Physicians and Fires

Note: This is a [second] draft. The contents here may change or alter between now and publication.

Copyright 2023 Dax Murray – All Rights Reserved

Content Note:

This is a work of fiction. It contains depictions, scenes, and discussions of topics that some may want to avoid. I have tried to make this list as exhaustive as possible, but I cannot know everyone's possible triggers and sensitivities. Please know that this book handles mature topics and themes. This chapter contains:


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The guest room went unused.

Caitlin ripped off her shirt the second that she closed the bedroom door and Brenna didn’t waste any time shoving her against the wall. Her knee crept between Caitlin’s thighs. “Does this count as free time, Ms. Businesswoman? Or is this part of negotiations for you?”

“I…” Caitlin shivered as she spread her knees to accommodate Brenna’s advances.

Brenna held a hand over Caitlin’s mouth, while the other fumbled with the latch to Caitlin’s belt. “What sort of trade deal would you like to come to with me? Because I have a one in mind. Do you want to discuss it?”

As she pulled the belt free, Caitlin let her skirt fall to the floor, eyes never leaving Brenna’s.

“Do you barter in leather?” Brenna asked.

Caitlin nodded.

“Perhaps we should take our negotiations to a more comfortable location.” Brenna lifted Caitlin up, carried her to the bed, and pressed her into it, a hand on the small of her back.

Caitlin knew better than to say something at this point. Brenna ripped off her stockings. The cool air shocked Caitlin; even if she wanted to say something, she could not remember how to speak. “Do you barter in cotton?”

Brenna’s finger slowly crept up to Caitlin’s thighs, and both hands grabbed Caitlin’s hips and pulled her forward before slipping her thumbs into Caitlin’s undergarments. “Do you barter in silks?”


“Because I would like to barter all of the above. What do you say?”

“Yes, please…”

“I have heard that some of the best negotiators are silent. If you are such a negotiator, tap your hand three times, or kick three times with your foot. Do you understand? Good. Let’s see how my negotiating skills match with yours.” Brenna took the stockings and bound Caitlin’s arms together and affixed them to the bedpost. Then she slowly unbuckled her own belt and set it on the edge of the bed, never breaking eye contact. “Is it the person who shares their wares first that has the upper hand at first? Or is it the other way around?” Brenna mused, one hand under her chin.

Caitlin smirks. “Why should I give away my secrets?”

“I believe I can persuade you to.”

“Try, then.”

“I think I will.” Brenna ran one finger slowly down Caitlin’s neck, traced it down her spine, down one of her thighs before making its way back until it was hovering achingly close to Caitlin’s sex. Caitlin twitched, pulling against the restraints. Too much, it was getting to be too much and yet not enough. Brenna had been so close to touching her, having her hand exactly where she wanted it. And Caitlin had missed the opportunity to put her own hands where she wanted them to be on Brenna.

“How shall I try to get you to talk, to say something that would spoil a deal, or end with you overpaying on goods?” Brenna pulls her hand away, waiting. Caitlin bit her tongue. She wanted to ask for more; she wanted to beg and whine and plead. She did not want to give Brenna the satisfaction of hearing her moan.

Caitlin is shocked out of her contemplations by a sting on her bottom. Brenna’s hand connected again, and again, little taps interspersed with slaps. It was too much. The taps grew harder and quicker. “What part of transactions is this? Does this part have a name?”

Caitlin writhed, wanting to lean back, to lean into Brenna’s body, into Brenna’s hands. Each circle and tap made her hotter and warmer. The vibrations ran up and down Caitlin’s body. Brenna stopped. Then leaned in to whisper in Caitlin’s ear. “Do you want to keep being an excellent negotiator?”

Caitlin nodded and moaned. She was pent-up lightning; she was a dam ready to burst; she was a goblet about to overflow.

“That’s m’girl. I hope you realize that I currently have the upper hand.” Without warning, Brenna grabs Caitlin between her thighs, her thumb resting at the apex of her slit. “This might be the best item in your inventory, and I intend to have it.”

Caitlin’s breath hitched. Eyes closed, she pressed herself into Brenna’s hand. “Oh, please,” Caitlin said, all thought of remaining silent gone.

“I hear that sometimes you give a potential buyer a peek at the wares, showing off only a selection of what might be.” Brenna pulled her hands away completely and backed away from Caitlin. Caitlin looked over her shoulder. Her eyes grew wide as Brenna pick up her leather belt. “I was only showing you a fraction of what I can offer, too.” She spanked Caitlin again with her hand, each strike making it warmer, more sensitive.

“Are you ready? Remember what I told you earlier? Three times.”

Caitlin nodded.

The first strike came, and Caitlin floated instantly. She was engulfed in a mist of sea salt and metal when the second strike hit. When the third strike landed, she stopped thinking about anything else, just the heat and yearning. “I like to see the other person’s reactions when I first show my hand. Gauge what they might be thinking. And I think you want another glance or two at my offer. Am I right?”

Caitlin nodded vigorously. Brenna cupped a hand around the wet and glistening spot between Caitlin’s legs, one finger entering Caitlin. Slowly, her finger slid in and out. “And I think I am getting a good feel of what you offer, the prize of your inventory.” Just as quickly, her hand pulled away, and the belt met Caitlin’s skin again.

Each strike, each grab, each word whispered in Caitlin’s ear sent her higher and higher.

“Are we close to the pinnacle of our negotiations? Are you ready to shake on the deal?”

“Yes, yes, yes.” Caitlin’s voice was breathy, light. She could remember only one word. “Yes.”

Brenna’s hand reached between Caitlin’s legs again, fiercely, mercilessly. Incandescent fire coursed through her body, through her mind, and through her heart as she reached climax.

“Slowly, m’girl. Deeply and slowly. There you go.” Brenna undid the restraints and massaged Caitlin’s wrists. “Do you have a bath?”

“Yes, I do.”

“Let’s get you there then.”

They found that they had far more to haggle over still after the bath, though.


Caitlin is not sure what she is expecting, but it is not the nondescript row house in a more impoverished neighborhood. It is nothing outstanding, no more or less than the surrounding houses. He holds her hand as he knocks on the door four times. “Stop fidgeting.”

“I am not.” She takes her hand from him and pushes both deeply into her pockets. She rolls her eyes at him. The door opens, and the person answering looks Caitlin up and down. They are young, no more than twenty. “She’s safe?”

“She’s safe.”

The youth opens the door further and waves the pair in before quickly closing and locking it. The home was warm; if a little worn. There are scuff marks on the wooden floors; the paint is chipping; the rugs have seen better days. But, to Caitlin, it feels like home, the home she had shared with her wife. This house she has been in for less than a moment feels more like home than her current residence. The smell of coffee and muffins wafts from down the hall, and the sound of people chattering happily accompanies it. Diar puts his arm around Caitlin and leads her to the dining room. “Take a seat,” he says and then disappears somewhere else.

“Oh! You must be the young lass Diarmuid’s been going on about!” A tall Calla rests her chin in her palms and looks at Caitlin as if she is the most intriguing object. She is small, her russet feline-esque ears and hair a startling contrast to her striking yellow eyes, with only a thin vertical pupil. Caitlin has had a lot of experience with the Qatu of Sua. But their Fayn siblings, the Calla, are far less likely to be involved in trade. Apparently, all of these cat-like people are just as prone to bluntness and mischief, despite the Calla having migrated to Fayn from Sua several hundred years prior.

“If there is another ‘young’ lass, I don’t know her. Caitlin.”

The Calla’s sleek tail flicks behind her, ears perked forward. “Excellent! We could use someone new to play with!”

“Aine. She is a comrade, not your new toy. Here, you said you needed more.” He hands a pouch to Aine and walks away to speak to someone else.

Another Calla sits down across from Caitlin, tossing their long pale blue hair behind them and handing a glass of water to Aine. Their strikingly dark sapphire eyes are full of merriment.

Aine slumps in her chair, opening the pouch and removing a pinch of powder and sprinkling it into the water. “No fun.” Her ears swivel out to the sides and flatten, her face falling.

“You are his lass, though?” The newcomer asks, long ears perked up.

“I am not his lass!”

They both smile at Caitlin; she knows that she is, in fact, their new toy.

Everyone makes their way to the cozy basement once they have all had their fill of pie and sandwiches. As the meeting starts, the levity disappears, though. A Calla with forest green eyes and short, bright orange hair hands out meeting notes as people claim chairs, couches and spots on the floor. “Sharidan,” Diar whispers in Caitlin’s ear. “Xie is one of the leaders. The other is Valen, the dark bronze Ástfríður in the corner, the one with the pure white hair.”

“Who was the Calla I was talking to earlier? The one with the Greenwood tattoo?”

“That would be Kegan, and the Evenstar Calla is Aine. They are inseparable. Aine adopted Kegan so to speak. They make a game of ‘initiating’ newcomers.”

“I noticed.”

“The pins… everyone seems to have one just like yours. The lily, is that…?”

“A symbol? Yes.”

“Ah, and your friend at that tavern one time… Jocelyn?”

“Yes, indeed. She isn’t here today, though.”

“Does everyone get one?”

“Do you want one?”


“We’ll see. You haven’t passed the test yet.”

“Very well.” She flips through the meeting notes and is astounded by the sheer scope of poverty, neglect, and suffering her group is up against. Homelessness outreach, childcare for factory workers, food distribution, education initiatives, medical care; all listed meticulously with updates. This isn’t just riots and protests, it is a movement born of desperation towards an uncaring government that ignores its people at every turn.

Caitlin leans back into the couch. She has never had to worry about any of this, has never gone hungry, never been cold, never lacked for a physician. A numbing weight settles in her stomach as she realizes how little she knows of what is really going on. She thinks of the gold and silk and spices that have passed through her hands, the prices they fetched, the wealthy people she had negotiated with, and the sums of money involved.

Her heart pounds in her chest as she learns about the struggles the Red Front has been forced to endure while continuing to provide basic services to those who have been abandoned by their king. How they manage to operate covertly to provide aid to those whom the king has deemed unworthy of his help or protection.

She can barely breathe as she remembers all the derogatory comments made by Sir Liam and Duchess Aelena, comments she had been willing to ignore. A cruel and callous disregard for life. People are nothing more than tools: if broken beyond repair there are always others ready to take their place. She tries to concentrate, to listen to Sharidan and other Red Front officers discuss their plans to help a starving nation.

While she had been warm in a spacious house dancing with Brenna and playing cards with colleagues, people starved.

The members of the Red Front speak with a mix of hope and sorrow. Hope that the nobles will fall one day. That the men who made their money in unethical and unscrupulous ways would tumble from their perches and plummet. One day, somehow, the aristocracy can no longer tax their people into poverty, and the king will no longer have power over an entire country. Their sorrow that, until then, people will suffer.

Sharidan announces that the meeting is over, reminding people to check the schedule on the way out.

“No.” Diar squeezes her hand as she stands up. “Stay. We aren’t done yet.”



She adjusts her dress, glancing around as people prepare to depart. Aine and Kegan catch her eye—they are among the few still seated, seemingly in no rush to leave. They share an amused glance before sauntering over. Leaning in close, Kegan whispers in Aine’s ear.

Aine smirks. “You really are Diarmuid’s lass if you are still here.”

“I’ve told you—”

“She isn’t,” Diarmuid says. “You’ve had enough fun, for now, I am sure.”

“Fine, fine, fine,” Aine says.

He rolls his eyes. “I’m going to grab water. Please don’t torment her while I am gone.”

“And now you are ours!” Kegan says when Diarmuid is no longer in sight.

“What is going on, though? Why are there people still here?”

“He didn’t explain?” Kegan says.

“No, he’s kept me in the dark.”

“There are factions, and they don’t always see eye to eye. This meeting is just for the faction we belong to.”

“Factions?” Caitlin looks around to see who else remains, remembering what Diarmuid had first told her. Sharidan and Valen are still there. Besides them, there is a pewter Ástfríður with short fiery hair reclining in the corner, a woman with bright freckles and purple hair tied into twin braids reading a large book, and an older woman with bronze skin and long hair the color of freshly fallen snow shuffling a deck of cards.

“There’s few. Not compared to how many people were crammed in here before.”

“Maybe not. But it’s the faction that the leaders belong to. The ‘leaders’ of the other one have not splintered off. Yet.”

Diarmuid returns and hands her a glass of water, scowling at Kegan and Aine. Valen enters the room again, their short hair a mess of waves and tangles and yet shining brighter than a star. “Thank you for staying. I promise to keep this brief. We have a new supplier. They will deposit the items in the second stronghold.”

“What are they talking about?” Caitlin asks Diarmuid.

“I’ll tell you later. I want you to meet them after.”

Valen brings out a map and starts putting red pins in it, seemingly at random, and they make no remark as to what they represent. “Seraph,” he says, nodding to the woman shuffling cards.

“I understand,” she says before turning her gaze to Caitlin. Her bright green eyes pierce into Caitlin’s soul, and Caitlin cannot look away. She is being judged; every sin was written upon her face and Seraph was weighing them. Seraph blinks, glances at Valen, and nods.


Without putting down her book, the younger woman replies, “Twenty-five, thirty-seven, eighteen.”

“Thank you,” Valen says, marking something down on a scrap of paper. “And Imogen?”

“Five, nine, four, seventeen,” the Ástfríður says, barely audible.

“Thank you. Kegan?”

“Three,” Kegan says.

“Fifty-seven,” Aine says.

“Eleven,” Diarmuid says.

“Very well. Sharidan will tell you who to meet.”

Sharidan enters the room and points to Seraph, then motions for her to follow. One by one, Sharidan calls the members to speak with them alone. Diarmuid pats Caitlin’s hand before it is his turn.

Valen approaches and looks Caitlin up and down.

“Yeah?” Aine says. “You’re here to talk to Diarmuid’s lass, yes?”

Caitlin does not have the energy to protest the appellation.

Valen laughs, their silver eyes full of mirth. “I suppose you could say that. Come with me.”

She follows them to a small room off to the side of the main room. “That bracelet…Do you know what it is?”

“Yes. It is from my wife.”

“You are married?”

Caitlin hesitates. She knows this bracelet, Brenna’s gift, allows her many freedoms with the Ástfríður that others do not have. A symbol that she is to be treated as if she herself were Ástfríðuri. “Was,” she says at last. “I am a widow.”

Valen hangs their head, the gaiety gone, their mouth stretching into a thin line. “How?”


Valen gestures for Caitlin to take a seat and closes the door to the office. “I’m sorry, I shouldn’t pry. It is plain that this is still a difficult subject. But our kind…”

“I know, I know…”

“I suppose you do. But that’s not why—”

“Xie was killed.” It comes out as one word. “Three years ago. The mourning period is over, and yet…”

“I’m so sorry. Thank you for sharing. It is a blessing to know that your Brenna was so loved. Again, that is not why I wanted to speak to you.”

Caitlin wrings her hands, forcing back tears. “What did you want?”

“I know that Diarmuid trusts you, but I also know that you are being courted by the prince. I trust Diarmuid, he’s told me that you do not want to—”

“No! In fact, I am trying to get the prince to leave me alone!”

“Diarmuid said so as well. But not everyone here is so sure of where your loyalties may lie.”

“You just let me sit in on the meeting, though.”

“Hmm,” they say, steepling their fingers. “Did you understand what we said? Well, in time, you may be trusted with more vital information.” Valen glances at the bracelet again, chewing on their lip. “While I trust you, you need to earn the trust of everyone else first.”

“I understand.”

“So, you will join us?”

“I don’t know. I told Diarmuid I would listen to what you have to say; I didn’t promise more than that.”

“Well, thank you, that is all.”

She rises and makes for the door.

“Wait. If you don’t mind, I have a personal question for you.”

She turns back to Valen. “Yes?”

“Brenna. What was xir metal?”

“Copper,” is all that Caitlin says.

They chuckle. “I should have guessed if xie was married to you.”


“Diar,” she says, grabbing his hand as they step out into the chilly night. “Why? How did you end up here?”

“Sharidan,” he replies.


“Xie recruited me. Xie paid for my medical schooling on the condition that I join.”


“It’s a long story.”

“I’m listening.” She pulls the hood of her cloak forward. “Tell me.”

“My mother, Rebecca, she was sick. And my father had very little money. Not many people purchase his wares, as I am sure you have figured out.”

She squeezes his hand. “Go on.”

“We couldn’t afford to go to a physician. There was a medicine woman, a Sister of Andraste, but by the time my mother finally admitted that she was sick, it was too late.” He pauses mid-stride. “It was preventable. The medicine, if we’d had it sooner… It was too expensive. And the Sister could do nothing.” “I’m sorry…” she says. She turns so that she is directly in front of him. If the night were not so silent, she might have missed it. A small cry, lasting not more than half a second. If the moon were not so bright, she might have missed it. His bottom lip trembles almost imperceptibly before straightening out into a tight line. She reaches her hand up, wanting to comfort him, to touch his face.

His own hand snatches hers before she can, though. “I am fine. Let’s go.”

“I didn’t mean…”

“I know. Anyway, I left my father behind and traveled to Janeuq, to Haut Ven. There is a medical school there, but I couldn’t afford it. I took on odd jobs around the school, though. Hoping to eventually have money to attend, and to pick up whatever knowledge I could just from being there.

“I was in town that day, trying to barter what little money I had for some food. There was a scream behind me, and I turned around. Sharidan was in the middle of the street, clutching at xir leg. I could see the blood quickly flowing from a wound. I ran to xir and provided what little medical assistance I could. I wasn’t very good. But I knew enough to stitch a wound and disinfect it. “I carried the fiery Calla to a tavern, where I could staunch the bleeding. Xie was very thankful and asked how much xie owed me. I wanted to lie, to give a high number, to get the money I needed to buy more food and to save for classes.”

“Did you?” She tries to imagine Diar lying, it seems to counter to what she knows of him.

“No, I told xir the truth. That I was not a physician. I was just some kid who hung around the university a lot. Xie told me to come with xir to xir townhouse. I was shocked and just followed without question, letting xir lean on me as we made our way up the street.

“I didn’t know such luxury could exist. It was grand, it was huge.”

“Sharidan? We are talking about the same Sharidan that just spent hours talking about how the wealthy are complicit in the subjugation of the poor? That Sharidan has a mansion in Janeuq?”

“Not exactly. It belongs to xir family, a vacation home of sorts. Xir family has all but disowned xir, but, like a cat, xie has ways of coming and going as xie pleases undetected. Xie treats the family’s staff well, so I think they keep xir secret.”

“Like a cat, indeed.”

“They may have disowned xir, but that does not mean xie is without money and funds. Enough to pay for me to go to school. Xie sat me down and explained only a hint of what xie was involved in. I learned later that xie was there to talk to Alliée Rouge, the Red Front counterpart in Janeuq. “In time, xie came to trust me and gave me all the details. In exchange for paying my tuition, I was to be the Red Front’s lead organizer on their healthcare initiative. I couldn’t say no. I could help keep so many alive, prevent so many other children from losing a parent. I could save every patient that walks in the door, and I could never repay Sharidan.”

“You have a big heart.”

“I studied hard, so hard. But still, I lose some of my patients. An expensive education and still just a mediocre physician.”

“You aren’t mediocre, don’t say that. Sharidan is quite wealthy to be able to pay that,” she replies. “Xir accent isn’t Janeuq, where is xie from then?”

“I believe somewhere in Sua, I know xie studied at Khidima Alam.”

“Are you joking? That university is nearly impossible to get into unless you are Sua nobility!”

“Precisely. I believe xie took on a Calla name when xie came here. Xie passes for Greenwood. I am afraid to ask what xir Qatu name is, though.”

“Is Sharidan also the source of money that is used to provide all of the material goods?”

Diar shakes his head. “I cannot tell you that. I do not even know where all of the funding comes from. Just that there are several wealthy donors.”

“Do you expect me to be one?”

“I expect nothing from you. Nothing except that you remain safe.”

“I feel so bad, though. I never knew any of what was happening, I never imagined… I feel so guilty.” Caitlin stops in front of her door. “Come inside, please…?”

Diar goes immediately to the living room, plopping himself down in the large armchair. “Stop. Stop feeling bad. Stop centering yourself. Stop with the guilt. It is unproductive. If you decide to donate money to assuage your guilt, you might as well just leave.”

“I just… How could anyone forgive me…”

“I said stop. You cannot buy forgiveness. You cannot buy absolution. You were ignorant, now you are not. Your ignorance was through no fault of your own. But now you know the truth. Now you can do something about it. And you must do something because it is the right thing to do, not because you want to make yourself feel better.”

“Where do I start, though?”

“I wouldn’t have brought you, I wouldn’t have told you all that I have, if I didn’t think you would know.”

“I see.”

“I was afraid when you started your… relationship… with the prince that you weren’t the person I thought you were, that I hoped you were.”

“I didn’t ask—”

“I know, I know that now. But I feared, for some time, that you might end up disappointing me.”

Disappointing? Something doesn’t sit well with the way he had said “disappointing,” but she brushes it off, attributing it to the long day. Instead, she asks him if he would like tea.


The aroma of roasted vegetables permeates the room as she moves around the kitchen, but her focus is on the Red Front. Sharidan gave up everything—status, money, and safety—to join the cause. And Diarmuid’s constant dedication to his patients, his constant worry that he was not doing enough… She tosses a pork bone into a boiling pot. There had to be more to it, though. All of the talk was about providing services. They spoke not a single word about protests or rallies or violence. But the way Diar had spoken about the “faction” he was part of… There had to be more to it. Diar had spoken about danger just in being acquainted with them. Why would anyone object to a few people handing out soup and free medical care? Each of the Twelve Orders had their own cause that they oversaw. Each went out once a month to provide services to the poor and less fortunate. If the priests and priestesses could do it, why would anyone object to commoners doing it?

Banging on the door draws her out of her thoughts. Who would be coming by at this hour? It was far too late. Maybe it was Diarmuid? She hopes it’s him; it’s been a week since she attended the meeting, and she hasn’t seen him since that night. She puts a lid on her pot, removes her apron and rushes down the stairs to the shop.

She swings open the door before even checking who it is. “Where have you been?”

“I did not know you missed me that much, my lovely lady,” Prince Cian says. “Enough to drop all formality?”

Her stomach tightens. “I am sorry, your Highness.” She bows, her unkempt hair hiding her blush.

“Tell me, who was it that you believed was calling upon you?”

“Oh,” she says, straightening and leading him to her office, the only room that is any sort of state that is not a disaster. “Oh, an assistant. He’s very late with something he was sent to fetch.”

“You would talk to someone that way? An employee?”

“Well, some assistants are not known for showing up when and where they are supposed to, and one can only handle so many disappointments.”

“My dear, I know exactly what you mean. I had not thought you were capable of losing control of yourself like that, however. Strange. You almost seemed human.”

“My lord, before we continue, I must attend to the kitchen. I was in the middle of making some stew.”

“Oh? My lovely lady wants to cook for me? I have already eaten for the day, but suddenly I am famished and only food touched by your hands can fill me. Lead the way; I am so curious to know what my lovely lady looks like in a kitchen.”

Her stomach churns, but she leads him upstairs to her living quarters.

“I must ask, my lord, what brings you here at this hour? I am hardly in a state to receive visitors.”

“Can a man not call upon the woman he loves?” He pulls up a stool and leans against the wall, lacing his fingers behind his head.

Loves? “Of course. But the hour is late, and I am unprepared.”

“I could not possibly go another day without seeing you. And you were so distressed at our last meeting. I could tell that my father’s decision weighed heavily on you.”

She ties the apron around her waist. “Yes, it was distressing.”

“I will not be like that, I promise you. I will not be the king that my father is. I remember his early days; I was still a child, then. But I remember, he used to be just, kind, forgiving. I know I can seem aloof and self-centered. But I am not without empathy or compassion.”

“I know, my lord.” She can think of nothing else to say while she quickly whisks flour into the pot.

“Something happened when he took the throne. Something changed him when the scepter was placed in his hands and the crown set upon his head. Power. Power changes people. I do not want to be changed, not like that.”

Caitlin stays silent. Any answer to this question could be the wrong one. What could she say that would not come across as also criticizing his father?

“When I am king, there will be no protests or riots. I’ve read the pamphlets. I’ve heard their chants. I will do everything I can to stop them. My father, I love him, I do. But… I won’t change; I’ll be a good ruler. I will ensure they have no reason to complain. What do you think, Caitlin?”

She freezes. He knows what they want? But…

“It is fine, my lady. You can speak freely. Speak to me as if I were a normal man, complaining about his normal father.”

“You are steadfast, my lord. I cannot imagine that the crown will change who you are.” Not a lie. He is very steadfast in being a bullheaded, stuck-up, arrogant ass. There is no way the crown could make him any worse.

“Your talents are wasted as a businesswoman. You are far more suited to politics and diplomacy.”

“My lord, I am flattered,” she says, setting the whisk down and facing him. “But I have no aspirations.”

“You do not? No, of course you do not. You can’t see further than the path your parents set you on. I wonder if you’ve ever asked yourself what it is that you want.”

Brenna. That first day, that first night, and every night after that. A question Caitlin had to answer. “You,” was always her reply. What she wanted was Brenna.

“I want what is best for my family. That is enough for me,” she says. “Isn’t that what most people want?”

“I suppose. I should not be chiding you, truly. I am also following the path laid down for me by my father before I was born. Can you forgive my hypocrisy?” “There is nothing to forgive, my lord.”

“How silly it must seem for a prince to complain about his station. Never once have my parents asked me what I want; I must live the life they want. Every other person in this nation has a choice; they can choose who to marry, where to live, what their goals and ambitions are.”

“But the smith’s son does not have a choice, nor does the butcher’s daughter.” She adds in some flour and whisks it furiously. “And desperate people may take jobs they hate just to ensure their children have food. And marriages of convenience or circumstance happen far more often than you can imagine.”

“Well, it has been at least two decades since someone has scolded me so thoroughly.” He laughs. “I find I quite enjoy it.”

“I am not surprised.” She cannot take back the words, so she presses on. “There are no shackles on you. Is there someone holding you at knifepoint to marry someone you dislike? Your parents did not force you to marry Princess Daya, even though that was the plan. And if you do not want the throne, you are more than free to hand the crown to your sister and do whatever you please.”

“Yes, yes, I do enjoy this. Please, my love, tell me more of my flaws. I desire your honesty.”

She sets the whisk aside and removes the pot from the fire. “I have nothing more to say, my lord. I meant no insult.”

“Why do you not bring out that fire more often? Why do you hide it?”

“It does a businesswoman no good to lose control.”

“Yet you have done so twice tonight. I shall count myself lucky to see such a rare event.”

“If you choose to see it that way. I am rather embarrassed by it. Excuse me, I will be right back. I just need to fetch the silverware.” She hides in the closet for as long as she dares. She has insulted him twice tonight, and he thinks he is lucky? What will it take for him to discard her?

“Your home is very plain,” he says, as she enters the kitchen again, the best spoons she has clutched tightly in her hand.

She squints at him, taken aback by the comment. “Excuse me?”

“I mean no criticism. But you do not have decorations, personal touches, knickknacks or mementos. You must surely have traveled the world and seen so many wonderful things; why don’t you have souvenirs? Where was your next destination?”

“Home,” she says, not realizing until after that she spoke.

“This is not home?”

Brenna. Brenna is home.

“You ask a question you will not like the answer to.”

“Whick, then. That is where you are from, correct? You still consider Whick home?”

She looks at her feet. Why is he here? Why is he asking her these questions? Why does each word he says a hot iron in her gut? “Yes, my lord.”

“Cian. Please, Caitlin. Call me Cian.”

She gulps. He stands up and in three quick strides is beside her, engulfing her in his arms and holding her tight. “It is no crime to be homesick. I do not fault you for it.”

She sobs, wishing she could hold it in until he was gone. Why do you always do what your fathers tell you to do? What is it that you want?

You, Brenna. Only you.

“Shhh. It will be fine,” he says, gently running his hand down her back. “Why don’t I take you there? We can sneak out tomorrow; no one has to know. We can spend a week there, you and me. Would you like that?”

“I… I cannot do that, I am sorry. I have to…”

“You have to be the obedient daughter, I know. I know. I apologize for imposing upon you, my lovely lady. Why don’t I finish making dinner then, and I can serve you?”

Too confused and disoriented to reply, she allows herself to be sat in a chair and watches as the Crown Prince of Fayn ladles soup into bowls and places a perfectly plated meal before her. “My sister would make a wonderful queen,” he says, jolting her out of her stupor.

“I am sure she would,” is all she can think of to say in reply.

“She would probably be better than I, truth be told. Maybe I could abdicate. Maybe find myself a cozy cottage in some port town. Live a quiet life. Maybe a garden, maybe some cats. Maybe a beautiful lady and a few children?”

She drops her spoon. Is he…?

“Forgive me. I again troubled you. But, if that is what you want, a quiet life, mornings that smell like salt, and evenings that are cool with ocean spray? If that is what you want, well. I could make it happen. Give you that life; just say the word, Caitlin.”


Diarmuid called upon her the next morning, apologizing for his absence; he had to go out of town unexpectedly, he says, but claimed he could give her no more information than that. He invited her to an early lunch with some of the other Red Front members, and then to help them with some charity work on the edge of the city.

She took his arm with more than a little hesitation; she had stayed up too late talking to Cian. At one point, he found a wine bottle, helped himself, and insisted she also partake. Her head spun as they walked, but she did not regret joining Diarmuid once she got there.

She falls into a pattern as autumn progresses. During the week, she works. On Saturday, she attends parties, hunts, and galas with Cian. And on Sunday, she enjoys herself with her new friends.

“Umm, here…” Caitlin says, handing a bag of food to an old woman who answers the door.

“Is this all there is this week?” the woman asks.

“Kayla, hello,” Aine says, coming up to the door with a second bag.

“Oh, Aine, thank goodness.”

“How is your wrist?”

“Oh, same old. Every time I think it is better, I hurt it again.”

Caitlin slips away, feeling awkward, and stands waiting by the cart.

“Did you think she would bite you? What was that about?”

“I just don’t know how to talk to them.”


“The people we are helping, I just feel—”

“As people, you talk to them as people. Just treat them as people,” Aine says, drawing her flask from her hip and taking several gulps, her upbeat nature ever-present, joking with the people they were helping and making mischief amongst us volunteers. “You are too used to negotiating, not giving, I take it?”

Caitlin looks away sheepishly.

Eventually, the conversations Caitlin makes become less stilted and transform into the chatter of friends. She trades stories of childhood escapades and listens as young girls ask for advice on love, and older gentlemen tease and joke. The guilt lessens, and the hesitation that she would be bragging if she engaged in conversation lifted.

“Come, let’s go to the tavern after we finish up here, how about that?” Aine says, looking into her flask before turning it over in disappointment. Going to a tavern, Caitlin learns, is something of a mainstay. At first, this was uncomfortable. Caitlin would think about how most of the day giving food to people who would otherwise have none. How could they possibly sit down and enjoy themselves, eat warm food under a roof? How could we do this when there were people without?

Caitlin hesitates.

“You can’t help everyone,” Aine says, throwing a bag over her shoulder. “You deserve this just as much as they do. And you need it if you are to do this. You cannot spend your time on this guilt. You need time to recharge. You will run yourself to the ground if you don’t. You will burn out, become depressed, and then cynical or apathetic. You cannot do that. So, you sit back down, and you order more wine, and you play cards and make jokes.”

Caitlin sighs. She has received this lecture several times, and by now she does know why it’s necessary. She learns to dance and tell bawdy jokes and win more rounds of cards than people expected her to. Sometimes she glances next to her, expecting to see Brenna. Sometimes she thinks she hears Brenna. Of course, she is never there. I’m doing this for you, she says. Your life was worth so much. Greed should not have robbed me of you.

“Very well. I think I can get away from the office for a little longer.”

“Good girl,” Aine says. “I’m gonna take this back to the house and get some more water. Meet you there? Would you mind finding Kegan?”

“No problem.” Caitlin packs up her own satchels and boxes and finds Kegan waiting for her the next street over.

“So, that volunteer at the school this morning?” Kegan says.

“What about them?”

“They were flirting with you,” Kegan says, tail flicking. “I’ve been waiting all day to ask about that.” “They were not flirting with me.”

“They were too! You really are dense; you act like you don’t even realize it when people are flirting with you!”

“Stop it! They were absolutely not flirting with me!” Caitlin’s hands are full of empty boxes; so she jabs her shoulder into Kegan’s.

“Yes, they were! And you were flirting back!”

“I was not!”

Kegan’s pale blue tail flicked back and forth. They smile and tilt their head to the side. “If you say so.”

“You can be insufferable.”

“But you looooove me.”

Caitlin rolls her eyes. “My point still stands.”

“C’mon. Let’s get these back and then meet up with Diar and Aine for the regular round.”

“Sounds good to me. But please don’t sing again this time. We almost got kicked out.”

“Not my fault that they don’t like bawdy songs.”


“I know, I know. You grew up with pirates, and somehow my songs are too lewd.”

“You can’t just start singing about—”

A chorus of terror echoes down the alleyway as they turn down it. There are people rushing towards them, not even looking back behind them to see if whatever has terrified them is following. “What’s going on?” Caitlin yells to them as they race past.

“Guards! Royals, searching for something! Get out!”

“Oh, no!” Kegan drops the boxes and bags they are holding and dashes down the alley.

“Wait! Kegan, come back!” Caitlin chases after the young Calla, but soon the air is full of smoke, making it far too hard to breathe. She can’t push her way through the throng of people running the other way.

Kegan is fast and dexterous, bouncing over people, and leaping over objects in their way, but Caitlin is slow and clumsy and quickly loses them.

“No, no, no, no, no, no!” Even over the cacophony of the sounds of the masses and the shouts of Royal Guards, Kegan’s cries could be heard.

“Caitlin, they found us. We have to get people out, though; we have to see if there…Aine…Aine…” Flames rose high above the street; the main headquarters of the Red Front burned quickly and brightly.

“No, Kegan, we have to run!” Caitlin grabs Kegan’s wrist and tries to pull her way. “Kegan, please.”

“You run, then,” They look at Caitlin, their eyes narrowing, their tail bristling. “I’m going to save our friends.” They dig their claws into Caitlin’s other arm until she releases it, and then dashes away.

“Kegan, no!” Caitlin can barely breathe; the smoke is only growing darker, thicker. She tries to clear it by waving her arms in front of her, but it is no use. She reaches the back entrance to the house, and she finds Kegan, standing in front of the gate. They are not moving, rigid, and only the slow blinking of their wide eyes gives any indication that they are not stone.

“Kegan. We can’t go in there. The fire, it’s too big, and there are guards swarming.”

“No.” They shake their head. “No, no! Caitlin.” Their knees give out, and they fall, their hands balling into fists. “No.”

A gruff voice echos down the alley. “I heard something; are we sure no one was going to get out the back?”

“We poured too much gasoline back there for anyone to get anywhere within the garden.”

“Well, I’m going to check it out anyway.” The clack of the guard’s copper-toed shoes is louder than the screams of the fleeing crowd, pounding in time to Caitlin’s pulse.

“Kegan. Stand up.” They don’t move. Caitlin lifts the Calla to their feet.

“We have to save them; we have to save them.”

“We can’t do anything if we’re in the dungeons or dead.”

They nod, finally relenting. The smoke covers their retreat, or at least Caitlin hopes so. The guard who had said he heard something rounds the corner and looks directly at Caitlin, but she sees him only as a shade, not even sure if he is there. She hopes he can’t make them out either.

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