The Keep

Annalise

It’s been a long ride and an I’m not sure what I’m expecting when we arrive at the border keep. I’ve been here a hand full of times in the past few years, and it’s always an awe inspiring experience, it’s two stone towers rising and the wide busy courtyard are soothing after the long ride.

I couldn’t help but split my face into a grin as we rode into the courtyard and I saw Harran standing waiting to greet us. Brea was beside him, but I barely saw her. I dismounted off of Kria and walked up to him as he bowed.

“Your Majesty,” he said taking my hand.

“Chieftan,” I said. I looked at Brea who was sunk into a curtsey. “Lady Brea.”

“My Queen,” she rose up. “We are honored by your presence.” She looked past me to Marina who was standing with Nika, the twins and Prior were a few steps back, along with Aaron. “Duchess, sister.”

“Hello Brea,” Nika said stepping forward and kissing her on the cheek. “Chieftan.”

“Lady Nika,” Harran embraced her. “We’re glad to have you home.” Her eyes were closed, I looked at Marina, who swallowed. “We’re glad to have all of you here.” He looked at me. “I had thought we’d feast right away but as my lady reminds me, you prefer a rest after a long ride.” I smiled.

“I do,” I said. Prior stepped forward and took my arm as I followed Brea through to a room.

“Commander, you know your way from here?” She said, her voice twinkling. I narrowed my eyes at her.

“I do,” he said simply. She curtsied again.

“Please let me know if you need anything further, Your Majesty,” she smiled and swept out.

“She didn’t wait for me to dismiss her,” I grumbled and plopped onto the bed. Prior looked at me indulgently.

“I know you dislike her, but she does have quite a lot to do and probably wants to comfort her sister,” he said. I raised my eyebrows at him.

“Please don’t see the best in her,” I sighed. He laughed and kissed my forehead.

“I apologize, I’ll be short tempered and scowly with her,” he said. I laughed. “Are you going to tell Harran?”

“About?” I asked.

“Annalise,” he sighed.

“I will tell him,” I said. He smiled. “Perhaps not tonight, though. He’s so happy that we’re here and,” he lay down beside me. I cupped my hand against his face. “I don’t want to lose him.”

“I know sweetheart,” he whispered and kissed me. “I’ll let you rest. Several rangers arrived last night, apparently. We’re to be briefed.” I nodded and lay down to sleep for a while. My Dreams were chaotic, they always are this close to Westran. When I awoke, Calla was sitting cross legged looking down on me. “Hello Little One.”

“Chieftan Harran sent me to get you,” she said simply. “But Mama said I oughtn’t wake you. Were you Dreaming?” I sat up.

“I was,” I said. She nodded. “Shall we go to see The Chieftan?” She nodded and I followed her out to the yard. “Has Mama sparred with him yet?”

“No,” Calla said with an exhausted sigh. I laughed. She reminded me of Caleb when she sighed like that. “She said that she’ll only do it when she’s rested.” I nodded. Harran was settled in at a wide table and she ran over to him and he took her up onto his lap. “I found her, Chieftan Harran.”

“So you did, Lady Calla,” he smiled at me. “Hello Lisette.”

“Hello Your Highness,” I said. “Calla, love, where is your Papa?” Calla shrugged.

“I’ll go find him,” she popped off of Harran’s lap and went running.

“You’ve a task on your hands, turning that one into a queen,” he smirked at me.

“She’s energetic,” I said. He hugged me. “Oh, I’ve missed you.”

“I’ve missed you too,” he said. “I was worried you wouldn’t come, given your reaction last time.” I smiled at him.

“Right,” I muttered. “I was surprised.” He raised his eyebrows. “I thought,” he smirked at me, “Well, I didn’t expect you to wait around.”

“Didn’t you?” He said. I frowned at him. “If it weren’t Brea,” he tried, and I sighed.

“I could have reacted better when you told me,” I admitted. “I just,” I exhaled, “she’s so,” he laughed. “Brea.”

“I’m happy that you’ve found someone else you know.” He said. “You could be more generous.”

“I haven’t,” I muttered. He laughed then.

“Prior is far too happy for things to have not moved forward,” he said. “And I know you very well.” I cocked my head at him.

“Nika told you,” I said.

“Of course Nika told me,” he smirked. “What does Tristan say?” I sighed and stretched down onto the table. “Ah, so he’s enthusiastic?”

“He thinks I’m ruining Prior’s life,” I said. “You don’t mind?” He shrugged.

“I like Prior,” he admitted. “And if you’re happy.” I frowned. “You need to write to Eric.”

“I what?” I said. He looked at me. “No, I don’t, it has nothing to do with him.”

“Lisette,” he said. “If you’re getting married he can’t find out from spy networks, or official announcements.” I pouted at him.

“You found out from Nika,” I said.

“Yes, because Nika knows you’re a coward about this sort of thing, and she wanted me prepared,” he laughed. “I am gaining an excellent sister.” I laughed.

“You are,” I said softly. “Harran, I,” I swallowed. “Did I hurt you?” He looked at me. “I mean, what went on between us.”

“Of course you did,” he said, his voice was gentle though, “Lisette, you broke my heart. Not the first time, obviously, but two years of uncertainty followed by an outright rejection was more than a sting.” I looked away. “You wanted Eric and I was there. If your own heart has healed from losing him, I’m glad for you. But you have to tell him that.”

“I don’t know that it ever will,” I said. “Heal, I mean.” He wrapped his arm around me. “What if Prior leaves me too?”

“Is that why you want to marry him?” Harran asked. “To keep him?” I nodded. “Oh Lisette.” I rested my head against his shoulder. “I had them bottle three casks of the whiskey.” I laughed.

“Good,” I mumbled. “I’m going to need a lot of it.” He laughed and pulled me close.

“There you are,” Brea marched over to us. “My parents have arrived, are you going to greet them?” It was phrased as a question but it certainly didn’t sound like she was asking. She looked at me. “Congratulations on your engagement Annalise.” She swirled and left. Harran sighed, his face full of a dopey smile.

“That is what you have to look forward to,” I said, “for the rest of your life.”

“Yes,” he said, with a besotted sigh, “it’s wonderful, isn’t it?” I laughed and shoved him away. I’d missed my friend more than I could have possibly understood before seeing him again.

Training

Athena

I marched into Tristan and Carolina’s tent and saw her sitting at a desk working on a letter while my brother sat cleaning his sword.

“Caro, I’m sorry to ask,” I said, she looked at me.

“Stay where you are,” Tristan said. Caro rolled her eyes.

“Honestly, the two of you,” she said. “Athena it’s none of your business.” I blinked at her. “I’m assuming you’re talking about whatever it was that happened this morning.”

“I well, yes,” I stuttered.

“Well, I’m tired as hell of talking about it,” she said. “We can all talk about it for five more years it won’t change anything,” Tristan walked over and put his arms around Carolina and kissed her gently. I realized I was seeing inside of something that I hadn’t before.

“I’m sorry,” I said softly. “But Tristan I do need to,” he glared at me.

“I’ll only be a moment,” Tristan said, and Caro sighed, “come on, Athena.” We walked out of the tent. “She’s right it’s none of your business.”

“I know that,” I said.

“It doesn’t affect you,” he shrugged, “it affects me, and Lisette. And Prior and Caro. But it has nothing to do with you.” I sighed. “I know you love me, I know you worry, but Thena, you can’t interfere in my marriage, it’s going poorly enough right now.”

“You’re right,” I sighed.

“I know I am,” he said. “Wait, what?”

“You asked to train Althea.” He nodded. “Why?”

“Because I want Calla to be safe,” he said. “And because then I could be home.”

“But what you do is important,” I said.

“What I do is important, but it’s not working and it’s what you’re supposed to do.” He shrugged. “Which is probably why it isn’t working. What’s gotten into you?” I exhaled.

“Harran has been helping,” I said. He nodded. “I’ve been doing nothing, and I couldn’t keep up with any of you today, and,” I exhaled, he smirked. “Don’t do that.”

“You think that you’re going to lose to Harran,” he said. I groaned. “And that is unacceptable.”

“Obviously,” I crossed my arms, “I lost to Annalise, she hasn’t beaten me ever. I nearly lost to Aaron last week, Tristan. Aaron.”

“Honestly, you have gotten sloppy, and he probably just let you win because he’s your husband and he loves you.” He said. I whacked him in the arm. “You want to train?” I nodded. “Just with me?”

“Martin is allowed too,” I said. He nodded and frowned. “And explain to Caro? I don’t want her thinking I’m trying to get involved in,” I gestured, “all of that. I’m on your side.” He nodded and hugged me.

“I know,” he said. “I’m sorry we jumped to conclusions. I should have assumed that it was actually all about you, it usually is.” I punched him again. “Lisette has gotten very good though. She’s always been fast, but she was like lightning today.”

“If she beats me again I’ll start taking it out on recruits,” I mumbled. My brother grinned at me.

“I have no doubt,” he said. “Good night Athena.” I sighed and returned to our tent and saw Aaron playing on the ground with Calla. She had two dolls, one dressed in a guard uniform and the other in a fine dress with a crown on.

“What have we here?” I asked bending down.

“Well,” Aaron smiled, “it seems that this guard and this princess are off to hunt shadows.”

“No, Papa,” Calla said, exasperated, “they’ve returned home from hunting shadows.” I laughed. “The Princess destroyed more of them and the guard is very put out.” I smiled. I wonder if the gods have made my daughter

“I see,” I nodded, “I think it may be time for you to go to sleep, Little One.” She yawned and nodded. I picked her up and lay her down on her cot next to the bed. “Do you like life at camp?”

“It’s very exciting,” she pondered. I nodded. “Mama, am I to live at Dovetail with Aunt Annalise now?”

“Where ever did you get that idea?” I asked tucking her in. “Of course you aren’t. You’ll be with us. Sometimes in Dovetail, and sometimes at Pantona, sometimes in camp like this.” She nodded.

“I only thought,” she said with another yawn, “as I’m her heir and the new baby.” I laughed.

“No Duck,” Aaron said sitting with her, “we are very proud of you for being so brave about become Aunt Annalise’s heir, but we’re a family, the three of us and the baby.” She nodded and snuggled in to fall asleep, her thumb in her mouth. Aaron looked at me and we walked inside.

“How is Tristan?” He asked. I looked at him.

“He agreed to help me train again,” I said softly. “What about him though?” Aaron followed my hands to my belly.

“Marina and Elodie said he was strong,” he said, “he ought to train too.” I laughed. “Have you thought of names? Do you want Alexander?” I sighed.

“No,” I said, “my father maybe? We don’t have another John.” He nodded.

“Alright then,” he said, “John it is.” I kissed him gently. “You know I want what you want.”

“I do,” I said softly. “I just wish I could decide what that was, right now.” He nodded and tightened the hug.

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.

Interlude – From The Outside In

Note: The Merriest Of Christmas Weekends To You, Marina Chronicle Readers! As a Christmas present to you, (and me!) I’m publishing two interludes, about my two favorite people in this world right now…Prior Chastain and Evan Allred. Who are these cousins who popped up and suddenly fit right in with our A list? What’s their deal?

Anyway, Prior first. Please feel free to score this particular piece with Taylor Swift’s “Mastermind” and know that in my mind, Prior is Brandon Routh.

Prior

The induction had come more quickly than he’d paid attention to. As he knelt and looked up at Queen Annalise, Prior Chastain could barely even think of the past two months of training and bonding with his squad. She was almost glowing, and she was all that mattered.

“I thank all of you,” she said, her voice gliding over the group. “And welcome your service.” They rose. Commander Dugarry said something to her and her face lit up in a laugh. He was lost. His queen could have his whole heart, physically if she wanted it.

“You seem distracted,” his cousin Evan said that evening. Prior looked at him. “Aren’t you relieved to be inducted?”

“I am,” Prior nodded, “disappointed to be staying here though.” Evan raised his eyebrows.

“It’s important work,” Evan shrugged, “I doubt Brightcoast will be all that exciting.” Prior laughed. “Did you speak to her?”

“No,” Prior laughed. “I don’t know that I ever will.” Evan sighed. “Why?”

“I don’t know,” Evan said, “I just don’t know how to talk to her.” Prior smiled. “I don’t suppose we could swap? I join the guard and you try to marry her?” Prior’s heart sped up at the thought of it. “I’m joking. Aside from my complete lack of interest, no one is getting near her with Dugarry around.”

“The Commander is leaving,” Prior said thoughtfully. “He’s going to Dorin. There’s still the princes though. And the fact that you don’t like women.” Evan laughed.

The Guard had been his Uncle’s idea, but the Rangers were his own. He was more suited to the quick moving nomadic life of the small unit. The long quiet rides through Failon’s forests and Westran’s deserts felt peaceful to him.

“Chastain,” Commander Elodie Willis-Graves walked into his barrack, he stood up and she smiled at him. “I have an assignment for you.”

“Really?” He said. He’d yet to be assigned a permanent partner.

“Mm,” she nodded, “The Countess of Pantona is pregnant.” He raised his eyebrows. “Sir Tristan requires a new partner and I think it should be you.” He stared at her.

“What?” He said, “why?” She shrugged.

“You’re good at this,” she said, “and the family likes your cousin. Tristan doesn’t really like anyone, but I think he’ll get along with you.” He stared at her. “Come on, you have to meet them.”

“You say, ‘the family,’ Elodie,” he stuttered as he followed her through the training yard, “does that mean, Sir Tristan and Lady Carolina?”

“Hello Elodie,” Duchess Marina of Brightcoast cheerfully trotted up to them. “Oh you must be Prior Chastain! Evan’s told me so much about you. I do hope you and Tristan get along.” He blinked at her.

“Thank you, Your Grace,” he bowed. She looked at the Commander.

“Elodie, are you and Mercy going to be at dinner tonight, I need to know how many places are to be set?” The Duchess asked.

“Not tonight, no,” Elodie said. “Althea’s had a cold.”

“Oh, poor thing,” the Duchess clucked, “I’ll make a tea for you all.”

“Thank you,” Elodie laughed as the Duchess padded off. “You look overwhelmed.”

“They know who I am?” He said. She rolled her eyes.

“Obviously,” Elodie said, “your cousin is living with theirs.” Prior exhaled through his nose.

“I know Raymond knows me,” he said. “But The Queen and The Duchess.” Elodie smiled fondly at him.

“Prior,” she said, “I’ve seen you with women, Annalise and Marina are just the same.” He frowned. “I’m serious. Probably Her Majesty more than anyone. She didn’t grow up a queen, she grew up a farm girl in Pantona.” He nodded. “She’s kind of a flirt too, you should know.”

“What?” He said. She smirked. Elodie always saw too much. “It isn’t,” he sighed. “What if I saw something?”

“Yes, the worst thing that could happen to you is that you tell your queen you find her bewitchingly attractive,” Elodie’s voice was flat and sarcastic. “She’ll despise you for it.” Prior sighed. She didn’t understand. No one did.

Six months and three missions later, he’d grown used to the rhythm of things, he liked Tristan Dugarry, who’s seriousness and stoicism, he’d learned was more shyness and social discomfort. Among the people he was close to, the Commander was engaging, and thoughtful.

Their time in Dovetail was his favorite. Because he was close to her. The Queen. Annalise. And she knew him now, paid attention to him, he could make her laugh.

“Hello Captain,” she smiled at him one afternoon walking from holding court.

“Your Majesty,” he bowed. She looked oddly at him. “Can I help you with something?”

“I’m curious why you come here,” she said as they walked out. “Between missions I mean, rather than go home.” He laughed.

“Ah,” he nodded. “My uncle, likes for me to be at court. All of our lives are made easier by my uncle being pleased.” She laughed.

“That’s true enough,” she said, “you’d be next in line wouldn’t you?” He raised his eyebrows. “If I accepted his petition, to dishinerit Evan?”

“His what?” Prior said. She smiled. “Of course. Here I thought he just wanted me to be happy.” She laughed. “I hadn’t realized he’d made his desires official.”

“I’m not doing it,” she remarked. He nodded. “I hope that’s not a disappointment to you. I like Evan and he’s a calming presence on council.” He smiled. “You’ll join us tonight? With everyone back in Pantona, Marina, Raymond and I are feeling a bit lonely.”

“I’d be honored,” Prior said gently. She smiled and turned and walked off. This would be the first time he was seeing her so intimately with Tristan not present.

“May I ask you something?” Annalise said that evening. They were alone, The Duchess had gone to bed and his cousin and his partner were also gone. It had happened too quickly for Prior to excuse himself. He also realized that he didn’t want to.

“I think you may ask whatever you like,” he pointed out. “You’re a queen.” She laughed at that and refilled her wine glass.

“I still like to be polite,” she sipped softly on it. “You watch me,” she said. He nodded.

“That isn’t a question,” he pointed out. She rolled her eyes. “You want to know why?” She nodded. “Because I can’t help it. I’ve tried to, since I came here five years ago. But I can’t stop.” She smiled coyly and leaned back against the sofa.

“Hm,” she nodded, “Would kissing me help, or hurt, do you think?” He blinked at her. “Sometimes it can help, you know, to get the fascination and fantasy out of your system. You could ask Prince Harran about that.” He swallowed.

“Are you asking me to kiss you?” He said. “Or is this a philosophical conversation?” She laughed. “Your Majesty,” he whispered as she moved closer, her gown rustling.

“Captain,” she said quietly, and then pressed her lips to his softly. He cupped his hands around her face. They broke apart. “So, what’s the verdict? Help or hurt?” He laughed.

“Too soon to say,” he smirked, “we’ll have to see how my attention moves tomorrow.” She nodded. She smiled and reclined again. She was beguiling, he realized. He’d watched the part she played in public. Their supernaturally serene girl Queen, as close to the goddess herself as they would ever see.

But she was utterly human. He as all the more drawn to her now.

“But I have it now,” she whispered. He smiled. “Your attention, that is?” He exhaled as she wrapped her arms around his neck.

“Yes, My Queen,” he exhaled and kissed her again, his hands moving to her waist. She was so small against him, and she was still overwhelming him. “You have my attention.” She smiled and slid out from under him.

“Excellent,” she said, “come to bed, Prior, I’ll return it.” He followed her into her bedroom and kissed her, falling back against her bed. He kissed down her neck. She said his name, and trembled when he touched her.

“I want you,” he whispered, “so much, it’s killing me.” She looked up at him and touched his face and kissed him again.

“You have me,” she whispered and pulled his shirt over his head. “No need for the dramatics.” He smiled. “Goddess, I will never stop loving this,” she ran her hands over his chest. He wasn’t sure what he meant but they undressed each other and made love. After, he held her and quietly kissed her hair.

“You said you’d never get tired of it,” he said. She giggled. “Of me?”

“I might get tired of you,” she teased, “but I meant this,” she ran her hands over his chest, “of what your training does for your bodies,” she kissed him. He smiled.

“Really?” He said. She shrugged.

“When I was sixteen, at Pantona,” she explained, “Tristan used to run, and he would get too hot, and inevitably disrobe to some extent.” He raised his eyebrows. “And I remember thinking I might mandate the uniform for male guards not have any shirts, just so I could look at all of you.” He laughed.

“Wouldn’t be particularly practical,” he pointed out and she giggled.

“No,” she sighed, “and everyone already gossips about me and the guards, I doubt such a change would go uncommented on.” He frowned.

“Have there been others?” He asked. “Besides me and Tristan?” She closed her eyes.

“No,” she said, “I’ve been friendly with some people, but no,” she stretched, cat like in her movements. “Despite what your uncle and some of the others think, I don’t take every man I blink at into my bed.” He nodded and threaded his fingers into hers. “Tristan, Harran, Eric, and now you.” He kissed her.

“I don’t know what I’ll tell him,” he whispered. She closed her eyes.

“Tristan and I are not nearly in a place where it’s his business,” she said. He kissed her again.

It was months and several cycles through missions and returns home, as Tristan banked a fire, settling in for a night after riding all day that they finally acknowledged it.

“Does she talk about the future?” Tristan asked. Seemingly out of nowhere. But Prior had learned that by the time his partner spoke, he’d usually had several version of the conversation in his mind.

“No,” Prior said softly. “Honestly, I expect every time we return to Dovetail that she’ll have moved on completely.” Tristan smirked at that.

“She won’t,” he said, “it isn’t her nature.” Prior swallowed and large sip of water. “I only ask because,” he shook his head. “People are going to talk, about you, about your ambition, about how worthy or not you are. And you can walk away from that, but she can’t.” Prior looked at him.

“What happened between you two?” He managed. Tristan looked at him. “Really.” Tristan shruggedd.

“We were young. We were in love with each other,” he said softly. “And it wasn’t enough. For anyone. For the council, for me, for her, for Marina, for the gods. So it couldn’t hold. I miss her,” he said softly. “But being near each other isn’t good for us. We’ve tried, a few times, and it hurts too much.” Prior looked at him. “And Carolina doesn’t like it.” Prior laughed at that.

“Your wife’s reservoir of patience is endless,” Prior said. Tristan laughed.

“It really isn’t,” he said. “But it is deep. And I’d never want to reach it’s bottom. Her father learned that lesson the hard way.” He shook his head. “But be careful.”

“I wouldn’t hurt her,” Prior said. Tristan laughed. “I see she’s more fragile than most realize, but I wouldn’t,” Tristan shook his head.

“Lisette is perhaps softer than people realize,” Tristan said, “but she isn’t fragile. And I’m not worried you’ll hurt her, my friend.” Prior looked at him. “I’m very worried you’ll get hurt.” Prior looked at him. “I loved her, and still love her, with everything in me. But she can’t give her whole self to any man, and don’t expect it of her.”

He’d meant to bring it up the next time the were together. Tristan’s concerns, what she wanted from him, from them. But instead, he saw her carrying so much weight, and refused to add to it. He instead relished the moment she let go, since it came while he wrapped his arms around her from behind, slid her braided hair of her neck and kissed it gently.

No, he couldn’t think about their future, about what it all meant, when all that mattered was after so long, wishing she would even look at him, she was in his arms. It was enough.

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.

Sisters

Carolina

“Lady Dugarry,” A page walked in, “Mistress Emily DuCray is here to see you.” I stared at him.

“What?” I stood up.

“Should I show her in?” He looked confused.

“Of course,” I said. Emily walked in breezily, with a baby in her arms. “Emily, what on earth?”

“Athena invited us for supper,” she explained, “which was kind of her, since she was infuriated with us yesterday. Alex is still giving her space but I had to see you.”

“I’m glad,” I said and hugged her. “What did you do to Athena?” She sighed.

“Hypothesized about Calla’s future,” Emily said. I looked at her. “I know, we got carried away.”

“Calla’s future is tied up enough in her role as heir,” I said, taking the wiggling Carlo from her. “Besides you have your own plans to make, for this handsome devil.” She laughed.

“He is handsome isn’t he,” she settled in. “How are you?” I sighed. I wanted to tell her everything. Even a few years ago I would have. But we’re so distant now.

“I’ve been better,” I managed to admit. “But I’m glad to be back here. Pantona is so far away from everything.”

“Isn’t that what you wanted?” Emily asked. I sighed.

“Yes,” I smiled, “turns out getting what you wanted isn’t always wonderful,” Emily laughed. “I missed you,” I said, “and I am so glad to meet you, Little One,” I bounced my nephew and he giggled.

“Caro, are you busy,” Annalise flew in, Emily flew to her feet and into a curtsey. “Hello Madame DuCray.”

“Your Majesty,” Emily said softly and rose. “I’m sorry if you need my sister.”

“Don’t be silly,” Annalise said, “I’m supposed to meet with the seamstresses about my clothes for Westran. It isn’t important. I thought you might like to come.”

“Of course,” I said. “I’d be happy to,” I started.

“Enjoy your family,” Annalise smiled at me, “I’m very happy to meet little Master DuCray,” she looked at Emily. “You must stay for dinner, please send for your husband too.”

“That’s very kind of you my queen,” Emily said quickly, “but my husband and his cousins aren’t,” she sighed.

“The twins will cope,” Annalise said gently, “Caro clearly needs her family right now.” I smiled gratefully at her.

“Thank you, Your Majesty,” I said. She nodded.

“I’m sorry to have interrupted,” she said, “Madame DuCray.” Emily bobbed another curtsey.

“I think that’s the most she’s ever spoken to me,” Emily said.

“She came to your wedding,” I reminded her. “Probably the larger honor.” She rolled her eyes.

“Well, yes,” Emily said. “Honestly, though she’s always so friendly.” I smiled. “You’d never know she probably prayed for your death.”

“If Annalise prayed for my death, I’d be dead,” I laughed. “She’s chosen of two gods.” Emily laughed. “I’ve missed you.”

“I’ve missed you too,” she said softly, “Papa,” she started and I stared daggers at her. “He has regrets, Caro, truly.”

“Does he?” I said sharply. “Then why is Andrei’s challenge still active?” She looked at me. “Even after all these years, after that day in the guild hall? After Geno all but declared it over, why is my father still claiming my husband isn’t my husband?” Emily sighed. “And why is my husband’s family still doing business with him?”

“You’re right,” Emily said, “but I don’t think they will for much longer.” I looked at her. “Alex has been buying ships, some Rastani, some Phania, where do you think all of his information comes from?”

“Of course,” I said, “but enough?”

“Well, not yet,” she admitted, “but soon, I think so. The Old Man already scaled back Papa’s contract, with barely a thought.” I looked at her, more than a little shocked.

“Hello Emily,” Tristan walked in. She smiled as he leaned down and kissed her on the cheek.”I’m glad to see you, Athena seemed concerend we might not.”

“Speaking of,” Emily got up and went to the desk, “I’ll send Alex a note about dinner,” Tristan raised his eyebrows at me.

“Annalise insisted,” I smiled, “Kiss your Uncle Tristan, Carlo.” Tristan laughed taking the little boy. I smiled. We needed to fix this. He needed to be a father.

I had to give him that.