December

The rumble of chattering voices and the soft tinkle of glass filled the crowded dining room. Many of their guests were local and so decided to stay—they could conduct their business from Doran’s villa while they waited for the new year’s feast three months out. It meant a lot of work for Catori. She was constantly playing hostess to entertain their guests on top of juggling a newborn and an entire household, which made preparing for the new year’s feast more difficult.

Despite the stress, she was more at ease that morning. Mere days had passed since the harvest feast—a spectacular hit—and though Doran went back to his usual reserved self, their intimacy was renewed. Catori was also afforded a little break before she needed to return to preparations for the next feast.

The relief at her success removed a great weight from her; even Doran commented on her change in demeanor. A little of her confidence came back once she knew she had the capability of executing a well-organized and beautiful event for her husband.

But could she do it again?

Doran rose from his seat at her side and drew her attention away from the glass of wine in her hand. Talk quieted and all eyes darted to him as he smiled. “I have an announcement.” Doran’s voice was mild but still loud enough to carry over those present. Even the knights and retainers stopped their chatter and turned to listen. “As many of you will be staying with us all winter, I’d thought to ease some of the burden placed on my wife. There’s a lot of you to entertain and only one of her, after all.” He paused to glance at her.

Catori took her cue and laughed. “It’s no burden,” she said, with a practiced, beaming smile. “I find I enjoy it.”

“Be that as it may, you’re a mother, too, and I can’t have you exhausted every night.” Laughter followed his words. Doran grinned and winked at her before turning back to their guests. “Because of this, I’d thought to host a tournament with the aid of Ser Kent—” He was interrupted by immediate roars of approval from the tables of knights. A faint smile rested on Doran’s lips and he chose patience instead of silencing them at once. “With the aid of Ser Kent,” he repeated, when the cheers died down. “To be hosted in Port Town mid-winter.”

Cries of dismay filled the air—they had only a month to train, too little time to properly hone their skills. Catori resisted the urge to roll her eyes. She’d tied for first place in a tournament with little training. Granted her skills were honed from war at the time.

“There will be prizes.” Doran’s grin widened at the knights’ renewed interest. “I will be offering one thousand gold pieces to the champion—” a great clamor filled the dining hall and drowned him out. That was a huge sum of money to most of them. “And five hundred gold pieces to the runner up.”

Catori smirked as shouts and cheers filled the room. Doran made himself their new favorite person. Most commoners saw about a single gold piece each season and Catori had grown up on less. She hadn’t even held a gold piece until presented with her pay at the end of the orc war when she was sixteen.

Doran still wasn’t done. “That’s not all I offer.” He grinned over the heads of all the lords and ladies at their table. “To any squire or freeblade who distinguishes themselves, I offer a knighthood and a position of status in my court. And to all, I offer use of my training yard to hone your skills in preparation.”

More cheers followed his words and several men rose to begin their training at once. Doran sat down again and reached for his wine.

“A tournament, how wonderful!” Lady Cecilia leaned forward with a twinkle in her eyes. “I always love watching tournaments. So many fine knights!”

“A good excuse to keep us busy.” Leford’s words sent Lady Cecilia into peals of delighted laughter. “Can’t have us destroying the villa or ravaging Port Town in boredom.”

“Port Town is ravaged every night!” Ser Kent roared with laughter. “Lord Spicer doesn’t offer bedwarmers, so the men come to my streets in search of pleasant company!” He laughed again and gestured for a servant to refill his wine glass.

Doran waved the comment away. “I dislike the practice. I prefer not to keep slaves and bedwarmers would get too little use to be worth the money.”

Catori smiled at him, pleased by his lack of bedwarmers. There was a lot of money to be made in prostitution, but it usually wasn’t the prostitutes who made it.

“So, Lady Spicer.” Leford sat forward with a wicked gleam in his eyes and grinned at her. “Thinking of participating in your husband’s tournament?”

“Much as I might like to, I don’t think it would be appropriate.” Catori smiled and reached for Doran’s hand. “I’d win, after all, and what’s the point in my winning? I don’t need the prize.”

“Oh-ho!” Lord Mantell laughed and shifted in his seat to regard her with amusement. “You’re so sure you’d win? A slight little thing like you?” He chuckled and though his words might have seemed rude, his voice was mild and friendly. “What makes you so certain?”

Catori smirked, but Doran was the one to answer. “They call her the Unbeaten in Citash.” He laced his fingers through hers and spared her a brief, fond glance. “She’s quite deadly. Never lost a match in the arena and in war, she’s proven ruthless.”

“The tales of your wife grow more and more interesting,” said Lord Mantell.

“I will train.” Catori leaned closer to Doran’s side and smiled at the stroke of his thumb over the back of her hand. “It’s about time I pick up my swords again. Your knights and squires can test themselves against a soft, recently pregnant woman.” She smirked again, and her confidence began to bubble to the surface. Swords and fighting she knew well. “We’ll be sure to have a healer ready to treat them.”

Laughter followed her words, but talk turned to other things as their guests finished their meals. Catori and Doran excused themselves together and left the dining room arm in arm. Her husband’s warm smile vanished as soon as they reached the staircase.

“That went well,” she murmured.

Doran huffed, a soft sound of amusement, and spared her a brief glance. “You’re getting better at this.”

Catori shrugged as they reached the landing and paused. “We both have parts to play.” She blocked Doran’s path with a smile that softened her expression. “It’s strange to see you so talkative. I think I like the real you better.”

One of Doran’s brows rose in question. “Oh?”

“Mhm.” Catori smoothed the crisp cream tunic he wore—traditional as opposed to the shorter cotton tunics they both wore in battle. “I grew up with your quiet, your little smirks. I’m comfortable with your silence. It doesn’t need to be filled.”

She stood on tiptoe and slid a hand around the back of his neck to urge him down into a swift kiss. He accepted it, but didn’t try to lengthen it.

Catori smiled when it broke and stepped back. “I’m happy to play alongside you. But I love you, Doran. Not the man you present to our guests.”

A tiny smile appeared in the corners of his mouth and his affection for her made his eyes shine. “That’s good to know.” The light brush of his fingers caressed her cheek, but his attention was already diverted. He straightened, and his gaze shifted towards his study. “We’ve work to do. Lunch?”

“I’ll see you midday,” she agreed. “Would you like fire sausage?”

He paused in the doorway with another hint of a smile on his mouth. “You know me too well.”


Catori’s pants were too tight.

She lay on her bed and panted from exertion as she wriggled into the deerskin pants. They dragged along her thighs and caught on her bottom. With a growl of frustration, she yanked them up until, blessedly, they were on. Catori sighed and relaxed.

A childish giggle drew her attention and she turned her head towards Brenden, who sat back against the pillows in her bed. He covered his mouth, his grey eyes dancing with laughter.

“You think this is funny?” He nodded and giggled again. Catori sighed. “Well, you’re right. It is.”

Getting the damn pants on was the hard part; she was smidgen too big for them. That would change once she began training again. But once they were on, it was simple to tie them in place.

She rose and stretched a little, testing to be sure the pants had enough give—to her relief, they did. She sat down again to tug her boots on and smiled at Brenden. “Come on,” she called, and he scooted across the bed to her side. “Let’s go, sweetheart.”

The sound of ringing steel mixed with shouts of triumph and angry curses, filling the training yard. Men loitered around the yard and watched as their friends sparred. Many of them smoked sour leaf, a dried herb that was well-liked in rich circles. Ladies and a few lords lounged on the terrace to watch and a few of them smoked the herb as well.

Silence fell as she stepped into the sunlight with Brenden at her side. He clutched her leg and gazed at the knights with wide eyes turned pale gray in the bright sun. Catori smiled and knelt to kiss his cheek.

“Sit on the lounge, sweetheart,” she told him. “Don’t go anywhere. I’m going to see Herald right over there, okay?” He nodded and turned to do as she said.

The men went back to their training as Catori crossed the yard, but they were more subdued, unsure what to think. She wore pants, boots, a loose tunic, and her hair was down. The only jewelry she wore was her wedding ring. She could be one of them. How were they supposed to act?

“Hello, Herald,” she said. “Enjoying your work?”

“Herald blacksmith.” He grinned at her. “Herald like.” His grin began to fade, and he sidled closer to wrap her in a big hug. She laughed and returned the embrace, but Herald still didn’t smile as he pulled away. “Friends broken,” he mourned. “Medroni gone.”

She nodded, and her own smile vanished. “I know what you mean. I miss him, too. But don’t worry, Herald. Medroni will be back.”

Guilt tugged at Catori. She hadn’t spent much time with Herald since her arrival at the Spicer villa. She’d been consumed with her wedding, with Doran, with her pregnancy. Her duties as his wife took up her time and the third of their group, Medroni, left soon after her wedding. Herald was left to take a position at Doran’s court. Nothing glamorous, despite his new title of lord. He’d insisted on being a blacksmith, so Doran gave him full control over the large smithy on the property.

She missed her friends, though.

Catori took a deep breath and pushed aside her guilt to smile at Herald. “Gimme some practice swords, will you?”

“Steel.” He turned toward a barrel of swords and pulled two short swords free. “Spell dull,” he said. “Catori beat knights.”

Catori took the swords, spelled to dull the sharp edges as Herald reminded her, and tested them. “You do good work, Herald. And yes. I’ll beat the knights.”

The others eyed her as she moved through their midst with her head held high and a small smile on her face. She paused near a group of knights who stood watching as two others sparred. Their wary gazes set her hair on end, but with swords in her hands she was in her element and nothing would intimidate her.

“My lady?” A hesitant knight stepped up to her side and bowed. His brows were creased, and he eyed her with a mixture of curiosity and perplexity while simultaneously trying to appear as if he weren’t. “Do you know how to use those swords?”

Catori smirked. “Would I be standing here if I didn’t?”

“Apologies.” The knight just about tripped over himself in his haste to apologize and Catori smiled. It wouldn’t do for him to offend the lady of the house. “I only wondered—women don’t often fight. I didn’t think—”

“Oh, I know.” Catori smiled. “A lady, a high lord’s wife, trained with swords? It’s unusual, but not unheard of.”

“Of—of course.”

Catori turned finally and fixed her full attention on the knight. He was handsome, the kind of man she’d pursue for a night or two were she not married. He towered over her, with copper skin smooth and clean, his square jaw only a little stubbled. Dark brown eyes gazed at her, and his long black hair was pulled into a tie.

“What’s your name?”

His face disappeared as he bowed to her. “Ser Dickard Ganesh, my lady.”

Catori ignored the awkward name. “Will you spar with me, Ser Ganesh?”

He took a step back from her and his brows shot up. “Spar with you,” he repeated, as though her words were foreign to him. “My lady, I’m not sure—I shouldn’t—”

Catori smirked at him. “What’s wrong, Ser? Afraid a soft little lady will embarrass you?”

A few of the knights laughed at their friend and Catori’s smirk grew into a wide grin. She was no longer Doran’s wife, nor a lady, standing amongst these knights. She was a gladiatrix, deadly with her swords, unbeaten on the sands. This knight couldn’t take her, but he didn’t know that. He only thought he’d hurt her.

His friends’ laughter melted some of his worry and he cast a brief glare in their direction. “Alright, my lady. I’ll spar with you. But I won’t go easy on you.”

“Oh, I wouldn’t expect you to. You have a reputation to uphold, no doubt.” Catori turned to the yard and gave a sharp whistle to draw the attention of the men sparring. “Out,” she ordered, and stepped into the middle of the training yard with the knight trailing behind her. “You prolong the inevitable. The longsword will win, his reflexes are better.” She smiled at the man carrying a spear, who gaped at her and backed out of the yard to watch.

The blades felt heavy in her hands—she wasn’t used to the weight anymore. Months had passed, and she’d barely touched her own swords, but these would suffice for training. She palmed the grips and swung one idly over her head as she turned towards the knight.

Ser Ganesh bore a longsword and held it firmly at his side as he studied her. He settled into himself, planted his feet apart for balance, and held his blade at the ready before him—a normal stance to take.

Catori rolled her shoulders back and stood there, silent and unmoving.

Confusion creased his brow. “My lady? Are you ready?”

“Oh, yes.”

He gaped at her, then lunged without warning and swung his sword at her, intending to slash her side. Catori was on the move before he’d gotten halfway to her. Her feet carried her backwards and she darted out of his reach with surprising speed. That was good. She hadn’t lost as much of her reflexes as she’d thought.

Catori fully expected her pregnancy to undo all the progress she’d made in Citash’s arena and at war. When she’d given birth to Brenden, she’d suffered the consequences of months without rigorous training and it was a hard road back. This time her body seemed to remember more.

Ser Ganesh lunged for her again and Catori danced out of his reach with a smile. Her muscles ached a little, not quite as limber as before, but she had no trouble leading the knight on. He was persistent, she’d give him that. When he realized she wasn’t going to engage, he attempted to force her and swung a few times in quick succession.

Catori became a blur of color, whirling around him with more speed than anyone realized she had. One of her swords screeched against his as she parried his swing and the other lashed out to bite into his shoulder.

He staggered back with a cry, then gaped at her. “You’re—”

“Good?” Catori laughed. “Did I forget to mention? I’m a gladiatrix. Or, I was.” She shrugged and flashed an impish smile. “Problem?”

Ser Ganesh rubbed his shoulder and eyed her with renewed wariness, then dropped back into his stance. “Not at all, my lady.”

“As I thought.” She shook her hair back, delighting in the feel of her curls tumbling down her back instead of the tight pull of her hair pinned to her head. She was freed from the confines of lady for just a little while and Catori relished it. “Come on, then, Ser. Let’s finish this.”

“Finish?” He laughed and launched himself at her.

He’d been holding back, contrary to what he promised earlier. Not that it mattered. Catori dodged him and lashed out with her swords, but the knight managed to block before she could land a hit. She darted back like a wary alley cat, her eyes trained on him. He came after her again and this time, Catori leaped forward to meet him.

Their swords tangled, and she gazed up at him with a wicked grin inches from his face. She took a quick step back and with all her might, angled her swords to yank his from his hand. As it clattered on the ground at their feet, Catori rested the edge of her sword against his throat.

There was applause from those watching and Catori released the knight with a smile. She stooped to pick up his sword and hand it to him. “Don’t go easy on anyone. Even a woman. I guarantee they won’t give you the same courtesy.”

A sheepish grin darted across his face and he bowed. “Thank you, my lady.”

Her smile twisted with amusement as she made her way to her son. She’d never been thanked for beating someone before.

Leford stood at Brenden’s side with a wide grin on his face as she approached. “Well, well,” he crowed, apparently delighted. “You’ve improved since Najaat!”

“I should hope so.” She set the swords aside and sat down to tug a squirming Brenden into her lap. “It’s been four years! Look, I have proof.” She gestured to Brenden as evidence and he giggled.

“I wanna fight like Mama.” Brenden tilted his head up to gaze at her. “I wanna learn. Can I learn?”

“Mm. How about… in one year?” Catori kissed his cheek. “I’ll start teaching you. Until then, you can watch me and help me with my swords. Deal?”

His expression fell as he processed her words. It took a moment before he nodded, beamed at her, and wiggled in her lap. “Yay swords!”

Leford laughed. “Gods, Bitter would adore him.” A flicker of sadness tinged his smile, but it vanished as he knelt by Catori’s knee to be eye level with his nephew. “Your mama will teach you to fight, but how would you like to be a knight?”

Brenden’s eyes went wide as saucers and his little mouth dropped into an exaggerated o.

Leford’s smile widened and he glanced briefly at Catori before he continued. “I can make you a knight. Would you like to squire for me when you’re old enough?”

“Yes!” Brenden nodded his head so emphatically his hair flew around his head. “Yes! I wanna knight! Like Papa!”

“You’ve got yourself another deal, Brenden.”

The boy squealed and clapped his hands together, his grey eyes dancing and a wide smile on his round face.

Catori laughed and kissed his cheek. “Okay, sweetheart, you sit here with your Uncle Leford. I’m going to spar a little more.”

She eased her son off her lap and let Leford take her place. Brenden climbed into his uncle’s lap and watched as Catori picked up her swords and headed back into the yard.

The knights were milling around and talking as though waiting for something to happen. Several squires sparred together in the corner of the yard while their knights watched with only half-interest. Everyone paused their talk to look up at her with a mixture of curiosity and apprehension as she stepped into the middle of the training yard.

“Alright, who’s next?”


Sunlight streamed through the open terrace and the breeze ruffled the curtains, filling Catori’s study with the scent of the ocean. The room was quiet, but for the sound of the waves far below. Catori sat in a huge, plush wicker chair with her skirts draped around her neatly and her sandals kicked off. She idly bounced one foot and hummed a soft tune, her eyes trained on Torin.

He was nearing two months old and his eyes—dark like his father’s—stared up at her as he suckled from her breast. His hand pushed at her skin, latched onto the neck of her dress, then stilled. He studied her as best as he could, and as she murmured to him, he stopped suckling briefly to focus on her.

“You are too cute,” Catori cooed. Torin blinked at her and she smiled. “Are you done, or just confused?”

“Probably confused,” Anisa said. Catori looked up and found her standing in the doorway, smiling. “Gods, I want one.” Catori moved over to make room for her as Anisa crossed the room. It was a snug fit, but neither minded. “Two sons,” Anisa breathed. “You lucky woman.”

“Yeah, I’m not sure what I’d do with a girl.”

Anisa laughed and leaned over to smile at Torin and stroke his cheek with one finger. He seemed to have his fill from Catori, so she covered herself and shifted Torin to cradle him against her shoulder.

“What’s going on? You’re usually busy this time of day. Isn’t Niro off for the day?”

Anisa ducked her head to hide the sudden blush in her cheeks. “He’s free later,” she murmured. Her eyes darted to Catori, then danced away again. “We’re having dinner. Privately.”

Catori raised a brow.

“In his room.”

She spluttered and laughed, and Torin made a soft gurgling sound in her ear. “Anisa,” she gasped. “Have you not—”

“No!” Her expression crumpled and she groaned. “We’ve had dinner in his room and mine. Nothing ever happens!” She slouched in the chair and watched as Catori rubbed Torin’s back. “We’ve come close—very close—”

“How close is very close?”

A tiny smirk appeared in the corners of Anisa’s mouth. “I know his weight on me.” Her voice hushed as though she were a young maid again. “I know the feel of him, the taste of him. I know the length—”

“Yeah, okay, I get the idea.” Catori laughed and nudged Anisa with her elbow. “Very close. Got it. Continue, please.”

Anisa heaved a sigh, and her expression fell again. “Something’s different now. We haven’t fooled around lately. Gods, I wanted him so badly at the start. I still do, it’s just—” She paused, searching for the right words. “I look at him and I can’t help smiling. I hate it when he’s gone, I want to spend all my time with him. And the thought of sex, the thought of us together—I worry I won’t be good enough. How can I be good enough? What if I don’t please him? It’s—it’s—”

“Overwhelming.” Catori flashed a small, sad smile and tilted her head to kiss her son. “New, like you’re a virgin all over again. I felt that way with Bitter.”

Anisa shifted to look at her better. “Not with Doran?”

Catori shook her head. “Doran was a surprise. Part of me couldn’t believe it was happening. I’ve known him so long, but after I got over the shock it was… natural. Like a puzzle fitting together.” She laughed and Torin struggled to turn his head towards the sound. Catori shifted him again to cradle him against her chest instead. “Bitter was different. He was new and exciting. When we were together, nothing else mattered.”

Anisa fell silent and her eyes dropped to her hands. She wrung them and fidgeted with her dress, her expression pensive and a little worried. Catori didn’t press her; Anisa would figure out her heart on her own. Instead, she made faces at Torin and smiled when his mouth opened wide in a big, gummy smile, lighting his eyes.

“He bought this for me,” Anisa said. Catori turned as Anisa placed the pendant she wore in her palm; a large amethyst set in gold hanging from a gold chain. Beads of gold and pearl were spaced along its length.

“Oh.” Catori touched the amethyst with one finger. “Anisa, that’s beautiful.”

“It is.” She sounded mournful and refused to look at Catori.

“Anisa, I’m really not sure what’s wrong here.”

“Nothing’s wrong!” Anisa groaned and covered her face. “Absolutely nothing! He’s perfect! I think— I think I’m falling in love with him.” Her hands dropped from her face and she gave Catori a helpless look. “I’m afraid,” she whispered. “I loved Rhys and he didn’t love me back.”

“Not the way he should have,” Catori agreed.

They fell silent, thinking of the man they’d both given their virginity to. Despite all his flaws, they’d been friends, and they mourned his death in their own ways. Catori hadn’t thought of him in months; she was too preoccupied with her new life. But Anisa had loved him in a way Catori hadn’t.

Catori had no desire to sit in melancholy silence and brood on a past lover’s death; not Bitter’s and certainly not Rhys’. She turned back to Anisa and directed the conversation back to the matter at hand. “Have you told Niro?”

“No!” Anisa’s eyes widened and she shook her head. “Of course not! I couldn’t! Could I?”

“Of course you can.” Catori smiled and took Anisa’s hand in one of hers. “And I think he may feel the same. He’s buying you expensive gifts, he seeks you out, he hasn’t pressured you for sex, and I see the way he looks at you.”

A hopeful smile stole across her face. “Really? You think so?”

“Anisa, why don’t you believe a man can love you? Have you seen you? Do you know you?” Catori shook her head and laughed. “If he’s not head over heels in love with you, then he’s as dumb as Rhys was.” Guilt ripped through her for her words, but Catori ignored it—Rhys was gone and his death wasn’t enough of a reason to sugar coat anything. He’d been horrible to Anisa.

Anisa’s smile widened and she nodded. “You’re right. I’ll—I’ll tell him tonight.” She nodded again to cement her words. “Tonight,” she repeated, and the waver in her voice vanished.

“Good.” Catori leaned over and kissed her, then handed Torin to her. “Now, I need your help. And I’d really like it if you could take my help in return.” She struggled out of the wicker chair and took Torin back to lay him in his crib. He burbled a little and grinned up at her, then yawned. Catori smiled at him, then turned back to Anisa. “There’s so many women in the villa now, I’d thought to host a little party just for us.”

Anisa paled. “I’m not a lady! I can’t—”

“You’re my guest. You can.” Catori urged Anisa up out of the seat and guided her towards the terrace. “And this one’s just your style. I’m bringing a few seamstresses from Hagia Sorva to the villa along with a jeweler. We’re going to make a little party of ordering our dresses for the new year’s feast.”

“Oh!” Anisa’s eyes lit up and she smiled, blithe and whimsical. “Oh, that sounds lovely.” The expression vanished a moment later. “Let me guess, you need someone to aid the seamstresses?”

Catori laughed. “No, Anisa. You’re a seamstress’ daughter, but you’re my guest, gods. When will you learn?” She giggled and looped her arm through her friend’s, then leaned on the railing overlooking Port Town. “No, I just need you to help me plan the party. You’re more feminine than I am.”

Anisa leaned on the rail beside her. “I could do that. But what else could I need your help with? You’ve helped with Niro plenty.”

Catori fell silent. The last time she’d tried to purchase anything for Anisa, her friend balked and they’d fought. But that was months ago, just before Catori’s wedding, and things were different—or she hoped.

“I’d like to purchase a dress for you. For the feast.” Again, Anisa paled, but Catori hurried on. “I want you to pick whatever you’d like and this time we’ll do it together. I want to include you.” She straightened and turned to take Anisa’s face in her hands. “You’re my oldest friend. I don’t fit in with these ladies, but I fit with you and I’d really appreciate it if you could do this for me. Help me through this, Anisa, please.”

Apprehension widened Anisa’s eyes and she gaped at Catori. She swallowed hard and glanced away. Catori knew it had to be hard for her. They worked for everything they had all their lives—until Catori climbed into Doran’s bed. She had no intention of leaving her best friend behind, but Anisa had no purpose and no money of her own. Taking what felt like charity was difficult.

She sighed finally and nodded. “I’ll help you plan and I’ll—I’ll join your party.”

“Oh, thank the gods.” Catori let out a breath of relief and drew Anisa into a tight hug. “It’ll be so good to have you there.”

Anisa returned her embrace, then pulled away with a tiny smile. “I have to go. I need to meet Niro.” Another blush bloomed in her cheeks and her smile widened. “I can hardly believe it. I—I love him. And I’m going to tell him. Oh.” Her eyes widened, and her face fell as the realization hit her again. “Oh, no—”

“No.” Catori ushered her toward the door. “Don’t think about it! Just do it. Trust me. Go! Get yourself a man.” She laughed as Anisa stumbled out of her study in a half-daze.


Catori stood at the grave of Doran’s brother, staring down at the gravestone. Oberyn Spicer, it read. She’d never known the man, though he’d been dear to both men she loved, and she wasn’t sure why she stood at his grave. This was a part of the villa’s grounds she never touched. She turned from it finally, and made her way around the building and back inside.

Muted light lit the entirety of the villa, but Catori could find no source for it. She walked through her home with a strange kind of wariness—something was different. It was silent, without even the sound of the wind or the surf.

Lying in the center of the atrium was a great bird, a phoenix, with magnificent gold and red plumage and broken wings. Her heart went out to the beast at once, but something made her hesitate as she gazed at it. What was a phoenix doing in her home? Was it— Was it Arngier? The Fuoco family sigil was a phoenix and the beast gazed at her with sorrowful golden eyes, just like his.

She hadn’t thought of her friend in some time. After he spurned her, she couldn’t bring herself to look at him, and with Doran’s sudden interest in her, her pregnancy, and wedding, well—she hadn’t had a reason to think of him.

Catori knelt by the bird’s side and stroked his plumage. The bird at once began to fade—literally. His plumage turned ashen and he collapsed under her touch, only to give way to a brilliant little chick. Catori reached out to touch the new phoenix, curious about the tiny hatchling, and another pair of golden eyes pierced her soul.

Flames erupted around them and engulfed the villa. The paint on the walls peeled, potted plants burnt, and Catori’s flesh melted from her bones in searing agony—

Catori sat bolt upright with a cry and stared into the pale morning with wild eyes. Her chest heaved, and she gasped, unable to catch her breath. The scent of burning flesh lingered on her senses and she blinked sparks from her eyes.

“Tori?” Doran’s hand slid over her bare back and up the nape of her neck. He sat up at her side and brushed her hair back. “What’s wrong?”

“I—” She sucked in a ragged breath and leaned into his arms when he opened them for her. The warmth of his bare skin on hers was soothing. “I had a dream,” she panted. “It was so real.”

“You’re covered in cold sweat.” He brushed his fingers over her cheek and kissed the top of her head. “What happened? What did you dream?”

“I—” She stopped again. Fire. She’d dreamt of fire in the villa. The details were slipping through her memory and every time she tried to grasp at one, it vanished. Something had been in the villa with her—but what was it? She couldn’t remember.

“The villa caught on fire,” she said, unable to give him more details. “I was caught in it and I burned alive. That’s all I can remember.” The dream was so familiar, but with such foggy details she could make no sense of it.

“Perhaps you’re stressed a little too much over the feast.” Doran’s fingers stroked her arm and down her back; the gentle touch soothed her, and she burrowed against him with a sigh. “Relax a little more. Why not take a long bath?”

“Hold me a little longer,” she whispered.

Catori felt Doran smile against her hair and he settled back in bed. “Come.” He urged her into his arms and held her. “As long as you need, come here.”

They lay there in bed together until Catori’s heart slowed to a normal pace and the cold sweat dried on her skin. Neither spoke, but his presence and the brush of his fingers along her skin calmed her.

When the sun rose fully, Catori took Doran’s advice and soaked in the bath. She skipped breakfast, and instead bathed with Torin lying on her chest. His little hands splashed in the water and curled against her chest. He seemed to like the bath, and holding her newborn calmed her further.

By the time she sat at her desk, she felt much better. She couldn’t remember exactly what she’d dreamt, but she didn’t try either. It was only a dream, after all. Doran was right—she was only stressed.

Anisa appeared close to noon, beaming as she entered the study. “Good morning!”

Catori glanced up and smirked at her friend. Anisa was radiant and seemed to float across the floor. She had a look in her eyes that Catori knew all too well.

“Good morning to you, too.” Catori set her quill aside and sat back in her seat. “I take it things went well last night?”

Anisa giggled and hurried to sit across from Catori. She slumped in her seat with a dreamy sigh and gazed up at the ceiling. “Niro’s wonderful,” she murmured. “He was so sweet, all throughout dinner.”

It was hard to keep from smiling. Anisa, like Catori, hadn’t found too many men to fall in love with. They’d suffered different kinds of heartbreak and it was good to see Anisa so happy after years alone.

“And your feelings for him?”

Anisa melted into a puddle of happiness in her seat and Catori laughed as she sighed again. “I told him I love him. And he said he loves me too!”

“Good!” Catori leaned towards her friend, smiling in the face of her euphoria. “What happened then?”

“Well.” Anisa bit her lip and gave Catori a coy look. “Niro’s big in more—”

“I think I get it.” Catori laughed at her friend and sat back again. “So, finally had sex and professed your love and discovered Niro feels the same. I do not hate telling you I told you so.”

“You always cut me off,” Anisa complained. “We used to share details! Details, Catori, you’re the only one I have to tell these things to! And you never tell me about Doran, either.”

Catori grimaced and rolled her eyes. “We’re older, Anisa. We don’t need to share those details.”

“Of course we do!” Anisa hauled herself to her feet and floated across the room in her dreamlike state to pour a glass of wine. “It’s what we do, Catori. Come on! Tell me a little something, I’ve been so curious!”

“Yes, I know.” Catori’s voice dripped sarcasm and she gave Anisa a put-upon look, which her friend ignored. “If it makes you feel any better, I’ll listen to all the details you’d like to give. Even if Niro is one of my guards. I’ll just… pretend I don’t know anything about his sex life.” She made a face and Anisa laughed.

“And Doran?”

Catori waved a hand to dismiss her question, but Anisa sat down again and leaned forward with keen interest. “Ugh. Fine. A few details. Fetch that bottle, we’ll talk, then I’ll have lunch with my husband, and then we can work on this party. Deal?”

Anisa squealed in delight. “Deal!” She rose at once to grab the bottle of wine.