanted me, and not just sex, you wouldn’t have continued with Harran.” I stared at him.

“I’m sorry that I’m not the perfect pure little princess who you dreamed and fantasized about,” I said sharply. “I’m sorry that I’m a flesh and blood woman who wants to be satisfied. I’m sorry that I fell in love before I ever even saw you, and then that choosing you wasn’t ever enough.”

“That isn’t what I meant,” he snapped back. “Goddess you’re the most infuriating woman I’ve ever met.” I smiled softly at him.

“Again, all apologies, your highness,” I said. As if he wasn’t infuriating either. “If you’ll excuse me.” I walked back inside and thought about looking for Harran, and then my heart sank. I didn’t want him. Well, I did because I knew it would feel good, to go to my room and wrap myself around him and be lost in the bliss of his touch, his kiss, him inside of me.

But it wasn’t Harran I wanted. Not really.

“Are you alright?” Marina walked up to me. I swallowed.

“I think I need to go to bed,” I said softly. “Make my excuses?”

“Of course,” she said softly. “I’ll bring you something to help you sleep if you like.” I nodded. “Lisette,” she said as I walked past her, “it’s going to be alright.” I exhaled and walked up to my room and undressed quickly and climbed into bed.

I tried to sleep even without whatever Marina would bring me, but sleep wouldn’t come. I wondered if even without my asking for him Harran would be here. Probably not. He hadn’t before, we always had to make plans. I sat up hearing a knock.

“Marina, just come in,” I said and stood up. I walked and opened the door, Eric was standing there. “Not Marina.” I said.

“No,” he whispered and pulled me close and kissed me. I exhaled. “We weren’t finished.” I looked up at him.

“Weren’t we?” I said, he shook his head, the look on his face was one of wicked amusement.

“We were not,” he said, I swallowed. He’d been in my apartment before but never my bedroom. “I shouldn’t have brought Harran into it. It isn’t about that, it isn’t about you and other men at all.” I sat down on the bed. He walked over. “I don’t simply want to be a place holder because you hate to be alone.”

“I do hate to be alone,” I said softly, I sat up on my knees and wrapped my arms around his neck. “But I don’t want just anyone, I want you.” I kissed him again. He pushed me down under him onto the bed.

“I can see that,” he teased as his hands slid up my thighs, “or feel it, as it were.” I exhaled as his fingers brushed gently against me.

“Eric,” I mumbled, “don’t stop,” he did though and moved up my body, sliding my plain white shift over my head. The way his fingers felt sliding up, gently brushing my skin. “If you try to leave now, I’ll have you executed.” He chuckled.

“I thought you wanted to avoid war,” he mumbled, he was sitting up and unfastened his pants. I giggled. “Killing me would ensure it.”

“Frustrating me further will ensure your destruction, Your Highness,” I said leaning to sit up. He grinned and pushed me down again, this time gripping my wrists. “Eric,” I squirmed against his hold.

“You’ve accused me of being cold,” he said, “of not wanting you.” I swallowed and he kissed me. “I know that if you choose me, what my place will be.” I exhaled. “Besides you, behind you, kneeling to you first and always.”

“Yes,” I said, squirming more as he continued to hold me trapped under him. He was pressing against me, hard, and hot. I knew I should say more, but I couldn’t. I was so stimulated, I just wanted him\

“But perhaps that’s not what you want here, hm?” He whispered in my ear. “In bed you don’t have to be a queen or a hero, you can be a woman.” I exhaled. “My woman.” He met my eyes. “I’m going to take you now, Anya, as many times as I like.”

“Please,” I managed before he kissed me, his tongue tasting my mouth and then pushed into me. I groaned. He wasn’t big, I realized, but I didn’t care, he fit, beautifully and fully, as he thrust into me. I arched into him, thrusting up as he moved down. “Eric, Goddess, Eric,” I screamed as he moved his mouth to my neck. I cried out as he finally released my wrists, I grabbed onto his shoulder. “Don’t stop, please, don’t stop,” he slowed his stroking in and out of me then and pulled out. “Why did you stop?” I whispered. He grinned wickedly.

“Don’t give me orders,” he said. “Everywhere else, every other facet of our lives, I’ll be your consort, your humble servant, and do exactly as you say,” he rolled onto his side, and I followed him, “But here,” he kissed and then nipped my neck, I whimpered, “here, I’ll do as I like.” I swallowed and whimpered again as he turned my face and kissed me again. “Shall we continue?”

“Yes,” I said softly, “yes please.” He bit my bottom lip gently.

“Good,” he pulled me close. “I love you.” I smiled softly, but was quickly lost in the bliss of him inside of me.