Catori woke on the morning of her twentieth birthday to an empty spot at her side, her husband nowhere to be seen. That was a little disappointing—she wouldn’t mind a little extra affection from him, particularly if it came in the form of passion—but it wasn’t unusual. She yawned and eased into a languid stretch, and her leg knocked against a package at the foot of the bed. Catori frowned and sat up to pull the package closer. A note sat on top, written in Doran’s scrawling hand.
Tori—Happy birthday. Wear this today.
She raised a brow. Wear this? What was she, a mannequin? She scoffed and tossed the note aside, half tempted to ignore it and pretend she never saw the damn package. But her curiosity got the better of her and she untied it to peek inside anyway.
Beneath the multitude of silk ribbon was a large, flat box made of wardwood, stained a beautiful brown, with her personal sigil burnt into the top. She ran her fingers over the burnt wood and traced the crossed swords—Doran had the sigil made for her, something to distinguish herself separate from his family crest. But not too separate; hers was the same as the new family crest—a sunburst over a circular wave pattern—with the swords superimposed over it.
Catori unlatched the box and raised the lid to find a beautiful golden yellow dress inside. The neckline plunged down to a sash tied about the waist and the material was soft; it ran through her fingers like water. Small sapphires and gold beads decorated the neckline and a pair of matching slippers sat beneath the dress. There was a sheer wrap as well, attached to the shoulders with golden clasps studded with one sapphire each. She had to admit, he’d picked a beautiful dress. She almost forgave him for the demanding note.
Catori rose and padded barefoot across the room to lift Torin into her arms. She changed his soiled cloths and settled in a cushioned seat to feed him, before swaddling him in a soft blanket. “There we go,” she crooned. “Now, breakfast for Mama next, hm?”
“Lady Spicer?” Evie appeared by Catori’s wardrobe and dipped into a brief curtsy. “Lord Spicer is waiting for you on the terrace.”
Catori rolled her eyes and laid Torin in his crib before allowing Evie to help her get ready for the day.
Recently Catori took breakfast with Doran and their guests in the dining room, so it was strange Doran would wait for her on the terrace. She descended the stairs with Torin in her arms and cut through the atrium to reach the terrace. Doran stood there in a crisp gold tunic and he smiled when he saw her. He stooped to kiss her cheek when she paused before him.
“You’re beautiful,” he whispered.
Catori accepted the kiss and forced herself to keep a neutral expression. “You’re an ass.” Her mouth twitched into a smile despite herself. “But thank you for the dress.”
Doran was more amused by her than angry she’d called him an ass. He merely pried Torin out of her arms and placed a hand at her back to guide her. “Come, we’re having breakfast together with Anisa, Niro, and… a few guests.”
“You’ll see.” He balanced Torin against his shoulder and steered her through the garden to the terrace that overlooked Port Town and the sea. A large lounge was set up there and the murmur of voices drifted on the crisp breeze. She could see Herald and Niro standing together, but the voices were feminine and nearly drowned out by the sound of children’s laughter. Brenden and Henrik played in the grass nearby with a little brunette girl chasing after them. She stopped in her tracks at the sight of the girl.
“There she is!”
Catori tore her eyes from the girl to see three women rise from their seats. One was Anisa, but the other two she hadn’t seen since spring. Both were dressed in plain, inexpensive dresses, and the elder looked a little more careworn than the younger, but they wore wide smiles. The younger squealed and broke into a run. Catori stood there, stunned, as her cousin threw her arms around her neck and hugged her tight.
“Kaede?” Catori wrapped her arms around her cousin’s waist, then clung to her just as tight. “Gods, Kaede, I didn’t expect to see you. And Bria!” She released Kaede and with a sudden flood of emotion, threw herself on her older sister.
Bria held her tight and kissed her cheek. “Happy birthday, Catori,” she whispered.
“Sorva’s balls, are those sapphires on your dress?” Kaede pawed at the fabric, then touched one of the earrings dangling from Catori’s ear. “I think I married too low. Should’ve married a lord. Definitely. Oh!” She left Catori’s side to gape at Torin, still held in Doran’s arms. “Oh, this must be your new son! Hello, little one,” she cooed. “Gods, he’s adorable.”
“The husband, or the baby?” Catori smirked at Doran, who rolled his eyes and heaved a put-upon sigh. She laughed at him and tried to take Torin, but he lifted the child higher and shook his head.
“There’s a cradle for him. Keep your hands free, I’m sure there’ll be a lot more hugging.”
They ate breakfast together on the terrace—potato cakes topped with thin sliced smoked fish and poached eggs with a side of fruit—and Catori began to relax. She fell into conversation with them as easily as though they’d never been apart. Kaede said Doran had sent for them months prior.
“He wrote to make sure we could come,” Kaede explained. “Though I hear Bria’s husband put up a little fuss.”
Bria nodded. “Oli’s protective. He tried to say no, but when Doran sent a man with four Sun and Seas soldiers to our doorstep, Oli changed his mind.”
“And we brought gifts, too!” Kaede gestured to the pile at Catori’s side. “Though, I’m afraid we can’t afford the kind of gifts you deserve with your new status.”
“Oh, stuff it.” Catori rolled her eyes. “You’re family—you didn’t have to get me anything, but I’ll love it just the same.”
“Well, in that case—” Kaede grinned at her— “Open them!”
Kaede’s gift was a chest full of books and toys for the children, handcrafted of the highest quality from her husband’s shop in Hagia Sorva. Nestled amongst them was a small box containing a pretty golden brooch set with pearls. Anisa gave her a new dress she’d made, with aid from Doran to ensure she could afford to make something of high enough quality for Catori to wear.
Bria’s gift was a large quilt, hand stitched with delicate embroidery, full of bright, bursting flowers. Dragons played amongst the leaves, spitting gold and red flames.
“Anisa’s mother helped,” Bria said. “Else I wouldn’t have been able to finish in time.”
“This is beautiful, Bria.” Catori smiled as she ran her hands over the quilt. “I’m hanging it in my study.”
“It is beautiful.” Tamara was seated nearby and she strained to get a better look, hindered by her belly. “Marvelous work, simply stunning!”
Bria flushed and ducked her head, embarrassed by such high praise from a lady.
Tamara didn’t notice. She waved a hand at a small box on the table and patted her stomach. “I can’t reach it, but that box there, that’s for you, Catori.”
Catori reached for the box and nearly dropped it in surprise when she opened it. Inside sat a beautiful brooch studded with citrines in the shape of a sunburst with a circle of sapphires around it.
“Gods, Tamara, this is—” she paused and gaped at the brooch— “I didn’t expect anything so lavish. This is lovely.”
“You have too little jewelry.” Tamara waved a hand to dismiss Catori’s praise, but she seemed pleased that Catori liked it. “A woman of your status should have more.”
“The lady has a point,” Doran agreed. “You should purchase more.” He gestured to a few servants and they at once brought forward several chests, then set them down with a loud thud. “Another thing you needed—” the servants unlatched the chests and threw the lids open— “is armor. Your old armor was good, but this is better.”
Catori slipped off the lounge and knelt before the chests to gaze at the armor. The leather was a soft, supple brown, reinforced with plate and edged in gold. The plate shone like pure silver and a delicate golden design—the new Spicer sigil—was hammered into the center of the chest piece and studded with a single large citrine and a few small sapphires. Gold filigree scrawled across the reinforced pauldrons, gleaming in the sunlight. Ornate armor, but the quality was the finest she’d ever seen.
Without a word, Catori rose and slid into Doran’s lap. She took his face in her hands and kissed him with every ounce of love she possessed. She had no words—the kiss would have to speak for her. Doran didn’t seem to mind. His lips parted for her and he tasted her mouth with as much urgency as she did his.
Anisa burst into laughter and by the time Catori finished kissing her husband, her sister and cousin were grinning.
“I think she likes it!” Anisa burst into another fit of giggles.
Doran ignored her. “I’ve one more gift for you.” He wound one arm around her waist to hold her in his lap and gestured to the side of the villa with the other, where a servant appeared leading a spirited colt. His golden coat shimmered in the sunlight and his pale mane and tail flowed in the breeze as he pranced forward on the lead line. He tossed his head and snorted in excitement. The colt was sleek, bred for speed instead of war, and every step made powerful muscles flex beneath his skin and set his coat rippling like molten gold.
“A Najaati colt.” Catori gaped at the horse. “You bought me a Najaati colt.”
“Okay, now you’re just showing off,” Anisa muttered.
Again, Doran ignored Anisa. “There’s a saddle and bridle, too. Everything you might need. Destriers are great warhorses, but a Najaati horse is a status symbol.”
Bria was just as wide eyed as Catori. “That could feed me and my daughter for the rest of our lives.”
Catori didn’t correct her. There was no point telling her the cost of the horse could feed generations of their family, not just her and her daughter.
The horse was led away, and Doran kissed the corner of her mouth. “I have some work I need to do.” He gave her an apologetic half-smile and brushed his thumb over her cheek. “And I’m sure you’ll be occupied most of the day. We’ll have dinner with our guests and retire early. How does that sound?”
“It sounds like Catori might need the sweet dawn she’s been wondering abou—I’m sorry!” Anisa’s sentence ended in a wail with a single sharp look from Catori. She clapped her hands over mouth.
Catori smiled at Doran and touched her fingertips to his cheek. “That sounds perfect.” She kissed his lips—soft and pliable beneath her own—and slid out of his lap to let him up.
Most of the ladies staying in the villa joined them for a midday meal and each brought a gift as well, to Catori’s surprise. She hadn’t mentioned her birthday—she hadn’t known any reason why she should. The gifts were all some form of jewelry; necklaces, bracelets, and a delicate circlet from Lady Cecilia. Bria and Kaede sat with Anisa, out of place and nervous among so many nobles, but the ladies didn’t seem to mind them, and Lady Cecilia gushed over the quilt Bria made.
Once they’d eaten, they made a game of chasing the children—and each other—around the garden, laughing. Tamara left them to it and waddled away with an irritated remark about needing to relieve herself constantly. The other ladies were unencumbered and chased Brenden, Henrik, and Bria’s daughter Rosemary all over the garden. A few lords and knights paused to watch, amused at the sight of so many well-dressed noblewomen running around laughing like young girls.
Catori chased Brenden across the grass with her skirts gathered in her hands, laughing as he darted around the fountain and beelined for the villa. “Brenden, wait!” She doubled her stride, but her slippers threatened to trip her up if she wasn’t careful. “Stay outside, sweetheart!”
Brenden giggled with delight, turned a corner, and ran headlong into Lady Kirislan. The woman stopped and gazed down her nose at him, then glanced up as Catori approached and breathlessly urged her son back behind her skirts.
“Your bastard is loose again.” Lady Kirislan’s lip curled in a sneer. “I’m not surprised you haven’t realized what a stain a bastard is. Women like you will never learn.”
“Surely you can’t mean Lady Spicer’s son.” Tamara waddled up from behind Lady Kirislan, who whirled around to find the tiny pregnant woman gazing at her with a sugary sweet smile. “He’s a treasure, anyone can see. Besides, even a lowly bastard can rise. My own husband did, and surely you’re aware the power of Riverhold could easily wipe out even the oldest and noblest of lines.” The cheerful trill in her voice belied the threat in her words and she laughed her tinkling, bubbly laugh. “Not that it matters, right? Thank the gods bastards have such an amiable nature.”
Lady Kirislan stood frozen in the pathway, terror etched in every line of her face. Tamara brushed past her without another word and slipped her arm in Catori’s, who paused long enough to take Brenden’s hand in hers before letting Tamara lead her back, half-stumbling. She was just as surprised as Lady Kirislan.
Tamara’s expression was open and friendly, as though she hadn’t just delivered a veiled threat to a powerful man’s wife. “You know, I rather like you. You’ve been kind to my husband and I. Our children have become close and I like it here.” She paused and turned to Catori, who ushered Brenden off to play with the others. “There are others like Lady Kirislan, as I’ve mentioned. People who think commoners shouldn’t rise, who think they’re above those of low birth, and you’re bound to meet them sooner or later. Eustine isn’t a prominent Rivers, but if you ever need aid for any reason, we will do all we can for you.”
Tamara’s usual bright smile danced across her pretty face, and she touched her fingertips to Catori’s arm. “I don’t say this simply because you’re Lord Spicer’s wife. You make a fine lady and you have your own influence, not just his. You’ll need your own allies, too.”
Catori was stricken dumb. She hadn’t considered gathering her own allies—she had Doran and thought that would be enough. Tamara’s words struck a chord in her and her heart swelled. She wrapped her arms around Tamara, drawing startled laughter from the woman.
“Thank you,” Catori whispered. She released Tamara and stepped back with a small, slightly embarrassed smile. “I’ve been going out of my mind wondering if I’ll ever be good enough, or if half the ladies here hate me like Lady Kirislan and are simply better at hiding it.”
Sympathy oozed from Tamara as she slipped her arm through Catori’s again. “Gods, no. These ladies like you, I think.”
“It’s hard to read Lady Cecilia.”
“Mm, true.” Tamara sighed. “She’s very practiced with her friendliness, isn’t she? I can’t tell if it’s genuine or if she’s simply that good.” She laughed as Catori helped her lower her onto the lounge. “I’ve never heard a bad rumor about her, though. Whatever she’s doing, everyone seems to like her.”
“Like who?” Lady Cecilia smiled as she came to join them, raven curls windswept, and the blush of a budding rose in her cheeks from the brisk wind. She was a vision.
Catori froze, at once afraid of what Lady Cecilia might say if she knew they spoke of her, but Tamara only laughed. “Why, you, silly!” Tamara giggled at her. “You’re so friendly!”
Lady Cecilia beamed and sat at Catori’s side. “I try to be. Occasionally I come across someone I’d rather spit on than talk to, but I can’t very well do that, can I?” She laughed, full-throated and carefree, then sat back with a sigh. “Ah, but I had a question for you, Lady Spicer, and I do hope you’ll consider it.”
Catori shifted in her seat to face Lady Cecilia, unable to quell her wariness.
Lady Cecilia only smiled. “I grow tired of the twilit woods. We see few visitors and it’s quite lonely. I was wondering if you might allow me to stay here as one of your ladies? I’d love to aid you,” she added, when Catori’s mouth dropped open. “And I enjoy it here so much! The sea air, the open sky, it’s so wonderful. And you, Lady Tamara, and Anisa are such good company, I’d only hoped you might consider—”
“Of course,” Catori blurted. She touched her temple, a little overwhelmed by the sudden influx of support unlooked for. “I’d be honored if you stayed. I’m only surprised is all.”
Lady Cecilia relaxed—Catori hadn’t noticed the tension in her until she did so—and her smile widened. “Thank you! I’ll speak to my cousin, of course, he and Lord Spicer will have to agree. I can’t see why they wouldn’t, though.”
“See?” Tamara grinned at her. “The ladies like you, Catori. You’ll gain allies very quickly.”
Around mid-afternoon Lady Isolde appeared with a small gift tied in ribbon. She smiled and greeted the ladies as easily as though she’d been doing so since birth—which probably wasn’t far from the truth. She dipped into a curtsy before Catori, then presented her with the gift.
“From my Lady Mother.” Lady Isolde fidgeted in place and lowered her eyes, more like a child about to be chastised than a woman presenting a gift. “She said to wish you all the best, but she’s currently endeavoring at her prayers and so couldn’t deliver the gift in person.”
Catori accepted the gift and tugged the ribbon free. It fell open to reveal, of all things, a book. The chattering women fell silent as Catori ran her fingers over the cover. Lady Isolde’s face paled, apparently appalled that she’s delivered such a gift. But as Catori opened the book and read the title, she laughed in delight.
“The Origin And Eminence of the Gods,” she read aloud. “Oh, this is wonderful! I love books.”
The silence stretched on, broken only by Anisa’s laughter and Kaede’s sniggering. Catori glanced up to find the ladies all exchanging solemn glances, uncertain whether Catori was merely being polite, or if she truly enjoyed the gift.
Catori beamed up at Lady Isolde. “No doubt your mother meant this as a slight, but I do love books. Lord Spicer helped me learn to read when I was young, and I’ve devoured them ever since.”
“It’s true,” Anisa agreed. “Rijeke has a little library and I’m fairly certain she and Doran—er, Lord Spicer—were the only ones to ever use it.”
Lady Isolde relaxed a little and the other women began to titter amongst themselves. “I’ll be sure to tell my mother how much you like her gift,” she said, and dipped into another curtsy. “Enjoy your birthday, Lady Spicer.”
She turned to leave, but Catori stopped her. “Won’t you join us?”
Lady Isolde glanced around, a little nervous. She was barely older than a child to some of them—a few were old enough to have birthed her—and it didn’t look as though she expected to be welcomed, even by women as young as Catori.
“Yes, come!” Lady Cecilia smiled and beckoned to her. “Come, sit with us! Your mother can endeavor at her prayers all she likes, no need for you to waste your youth.” Laughter followed her words.
Lady Isolde flashed a hesitant smile. “I would be honored.” She let Catori take her hand and tug her down onto the lounge beside her.
“Now, is receiving a book as a gift really such a bad thing?” Catori glanced around the gathered women, feeling a little foolish for needing to ask.
“Not really.” Lady Cecilia shrugged. “It depends on the relationship. You’d only ever give a book to a close friend. It suggests you know them well enough to know what they’d like to read. In this case, Lady Kirislan gave you a book she thinks you need.”
Catori’s brows rose as she gaped at Lady Cecilia, then dropped her eyes to the book in her lap. “You can tell all that from a book?”
“Gifts can say quite a bit,” Lady Masqosi explained. “What do you give someone who can afford anything?”
Catori shrugged. “I have no idea.”
“Exactly.” Lady Cecilia smiled. “Which is why a lot of thought goes into any gift given between nobles. There’s often a specific reason behind it.”
Catori glanced around the group again. “The jewelry?”
“You lack quite a bit.” Lady Delmar gave her a sympathetic look. “You’re newly titled and there’s no decent jeweler in these parts. It’s no fault of your own. But you’ve gained a nice start today, I think.”
Gods, gift giving was strange. They’d always been hard when she was younger, as she had very little. Mostly she’d made things, as her sister and Anisa had done for her. It limited what they could give and usually the gift was something necessary, like new clothing to replace ones worn with holes from so much use the previous year. As a noble, a whole new game opened to her and she had no idea of the rules.
Anisa exchanged glances with Bria and Kaede, apparently thinking the same thing.
“I’m a little glad to be common now,” Kaede said. Giggles erupted from the ladies, but they were nervous.
Catori sat back in the lounge and sighed. “You’re all getting Najaati colts,” she muttered, and the ladies burst into laughter.
The colt’s gait was fluid, and Catori let her body move in time to the canter. He was responsive to every touch, though spirited. Catori didn’t mind—she liked a spirited horse. The Najaati colt was eager under her hands, but he obeyed her commands and merely tossed his head with an impatient snort as they rounded the small paddock.
Anisa sat in the center of the ring on an old gelding, calm and easy, but she was terrified, as though the slightest movement might knock her off. Catori cantered circles around them and grinned at her friend.
“I’m going to fall if this beast moves an inch,” Anisa gasped.
Catori laughed. “No, you won’t. Come on!”
“I’ll fall to my death!”
“The beast will trample me!”
Catori reigned in her horse alongside Anisa. “You’re being overdramatic. Nothing like that will happen—look, your horse is old and calm!” She reached out and slapped his neck. Anisa squealed and clutched the saddle tight, but the horse only snorted and lifted his head a little higher. His ears swiveled in confusion, flicking back and forth, as though she’d startled him into paying attention. “See? Nothing.”
“He could’ve dumped me!” Anisa trembled in the saddle. “Why did I let you talk me into this?”
“Oh, stop.” Catori rolled her eyes and reached for the reins to thread them through her own, then urged her horse forward. Anisa’s followed along obediently.
Anisa let out a dismayed cry and gripped the saddle tighter. “He’s moving! Oh, gods, he’s moving!”
“Yes, horses do that.”
“Make it stop!” Anisa twisted in the saddle as though searching for something to stop the horse. “Make it stop, make it—” she paused and flushed. The horses continued to plod around the ring. “Th-this isn’t that bad. I thought it’d be all bumpy and scary, the way you were earlier. You looked like you’d fly off the saddle!”
Catori laughed at her. “You need to walk before you run. Or canter, in this case.”
“You rode fast your first time on a horse.” Anisa gave her a pointed look.
“I did.” Catori’s smile faded a little. “But Bitter had the reins and I trusted him.”
They rode around the paddock in circles together and talked until Anisa was more comfortable on her horse’s back. Catori still had some work to do and most of the morning was taken up already, so they passed their horses to some stable boys and parted ways to change.
As Catori headed for the staircase, she came face to face with Lady Kirislan. The two hadn’t spoken much since Catori’s birthday—Tamara’s threat had chastised her thoroughly. She still didn’t seem to like Catori, but there were no more snide remarks from her; only cool, hard stares.
“Ah, Lady Kirislan.” Catori summoned every ounce of warmth she possessed to smile at the woman. “It’s good to see you! How has your morning been?”
Lady Kirislan’s throat bobbed as she swallowed hard. “Productive. I’ve been at my prayers. My daughter tells me you liked the gift?”
“Oh, immensely,” Catori gushed. She laid on her excitement and beamed at Lady Kirislan. “I adore all kinds of books! And the gods are fascinating, much as they are to be feared.”
Lady Kirislan’s eye twitched. “Indeed.”
Catori remained willfully ignorant of Lady Kirislan’s growing irritation. “Your gift was very thoughtful. I’m sure you meant it to guide me and I appreciate the sentiment. I shall endeavor to study the gods more fervently than I have in the past.” She inclined her head to Lady Kirislan, then lifted her chin and swept past her with all the grace she could muster—and hoped she didn’t fall in the process.
Her heart was hammering as she rounded the corner and started up the stairs, but a triumphant smile stretched across her face. She’d done it—she’d faced Lady Kirislan and come out on top without stooping to her level of derision. Granted it was with a lot of help from Tamara, but still. She’d done it and done it well.
She was still smiling when Doran walked in on her changing and cleaning up for their midday meal. He sat down in an armchair to watch in silent appreciation. Catori shot him sly little smiles as she tugged the folds of her dress into place and set about taming her hair, loose and wild from riding.
“Leave it down if you’d like,” Doran said. “I always liked it down.”
Catori’s smile widened as she finished brushing her hair. She ran her fingers through it, then strode toward Doran. “I prefer it down. Our meal should be ready, just a matter of where you’d like to have it.”
“The terrace here is fine.” He climbed to his feet as Catori called for Evie and ordered their meal be brought up. “You were riding this morning?” he asked, and spared her a glance as he poured a glass of wine.
“Yes. I put Anisa on a horse for the first time.”
He turned and grinned at her—a full, amused smile that made his eyes dance. “I would’ve liked to see that.”
She laughed. “It was pretty comical.”
Doran handed her the glass of wine and studied her, still smiling. “Do you like your colt?”
Catori nodded. “I do. Thank you for buying him for me.”
He brushed her cheek with the back of his fingers and tucked a strand of hair behind her ear. “I’m glad you like him. Have you thought of a name?”
Catori fell silent as Doran turned away and headed for the table on the terrace. She followed and settled at his side, her eyes trained on her glass of wine as she set it on the table. It swirled in the glass, lit by sunlight to a deep, ruby red. She’d never named a horse before and she wasn’t sure what to name this one.
She waved away his question and met his studious gaze with a smile. “I haven’t decided. Have you spoken to Lord Mantell?”
He nodded, and his eyes never left her. “Apparently his cousin wishes to stay as one of your ladies. An interesting development.” His head cocked to the side and he reached for her hand. “Would you like her to stay?”
“I would. She seems genuinely nice.” Catori’s eyes darted to the servants carrying platters of food and her stomach rumbled. “Plus, it helps to secure the Mantells as allies, does it not?”
“It can. I don’t think it’s really necessary anymore, but it certainly couldn’t hurt. If you’d like her to stay, then I’ll agree. You’ll look better having multiple ladies attend you and my court grows.” He shrugged and gestured for the servants to leave. They scurried out of the room as Doran sat forward and began to fill his plate with food. Rice, lamb, a few vegetables, and his favorite, a link of fire sausage.
Catori smirked at him as she filled her own plate and popped a grilled onion in her mouth in the process. They spoke sparingly as they ate; Catori told him of Brenden’s progress with letters, numbers, and riding. Doran seemed interested and posed the occasional question. She filled him in on progress with the feast as well—there was only a week left.
Catori studied him as Doran finished his meal and sat back in his seat to sip his wine. He must have felt her gaze; he met her eyes over the rim of the glass, then lowered his hand and stretched his legs out beneath the table.
“Something on your mind, Tori?”
Catori turned her wine glass on the table with her fingertips and toyed with the stem. “Asriel sent another package from the wine shop in Citash—you remember, the one Medroni, Herald, and I bought?” He nodded, and Catori sat back in her seat. “Well, we left him in charge and he’s been doing well. He sends us our money every month.”
Catori wasn’t surprised he knew, but that wasn’t why she brought it up. “I’m not really sure what to do with my money.”
A hint of amusement made the corners of Doran’s mouth twitch.
Catori sighed. “I’ve never had this much money! I was going to buy a home for me and Brenden, but that’s not necessary now.”
“No,” Doran agreed. “What have you done with it?”
Catori glanced away. “I keep it in a chest in my study.”
More amusement and this time he smiled. “Come, show me.”
They left their meal and Doran sent a servant to fetch Galen, his current bookkeeper. Once in her study, Catori hauled out the chest she’d dumped all her money in, linen coin purses and all, and flushed with embarrassment when Doran laughed. Galen entered to find Doran standing in front of the chest with several small purses in his hand.
The bookkeeper’s amethyst eyes lit with amusement and he grinned. “Well! You may have won plenty of money, Lady Spicer, but it seems you have no idea how to manage it.” His smile was warm and friendly despite his teasing. “By the way, betting on you lot in the arena was the best decision I ever made—I owe this position to you and the others, I think. Now, is this where all your arena winnings went?”
“Basically.” She spun her wedding ring around and around her finger. “I was saving, but now I don’t have anything to do with it.”
He nodded and peered into the chest. “How much did you have saved?”
“Well, with all the expenses of running the shop and, y’know, living, I’d saved a couple hundred gold by the time we left Citash.” Galen let out a lot whistle of appreciation. “But once Doran sponsored us and we were at war, everything was taken care of. We accumulated a lot more gold, even without the arena’s payouts.”
“I can see that.” Galen poked around in the chest and palmed a bag of gold to test its weight, then dropped it. “Any idea how much is in here?”
She fidgeted in place and shook her head. “I haven’t counted.” Both Galen and Doran raised their brows at her and Catori grew flustered. “I’ve been busy! I was pregnant, I have guests to entertain, feasts to prepare, a household to run! I just… I just set it aside.”
“The woman that handles my household expenses cannot handle her own.” Doran chuckled, but Catori wasn’t amused by his gentle teasing. She glared at him.
Galen was likewise amused, but he didn’t tease her. “I can count it for you. Give you a figure you can work with. Any idea what you’ll do with it?”
Catori worried her lip. She had a few ideas, but she wasn’t sure how viable they were. “Well, I thought—I thought maybe I could purchase property.” Both men waited for more, forcing her to go on, and Catori sat down at her desk to pick at the edge. “Brenden will train to be a knight, but I want him to have… something. I want him to live well. I thought perhaps I could start buying businesses or… invest. I don’t know.”
“That’s not a bad idea.” Doran stepped closer to her and slid his hand along one shoulder to stroke the back of her neck. “Take your time. Think about possible business ventures and consider them. Learn the market. Galen and I can answer any questions. For now, why don’t we figure out how much you have and how you’d like to keep it safe?”
Catori turned abruptly to blink up at him in surprise. “It’s not safe here?”
Doran laughed and his eyes glittered in the sunlight. “It’s safe here. But you can use Sun and Seas to ensure it remains so. Have Asriel send it with them, if you’d like. They’ll ensure it arrives safely and if it happens to vanish on the way, it’s at no loss to you; the money will be replaced.” He drew her hair back from her shoulders and stooped to kiss the exposed skin. “And don’t forget—you received a tidy sum of gold for fighting in Sanguinem. Plus, the ten gold a year you receive from holding a title.”
“Gods,” she breathed. “I could just give that to Bria and it wouldn’t hurt at all.”
“You could, but I’m not sure your sister would appreciate you swooping in to hand her money.” He straightened and rested his hand on her shoulder. “She strikes me as the kind of woman who wants to earn her way through life.”
“I would, too. But no. I had to go and marry a high lord.”
Galen smirked into the chest of gold.
Doran chuckled. “You work, too. You run my household, entertain my guests. You’ll fight for me if I need you to. I think you’ve earned all this.”
The lid to the chest snapped shut and Galen smiled at them. “I’ll get started on this. And Lady Spicer, I’ll have a ledger made up for you with a total amount. If you’d like, I can keep the ledger for you and add to it as your money comes in, or you can do it yourself.”
“Keep the ledger,” Catori said. “But give me a copy and send reports to keep in my study. I’d prefer to keep up to date on it.”
“Yes, my lady. I’ll have servants come for the chest.” He bowed to them both and left.
Doran smiled at Catori as the door shut behind Galen. “Amassing your own small fortune. I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s some seven hundred gold coins in that chest.”
Catori gaped at him. Seven hundred gold coins? That equaled seventy platinum—she’d never even seen a platinum piece. She’d never fathomed having that much money, not in her wildest dreams.
“Still feel like you don’t fit in?” Doran’s fingers brushed her cheek, drawing her gaze. “You fit in more with these ladies now than you do if you were to return to Rijeke. You surpass the average income for commoners, you’re titled, you own property. You’ve risen, Tori, and you’ve earned it all.” He bent to kiss her cheek and left her without another word.
Catori stared at the chest full of money. Doran was right—a small fortune lie in that chest. It didn’t come close to what other ladies or lords had—and certainly nowhere near what Doran had—but it made her richer than anyone in Rijeke and would only grow with time. She had no need of it, not with Doran to pay her expenses, so any income she had went straight into savings for Brenden’s future.
She had everything—money, jewels, the power of her husband backing her. And if Tamara and Lady Cecilia were right, she had influence of her own, too.
The question was, what would she do with it?
White pillar candles sat in silver, placed around the Spicer villa to light the dark of night with small, flickering flames. Catori was careful not to place too many—she wanted an eerie twilight, like the shadows of Wardwood. Deep blue curtains hung all around the communal areas in the villa and pale flowers filled deep blue vases on tables and pedestals. A massive lounge sat on the terrace overlooking the sea, surrounded by gauzy curtains pinned in place to create an ethereal sanctuary.
Everything was perfect.
The folds of her new dress shimmered in the light of the candles as Catori entered the villa. She smiled at each guest, warm and friendly—it didn’t seem so difficult anymore. Approaching these nobles was easier than the harvest feast and she wasn’t nearly so nervous. Even Lady Kirislan wasn’t as daunting.
The elder woman stood with her husband, buttoned into a beige gown with gold beadwork across the high bodice, speaking to Lord Vinson. Lady Kirislan was forever stiff and formal, but she inclined her head to Catori and spoke with a polite, if clipped, voice. She couldn’t quite mask her disdain, but she was at least silent about it.
Catori’s smile widened as she reached her friends—Anisa, Tamara, and Cecilia were awash in girlish giggles. They welcomed Catori into their midst as one might welcome an old friend.
“The seamstress did a wonderful job taking in your dress last minute.” Catori gaped at Tamara with something close to awe. The woman gave birth two weeks prior, just after Catori’s birthday, but her dress fit her like a glove.
“Didn’t she?” Tamara giggled and bounced on the balls of her feet, far more energetic now that she wasn’t carrying a small child in her belly. “Yours came out spectacular. Look at that fabric!”
“Oof, ladies, could we speak of dresses in less entertaining company?” Cecilia smiled and slipped her arm through Catori’s. “I’m far more interest in the men here and since it’s just us—”
“None of us can look.” Catori smirked at Cecilia. “Except you.”
“What’s the harm in looking?” Tamara laughed and waved a hand. “I love Eustine, but a fine man is a fine man. No harm in recognizing it.”
“Oh, I can recognize it. I just don’t seek to find them.” Catori laughed and gestured to Doran a few yards away. “My husband offers plenty for me to look at.”
Cecilia wasn’t looking in Doran’s direction and she ignored the giggles of the other women. “I know all the lords,” she said. “But who is that?”
A tall man stood alone near the entrance to the atrium. His green tunic did nothing to hide the swell of muscle beneath the fabric and rough hands tugged at the sleeves, fidgeting with the embroidered cloth, then swept back through dark brown hair. He was chiseled to perfection, a god among men in terms of his physique.
“Ah.” A weak smile settled on Catori’s face. “That would be Reinar. One of my friends. A gladiator from Citash’s arena, he was the champion—”
“Until you took the title,” Anisa finished. “And dragged him into your bed.”
Both Cecilia and Tamara turned to stare at Catori in surprise.
Catori’s cheeks flooded with heat and she glanced away from the two ladies. “It ended during the war. He wanted more from me than I was willing to give. My sights were set elsewhere.”
“Yes. On Doran.” Anisa smirked at her.
No, on Arngier. But there was little point to correcting Anisa and that was a faux pas Catori preferred to forget.
“Is he titled?” Cecilia cocked her head and studied Reinar with a rapturous look. “I mean, I wouldn’t mind a few rounds regardless, but my, he’s handsome.”
“Yes,” Catori agreed, then caught herself and made a dismissive gesture. “But no, he’s not titled. He’s in service to my husband and—”
Catori hesitated. Reinar, like Medroni, had jumped at the chance to work for the Sun and Seas Company and she had a feeling she knew why. She remembered the way his wine glass shattered in his hand when Doran announced her pregnancy and their impending marriage. Reinar never said a word, but she thought he’d still held the hope she’d return to him—until that point, anyway. He’d left almost as soon as they reached the villa.
Cecilia raised a brow at her. “And?”
“Sorry.” Catori forced a smile. “He works for Sun and Seas, that’s all.” She sighed and squared her shoulders. “Well, I should greet him. He’s a friend and I’m hostess.”
Catori left the women and headed down the peristyle towards Reinar, not for the first time fully aware of herself. She felt like a doll on display, only heightened as Reinar turned towards her and froze, his shock etched all over his face.
She knew what he saw—her deep blue dress clung to her figure and cascaded to the floor in glittering folds; diamonds and sapphires glittered in the candlelight along the neckline, and in her hair sat a silver circlet of delicate leaves. She looked the picture of any noble lady, very different from the last time they saw each other and a world apart from the woman he met in Citash.
“Hey, Reinar.” Catori was all too aware of how soft and hesitant her voice was. “It’s good to see you.”
He blinked at her rapidly, speechless. Catori stood before him with heat gathering in her cheeks and prayed no one saw the way he stared. She could feel his gaze on her, the slow crawl of his eyes as he took her in.
Reinar bowed suddenly in one swift motion. “My lady, you honor me.”
“Oh, stop that.” Catori stepped closer and urged him to straighten. Her fingers touched his arm and he glanced down at her hand. They both hesitated.
Fuck it. Catori stood on tiptoe and wrapped her arms around his neck in a tight embrace. She’d missed him and he deserved a proper greeting. His arms wound around her slowly, as though unsure if he should really be hugging her, until she was encased in his familiar warmth. The scent of him was strong and soothing, a musky, earthy scent all his own. Rough fingers brushed against her bare back and she felt—
Nothing. Catori shivered from the gentle touch, but there was no residual spark of desire. She stepped back out of Reinar’s arms and smiled up at him, a little relieved. “I didn’t realize you’d be here.”
“I didn’t realize how much you favored sapphires,” he said, and eyed the neckline of her dress. “Your swords make more sense now. Capped in the gems, right?”
Catori rolled her eyes, but her smile remained. “It goes with the theme.”
“The guidance and protection of Frea in the winter months.”
“My patron goddess.”
Reinar nodded. “I remember. Your birthday just passed, too. I’m sorry I didn’t wish you a happy birthday, my lady. I’ve no gift, either, but I’m afraid I’ve nothing to give a lady of your status.”
Catori’s smile vanished. His words almost stung; they stirred up her guilt more than anything. She should’ve treated Reinar better. “Stop calling me that,” she said, and touched his arm. “We’re friends, Reinar. Anisa doesn’t call me that.”
A tiny smile appeared on his face. “Does Niro?”
She scowled at him. “Shut up. Only when he’s working.”
Reinar smirked at her.
“How very eloquent.” Medroni stood in the entrance, wearing a deep blue embroidered doublet with gold trim. The Sun and Seas logo was emblazoned on his chest in gold thread. He grinned at Catori, but he looked about as comfortable as Reinar. “Look at you, dripping gems and money,” he sneered. “I can’t even call you a sl—” he stopped and huffed. “Well, you know.”
Catori’s smile was bright and immediate, and she threw her arms around Medroni to hug him tight. For once he didn’t complain, only returned her embrace.
“Oh, I missed you,” she breathed.
“What, me?” He frowned as they parted. “Why? Are you a masochist?”
“Oh, please.” Catori rolled her eyes and the pair broke into matching grins. “You would’ve kept me sane. It’s been ridiculous here.”
“We haven’t been all that bad, have we?” Cecilia appeared at Catori’s side with a bright, amiable smile.
Catori’s nervousness reared its head again. Her worlds were once more colliding and while she figured it had to happen sooner or later, she was really hoping for later. “Cecilia, allow me to introduce my brother at arms, Lord Medroni of Breakwater,” she said, using the name of the village he’d grown up in. “And this is Reinar.”
“The gladiator.” Cecilia’s smile widened as she glanced between them. “So I’ve heard.”
“This is Lady Cecilia Mantell.” Catori went on as though Cecilia wasn’t eyeing them both like a delicacy waiting to be devoured. “She’s cousin to Lord Mantell.”
Both men bowed at once and murmured their greetings to her. Catori had grown accustomed to polite introductions and decorum, but seeing her friends in the middle of it was still a little jarring.
As polite as Medroni was, however, he was eager, too. “Catori, do you know where Herald is?”
Catori shrugged. “Probably near the food.”
“Right, I’m off, then.” He started away, then turned back and bowed to them both. “Lady Spicer, Lady Cecilia, it’s been a pleasure.”
Catori rolled her eyes as he left them. “I should make the rounds again,” she sighed. “Reinar, watch out for Lady Isolde. Beautiful, newly come of age, urges not unlike my own.” She grinned at him. “Lord Kirislan’s daughter. I suggest staying away.”
Reinar shook his head at once. “I’m not interested. Go on, I’ll be fine.” He smiled at her. “You’ve guests to entertain, my lady.” He bowed to them both, and Catori thought she saw his eyes slide over Cecilia.
She must not have noticed. “I’ll join you!” Cecilia slipped her arm through Catori’s with a smile. “Ladies should travel in packs.”
Getting through the feast was much easier with Cecilia and Tamara at her side. Both women made the flow of conversation smooth and guided it where necessary. It freed Catori from worrying too much over what to say. But as the night progressed, Catori again found herself with Medroni, alongside Herald. The three sipped their wine together and watched the party—a welcome respite from the rotation of nobles. Catori was glad to have some time with them.
“You really planned all this?” Medroni gazed around the peristyle and atrium, eyeing the clumps of candles and flowers.
Catori nodded. “I did. I had some help, but this one came together a lot better than the harvest feast. None of that is interesting, though. What have you been doing?” She turned to face him fully and leaned towards him. “What’s it like working for Sun and Seas?”
Medroni chuckled and sipped his wine. “Missin’ adventure, are you?” He smirked at her. “It’s not bad. Mostly we run shipments back and forth. We pull into a lot of ports. I’ve been to Haven, Loth Illean again, back to Bloodrain a few times. Mostly we sail up and down the Mennosi coast though.” He downed his wine and searched for another with Catori and Herald at his side. “There’s plenty of Sun and Seas inland, too, but I guess I’m taking to boats a lot easier now.”
“And you—what? Control an entire ship?”
“Nah, Rivers is in command.” He grinned as a servant refilled his glass of wine. “Good man, though. We’ve had some scuffles with pirates, which was pretty exciting. Our biggest problem is people not paying when they say they will, not paying the proper amount, or refusing to pay at all.” He paused to mull over his own words, then shrugged and drank from his wine glass.
Catori stepped closer, eager for more information. “What happens then?”
Medroni eyed her over the rim of his glass and his throat bobbed as he swallowed his wine. “We use any means to get a desired result. Preferably money, but a lesson to others will do as well.”
She gaped at him. “Doran sanctions this?” Catori’s voice was breathless and quiet, and she could hear her own unease. “He’s ordered this?”
Medroni rolled his eyes at her and leaned in close to lower his voice so only she could hear him. “What did you expect? The man killed Citash’s magistrate for blocking business deals and trying to kill us. He—” Medroni glanced around, then leaned in again— “he murdered his own cousin for having dealings with that same magistrate. You knew the kind of man he is.”
Catori’s jaw tightened and she glanced towards Doran. He stood with Lord Mantell and Lord Kirislan, an easy smile on his face as though he hadn’t a care in the world—a façade, she knew. Doran was a series of masks. Had she ever seen him without a carefully constructed expression? She thought so.
But Medroni was right. She’d known the kind of man she married. Doran didn’t suffer betrayal and his cousin would’ve benefitted from the magistrate’s plan to undermine—and probably kill—Doran. So, his cousin had to go. The magistrate threatened him and those in his service, so he died, too.
What purpose had Archduke Nasir’s death served? It infuriated the Pearlmen who’d captured the Archduke in battle, who wanted to ransom him back to Mennos. In some small way it avenged Catori, who Nasir tried to humiliate and belittle. Flimsy reasons, at best. And only Catori knew Doran had killed him.
“Don’t worry.” Medroni nudged her out of her thoughts with his elbow. “None of the men we knock about are innocent, I guarantee it.”
“That doesn’t bother me,” Catori said, a little offhanded. “There’s always a good reason. I’m merely curious.” Curious what her husband was planning. It had to be something big to take the life of the king’s brother.
“Catori!” She turned as Anisa’s excited voice carried over the crowd. “Catori, there you are!” A radiant Anisa appeared and grasped her hands, breathless and beaming, with Niro in her wake. “Oh, oh I need you to be the first to know!”
“Know what?” Catori frowned at her best friend. “What’s going on?”
Anisa opened her mouth, squeaked, then closed her mouth and tried again. “It’s Niro,” she gasped. She glanced back at him with complete adoration, then turned to Catori again. “He—I—We—We’re getting married!”
Medroni spluttered and spit his wine all over Herald, who let out a shout of surprise.
Catori’s mouth dropped wide open. She knew Anisa and Niro were getting serious, but she hadn’t realized how serious. “Married?”
Anisa nodded and bounced in place from excitement. “Yes!”
Catori shrieked and wrapped her arms around Anisa and the two dissolved into gleeful laughter. Heads turned towards them, curious about the outburst from the lady of the house and her common friend, but Catori didn’t care. She kissed Anisa’s cheeks and didn’t let her go until Doran joined them.
He cocked a brow in question and glanced from the two women bubbling over with excitement, to a slightly embarrassed Niro, to Medroni and Herald wiping wine from themselves. “Do I want to know?”
Niro, eager to avoid another outburst of shrieking, explained in their stead. “I asked Anisa to marry me and she’s agreed.” Despite his attempt at composure, he couldn’t help his smile either and as Catori released his soon to be wife, he wound an arm around Anisa’s waist.
Doran smiled and nodded. “That explains the jubilant state I find my wife in. Although it doesn’t explain the wine… never mind.” He brushed aside the sight of Herald and Medroni and clasped arms with Niro. “Congratulations.”
“Thank you, my lord.”
All the ladies present were just as excited by the idea of a wedding, despite it not being a noble’s wedding. They fawned over Anisa and she basked in the attention, full of a giddy happiness that made Catori’s heart swell to bursting. The women ignored their male counterparts for the remainder of the evening and most of them dined together that night.
Catori sat at Doran’s side apart from them and watched with a wide smile on her face. She wouldn’t mind joining them, but her place was with her husband and she had more guests to entertain than just women.
As the table cleared and nobles rose to continue their night elsewhere, Doran draped an arm around Catori’s shoulders and drew her closer. She curled up at his side and smiled at him, happy despite the sudden understanding that the man she married was dangerous—and not just at war. She hadn’t realized how perilous it was to cross him. But everyone he’d killed had tried to harm her in some way, making it easier to overlook, and she had no intention of betraying the man she loved.
And really, it wasn’t as though she hadn’t killed people, too.
Doran returned her smile with a small one of his own. “So. Anisa and Niro will be married. I assume you’ll help her with the wedding?”
“You’re damn right I will.”
Doran nodded, already in acceptance of the fact. “Niro could rise high. He’s a good, loyal man.”
Catori raised a brow at him. “Planning on giving him a title, too?”
“Not without reason.” His mouth twitched into a wider smile. “His marriage is not enough of a reason. Besides, I doubt Anisa could handle being a lady quite as well as you have. Not yet, anyway.”
Catori laughed. “Gods, that would be perfect. Me and Anisa as ladies, together. Could you imagine that?”
“I’m trying not to.”
She elbowed him, giggling, then reached across his lap for his free hand. Doran let her twine their fingers together and when she looked up at him again, his expression was almost serene. He studied her face and brushed her hair back from her shoulder, and his smile returned with warm affection.
“You look beautiful tonight,” he whispered. “And the feast was another success. You’ve outdone yourself all over again.”
“All for you,” Catori purred.
“Hardly.” Doran rolled his eyes at her and let out a soft breath. “This is as much for you as it is for me. You’ve won over allies, Tori. Tamara, Cecilia—they genuinely like you. Those can be powerful friendships. The other women respect you, too.”
“I’m beginning to realize that.” Catori rested her head against Doran’s shoulder and breathed in his scent—a light musk, mixed with cinnamon. “I’m not sure why, but Tamara seems ready and willing to help with anything at all.”
They watched as Niro tugged Anisa from the depths of the noblewomen and wrapped her in his arms. Anisa beamed at him and Niro seemed just as happy and smitten. The pair shared a few soft kisses, then ambled away together, probably to find some secluded spot for some more heated kisses.
Catori was glad Anisa was so happy. She deserved to be, and Niro really was a good man. They made a good couple.
She shifted to smile up at Doran again, warmed by the sight of her friends and full of affection. “We’ve been married nearly a year.”
Doran met her gaze and brushed a thumb over her cheek. “Just about.”
“Do you have any plans for us, my love?”
He cocked a brow and a small smile danced across his mouth. “Resorting to pet names, are you?” She ducked her head to hide the heat in her cheeks and Doran laughed—a rich, dark laugh deep in his chest, like smooth, melted chocolate. “I have plenty of plans for us. Including more children. But not for a while. For now, I’m content to enjoy what we have. We’ll see where the pieces fall later.”
Catori shifted in his arms and the movement drew Doran’s attention in time for her to press her lips to his. Her fingers slid across his cheek and into his hair as she deepened the kiss, enjoying the taste of him—spices, the tang of a good red wine, and the salt of his skin.
He drew her into his lap and wrapped her tight against his chest, and one of his hands slid along her thigh. Her heart leaped, and her blood began to surge. The party melted away; Catori was aware only of Doran’s touch, his scent, the taste of him on her tongue. She was a little breathless when the kiss finally broke. Doran held her close, his lips barely an inch from hers, and his fingers traced the line of her jaw.
“Affectionate as always,” he whispered. He took a deep breath, then let it out in a measured sigh. “We should return to our guests.”
Catori climbed reluctantly from his lap and they made their way back to the villa arm in arm. The light of hundreds of candles surrounded them and spilled from the windows and open terraces of their home.
Yes—their home. This was Catori’s home, too, and this was her world as well. She’d survived being thrown overboard into an impossible new life and somehow managed to emerge unscathed, perhaps even stronger. The worry that she’d lose sight of who she was, no longer bothered her. The blades that hung with her new armor served as a reminder, as much as Lady Kirislan had.
Catori might drape herself in jewels and silk, but she was still unbeaten.