Disclaimers ~ These characters belong to me. If they have a passing resemblance to you or share your name, it's purely coincidental.

Bad language ~ Nothing I deem bad, but...let's say yes, scattered here and there.

Love/sex ~ Ongoing relationships between women. Love scenes between m/f & f/f. If none of this is your cup of tea or it offends you, you're in the wrong place.

Violence ~ Loads! The warriors are at war so....

Copyright © June 2008

Chapter Nine

Athena stood alone in her office at the window, her shutters pushed open to bring the summer light into the room. The Queen breathed in deeply, the aroma of blooming flowers filling her senses. With her eyes closed, she listened to the birds singing in nearby trees and when green eyes opened, she watched multicoloured birds gliding through the air.

With one last look at her island, the blonde turned and returned to her cherrywood desk, taking a seat and staring at the paperwork set in front of her. She had to make a decision about her daughter's pregnancy news. The women of Belleza had to be told, sooner rather than any later. The Princess was already showing and gaining weight steadily as the weeks went on. She had stopped wearing her tight fitting dresses in favour of her Royal robes, which hung loose around her.

The Queen leaned back in her chair and sighed. By now uncle Cornelius and Rayna know the news. Perhaps everyone over in Britannia knows if one of them or both of them decided to celebrate. That means letters will be arriving with the ship and the women will find out that way and we can't have that, so...the announcement is going to have to be soon. Athena looked over at her door in surprise as it opened, smiling lovingly as her wife walked in. "Hello, my love."

"My wife," Dionis replied, bowing and making the Queen chuckle. "What troubles you, love?" the ex-warrior asked, walking over to the beautifully carved desk.

The blonde stood up and offered her chair to Dionis, then took a seat on her wife's lap once the dark-haired woman sat down. She remained silent as she played with her wife's hair, thoughtful over what to do.

"Is it about Arcadia?" Dionis asked, wrapping her strong arms around her precious partner.


"Is everything okay? The baby?"

Athena smiled and kissed Dionis' cheek. "Everything is fine, darling. I was just..." she sighed. "I realised that news of the baby has to be announced. Soon."

Dionis blinked. "Why so soon? Arcadia rarely leaves the Palace now and when she does she wears her robe and no one can tell."

"I know, but she is now in the fifth moon and steadily gaining weight. We won't be able to deny it much longer and surely the staff will start to realise. I..." She let out a deep breath. "I sent word to uncle Cornelius and our daughter told Rayna. I was just thinking that if those two let the news be known, letters will return with the ship and break the news to unsuspecting women." Athena tucked her head on her wife's shoulder. "There is going to be enough trouble and fuss over this as it is."

"Our daughter is the Princess, the future Queen," Dionis stated strongly. "She decided to do what was best for her future. She lay with her one true love in case something...happens. The women cannot fault her for that!"

"They can and they will, Dionis." Athena sat up. "You know that! Especially those who protest us being in charge anyway. This just gives them more fire! My ancestors set rules in place for good reason, we can't condone what our daughter has done or others will follow her lead."

The dark-haired woman calmed down and brought her wife back against her. "How about we lie?"

Athena smirked. "What? She's not really with child, she's just over-eating!"

Dionis chuckled. "No, smart ass! How about we say they got married in a very private ceremony because we didn't have time to plan and perform the real big affair the occasion calls for. One which will be held once Rayna returns."

"That would mean I would have to ask Ulrica Parson for a favour," the Queen pouted. "She would have to lie for us and you know she probably won't. Most definitely won't!"

"We could say the shaman performed a...binding. They are not exactly married, but enough so that they could lay with each other."

"This is getting awfully complicated, darling!"

"I know, but think about it. Ulrica oversees all the church weddings. We can say Arcadia and Rayna had a small ceremony here at the Palace."

"That would explain them not being completely married, as you put it." The Queen stood up and walked around her desk to start pacing. "I suppose that could be a back-up plan. We make the announcement that Arcadia is with child, then we see what the reaction is. If it is bad, then we can tell them of this...secret ceremony. Though we would have to inform Rayna's parents of the lie and..." Green eyes widened, as the blonde gasped. "By the Gods! Have they even been informed?"

Dionis blinked. "I...I don't know. I certainly haven't told them and from your reaction, you haven't."

"Oh, Gods! How could we have overlooked this? What if they are furious? What if they won't go along with our plan?"

Dionis stood and hurried around the desk to her wife, embracing her in strong arms. "My love, I am afraid we won't know the answers to any of these questions until we sit them down and tell them the news."

Athena nodded against her consort's chest. "You are right. First we must talk to Arcadia, tell her of this secret ceremony plan of yours. Then I shall have the Banks sent for, I think we should invite them to dine with us, then afterwards as we relax out in the gardens perhaps, we can tell them they are to be grandparents."

"I think our daughter is in her chambers resting. Do you wish for me to go and get her?"

Athena looked around her office, trying to think if she had anything pressing that needed her attention. "Yes, please, my love. I shall see about some refreshments. I am sure Arcadia could do with a bite to eat."

Dionis smirked. "She certainly has got a ravenous appetite now. Though..."

"Do not finish that thought, darling, because I think it includes me also and you do not wish to upset your Queen. Do you?" A pale blonde eyebrow lifted in question.

"No, no, of course not, my Queen. I shall go and see the Princess." Smiling Dionis kissed her wife's soft lips and turned to leave the office, yelping as Athena swotted her behind. "Meet in the dining room?" she asked.

"No, I think out in the gardens by the pond. Less listening ears out there," the Queen said frowning, knowing how the Palace staff loved to gossip.

"This was a wonderful idea, mummy," Arcadia said, looking around the beautiful gardens. The flowers were blooming and filling the air with different aromas, the gardens lit up with all the different colours. "I take it you want to discuss something though?"

"Yes," Athena nodded, falling silent as she chewed on her fish.

Finding it too hot, Arcadia had opted for a salad for her lunch, Dionis and the Queen picking fish that had been caught that morn. The cook had grilled it to perfection, both women humming their delight often as they ate. They each had a cup of wine to accompany their meal, while Arcadia had opted for grape juice, finding that wine so early in the day made her dizzy and light-headed.

"I was thinking earlier that we should soon announce your pregnancy to the women," Athena said finally.

Arcadia frowned. "So soon?"

"With you writing to tell Rayna and me informing uncle Cornelius, we can't know if they have told everyone in the Britannia village or not. If they have, there will be letters returning here with the next ship talking of the joyous news. Or...not so joyous."


"Not everyone is going to be happy about this, Arcadia," Dionis said. "There are rules and you have broken them. As a Royal, you are suppose to set an example for them to follow."


"We know why you did it, love. And if we explained it to the women, they surely would too. But then, what would stop others from breaking the rules?"

Arcadia sighed heavily, poking at her salad as she lost her appetite. "You have a plan then?" she directed at Athena.

"Actually your mama came up with one," the blonde smiled lovingly at her wife. "Would you like to tell our daughter your plan?"

Dionis returned the loving smile and beneath the small table that had been set up, she caressed the Queen's thigh. "I thought perhaps we might tell a little lie to them."

Green eyes widened. "What sort of lie?"

"I was thinking that if we can get the shaman to agree, we can tell the women that Rayna and yourself had a private ceremony here at the Palace binding you two together. You're not exactly married, but enough so that you could lay together."

"And then of course you'll have the full Royal wedding once Rayna returns," Athena added.

"Okay," the Princess slowly nodded at both her parents. "That isn't so bad. Do you wish for me to ask the shaman? It is for me she will be lying."

"I shall come with you," Athena smiled. "There is something else, darling. Have you told the Banks of..." she trailed off when green eyes so like her own widened.

"Oh, by the Gods! I...I never even thought to do so!" Arcadia gasped, a hand shooting up to cover her mouth. "I should inform them before we announce it to the rest of the island."

"I was going to invite them to the Palace for dinner this evening," Athena said soothingly. "I thought perhaps we could tell them afterwards as we sit out here relaxing over some wine."

Arcadia nodded. "That is a good idea. Gods, mummy, I never thought of any of this!" Her eyes teared up. "How can I ever be Queen if I forget simple things like letting my love's family know I am with child!"

Dionis stood from her seat and bent to comfort her daughter. "Shh, my love. 'Tis all right. We have all had other things on our minds, what with the warriors leaving, the harvest, the ship returning. They will understand. And they will be grateful once we tell them of our plan to tell the other women."

"Really?" the blonde sniffed.

"I am your mama, do you not trust me?"

Arcadia smiled and nodded.

"Do not worry," Dionis smiled, kissing the blonde's head. "Everything will work out."

* * * * *

Mariah Banks looked around the Palace in amazement, as she had the first time she had visited with her family. Having been born and raised on Belleza, she was used to seeing the Palace in passing. But it was only since her daughter had become betrothed to the Princess that she had actually been invited inside. The raven-haired woman was amazed at the total difference from its appearance outside to that which she saw inside. Outside the Palace looked like a solid structure, impregnable. The guard towers with visible guards keeping watch, intimidating. But inside, the Palace was a home much like the many others on the island, only bigger.

"Close your mouth, sweetheart," Nyx chuckled. "You are leaving a puddle at your feet!"

Mariah scowled at her wife as their youngest daughter stifled a chuckle of her own. "Does it not impress you, Nyx?"

"Of course. But I have trained myself to stare and be in awe without my mouth hanging open."

"Good evening," Athena greeted as she appeared from the back of the Palace. "How are you all? Mariah, how is your vegetable patch?"

Mariah blushed, as she always did when the Queen used her name. It always surprised her that the blonde knew her name. "I am well, thank you, Your Highness. And the vegetable patch proved very fruitful this season."

Athena smiled warmly. "Please, call me Athena. We are not on official duty, and you allow me graciously to use your name."

Mariah nodded, unable to speak.

The Queen turned her attention to Nyx and Leala. "And you two? Leala, are you helping your mother with the cattle?"

The teenager nodded, smiling. "Yes, Athena. I've been helping out around the house or helping in the fields. Sometimes they let me venture out with my friends."

Arcadia slowly made her way downstairs, smiling warmly at Rayna's family as they spotted her. "Hello all. You are well I hope?"

Nyx hugged the blonde when she approached, fond of the Princess. "We were just telling your mother that we are all well and healthy."

"Good, I am glad." Arcadia hugged Leala and Mariah, then turned her attention to her mother. "Where is mama?"

The Queen frowned. "In her office tying up some business. She will join us shortly." A serving girl stopped next to the Queen, waiting for drinks orders. "Would you like a drink while we wait?"

"I'll have wine, please," Mariah said to the serving girl.

"As will I," Nyx said. "Joan and Maxwelle definitely had a good season this year," she said of the Gardiners who had the one and only vineyard.

"They did," Athena agreed.

"I'll have juice please," Leala said, wishing for wine, but knowing her parents would only allow her one cup with her meal.

"I'll join you," Arcadia said smiling. "I think I'll only have wine with my meal."

The younger girl smiled brightly, not feeling like such a child.

The serving girl nodded. "What type of juice would you like, Your Highness?"

"Uhm...grape, please. Thank you."

"I'll have the same, thank you," Leala added with a smile.

The serving girl nodded again and headed back towards the kitchen, leaving the small group gathered in the entrance hallway.

"Shall we go into the living room to sit until we are called for dinner?" Athena asked. "Or perhaps you would prefer sitting out in the gardens on such a lovely evening? I could show you the flowers that are blooming."

Mariah smiled in excitement and nodded eagerly, before looking to her wife and daughter to see them roll their eyes at her. The raven-haired woman loved flowers and wished for a small garden of her own. Every time she tried to start one up though, everything soon died. She couldn't understand it. "I would love to see the gardens, Your...Athena. Perhaps you could give me some tips."

"You have a garden?" Athena asked.

"Everything keeps dying on her," Nyx spoke up, shrugging when Mariah glared at her.

"Ahh, the touch of death," the Queen smiled. "Arcadia has the same trouble."

"Hey! What did I do!" the Princess protested, making the others laugh.

The Queen led the Banks through the Palace towards the back gardens. Arcadia sat down with Nyx and Leala, while Athena walked around with Mariah, offering small tips on how to have a successful garden. Dionis soon joined the group, apologising for unexpected business cropping up.

Being such a nice, warm night, they decided on having the evening meal outside. The serving girls quickly replaced the small table that had been set up earlier with a bigger one that would fit them all comfortably, then they sat down to enjoy roasted chicken, with a side dish of corn, cucumber and carrot slices, as well as slices of apples, apricots, avocados, strawberries, figs and watermelon as a fruit dish. In the centre of the table were bowls of blackberries, cherries and olives and jugs of fine wine or grape juice.

Talk revolved around mundane things, gossip from the farming community, how Leslie's pregnancy was coming along and ideas for the future Royal wedding. Mariah spoke of the letter Rayna had sent home and Arcadia did the same, editing private bits.

Finally with dinner over, the Queen led the way up to the roof, deciding the final wine course should be enjoyed in complete comfort. Everyone settled onto a cluster of cushions, each holding a goblet of wine and talking of how wonderful the evening had been.

Arcadia stood up, more than a little nervous. "I uhm...I have some news," she stammered. As she sipped at her wine and looked over the rim at all those gathered, she saw she had their attention. "You were not only brought here tonight to enjoy our company or the good food. I...well, you see...Rayna and I are getting married."

"That we know, Princess!" Nyx chuckled, trying to ease the girl's tension.

The blonde smiled. "Yes, well, what you don't know is that...I'm with child." She watched as eyes widened and mouths fell open in surprise, shock, or perhaps horror. "Rayna and I decided to...lay with each other just in case. We wanted to get married before she left, but because of rules and traditions we weren't allowed."

Nyx jumped up from her position, tears in her blue eyes. "Arcadia! This is wonderful news!" She embraced the surprised blonde. "I don't care how it came to be, all that matters is that I am to be a grandmother!"

Arcadia promptly burst into tears. "Thank you! Thank you so much, Nyx!" she sobbed, hugging the dark-haired woman tightly.

Mariah stood slowly and as her wife moved aside she embraced the Princess. "Nyx is right. I...I can't believe it! Rayna...I'll tan her hide so hard when she gets back for not even warning me of this!" she joked, her grey eyes sparkling. "How long have you known? How far along are you?"

Arcadia took a deep breath and sat back down as the other two women did as well. "I am five moons along. I have known...for awhile," she said sadly. "It slipped my mind that I should tell you, I apologise deeply."

Mariah reached out to squeeze the upset blonde's hand. "'Tis okay, Arcadia. I am sure this was a shock to you and a worry."

The blonde nodded. "It was yes. I mean we joined with this in mind, but when I found out, I was..." she shook her head, unable to find the words.

"What happens now?" Nyx asked Athena and Dionis. "I take it an announcement will be made?"

Athena nodded. "Yes. It was while I was trying to think of the best time to do this that we realised you hadn't been informed. I too would also like to apologise, things have been so hectic, but that is no excuse."

Nyx waved a hand at the Queen. "Forgiven, I assure you. With this war going on I understand life being hectic. And not just because of the war, there was the harvest to deal with as well, and many of the girls getting married."

"Thank you for being so understanding," Dionis smiled, grateful.

"When...when will the announcement be?" Mariah asked, getting back on subject.

"Well..." Athena looked to Dionis, who gave her a reassuring smile. "I feel there might be a bit of anger at the news, women unhappy that the only Princess has broken the rules and traditions of our island. And because of this Dionis had a thought."

"I thought perhaps we should tell a small white lie," Dionis took over. "If we can get the shaman to agree, and yourselves of course, we shall tell the women that Rayna and Arcadia had a small binding ceremony here at the Palace in front of just us. A ceremony that allowed them to lay together, but wasn't the actual wedding."

"Why the shaman and not Ulrica Parson?" Mariah asked, frowning.

"Ulrica only deals with church matters. If this was a private ceremony..." Athena shook her head. "I won't lie to you. The truth is I feel the shaman will be more agreeable to this idea than Ulrica. She believes the church should have more say over the running of things as it is and this would just give her something to hold against us."

"I like the idea," Mariah said, looking to Nyx. "It will protect both the Princess and Rayna, and of course all of us as well."

Nyx nodded. "Yes. I know some who were unhappy about the news of them being betrothed. If word got out that they had joined without such a ceremony I fear things will get out of hand."

"So you agree to the white lie?" Arcadia asked quietly.

Nyx smiled. "We do. You have nothing to fear," she patted the blonde's hand. "Do you know what you are having?"

"I didn't want to know. Not while Rayna isn't here."

"Are you showing yet?" Leala asked excitedly. "Leslie is and last week she felt the baby kicking and burst into tears. Then she let me see her bump and we saw her abdomen move!""

Arcadia smiled at the younger girl. "I am showing a little. I no longer wear my tight fitting dresses for fear of hurting the babe. Lucky for me my robes are comfortable. I believe Leslie is a couple of weeks ahead of me, so she is probably showing a little more than I am."

"I shall go and speak to the shaman tomorrow," Athena said. "Would you care to join me, Mariah?"

The raven-haired woman blinked in surprise. "Yes, Your Highness, of course. I am glad you asked. Our two families should be close and united in these times."

The Queen smiled. "I agree completely."

With the important news out in the open, the two families spent the rest of the evening enjoying the company and warm weather, talking of the future arrival, things Arcadia had to look forward to during her pregnancy and their hopes and wishes for the safe return of Rayna.

* * * * *

Arcadia stood up on the stage with her family, looking nervously out at the large crowd. The shaman had willingly agreed to the little lie about a secret ceremony and now it was time to tell everyone of her joyous news.

Many of the women who turned up feared the Royal announcement was about the ongoing war and those who were in Britannia. Some thought perhaps the war was over. Others thought perhaps a change in the senate heads was going to be announced or perhaps the choice of which careers the children could pick.

Arcadia took slow steady breaths, offering a weak smile to the Banks as they made their way up onto the stage. The crowd fell quiet upon seeing this, suddenly fearing perhaps Rayna had been killed in battle.

Tamara Sheehan scowled from her position next to her family. Being the Queen's adviser, she was sore that she hadn't been informed of any news they were about to announce. If the warrior is dead, then Lexie has another chance with the Princess, she thought, upon hearing mumbles from the crowd about the appearance of Rayna's family. She can be supportive and offer her shoulder for the poor girl to cry on. All the while working her way into the blonde's heart. This brought a smile to the advisor's lips, liquid brown eyes lighting up in delight and hope.

Taking a deep breath Athena stepped forward and offered the gathered women a bright smile. "Women of Belleza. 'Tis not bad news, so stop worrying." She waited as a few mumbles of relief rumbled through the dense crowd. "The news involves your Princess and her betrothed."

Arcadia stepped forward and touched her mother's arm. "It should be me who tells them, mummy," she said quietly. "It's my news and if they are going to hate anyone it should be directed at me."

"Arcadia..." The Queen sighed as her daughter raised a pale eyebrow at her. "You are so grown up! I don't like it."

Arcadia smiled, then turned her attention to the crowd. "Rayna and I are betrothed, this you know. We desperately wanted to be married before Rayna had to leave, but weren't allowed because of our traditions. What you don't know is that at the Palace, a small gathering of my family and Rayna's watched as the shaman performed a simple binding ceremony. Not a wedding but enough of a commitment so that we could lay together."

Eyes widened in shock and surprise, many women gasping at this news. Many women frowned, having never heard of such a thing.

"Rayna and I joined and now I am with child."

With the news out, the crowd went wild. Women shouting out in anger, others shouting questions, others congratulating the Princess.

Dionis stepped forward and glared at all the women until they fell silent. "This was a ceremony witnessed by both families. They are a young couple in love, a young couple that very much wanted to wed but couldn't. We came up with a quick solution, but there will still be a big official Royal wedding once Rayna returns."

"How far into your pregnancy are you?" Yolanda Sexton, a scientist married to Sarita, one of the Royal guards, asked.

"Five moons," Arcadia replied.

"Congratulations," Audra Reeder yelled out, making the Princess smile.

"Thank you, Audra. I hope you are not too disappointed that Rayna has completely defeated you now in the race for my heart," the blonde teased.

"Oh, I am devastated, Your Highness," Audra joked back, a hand going to her heart. "I'll just have to tell her the babe is mine!"

Some of the crowd laughed at the banter between the two girls.

"What if Rayna doesn't return?" Tamara called out, furious at this news. "The babe will be born a bastard!"

Dionis' jaw clenched tightly. I seriously dislike this woman! If she isn't sneaking around the Palace, she is inventing problems. "There was a binding ceremony, if you remember, Tamara. The babe will be a Royal heir."

"Will Rayna be pulled from battle? Surely there must be a proper Royal wedding before the babe arrives?" Hestia Youngs, Leslie's mother, asked.

"Rayna won't be pulled from battle. That wouldn't be fair to the other warriors or those family members in Britannia," Dionis replied. "As a Royal wedding, all those who were born here are invited, along with their families. With a war going on, it would mean surrendering in defeat to our enemies. And I think you all know Rayna isn't the only one who wouldn't be happy with that."

"I think this is disgraceful!" Ulrica Parson called out. "As head of the church, I say this...binding ceremony isn't enough to make them a proper couple. The child is a bastard until such time as they are wed!"

"I for one thought that it was the shaman who oversaw all weddings anyway?" Nyx answered, stepping forward and wrapping a comforting arm around Arcadia's shoulders. "Just because the weddings usually take place at one of the churches and you finish the ceremony with a prayer, doesn't mean your contribution to the joining is the ultimate requirement. The shaman performs the ceremony and we had her hold Rayna and Arcadia's. The shaman gave them her full blessings."

Arcadia raised her hands to quiet the women shouting out. "Look, I am with child. Nothing is going to change that. Rayna and I are soul mates, nothing is going to change that. We were bound under the eyes of the Gods, perhaps not in front of all of you, or outside a church, but we are still bound. As Princess, the only Princess and next to reign, I was hoping you would join me in being joyous that there is to be an heir. But sadly I have come to realise that despite all that my family has done for you, there are still women out there who oppose us ruling, who wish to see us ousted. Well, do you know what I have to say to you..." She paused, looking around the crowd to see she had their attention. "Leave. If you are not happy with things here, leave. No one is stopping you, or holding you prisoner." Weary from the whole affair, the blonde stepped back and sighed. "I'm going back to the Palace," she told her mothers in a low voice only they could hear.

"We will join you, love," Athena replied. "We have announced the news, let them mull it over." The Queen turned to the Banks. "Will you join us for a cup of wine or two?"

Mariah and Nyx smiled. "That would be lovely," Mariah answered. "I think we could do with hiding out right now."

Lorenza Cartman and Harley Field, two of the guards, led the way off the stage, the Queen and Dionis stepping down next, followed by Karita Shepherd and the Princess, then the Banks family, with Sarita Sexton bringing up the rear.

"Congratulations, Princess," Karita said quietly. "I for one am very pleased for you."

Arcadia smiled and reached out to squeeze her personal guard's arm. "Thank you, Karita."

* * * * *

Rosana Fisher was furious and paced from one end of the grand living room to the other, her wife Endora, their daughter Cherie and her mother Aaronia, watching from one of the padded sofas, Athena, Dionis, Arcadia and Mina, watching from another. The Banks stood huddled close together near a wall, not wanting to intrude on a family matter.

"I cannot believe you didn't tell me!" Rosana raged. "As your younger sister and the regent to this island, if something were to happen to you and the family, don't I have the right to know these things first?" she asked, looking towards her seated sister. "Didn't I have the right as family to be told before the rest of the island?"

"Rosana, you don't live here at the Palace. You chose not to, remember?" Athena said calmly. "After deciding to be one of the people, to live like they do and help your wife in her community, you cannot barge in here and bark at me like a little angry dog because I forget to tell you some news!"

The room went very still as the strawberry-blonde gaped at her older sister. "A little angry dog!" she growled in dangerous tones. "Did you hear that mother?" she directed at Aaronia. "Because I chose to leave the Palace, I am nothing more than a little dog to her!"

Aaronia stood, uncomfortable with her daughters fighting, especially in front of company. "She didn't imply you are a dog, she said you were acting like one. And I have to agree, Rosana. You have stormed into the Palace and spent the last half candle mark stomping about barking angrily!"

"Mother!" Rosana protested.

"Enough, Rosana," Aaronia said calmly. "Your sister has had a lot to deal with lately. She is worrying about the war that is raging in a distant land, she has to deal with unhappy islanders complaining about this and that, she has to keep women happy and stop any silly arguments that break out, she has to think about young girls being brought home for burial. And now she has to worry about her daughter being with child while her love is away fighting, she has to deal with the angry women who aren't happy at this news, and she'll have to go head to head with Ulrica bloody Parson, who was just looking for an excuse to speak out against us. So, enough." Sighing, the Queen mother sat back down feeling incredibly weary.

Mina stood up from her seat and walked over to her wife, sitting on the arm of the padded chair to wrap an arm around the redhead's shoulders.

"So," Athena said. "Would you like to join us in celebration, sister?"

Looking a little sheepish, the strawberry-blonde nodded. "That would be nice, thank you."

Francis Church appeared in the doorway, looking nervous and afraid. "Uhm...Your...Your Majesty?" it came out as a question, rather than an attempt to get the Queen's attention.

"Yes, Francis?" Athena smiled warmly, hoping to put the young girl at ease.

"There are some girls here that wish to see the Princess, Your Majesty."

A pale eyebrow lifted as Arcadia tried to work out who it could be. "Do you know them, Francis?"

The nervous maid nodded. "One...one is Leslie Shepherd, Your Highness. And another is...uhm...Kemina Sexton."

The Princess smiled. "Oh, wonderful. I am sure they are here to yell at me for not telling them sooner." She looked to the Queen. "Can I invite them in, mummy? I'll take them out to the gardens."

Athena smiled. "If you are up for company, my love, then by all means invite them in. In fact, ask them if they would care to join us for dinner tonight. I think a proper celebration between those of us who really care is appropriate."

Arcadia stood. "Cherie, Leala, do you wish to get away from these mad grown-ups?" she asked cheekily.

The two girls stifled laughs and stood up as well, following the blonde out of the room.

* * * * *

Having kept quiet as they were led through the Palace towards the gardens, the girls immediately surrounded the Princess as soon as they stepped outside.

"Cousin Arcadia!" Leslie exclaimed. "I cannot believe you kept this from me! Especially when I told you I was with child!"

"I had no choice, cousin," Arcadia protested.

"What was it like laying with Rayna?" Kemina Sexton asked, wiggling her eyebrows.

"Ewww!" Leala protested, covering her ears. "I do not want to hear that!"

The other girls laughed at her.

"Why couldn't you have told me?" Leslie asked in a hurt tone. "I would have kept it quiet."

"I wasn't sure what mummy, that's the Queen to all of you, was going to do. I feared being sent away at first! Then I thought she might want it kept quiet until Rayna could be brought home so we could marry, I...wasn't really sure what was going to happen." Arcadia led the girls over to the table and sat down.

"Did you know you were with child when I asked you if you might be?" Leslie asked. "We were out here in the gardens talking about being sick in the morning."

"I suspected as much as you did, but I didn't know for sure."

"Back to the important stuff," Audra said waving a hand at them. "What was it like with Rayna?"

"Ewww, Gods!" Leala whined. "I shall be scarred for life!"

Biana Plummer approached the table and set down two jugs, followed by Francis holding enough mugs for each of them.

"The Queen asked that I bring you some refreshments, Your Highness," Biana said.

Arcadia smiled. "Thank you, Biana. 'Tis good having you back. How are things?"

"Thank you, Your Highness. Things are still hard, but you can only go on and remember the good times. Congratulations, by the way." With a respectful bow, the maid turned and left with Francis.

Arcadia stood and filled her mug with grape juice, taking a large gulp to quench her thirst. "I always feel so awkward around Biana and Val now," the blonde sighed. "Knowing that Diana is gone and Rayna is not."

"I know what you mean," Leslie agreed, a hand caressing her stomach. "I can't seem to look them in the eye. I feel like they may hate me because Keera is still alive!"

"This is only the beginning," Cherie stated. "My mother Rosana thinks it will get worse before it gets better."

"Can we please not start talking about the war!" Flora pleaded. "Leslie will get all teary eyed and emotional!"

Leslie slapped the younger girl's arm. "I will not!"

"You will," the teen grinned. "It's your hormones. Seeing anything of Keera's sets her off!"

"I do n-...!" Leslie protested.

"Back to that subject," Audra broke in. "Rayna?"

"Rayna was everything I ever dreamed of and more!" Arcadia said boldly, getting cheers from her friends.

"So was Keera to me," Leslie said smiling.

"Ewww, Gods! Now I have to suffer too!" Flora protested. "I knew I should have gone home."

"Would you like to go for a walk around the gardens, Flora?" Leala asked, standing up.

Flora stood up quickly. "What an idea! Let us leave them to their sex talk!"

The group of older girls giggled as they watched the two younger girls quickly hurry away.

"Where was I?" Leslie said. "Oh, yes. Keera will surely have my head if I tell you this, but then, she isn't here, so..."

"So?" Kemina said eagerly.

"Keera was so...gentle and loving and saw to my every need," the redhead sighed lovingly.

"Obviously!" Cherie laughed, eyes on Leslie's stomach, making the others laugh.

"And Rayna?" Kemina asked in curiosity.

"Exactly the same," Arcadia admitted. "It's like...they spend all day being tough and strong, then at night that side of them disappears and the real them comes out."

"Exactly!" Leslie nodded in agreement.

"We all know about Leslie and Keera," Cherie said, turquoise eyes sparkling in mischief. "But you and Rayna..." she frowned. "When was this binding ceremony?"

"Not too long after war was declared," Arcadia replied easily. She hated lying to her dearest friends, but had no choice. "I went to see the shaman the day after Rayna proposed..."

"When did Rayna propose?" Leslie asked. "Surely not during the attack?"

"How could she?" Kemina asked in confusion, looking to Leslie. "They were all out scouring the forest."

"Not Rayna," Leslie replied. "Keera told me an anxious guard raced up to them and told Rayna her presence was wanted at the Palace. Keera told me Rayna went as pale as a white sheet and hurried off."

Everyone looked back to the Princess.

"We'd had an argument earlier in the evening and I didn't want anything to happen to her before I could apologise and tell her I really did love her," Arcadia filled in. "Mama had her sent for."

"Boy! Must have been some argument!" Cherie said, finishing her drink and pouring another.

"It was. Anyway, mama had Rayna brought back to the Palace and she spent the night with the whole Royal family protecting us. The next evening she proposed to me."

"And the day after that you went to see the shaman?" Audra clarified.

Arcadia nodded. "Yes, mummy told me I couldn't possibly marry Rayna before she had to leave because a Royal wedding takes many moons to arrange."

"Wow," Kemina sighed. "That is all so...romantic!"

"Enough about me and Rayna," Arcadia said, seeing the chance to change the subject. "What of you Audra? Are you courting anyone?"

Audra blushed crimson and nervously ran her fingers along the table's surface. "I have been courting here and there."

"Who?" Kemina asked, a smirk on her face.

"Well...uhm...I have stepped out a few times with Summer," Audra stuttered.

"Summer?" Cherie said, while they all frowned. "Who is....Oh, my, Gods! The shaman's assistant!"

Eyes widened around the table as they waited for confirmation.

Audra shrugged and sipped at her drink. "We get along well together."

Leslie frowned. "I didn't think the shaman could...well, you know?"

"There is no rule saying they cannot join," Arcadia said. "After all how do you think our shaman came to be. Her mothers taught her all she needed to know."

"But why didn't our shaman marry?" Kemina asked.

"I wouldn't know, you would have to ask her."

"What about you Cherie?" Leslie asked. "You must be popular being so closely related to the Royal family."

Cherie sighed. "I am getting a lot of attention, but to be honest with all of you, I'm thinking of leaving the island for awhile."

"What!" Arcadia exclaimed. "Where will you go? What would you do?"

"Everyone knows I am the Queen's niece and your cousin," she directed at the Princess. "I want to go and see the world. I want to go somewhere else where no one knows me or treats me differently from themselves. Somewhere I will be a no one and free to make my own name and be whoever I choose to be."

"Surely you'll wait until after this war business?" Kemina said, frowning.

The strawberry-blonde nodded. "Yes, of course."

"But no one knows when this war will end," Audra said. "You are of marrying age next year."

"This is just something I have been considering. There is a whole world out there, aren't any of you curious about it?"

Arcadia shook her head. "Not after what I have read and heard of the world our ancestors left behind. Besides, I can't leave, I am the next in line."

Audra shook her head. "Arcadia's right. I have read the diaries of the first settlers and what they left behind was a world I want no part in. 'Tis nothing like here, Cherie."

"But how do you know it is still like that? That was years and years ago," the strawberry-blonde protested.

"But our island got attacked," Kemina replied. "By a group of men who had heard of riches to be had, who had heard of young girls available for them to marry! Whether we wanted to or not."

"If you left, would you ever return?" Arcadia asked curiously.

"Perhaps. If the world was as terrible as we all think, I am sure I would head right back." Cherie smiled and shrugged. "But this is all just a distant idea right now. Let's talk of the two babies that will soon be a part of our lives. Have either of you thought of names yet?"

Leslie frowned. "'Tis a bit soon I think."

The girls looked to the Princess who hadn't said anything.

"Well, you know there's a tradition in my family to name your first born with a name beginning with A." She watched the girls nod. "Rayna and I were talking one night and came up with a few names we like, but I'm not going to tell you," she smiled. "You'll just have to wait and see."

"Arcadia!" Kemina protested.

"No, I want Rayna to have the honour," Arcadia said quietly. "When mummy had me, mama stood proudly on the stage in front of everyone and showed me off for all to see and told them my name. I want that for Rayna," the blonde confessed. "Mama said it was a very precious moment for her."

The girls ahhh'd and talk turned to other things, Flora and Leala returned to the table, relieved the subject had moved on from their older siblings and joined in with other mundane topics until night came and they were all called in for the evening meal.

To be continued...

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