The sea breeze ruffled the curtains of Catori’s study and whispered through the leaves of a potted plant. It mixed with the steady scratch of her quill across an open ledger on her desk. One hundred head of lamb available, but she only needed—
A child’s distant giggle drifted through the door that led to the hall, jarring her thoughts. Catori’s hand stopped and hovered over the ledger. She needed to get this work done, but the laughter broke her concentration whenever it rang down the hallway.
Catori sighed and set her quill aside as small feet pounded on the marble floors outside. Her work would have to wait.
“Mama!” Her son ran into the study with a broad smile on his face. His fair skin was tanned from the sun and his grey eyes danced from the laughter that spilled from his mouth.
Catori’s annoyance melted away and she smiled. “Hey, Brenden. What do you need?”
He set Puffles, his stuffed dragon, on the edge of her desk. “Puffles wants to ride. Can we ride?”
Catori adopted the patient smile every parent learns to perfect. “We’ve been over this, Brenden. My belly’s too big right now.” She patted her pregnant belly to punctuate her words.
Brenden placed a small hand on her stomach. “When is baby here?”
“Soon. Now, where’s Elise? You should be in your playroom.”
“She felled asleep.”
“Fell. She fell asleep.” And how inconvenient.
Catori was close to firing the damn nanny. Elise was hired on the recommendation of a lord; she’d been his nanny and his mother’s handmaid before that. After seven months, it felt more like Catori was the butt of some cruel joke. Elise made no secret of her disdain for Catori’s unladylike tendencies. Swords, wine, and swearing were most unbecoming.
“Alright.” Catori sighed and struggled to her feet. “Why don’t we see if we can find your Auntie Anisa? I think she’s down in the garden—go on, go find her!” Brenden snatched up Puffles and Catori laughed. “I’m right behind you, sweetheart.”
Her son took off as fast as his little legs could carry him, leaving his mother to waddle after him. She was nearing the end of her pregnancy and everything was more of a chore than usual.
As she passed her husband’s study further down the hall, the flicker of gold out of the corner of her eye made her stop. She shuffled around to stand in the doorway and her mouth dropped open.
Doran sat at his desk, writing. A normal task, and one he seemed preoccupied by. The source of flickering gold was the odd bit. A pair of golden knitting needles hovered over his shoulder, working on a small sweater. Judging by its size and colors—blue and yellow, the colors of the Lemon family—the sweater was for Brenden.
Dark jasper eyes met hers as Doran looked up and set his quill down. “Your son gets cold easily. I don’t think he’s used to the sea air in autumn.”
“No. He’s not.” Catori’s eyes remained locked on the sweater. Doran could materialize and control blades for combat, but knitting needles? It seemed comical.
Her husband smiled, and the knitting ceased as he set the sweater aside. “His fourth birthday is soon. Do you have anything planned for him?”
“Only a family day. Nothing too big.” Catori shrugged. “The toys I ordered from Hagia Sorva came in a few days ago.”
Doran rose to his feet and crossed the study to take her in his arms. She welcomed the physical affection—Doran didn’t show it often—and accepted the kiss he gave her. “And our child?” His hand caressed her belly. “How are you feeling, Tori?”
“Like I’m going to pop.” She grinned at him. “Our child grows. I’m still feeling birth pains, so it won’t be long now.”
“Our children could share a birthday.”
Catori laughed and shook her head. “That’s doubtful. Probably closer to five or six weeks left.”
“Still, it’ll be close.” Doran placed a hand at her back to lead her out of his study. “I’m afraid I have a few tasks for you. The birth might make it more difficult, but it must be done.”
Apprehension prickled in the back of her mind. “What task?”
“A grand feast.” He gave her an apologetic look. “As High Lord, I’d thought to host a massive harvest feast for all my vassals in Sataar and several prominent families.” They eased down the staircase together, and Doran helped her keep her balance. “As my wife, it—”
“Falls to me to see it all done, yes.” She heaved an exasperated sigh and hoped it masked the dread that crept up her spine. Catori hated social engagements. She wasn’t born noble— she’d been plunged into this life simply by marrying Doran. She had to relearn everything, and fast. No feast she’d yet hosted had ever been grand, either, and the mere thought had cold sweat gathering on her skin. “Why didn’t you tell me sooner?”
Again, he gave her an apologetic look. “It wasn’t in my plans. I’d like the first feast at the tail end of autumn, and a second to herald the new year. That gives you plenty of time to plan and I wouldn’t ask this if you weren’t capable. I’m also ensuring you have plenty of help.”
He steered her into the garden, where a man and woman stood side by side. Both were dressed in high quality clothing meant to impress, but Catori’s heart dropped to her toes. More nobles to socialize with was not her idea of help. She already struggled with the few that passed through the villa. The pair turned their attention away from Brenden and a little boy as Doran and Catori approached.
“Catori, allow me to introduce Lord Eustine Rivers, and his wife, Lady Tamara.” Doran was all business and polite smiles. “Eustine, Tamara, this is my wife, Lady Catori Spicer.”
Eustine, an altogether average man, bowed low to Catori. He was pleasant enough to look at, of a height to be taller than most women, and fit enough that no belly was noticeable. His wife, meanwhile, dipped into as graceful a curtsy as her pregnant stomach allowed. She was petite and plump, shorter even than Catori’s slight height. Her brown eyes were bright, and she wore a pretty, infectious smile.
“It’s a pleasure to meet you.” Catori’s practiced smile bloomed on her face. After several months of use, it was starting to come a little easier.
“Eustine oversees construction in the villa and in Port Town,” Doran explained. “And he’s in charge of the villa’s floorplan. He can help you plan out guest rooms for the feasts. Tamara will be your very first lady in waiting.” He smiled at Catori with a hint of amusement in his eyes—no doubt he took some small amount of pleasure watching her squirm. “Their son, Henrik, is five, and it seems Brenden’s already taken with him.”
As if to prove his words, the two children burst through the group of adults, giggling.
As much as Brenden craved a playmate, it did little to ease the anxiety in Catori’s gut. A lady in waiting? It was bad enough she had to pretend to like the people that came traipsing through this cavernous villa, it seemed they had to pretend to like each other daily, too.
Catori might be getting a little ahead of herself, though. Tamara looked friendly enough.
Through sheer force of will, Catori kept her smile unwavering. “Your help will be most welcome. I’m already feeling a little overwhelmed.” Boy, was that an understatement.
“No doubt!” Tamara’s voice was feminine and perky, and she giggled at the end of her sentence. “You’re full of child, too! You must be excited.” Her dark curls bounced around her shoulders as she spoke, so animated was she.
At once Catori decided she liked her. No other lady had been quite so bubbly. Her smile became a little more genuine. “I am. I’m getting a little impatient.”
Doran’s hand slid along Catori’s back. “I’m afraid I have some work I must see done, and Eustine, I need you for a moment. Let’s let our wives get acquainted?” He stooped to give Catori a swift kiss, then smiled at Tamara. “A pleasure, as always.” He inclined his head, squeezed Catori’s hand, and the two men left together.
Tamara burst into giggles. “You’re not used to nobles at all, are you?”
Catori’s polite smile twisted into a grimace. “How can you tell?” The words dripped sarcasm and Catori mentally kicked herself for being rude. She still had difficulties controlling her mouth sometimes.
Another fit of giggles bubbled up from Tamara. “You look so nervous! It’s quite alright. I’d like to be real friends, no need for polite chitchat.” She covered her mouth with her fingertips to stifle her laughter, then let out a cry as her son tugged her dress. “Oh, Henrik no, not Mama’s dress, please.”
“Can we play in the front?” Henrik’s brows drew together, and his large brown eyes grew wide.
Brenden tried the same tactic and mimicked his new friend. His grey eyes rounded, and his lower lip began to quiver.
“Oh, no.” Catori shook her head and her mouth set in a firm line. “Don’t you start that look, Brenden, I am not giving in. The two of you can make a game of waking your nanny, hm? Gods knows she needs it.”
Brenden’s pout vanished—apparently the idea appealed. “Come on! Elise is upstairs!” The two children scurried off towards the staircase together.
More bubbly laughter burst from Tamara. “You’re so good with children! That’ll come in handy, I’m sure.” She glanced at Catori’s bulging belly. “I’ve got a few more months to go. Are you due before the feast?”
“I should be.” Catori waddled towards a nearby lounge to sit. Her ankles were beginning to ache from standing still. “Doran’s only just told me and now I have to plan two entire feasts as well as pop out a baby.” She groaned and pushed her hair back out of her face. “I’m not sure where to begin.”
“The guest list.” Tamara smiled and came to join her on the lounge. “Finalize the guests, then you can plan out where to place them and how much food is necessary. Everything else falls into place from there!”
Catori heaved a sigh as her fingers tapped an anxious dance over her belly. “This is very different from those last-minute feasts for passing guests.”
“It is.” Tamara tsked and gave Catori a sympathetic look. “You poor dear. You married a lord and have no idea how to run his house, do you?”
“Oh, the finances and organization are easy. It’s the social engagements that are hard.” Catori’s shoulders drooped and tears began to gather in her eyes. She cursed her pregnancy for heightening her emotions. “I don’t know etiquette, I don’t really speak like a noble, and half the time I feel like I’m just playing dress-up.”
“Oh! Speaking of dresses!” Tamara’s face brightened again, and she giggled. “You’ll need a new dress and jewels!”
Catori gaped at Tamara. She hadn’t thought of that. It was another item to add to the growing list of things she had to do; a list that made her want to curl up and cry. She craved good steel in her hands, not the soft folds of some party dress.
What had her life become?
There was something about the sea air on the coast of Sataar that Catori found refreshing. The roar of the waves soothed her prickled nerves, lulling her with its endless cacophony. The crisp, salt tinged breeze pierced the veil of anxiety that hung over her—it stung her skin and invaded her senses. Between the two, her plague of ceaseless doubts drowned, and she breathed a sigh of relief.
“Catori?” Anisa’s voice drifted over the cliff side, not quite masked by the clamor of waves. “What are you doing out here?”
“Thinking.” Catori tore her eyes from the sea and turned to smile at her oldest friend.
Anisa was a breathtaking beauty. The wind whipped her raven hair, framing a round face. Curvaceous hips swayed with every step and her dress did nothing to hide the swell of her full breasts. The sun’s rays caressed her copper skin and gave her a radiance that was enviable. Catori was a lumbering cow beside her, at least in her pregnant state.
A bright smile graced Anisa’s face as she shielded her hazel eyes from the sun. “I thought Doran didn’t like you standing so close to the cliff?”
Catori rolled her eyes. “Doran can go fuck himself. I’m my own woman. Besides, there’s a rail.”
Anisa spluttered a laugh and leaned on said rail beside Catori. “Don’t let him hear that. Doran’s not very forgiving.”
“I’m not worried. He’s just overprotective. I’m carrying his first child, after all. His heir.” Catori smoothed her hands over her stomach and smiled down at it. “This is gonna be one rich kid.”
“You’ll never need to work again.” Anisa didn’t see the glare Catori shot her; she was too busy flashing a cheerful smile at the town below. “Must be nice. You don’t need to worry with Doran to take care of you.”
It wasn’t the first time someone mentioned her good fortune at having married Doran. He was one of the richest men in Mennos—if not the richest. That wasn’t why they married, though.
“I don’t need to be taken care of.” Her words came out sharper than she intended, but Anisa still didn’t look at her. “I’ve got my own income. I don’t need Doran’s money.”
“But it’s certainly nice to have.” Anisa turned her head and laughed at the frown on Catori’s face. “Oh, come on. No one thinks you married him for his money!”
“I’m sure someone does.”
“Fine.” Anisa rolled her eyes. “But no one that matters does. You two have been close since you were children, it makes perfect sense you’d fall in love, too.” She made a dismissive gesture and straightened from the railing. “But say… Could we talk? Like we used to?”
Catori hefted herself around to face Anisa. Her friend had grown quiet the past few months and Catori couldn’t help wondering how she felt. Neither of them were all that used to the luxury that surrounded them—such a lifestyle came with a certain mindset that both women lacked.
“Oh—nothing’s wrong.” Anisa’s eyes darted away, a sure sign she was lying. “I just, y’know. Miss you.”
“Okay fine, it’s Niro.”
That was easy, but Anisa was never good at keeping secrets, even her own. Catori tilted her head as a slow smile stole across her face. “What about our resident gladiator?”
“He’s not a gladiator anymore.” Anisa fidgeted and her eyes dropped to her hands, the picture of demure beauty. “I really like him.”
Anisa nodded and moved a little closer. “He smiles at me so kindly. We’ve had dinner a few times and just last night he kissed me!”
“Kissed you?” Catori grinned. “Now who’s holding out on information?”
“Shut up!” Anisa wrung her hands and her brows drew together in a delicate, worried frown. “I’m serious! He’s kissed me once and—and—” Her eyes began to soften, and a blissful smile teased her lips. “It was such a sweet kiss.”
“I fail to see a problem here.”
Anisa’s smile vanished and she glanced away again. “I’m not sure he really likes me. Aside from the kiss and a little flirting, he’s just… nice.” She leaned on the rail again, looking mournful. “He didn’t even notice my breasts when I wore a low-cut dress for him.”
Catori snorted and it dissolved into laughter. Anisa gaped at her, but her perplexity only made Catori laugh harder until her sides hurt and she clutched her belly. She waved a hand at Anisa and hoped her friend would pick up on what she needed.
Anisa steadied her at once and guided her away from the railing to a lounge so Catori could sit and rest. She sat at her side and gazed at her lap, and her lower lip began to quiver.
“I’m sorry,” Catori gasped, breathless from laughter. “Oh, that was too funny. Of course he likes you, Anisa.” She slipped her hand into Anisa’s and squeezed her fingers. “How could he not? You’re beautiful, loyal, smart—” she ignored Anisa’s soft hah of disbelief— “and young. You’re not above his station, and you’re a hard worker.”
“Then why hasn’t he shown more interest?” Anisa’s distress made Catori smile—she was just as clueless as Catori was when it came to her own romance. “I don’t understand, I’ve worn my nicest dresses and I keep dropping hints, but he—”
Anisa plucked her dress, then laced her fingers through Catori’s. “You really think that’s all it is? He just respects me too much to sleep with me?” She slumped back in her seat with a heavy sigh. “Figures,” she muttered. “I’d like to get him in bed, but no, he has to be respectful. We’re Mennosi! We fuck! Gods, whoever heard of a man who wasn’t interested in a willing partner?”
“Hm.” Catori’s smile turned sly. Niro never struck her as the kind of man who slept around. “I think he might want it to be more than sex.”
“More than—” Anisa’s eyes widened and she sat bolt upright. “You mean, you think he wants to court me? Properly?”
“I think it might be more his style.”
Anisa’s blithe expression came back and she all but swooned on the lounge. “Niro would be the first since Rhys.” She sighed and snuggled up against Catori’s side. “I always thought I’d marry before you, and here you are, married, expecting your second child. I’m still trying to get a man to love me.”
“I figured you’d be first, too.” Catori laughed a little. “I always preferred swords to love, and yet—” she spread her arms and gestured to herself— “here I am. But perhaps it’s your turn, now.” Her laughter vanished as an aching pain settled deep between her hips. Her muscles contracted, and she groaned. “Ow, ow.” She winced. “Ow!”
“Is it time?” Anisa sat up and swiveled to study her. Her eyes widened, and her hands fluttered around Catori as though she were afraid to touch her. “Is it time for the baby?”
“No,” Catori grunted. The pain began to recede, and she relaxed with a sigh. “Just birth pains. It’s normal, I had them with Brenden, too.”
Anisa worried her lower lip. “I should fetch Doran. He’d want you to rest.”
Catori shrugged. “Probably, but I have work to do. Come on, that’s enough chitchat. Help me up.” Her mood began to darken as Anisa stood and took her elbow to heave her to her feet. She rose with a grunt, panting from the effort. The momentary peace she’d gotten from the sea and from Anisa all but vanished as they headed inside.
Candlelight lit the massive bedroom, tossing shadows across the room and lighting Catori’s vanity in a soft glow. She sat alone and ran a brush through her hair—after so many months of high quality soaps and oils, her usual lanky, loose curls hung around her shoulder like mahogany turned to silk. Her body had softened during her pregnancy, too. Catori wasn’t as lithe and toned as she was at the end of the Sanguinem war, and her breasts were larger and swollen with milk. She had a feeling her child would be born soon.
Doran sighed as he entered the bedroom. “You’re still awake?” He began to circle the room to blow out the candles and plunge the room into darkness. Tendrils of smoke drifted through the air, lit by pale moonlight instead of the flicker of flames. “Come to bed.”
“Make me,” she muttered.
“Feeling obstinate?” His reflection swam into view at her shoulder as he leaned over her. “You should rest. It’s late.”
“You can think in bed.”
Catori smirked at him in the mirror. “You’re awfully persistent, should I get naked, too?”
“No.” He straightened and walked away.
Catori rolled her eyes and struggled to her feet. Of course, Doran wouldn’t give in to her teasing. He wasn’t that kind of man. Brenden’s father, Bitter, had been that kind of man. There was no end to the differences between the two men she loved.
She smiled and shuffled to the giant bed in the center of the room. The cotton skirt of her nightgown swirled around her swollen ankles. Doran waited by the bedside to help her into bed—he was always kind and considerate, even with the meticulous mask of neutrality he’d crafted. If Bitter waited for her, he’d tease her as she waddled over to him, rub her belly until she giggled, then give her a soft kiss.
Doran merely helped her into bed and climbed in beside her.
Catori and Doran shared a lot of history, though. They’d known each other for the better part of their lives and she knew what he was comfortable with—or she thought she knew, up until they married. He had a habit of surprising her again. When they were young he’d been stiff and a little uncomfortable with her affection, but since their reunion in Citash he’d proven far more open. She knew she could snuggle at his side or seek a kiss if she wanted.
This time, he sought her. Doran pulled her up against his side and let her rest her head on his shoulder. “So. What has you thinking halfway through the night?”
Catori let out a heavy sigh. Two weeks had passed since Doran told her about the feasts and planning them took up much of her time.
“The feasts.” She snuck a glance at him and was met with a studious gaze. “I sent a bird to my aunt and uncle, they can provide all the flowers necessary. The shipment will arrive a week before the feast.” Her anxiety gnawed at her as she thought of all the things she’d yet to do. “I made sure the wine cellar will be stocked with all the finest wine. Even that piss from Haven.”
Doran chuckled. “Some people like that swill,” he admonished.
“Yes, well, they have terrible taste.” Catori huffed and tilted her head up to better look at him. “I still need that guest list.”
“After Brenden’s birthday. I’m compiling it now, I promise.” Doran smiled at her, an affectionate smile that made his eyes soften, and ran his hand over her belly. “Few more weeks. Are you excited?”
She was riddled with fear, too. Her mother died in childbirth and as the birth drew closer, Catori’s apprehension intensified. Beneath that, she grappled with her insecurities. Her self-doubt grew each day and reduced Catori to a trembling bundle of ragged, raw nerves. In those moments, the warrior within retreated to the shadows—this was not a battle she knew how to fight.
Some hint of her thoughts must have shown on her face. Doran’s fingers brushed her cheek as he leaned in closer. “Tori? What’s wrong?”
Her mouth opened, but hesitation stopped the words on her tongue. How did she convey all the stress she felt? How could she tell him all the things she fought with? This was his world, a home he’d known all his life, a lifestyle he’d grown up with. Catori grew up in a shack by the edge of the river Frea. She still felt like a stranger, dressed up and paraded for the entertainment of nobles.
A soft breath passed her lips and a weak, miserable smile touched the corners of her lips. “Sorry. I’m just—” she sighed and tilted her head to stare up at the ceiling. “Overwhelmed. Planning the feasts is stressful and I’m afraid it’s going to be a total failure.”
“Tamara should be helping you. You shouldn’t—”
“She is helping.” Catori swallowed hard. “We’re behind without that guest list.” Doran opened his mouth to speak, but Catori rushed over him. “It’s not just that. I’ve been feeling a little out of place. I have no idea what I’m doing. I’m not a noble, I wasn’t born for this.” Catori kept her eyes lowered to avoid his gaze and hide her shame.
“You’re wallowing in self-pity again.” Despite his words, Doran’s voice was soft, and he cupped her cheek to tilt her head towards him. His slow smile was warm, and uncharacteristic of him. “I know you can handle this, Tori. This is not your hardest battle, you only need to get used to it. Or will the Unbeaten lose her title to silks and feasts?”
He kissed the corner of her mouth and Catori smiled despite herself. Emboldened, Doran sought a real kiss. His fingers stroked her cheek and he tasted sweet, like cinnamon and sugar. The warmth of his mouth distracted her, but even that couldn’t banish her doubts entirely. They lingered in the back of her mind, waiting.
Doran stroked her hair back as his lips left hers. “You can do this,” he said, his voice softened to a low rumble. “If you need more help, just ask.”
“No.” Catori tried her best to smile at her husband and it came a little easier than before. “I’ll be fine. You’re right, I just need to get used to it.”
“Good.” He kissed her forehead and settled at her side. “Now, get some rest.”
Catori nodded and let him wrap her in his arms, but she lay there long after he’d drifted to sleep. Doran might be right; perhaps she only needed to get used to her new roles as lady and wife. Still, it was difficult to shake the feeling she was only pretending, and she couldn’t fool everyone much longer. She didn’t have the skills to host massive feasts and play hostess and soon, all Mennos would know.
Of course, it wouldn’t matter if she died giving birth to Doran’s heir.