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Groping to Clouds for Love

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i.

Holding tight to her sister’s hand behind her, Arjana twitches the curtains aside in their little hidden alcove, and looks out into the Great Hall at her future wife.

She is tall, as everyone says all Erendalish are tall. She is at least a half a head taller than Arjana’s limping brother Aldis, who is glaring at the floor with badly concealed mutiny. Erendale’s queen does not seem to notice him; she is sharing quiet, serious words with Papa as they walk down the aisle, followed by both their retinues. She’s wearing trousers, Arjana notes with a queer little flutter in her chest, well-tailored to her body, heavy boots, and a crisp white shirt that seems to strain at the arms and shoulders, as if silk and thread are not enough to contain such a woman.

“Well?” asks Asha in a quiet hiss, trying to peer past Arjana’s shoulder.

“Shh!” Arjana hisses back, flapping her free hand absently. She’s not done looking.

Truth be told, there’s quite a lot to look at. She is a young queen, five years Arjana’s junior at just four and twenty, but her scars and the low light conspire to make a much older woman of her. There are three that Arjana can count. The first and most prominent is an old one that goes careening down her noble face, crossing an eye and her nose. It would be quite dashing if not for the way it pulls her mouth down at the corner where it ends, giving the queen a permanent half scowl. The second is less noticeable, a thin jagged line running down her sternum and disappearing into the open neck of her shirt. The third is less of a scar and more of an outright lack; the littlest finger of her left hand is missing, hacked off by a sword.

Aldis had spoken with great spite of doing the deed, when the two had met in combat in the last battle. Her brother’s untoward pride in inflicting the injury makes her a bit ill, but she understands from whence the venom comes; in that same skirmish, the queen had given him the wound in his leg that had been the death knell of his military career.

Arjana tries now, as she has tried before, to work up the same hatred that her brother feels towards the Erendalish and their queen. It’s hard. The war had sprung up so quickly. It was a clash over land that Aldis had discovered along the coast and set miners to working almost immediately; land that had turned out to be sacred to the Erendalish; land that belonged to their gods; land and water that had been despoiled; land that they fought and died for with fervour that no one would have suspected. Erendale is a small kingdom across the mountains, with two other empires separating it and Nyer; before the war, Arjana had never had cause to think of them. And the war had come and gone too quickly for her to truly resent them. Her heart is still sick with the reports of the dead, and she had prayed and kissed the hands of the families of their fallen, given her blessing to each warrior who had asked it of her. But the Erendalish had done nothing more evil than protect what was theirs.

“Well?” Asha whispers again, somewhat more urgently. Arjana shushes her again, not bothering to speak this time.

They’re all seated at the head table now; Papa in the middle, Aldis on the right, and the queen of Erendale on the left. A few scrolls have appeared from somewhere, and their discussions continue in low voices. Words escape her, but she’s able to tell by cadence and tone that they’re speaking Nyerian.

Arjana takes stock of more details. The queen has dark blonde hair tied back into a long braid, wisps of it escaping to dust butterfly kisses about her face. Her skin has been well-loved by the sun; what Arjana imagines must have once been pale has been beaten to a light bronze by hours under the sky. She sits in a way that would give Arjana’s old governess palpitations; legs spread, one elbow on the table, hands gesticulating in short, staccato movements. Her eyebrows are drawn down in a way that suggests seriousness rather than disapproval, and her mouth is firm.

Arjana feels her heart flutter again. The queen is very comely.

This is the best she can hope for. Honestly, it is as if all four gods in their nameless wisdom have dropped a gift into her spinsterly lap. For years, she has rebuffed proposals aplenty, squirmed out of meeting Prince So-and-So or Lord Whats-It, suffered Mama’s sighs and gentle prodding and questioning. Being unmarried at almost thirty is quite a feat, but she never found the bravery to put into words exactly why all those noble men had not pleased her. She thanks the clouds that she has siblings for her mother to divide her attention amongst; both her older brothers and her older sister have been married, and Mama is currently working on securing a good match for Asha, just turned twenty. Arjana hadn’t known how much longer she could keep it up.

Then had come Aldis’ discovery, and the war, death, death, death, the eventual truce, and the aftermath. From the first, it was assumed that a marriage would be an integral part of the peace treaty, Erendale’s queen being young and unwed. And while that was true, she had blithely rejected King Quan’s offer of his handsome eligible nephew, and said that she would have one of his daughters instead.

Arjana had flung herself at the chance.

It isn’t unheard of in Nyer; marriage to the same gender. It certainly isn’t practiced amongst royalty, and Mama had been deeply consternated at the perceived insult. It had taken an hour of cajolery and Arjana’s heartfelt assurances that she wanted the match, would do anything she must to ensure peace, before she could be convinced.

Still, Arjana looks. There are so many people in the Great Hall, but her eyes seem glued to just this one. There is a small crown in the queen’s hair, she notices belatedly; a gold circle encrusted with emeralds. A beautiful piece, but eclipsed by everything else about the woman; how big she is, how assured, regal in her own right. This tall, comely woman. This woman she had bound herself to before even seeing her, knowing only little about her. This battled-scarred queen who fought a kingdom three times the size of her own to a standstill. This woman will be her wife, in three short days.

Arjana hears herself give a little gasp; of excitement, of fright, of longing, or some witch’s brew of all three.

Her little sister is tugging on her sleeve.

“Well?” she asks for a third time. She twitches at the curtain herself, peeking out at the gathered people.

Arjana glances at her sister, and then back at Queen Yrel, ruler of Erendale, the second of her name. This is the best that she can hope for, and she will make the most of it.

“I will love her,” she says decisively, giving a firm nod and squeezing her sister’s hand. “I am going to love her.”

*

ii.

The next day, they meet for the first time. Arjana has spoken to all of the warriors and traders she could, trying to learn as much as she can about Erendale and its people and customs and culture, but she is still surprised into a slack jaw when Yrel clasps her hand, raises it to her lips, and grazes a soft kiss across her knuckles.

“It is the greatest pleasure to meet you, Princess Arjana,” she says. Her voice is as hard as Arjana had imagined; it is a voiced used to bellowing orders to troops, rallying her people, whooping out war cries. For all that, Arjana thinks it beautiful, with the faint accent that comes up from the throat.

“I… yes. Yes,” Arjana stutters, her hand falling back to her side. She eyes Yrel’s own hands; the right which she had used to make her baffling gesture, the maimed left one. Will she expect Arjana to kiss hers too? “I… I am very pleased to meet you as well, Your Majesty.”

Dark blonde brows furrow, and Arjana’s heart flips. Sweet river, she’s making a muck of this already.

“I have displeased you.” The column of her neck shifts as she tips her head. “Or confounded you, at least.”

Arjana feels the blood rush to her cheeks. There are several pairs of eyes burning holes into the back of her dress; Mama and Papa, Atiba, Aldis, Ayanna and Asha, Yrel’s ministers. They all maintain a polite distance and no one seeks to intervene.

“Well…” She supposes it does no good to deny it. “Yes. Confused me, that is.”

“How?” Yrel doesn’t seem annoyed, just curious, and it encourages Arjana to speak up, though her tongue is a leaden weight in her mouth. It makes her feel very foolish. Confidence is so easy, until it becomes the rope that she must measure herself against, or else become hopelessly entangled.

“My hand. I… well, you kissed it.” Her cheeks get hotter. “I’m not sure what it means in your land, Your Majesty, but here, it is a gesture of thanks, and one that we only perform on servants and warriors.”

Her words are met with a few moments of blinking, and then a sharp, barked laugh. It sounds like a little thunderclap.

“Great ancestors, are you serious?” At Arjana’s nod, Yrel turns to look at her ministers, who shrug. She turns back, laughing. “I suppose it makes sense. I had thought your brother some kind of scoundrel, the way he bid farewell to every woman who brought us tea.” She says this without seeming to care that Aldis is within hearing. Arjana giggles, and then stops herself.

“What does it mean in your land, Your Majesty?” she asks. Yrel’s laughter makes her a little more comfortable. The queen cocks her head, as if she senses that, and her stature relaxes a bit more to match as she replies.

“A gesture of courtesy and respect, given oftentimes, but not always, to women. It is how I always greet beautiful princesses.”

The remark startles another little giggle out of Arjana. She squashes down the urge to check the nearest reflective surface; she’s wearing a deep yellow gown that flatters her dark skin, a feathered tiara, and her heavy hair has been plaited into a rainfall of tiny twists that make a dark cloud around her head. She knows that people find her pretty; somehow, it hadn’t occurred to her before this to wonder what would be Queen Yrel’s verdict.

“Have you met many beautiful princesses?” Arjana asks before she can stop herself. Her breath feels light, and it’s only by a miracle that she doesn’t stutter again. She can hardly believe it. She’s being courted. Courted by another woman.

“None as beautiful as you,” Yrel says without a hint of glibness or flattery, and Arjana glows. It’s a silly thing to say, and very young, but it still makes her smile softly, eyes downcast. When she looks up again, it’s to see that Yrel is looking down at her very intently, very seriously. Her eyes are dark brown, Arjana notices, and it fills her with a rush of startled pleasure. Eyes of the same tree bark as her own aren’t what she expected from the queen.

Yrel looks at her with the same intent expression for a few more seconds before looking up.

“The princess and I will take a short walk now.” She directs this in the general vicinity of Arjana’s family, and it is not a question. Papa seems pleased, Mama looks like she wants to insist on a chaperone, Atiba gives her an indiscreet thumbs up, her sisters grin, and Aldis continues to look quietly enraged. Arjana hurries to acquiesce before anyone else can make a comment, and soon enough, Yrel is offering her an arm that she grasps, only slightly giddy, and they walk out into the garden sunshine.

They’re silent for a spell, and Arjana is content to collect her thoughts while they walk. Yrel’s arm is solid beneath her grasp, all sinew and strength. It makes her think of the sword that hangs from her belt; the sword that she uses to great effect, according to all the tales. It is another alien thing about her. There are women warriors in Nyer of course, but they wield spears, one and all; they have since five island nations had escaped the cataclysmic volcanoes in the Middle Seas and come together to form Nyer. The sheathed steel at the queen’s side makes ribbons of a thousand years of tradition.

The same could be said of her. This is a first for a princess of the Towering Town.

Rain droplets still cling to most of the plants in the garden; remnants of this morning’s shower. It’s a personal project of her mother’s, this garden, and every year she delights in seeing the hibiscuses, the poinsettia, the ivoras and any other strains the queen has managed to make take root, blooming up like a scarlet parade. Erendale lies between two mountains, Arjana knows, and wonders what kind of flowers bloom there.

Yrel stops them beside a mango tree. The season is over, but the scent of the sweet fruit lingers.

“Princess Arjana, I hope you will forgive me for being direct, but there is something that I must ask.”

“I… of course, Your Majesty.” Already her mind is whirring, wondering what type of question this could possibly be. Yrel nods absently, then looking away, tucks a lock of hair that has escaped from her braid back behind her ear.

“You know, of course, that I rejected your father’s offer of your cousin’s hand in marriage immediately.” She waits for Arjana to nod. “I could have done nothing less. I have never had any intention of being handfasted to a man. Even if I did not have my little brothers and sisters as my heirs, I could not. It… it would be impossible for me.”

Arjana’s throat feels dry.

“I… I understand,” she says. Oh, how she understands.

Something, perhaps the tremble in her voice, causes Yrel to glance at her again.

“I know of your situation. I know that you’ve declined many proposals since you came of age. I suspect that… I know…” Here, she falters, and Arjana would wager her dowry this is not a common occurrence for her. “I know this is not something that Nyer does often, so I need to be sure. If you answer in the negative, we can call off this engagement, come to some other arrangement that would fulfil the terms of the peace treaty. Perhaps you have a female cousin of marrying age. I just need to know…”

“Yes!” Arjana blurts out, grasping with both hands at her future before it can slip away. “Yes. You need not worry about… that is, I too have always… I couldn’t… It would really never be… I couldn’t…” Her words are spilling forth like tripped feet on a gravel path, and she has to stop herself before it’s beyond her control. She smoothes her free hand down the front of her dress; the other is still attached to the solid strength of Yrel’s arm.

After a few moments of composing herself, she starts again. The queen watches her evenly all the while.

“After all that has happened, I desire nothing more than peace between our kingdoms, and will do what I must to ensure it.” She clears her throat. “But I too could not fathom marriage to a man. I… I am glad that you refused my cousin, Your Majesty.”

She’s had whispered conversations with her little sister about this, about what she wants and cannot see a clear way to having. Secrets confessed in the sleepy stillness of the night, under covers and surrounded by pillows and down. It is almost galling, to admit to such a thing under the sun, in her mother’s well-loved garden.

Galling, but worth it for the way Yrel smiles quietly at her. Arjana notices that when she smiles, the left side of her mouth where her scar mars her lips doesn’t rise fully. It gives her a crooked, mischievous look.

Yrel holds her hand and raises it, but then seems to remember. She lowers it, with just a touch of sheepishness.

“What would have been appropriate?” she asks, nodding back towards the Great Hall where they had met. “Instead of kissing your hand, what should I have done?”

Still feeling a little shy, Arjana slowly unlinks their arms, and grips one of Yrel’s. She chooses the left one, as it is tradition, and realises too late that it is her maimed one. Up close, the missing finger is ghastly; the flesh around the socket had not healed well. A muscle in Yrel’s cheek flexes when Arjana touches it, but otherwise, she gives no indication of pain. Nevertheless, Arjana is as tender as possible when she lifts the hand, palm facing down, and touches it to her forehead for one small, cool moment.

“For a first meeting,” she says, lowering Yrel’s hand and meeting her eyes. They are steady, and still shine with that light of calm consideration, and pleasure.

“And for a second meeting, Princess Arjana?” she asks in her hard, melodic voice.

Arjana smiles.

“Between betrotheds?” Again, she lifts Yrel’s left hand. She uses her fingers to carefully form a loose fist with the lined, calloused flesh, presses the knuckles to Yrel’s mouth, which puckers slightly when she realises Arjana’s intent, and then places the kissed fist on her own sternum. “Like so.”

Even after Arjana has dropped her own hands away, Yrel’s fist remains pressed against her skin. Arjana suspects, by the slant of that crooked smile, that she can feel her wildly beating heart.

“Like so. I see. I will remember, for the second time.”

*

iii.

Arjana knows that she and Yrel are scheduled to leave a day or two after the handfasting, and there are still a few more details of the treaty for Yrel and her father to quibble over. As such, she expects that their second meeting will indeed be the day of the wedding. But instead, the very next day, she finds herself invited to sit in on the morning’s diplomatic talks, after which the queen will take her on an outing to the city.

She thanks the messenger with a quick brush of lips and then hurries back to her rooms with all the dignity she can muster. There, her maids wrangle yesterday’s twists into a style of neat elegance in under ten minutes, and then she spends a minute more kissing their knuckles and wrists in gratitude until they’re red with her lip colour while they giggle and wave her off.

During the meeting, Yrel and her father do most of the talking, settling a few more details of Arjana’s dowry, provisions to be made to ensure no other kingdom will trespass upon the sacred land of Erendale’s gods, the entourage that will travel with them back to Erendale, the grand melee to take place the day after the wedding. Papa is serene, pausing now and again to hear a word of advice from one of his advisors, or one of Yrel’s; readily listening when Yrel interjects.

Afterwards, when they meet outside, in front of the carriage, Yrel kisses her fist and bumps it gently off of Arjana’s chest. Arjana smiles until her cheeks hurt, not stopping even as she’s helped into the carriage.

“Where to, Your Majesty?” she asks when they’re seated across from one another on plush cushions. It’s one of their best coaches, reserved for the most honoured guests. Its little curtains are spread, and she can see a complement of Erendalish and Nyerian guards each, waiting to accompany them. There are about twenty of them, all told, but here in the carriage, it’s just the two of them. The queen is dressed in a white shirt and dark trousers once again, her crown almost hidden in her hair, and perhaps the total lack of pomp is what makes Arjana feel so comfortable to be alone with her.

“I thought I would leave that to you.” Yrel leans back against her seat with her legs sprawled; a picture of indolence, but she still managed to seem alert and every inch prepared. “I haven’t had a chance to see much of the city, and I thought maybe you’d like to show me your favourite parts.”

Arjana taps her chin, then turns to slide open the partition that will allow her to talk to the coachman. It’s Derek; she spares a few moments to ask after his wife and son before giving her instructions and closing the partition.

“I couldn’t hear what you said,” Yrel remarks when she turns back, and the carriage starts to amble along the long drive that leads down to the city proper. Arjana grins.

“Yes, that was very much the idea, Your Majesty.”

Yrel grins back in a slanted slash of white teeth, but then eases into a more contemplative smile.

“Please… you may use honorifics in public or among your family to honour convention or propriety, but I would very much like if you would call me Yrel when we’re alone.”

Arjana says nothing, but apparently her face reacts to the suggestion before she can think of how to respond. The queen cocks her head.

“I have displeased you,” she guesses. Arjana shakes her head slowly.

“No, not at all, Your Majesty.” She winces, then giggles. “I suppose it is not so strange. It’s just… you are a queen. We aren’t even married yet.”

Yrel shrugs. “As I said, it would only be for when we are alone together. But now I am curious: what do you call me in your mind when you think of me?”

Blood fills up Arjana’s cheeks. The ladylike thing, she decides, would be to deny that she ever thinks of her; she doesn’t know why, but those three words, ‘think of me’, seem laced with suggestion and intent, even when said in the queen’s rough, factual voice. She bites her bottom lip, and throws decorum out.

“The queen,” she says, biting her lip again before admitting, “and Yrel.”

Yrel lifts a hand as if to say, ‘there you have it’. Arjana smothers a little laugh with her palm. She feels like she used to when she was a little girl and would steal cassava cake and mango fritters from the kitchen, unsubtle in the extreme, and Cookie would catch her every time but still let her get away with it.

“All right then,” she decides, and says it again. “Yrel.”

The queen’s smile becomes wider and more wolfish. “This was a good idea. I like how you say my name. Especially the first part.”

Oh, four by four; every time Arjana feels she’s on solid ground, the woman says something to make her feel all wobbly again.

“What do you mean? How do I say it?” Yuh-rell. Not so?

Yrel shakes her head. “I like it. That’s all, Arjana. Come, tell me, what is that?”

She points outside the carriage. A little dazed, Arjana has to remember that she’s supposed to be giving a tour on the way to their destination. She shakes her head at the teasing light in those dark brown eyes, and then turns to the massive structure Yrel had pointed out. It’s the old castle; destroyed in a war too old to remember, before her father’s father’s father’s days. Most of the towers have been whittled away by time, but two of them remain, making the skyline distinct from miles away. At the ground level, caved in roofs and crumbled walls mean that the castle is more or less open to the air, and the villagers use it as a huge marketplace.

When she mentions the market, Yrel makes a remark about the harvest, and soon their talk turns to Erendale and Yrel’s family. She rose to rule only three years ago, after her father died at sea on a return journey from up north, and her mother perished a few months later giving birth to her last child. Erendale is a small kingdom; Nyer could fit two of them and have room for more. But the soil is rich and bounteous, and they do good trade with the kingdoms to the north. With the help of her ministers, she has tried to rule in a way that would make her parents proud.

As she speaks in her hard, calm way, Arjana watches her as much as she listens. She recalls the first day that she’d seen her; she’d thought her serious because of the nature of the talks in the Great Hall, but now she sees that Yrel is perpetually caught with that sombre look, no matter the topic. Brows slightly furrowed, mouth a thin line, neck and jaw rigid. When she relaxes, it is natural (other than the fascinating asymmetry of her smile) but she simply doesn’t seem to do it as often or as readily as others.

In fact, her face only regains the softness of their earlier conversation when she begins to talk about her siblings.

“Yraine is my heir,” she says with a slashing grin. “Nothing like me at all. Scared of horses, jumps at shadows, couldn’t swing a sword unless you put it on a string. But she’s smarter than any girl of three and ten has a right to be, and so charming; has a mouth on her that could coax honey from bees. And funny! As I said, nothing like me.”

She winks, and Arjana giggles.

“The twins turned nine a few moons ago. Jace and Joy. They’re inseparable, and usually making a nuisance of themselves somewhere around the castle. I managed to pique their interest in archery; I’m hoping that learning a skill will tame them somewhat.

“Ciaran is two. He’s…” Yrel shrugs. “He’s a baby. Small, fat and easy to love.”

“He sounds like an excellent specimen of a baby,” Arjana says, smiling warmly at the love in the queen’s eyes.

“Do you like children?”

It seems like a searching question, but the queen asks it very casually, so she doesn’t feel self-conscious about answering.

“I do. I didn’t always, and I must admit that I’ve never given much thought to having any, but all of my older siblings have children of their own, and over the years I’ve become well fond of being a doting auntie. Reading them stories, taking them to the Nylon River, going for walks…” She beams; a fleeting thing that leaks warmth from her face as she remembers that she won’t be seeing the little ones anywhere near as often, from now on.

She has little penchant for dissembling, and she’s sure that Yrel sees the dismay creep onto her face. But the queen doesn’t comment. Her hand twitches where it’s slung over the back of the seat, and Arjana wonders for a moment if she’s going to move it, approach her, do… something.

She doesn’t; she simply nods.

“I think you’ll like them, my little brood.”

Arjana smiles hopefully. “I think I will too.”

Their palaver turns to books (Yrel mentions that her father had been a collector, bringing back tomes on every trip, and Arjana inches to the edge of her seat as she talks about the library in her keep) and music (Arjana tries to teach her a ditty that she heard the last time she visited the barracks, but gets the words all muddled up) and flowers (Yraine has something of a green thumb, and Yrel wants to take a few samples of Nyerian blossoms for her). Yrel recites a few lines of poetry in the native Erendalish tongue. The language is not as similar to their own as Arjana had previously heard, or perhaps it is the way Yrel’s accent suddenly becomes thicker and deeper and the way her voice creeps up from her throat that makes her cheeks heat and understanding flee. Arjana drinks up every word anyway.

The carriage rolls through the city as they talk, and Yrel asks questions, points out things that are curious to her, invites Arjana’s opinions. Each time there’s a lull in the conversation, where she might be tempted to wonder what they should be talking about, if this is indeed appropriate, tries to remember whatever in the world she discussed with any of the men her mother had been able to coax her to meet… Yrel is there, filling the silence comfortably and casually, drawing her out, making her forget to be shy and awkward, making her blush instead.

When the carriage stops at the bottom of a small incline, Yrel doesn’t wait for the footman, but opens up the reticule and disembarks with a neat jump. Arjana takes the hand that she offers to help her down, and finds that it’s an easy enough thing, and natural, to tuck her arm into Yrel’s. She motions to their guard to wait, and leads the queen up the grassy path, through the sweet smelling grass, to the stunted ambarella tree that stands watching the city line.

The view from the top is the same as ever. The Towering Town gets its name from its defences; acres of redwoods and ash trees surround the city on all sides. There had been an entire forest here, once; the first islanders that had dragged themselves from the sea had seen it as a blessing, godlike. Now tonnes of that strong wood provide homes for the villagers, the walls of the great temple, parts of the castle. The city is like a jewel amidst all the green, and in daylight they can see the bustle of all its citizens. When she was little Arjana would come here with Papa, cup her hands, squint her eyes just so, and pretend she could hold the Towering Town in the palm of her hand, and clasp it to her heart.

“Your favourite part of the city?” Yrel asks, looking down at her from the corner of her eyes. Arjana nods, and dares to cling a little tighter to her arm.

After a spell, Yrel approaches the tree. It is a little thing, barely taller than the queen herself, who stands about six feet from the ground. She doesn’t seem to need the story; a fruit that Arjana adores, a strain that couldn’t seem to grow. She simply picks a few of the hard, veiny fruits off the tree, and slips them into her pockets before taking Arjana’s arm once again. Arjana’s smile curls to life slowly.

Yrel sees this, and shrugs, also smiling.

“As I said, Erendale is known for its good soil. Perhaps we can encourage it to take root there.”

*

iv.

In the morning, Arjana sits through the last of the fittings for her wedding dress. A flowing thing in traditional greens and yellows, Arjana can hardly bear to look at herself in it, such is the leaping of her heart and the trembling in her limbs. Anticipation is a dance, and it moves across her skin like a colony of ants.

Sunlight cavorts in a rainbow stream through the stained glass of the solar as the seamstress, the maids, and her mother flit around her.

“More ruffles at the bodice, perhaps?” Mama suggests, a dark finger pressing into the dimple of her chin.

“No more ruffles, Mama,” Arjana says patiently. She spins around once so that her mother can get another look at the dress. The silk skirts graze against her skin like a light breeze through the boughs of a tree, and make the hairs on her legs stand up. “Sana has done a wonderful job already, and I have to leave soon anyway. Queen Yrel is taking me out walking again today.”

She battles for an expression of nonchalance, though it’s ruined when Asha giggles and waggles her brows most unhelpfully from her perch on a stool across the room. Mama purses her lips.

“You know, my dear, I’m really not sure it’s appropriate, all these un-chaperoned outings.”

“The guards are always nearby,” Arjana offers pragmatically. “And I think it’s quite nice, that she thinks to spare the time to get to know me, amongst all the other obligations that she has while in Nyer. Besides,” she adds, gathering steam and growing bold, “she’s a woman of four and twenty, Mama. I am almost six years her elder. I don’t really see why we would need a chaperone.”

For a moment she thinks she’s gone too far; Mama’s brow goes thunderous with her frown, and the line of her mouth gets even thinner. But then she shakes her head, as if deciding against this battle.

“Four by four,” she mutters. “But I do suppose you’re right. There could be no harm in it. I am pleased that she wants to know you.”

Asha, gods bless her, at least waits until the fitting is over and they’re walking back to Arjana’s rooms together to say, “I do hope you are doing things that would make Mama wish you had a chaperone, else I’ll be quite cross with you.” Arjana bites down on her bottom lip until it hurts a bit, but still can’t stop smiling even as she pinches her little sister on the waist.

Today, she meets Yrel in the gardens again, where gardeners are trimming the hedges and maids are cutting samples for bouquets. The queen takes in her lavender day dress, silver earrings, and the ribbons that hold back the puff of her dark hair, and solemnly pronounces her lovely.

She hopes it always feels this way; that frisson of pleasure that bubbles up in her chest. She hopes she never gets used to it.

After giving her thanks, she says, for the first time, “And you look very lovely as well, my queen.”

Yrel’s expression doesn’t change from one of polite gravity. She tilts her head, looking down at her with brown eyes that don’t waver. Instinct had made Arjana put her arm through Yrel’s, and now she pulls back so as to look up at her earnestly.

“I’m serious! You look so pretty. You always do.” Her snowy shirt clings to her shoulders and arms, her hair pulled back into its customary braid, a little less messy than is its wont, her twisted mouth inviting. It twitches now, into the thing that almost resembles a smile.

“Too kind, Princess Arjana,” she murmurs, and links their arms together again.

Yrel’s morning, she tells her, was spent with her ministers and one of the priests, going over the details of the wedding ceremony tomorrow, and everything she’ll have to know and say and do. It will be a typical Nyerian handfasting, a ceremony that goes from sunrise to sunset. It will begin with the binding of their hands at dawn, and end when they pull free from the ropes in the crepuscule hours. The day in between will be spent feasting and dancing, watching the games and plays held in their honour, with a long break at midday for a vigil in the temple. Arjana has been to several weddings in her life, and loves the activity and excitement of it all, but has to admit that the second ceremony, to be performed in Erendale when they arrive, sounds heavenly for its simplicity.

“So, we are led in prayer by one of the acolytes, and then say our vows in the… the Hall of the Ancestors, was it? Do I have the right of it?”

Yrel nods confirmation. “Erendalish weddings take place at night, and seldom last longer than a few hours.”

She leads them to a tiny iron wrought bench, out of the way of a small army of servants arranging decorations around the topiaries. Arjana arranges her skirts to sit neatly, and cups her chin in her hands.

“I think I will enjoy it. Sweet forest, but you must find our own ceremonial proceedings so long and tedious.”

“Not in the least. Only different.” There is just enough space for Yrel to sit next to her on the bench, but instead, she perches on the back of it. “And not so long by half. Did you know that in some of the northern realms, they perform handfastings where the married couple must remain tethered for an entire day and an entire night? The priest only removes the bindings the next day.”

Arjana feels her mouth drop into an ‘o’ as she thinks of it.

“An entire… goodness, that does seem strange. The handfasting is supposed to symbolise the beginning of a life to be lived side by side, of course, but wouldn’t that make, well…” She blushes. “Wouldn’t it make the, ah, night’s proceedings a bit more difficult?”

Yrel shrugs. “Or a bit more interesting, depending on your viewpoint.”

She says it with a straight face, and Arjana has to think for a few moments to divine what she could possibly mean, and then she does, or she thinks she does, and her imagination rears its unhelpful head, and her face feels hot enough to fuel a forge.

“I… oh.”

Not daring to look at the queen, she instead stares resolutely at her hands. Every unladylike thought might even now be reflected in her eyes, despite her determination to clear them away.

Yet when Yrel rests a hand on her shoulder, she can’t help but tilt her chin up.

“I’m sorry, Arjana.” There is a small smile on her twisted lips, but it is not an unkind one, and she really does look apologetic. “I didn’t mean to embarrass you.”

“You didn’t!” Arjana blurts immediately; as bold a lie as any she’s ever told. Being aware of this only makes her blush more. “I am older than you are, you know,” she adds unnecessarily, for the second time that day.

“Indeed.” Now Yrel isn’t smiling any more, but Arjana suspects that she very much wants to.

Thankfully, the queen takes pity on her, and their talk turns to mundane things. Arjana is still excited at the prospect of the vast library that had belonged to Yrel’s father, and Yrel has already promised to teach her as much Erendalish as she can, or recruit Yraine for the job. Yesterday evening, Asha had presented her with a book of translated poetry from Erendale, and Yrel lets her pour her heart out about it, seems genuinely interested when Arjana slips the little tome out of her skirt pockets, bends closer when Arjana points out a particular line or phrase.

There’s a guarded feeling in her heart; she doesn’t recognise it as a sensation of secretive joy, of wanting to keep Yrel all to herself; not until they’re interrupted.

Her eldest brother Atiba strolls through the garden with a complement of his friends, and they pause briefly near Yrel and Arjana to greet them. Arjana recognises the cultured tones and deep blue eyes and white blond hair of at least three of her previous suitors, and feels her stomach roil unpleasantly as the crown prince tugs playfully on a tuft of her hair and the other men make obeisance.

“My heartfelt congratulations on your upcoming handfasting, Your Highness,” says Lord Roland, youngest son of one of the oldest families of Nyer. Twice he had tried his suit with her, and twice had been rebuffed. Does she imagine a snide underbelly to his words, wrapping around her snakelike and sly? A note of accusation? The barest whiff of disgust? Arjana tries to sink further into the bench.

Yrel shares a few words with the men, and when they move on, she moves from the back of the bench to sit on the arm instead. She only uses one finger to lift Arjana’s chin to her, but Arjana feels like she could sag and have her entire body held up by the strength.

“Tell me,” Yrel says.

“Oh, it’s… nothing, I suppose.” Arjana smiles weakly. “If the course of my life had run differently, any one of at least three of those men might have been in your place right now. I… I don’t like to think of it.”

Yrel’s eyes search hers.

“It must have been difficult, having to refuse so many of them, over and over.”

“It was, though not in the way I suspect you’re thinking. I wasn’t made to feel guilty; not by my family at least. Oh, my mother wanted to see me married and settled, as much as she wants it for all of her children, but she took my every no as the last word. She would never see me married to someone I did not like.” For the same reason, it had not been so very hard in the end to convince her that marriage to a woman was not the childless, legacy-ending insult she’d always thought it to be.

“Is it the men, then?”

Arjana nods. Her face feels flushed; this is another conversation that she wouldn’t expect to have in full daylight, against a backdrop of flaming immortelles and weeping poui.

“They are all well-known and influential, and I just… gods, this sounds so silly, but I hate the thought of them thinking of me, speculating about me, knowing things about me, why I didn’t want to marry them.” She lifts her shoulders ruefully. “It really didn’t occur to me until I saw them just then. It’s like I’ve been entered into a secret contest, and I don’t know that I’m being judged. Oh, I don’t know why I’m bothered, it’s not as if it matters…”

Yrel’s finger is still under her chin; so still and comfortable that Arjana had forgotten it was there. She remembers now, when it gives a little twitch and forces her to look up into the queen’s eyes.

“It does matter,” Yrel says, her tone flinty in a way that is not unkind, but does not brook argument. “It matters because you care. And if you care, then so do I.”

They aren’t empty words. Somehow, Arjana feels their import, the meaning they carry. Holding her chin and looking at her with quiet earnestness, Yrel looks ready to battle every intangible fear and insecurity that could bubble up from Arjana’s brain. Here stood a queen, mere seconds ago; now, there is a warrior. It makes Arjana feel transformative, like the lightning bolt that freed the first fistful of sand to become precious glass. Her words made swell this wave of protectiveness.

Her mouth droops open the tiniest bit, and Yrel strokes the underside of her jaw.

“Listen, Arjana. I cannot tell you not to feel guilty, or instantly make you more comfortable with the idea of being known. Some things come with time. But I must beg of you to grant me one boon.”

“What would you have?” Arjana asks, breathless and transparent.

“Please, never feel like you have to apologise for yourself. I have met too many men like the ones you have rebuffed; they are too common, and you are too unique to feel any lower than them. Above all, know no shame.”

There is something about the quality of her words that tells Arjana that Yrel is speaking to herself as well, in a past that might be distant or near, down the line of a sword. In sunlight, she realises, is the perfect place to speak these words.

“That might be easier said than done,” she ventures, with just the littlest hint of a tease. Yrel inclines her head slightly in agreement, her twisted mouth going even more lopsided.

“Perhaps, but I think I can help.” She grins. “For starts, I am going to marry you, tomorrow.”

*

v.

By happy coincidence, Arjana’s dominant hand is her left, and Yrel’s is her right. Early next morning, standing before Over-Priest Chet, they lace their weaker hands together and look into each other’s eyes as the rope of black, green and yellow threads binds them together for life and strength.

Someone has been at Yrel’s hair. At first, Arjana is struck by petty jealousy that she hadn’t been the one to do it. It’s been woven around her head in a secondary sort of crown, the lighter, sun-bleached strands from her ends twisting with the dark blonde of the roots. But then, she simply marvels at the magnificent picture the queen makes. Having her hair up only makes the scar seem more ghastly; there are no tendrils of hair now to hang forward and soften her face. Instead of her customary white, she wears a silk green shirt that harmonises with Arjana’s dress, decorated at the shoulders and breast and cuffs with tiny jewels. Her trousers are neat and stiff, disappearing into the tall arches of her boots, and her sword hangs from her waist at an angle, the silver pommel glinting with the candlelight of early morning.

Arjana has never seen a woman cut a finer figure.

Now that the moment has come, she is surprisingly calm. Oh, her heart pounds terribly, of course, and it’s a wonder that she doesn’t float clear away. But she doesn’t see the high ceilings of the great temple, the intricate wood carvings on the pillars, the faces of her family behind them on the dais, or the faces of the crowd below. She only sees Yrel, with her solemn, scarred, handsome face, and in the brown eyes that look so much like her own, she sees the future.

When all four knots have been tied, one for each of the gods, the Over-Priest invites them to kiss. Arjana doesn’t have time to be nervous about it; Yrel sweeps her forward with an arm around her waist, their joined hands pressed between them, and slants the ruin of her mouth over Arjana’s. It’s a slow feeling, a bit like sunrise, taking a while for the reality of her first kiss to creep over the horizon. Arjana stands on her tiptoes so that they don’t lose contact, hand braced on Yrel’s waist, bubbles forming in her chest as they give, and take, and give themselves away.

Arjana hears the rhythmic thumping of applause behind them, feet stomping on the wooden floors, but that all fades away too until they finally pull away, beaming.

The second part of the ceremony is the breakfast feast, back at the castle’s Great Hall. Papa leads them to the places of honour, after kissing the top of her head, and touching the back of Yrel’s hand to his brow. The rest of the family and the nobles file in to take their places after them. The dishes are all typical handfasting fare; foods that can be eaten easily with one hand, require only one or no utensils, and as usual, a few that the married pair have to work on together to eat. Yrel’s been an official guest of the realm for about five days, and has a basic grasp on the cuisine; Arjana delights in filling in the gaps for her. There’s tea steeped from the skin of dark onions, served in round bowls, fried bread stuffed with salted fish and tomatoes, sweet fruit tarts and cassava cakes, meat pies cooked in banana leaves. This last, they have to unwrap together, pulling apart the strings and pushing aside the dark green leaves to get at the savoury pie.

While they eat, performers come and go, entertaining the guests from an easily visible podium at the centre of the Hall. There’s an old and well-known play that allegorises the formation of Nyer; five men to represent each of the islands, ranging from lithe, dark and coily-haired, to stocky, pale, with platinum curls. There are sword dancers and fire-breathers, jugglers and jesters, a complement of spear women from the border cities. Yrel watches with interest in between eating and Arjana mostly watches Yrel. The bubbles in her chest have yet to disappear.

An hour before midday, they’re taken back to the Great Temple, this time with only a few priests for company. After washing their hands, they’re shown into the wedding chamber. There are two soft mats, carafes of water, and four small shrines to the gods. Speaking in this room is frowned upon, but not expressly forbidden, and when they’re alone once more, seated upon the mats, Yrel turns to her.

“Are you all right? You look tired.” She touches Arjana’s cheek in a gesture of casual tenderness that she hopes will become a consistent in her life.

“I am. Tired, I mean. We were up late last night finishing my hair.”

Yrel’s hand moves further back long her cheek until it grazes her neck, and skirts along the tight coils at her nape. The front is done up in tiny, elaborate canerows, and the back is a waterfall of small plaits. Yrel traces the contours of her hairline, while Arjana tries not to lean too obviously into the touch. When she comes back round to Arjana’s jawline, Yrel touches the curling end of one plait, and waits for Arjana’s nod before twirling it around her finger.

“It looks lovely. You are lovely. You’re the most breath-taking woman I’ve ever seen.”

“Oh…” Arjana blushes happily, when she remembers how to breathe again. “Well.”

Yrel smiles lopsidedly before releasing the plait. “About two hours until they’re back for us, then?”

“Yes, about. The vigil is meant to bring us closer to the gods and each other, but they aren’t your gods, so it’s all right with me if you’d just prefer to wait.” Her elder sister had told her that she and her new husband had simply kissed the entire time in the wedding chamber, but that isn’t something that she feels bold enough to suggest right now.

Yrel glances around at the shrines; one for the river god, the cloud god, the forest god and the hearth god.

“I suppose I could talk to the ancestors,” she muses.

The ancestor worship of the Erendalish had been one of the few things she’d known about them prior to her betrothal. It’s a country without graveyards; all of their dead burn, and the ashes are deposited into underground streams that eventually find their way to the beach where the Erendalish had first made landfall on the continent, and out to sea.

“Are you very devout?”

“No, not very,” Yrel says absently, and then smiles wryly at the surprise that Arjana is sure she has written all over her face. “But yes, it is as you’re thinking. Not very, but enough to go to war over it.”

They’ve never spoken about this; the further they had strained towards everything they might have in common during their talks, the less they’d seemed inclined to talk about the war that had served to bring them together in the first place. Cowardice plays a part in that; Arjana is willing to admit that to herself now. She’s afraid that too harsh a light on the bond they’ve forged could cause it to burst into flames.

Arjana rubs a thumb across Yrel’s knuckles where they are joined, and waits for her to continue.

“My mother’s ashes were there, in the stream that Aldis’ mining despoiled. And my grandparents, and uncles; the ashes of every Erendalish who has passed on since we came to the continent. The beach is a long way away from Erendale, as you know, but when we received the news…” Her face is grim, recalling the moment. “It was a call I had to answer.”

Arjana nods. It’s all she can think to do.

“But that call,” Yrel adds, slowly and deliberately, “also led me to you.”

They do end up kissing in the wedding chamber; just once, hands gripping tight as if they don’t need the ropes, as if their joined hands are the only things that will stop them from propelling upwards and outwards, away from each other.

The rest of the day passes in a happy blur. Luncheon consists of soups, juicy meat and vegetables on skewers, and lots of imported wines from the borders. Arjana becomes pleasantly tipsy, so much so that she doesn’t even get embarrassed when she has to use the privy with her new wife in the room, back turned and their joined hands bridging the gap as Arjana pees. They share their first dance in the garden amidst Mama’s flowers, Arjana’s skirts catching on the brush. Sometimes Yrel’s advisors will pull them in one direction, sometimes Arjana’s sisters will engage them in another, but wherever they go, they go together.

At the end of the evening, they head back to the temple for the last time. Over-Priest Chet looks on as they wrest their hands free of the bindings. When their hands are their own once again, the rope remains, still tied together perfectly, a knot for every god.

*

vi.

Years ago, Mama had taken all her daughters aside and prepared them for their wedding night. There had been kind words about what to expect, how to treat your new husband, children, and the creation of lasting love. A lot of it Arjana feels safe in discarding, but last night, Mama kissed her goodnight and repeated some of that same counsel.

“Talk to each other. About most, if not everything. Don’t ever let there be a moment where you think, ‘ah, if only I had said something.’”

Admirable advice, but as soon as Yrel walks into Arjana’s bedroom from the adjoining suite she’s been assigned for their first night as a wedded couple, Arjana’s throat goes as dry as an old fishbone. The queen is wearing a linen shirt, linen drawers, and nothing else, save the cascade of her hair across her shoulders like a veil. Her long fingers massage her scalp.

“Feels good to take it down. My compliments to your maids; that was neater than anything I could have managed on my own.”

Arjana, sitting at the window in her nightgown, fists her hands in her lap and says nothing. She wishes her mother had had more practical advice to give her, of the sort she’d given to Ayanna. It may go easier for you if you have him lie on his back or, Brew him a sea-moss tea to drink before bed. She’d had nothing like that to say to Arjana, who feels like all her defences are in shambles, especially when there are enough lit torches in the room to make Yrel’s white shirt translucent.

Yrel, who steps up close to her, palms Arjana’s chin in her maimed hand, strokes back her hair with the other. She’s wearing that kind, patient look that makes Arjana both want to hide her face and lift it higher and closer, to be seen.

“Oh, Arjana. You are nervous.”

Nervous is the trembling, bed-ridden cousin to what she currently feels.

“I certainly am not. Whatever gave you that idea?” she quips fretfully. It’s difficult to believe that just a few hours ago she was flushed warm with confidence and security as she stood before the gods and men to make this woman her wife.

Yrel keeps stroking her chin.

“I can’t tell you not to be nervous, but I can assure you that there’s no reason to be. We don’t have to do anything that you don’t want to.” She tucks Arjana’s hair behind her ear. “We don’t have to do anything at all.”

Now things are going in a direction that she isn’t sure she likes, because she certainly wants to do things; wants to very badly. Her entire body is a fluttering pulse of desire.

“It’s not that,” she mumbles, lids lowered. She’s very sure she already knows the answer to the question that she’s about to ask, but she asks it anyway. Or tries to. “Have you… Is this… I mean to say, am I…?”

Yrel makes it easy on her.

“No, Arjana. You are not the first woman I will lie with.”

“Ah.”

Gods above, but it sounds like a wheeze. She tries not to notice the way Yrel tilts her head at her.

“I have displeased you,” Yrel guesses.

“No… not exactly.” Not at all. Perhaps it would be comforting in a way, for them to be equally matched in their inexperience, and learn the steps of this dance together. But the thought of Yrel with other women doesn’t spark a hint of jealousy; only thoughts of what they might have done, how they would have enjoyed themselves, given each other pleasure. There are women who know what it’s like to be held in Queen Yrel’s arms; she wants that knowledge too.

Yrel doesn’t speak, apparently giving her time to think it all out. But she doesn’t need time.

“I just… don’t know what to do or where to start.”

Yrel draws her to her feet, holding her hands. The way she looks at her is quietly overwhelming, still and serious and caring, an excavation of the soul.

“Here’s what we can do. I’m going to take off your clothes. I’m going to kiss you, and touch you. You can tell me what you like, and what you don’t care for. Whether you want me to stop, or just pause, or continue. How does that sound?”

It sounds agonising. Arjana’s heartbeat is in the clouds. Yrel is so sure of herself, so in control. This is that voice that doesn’t ask questions, but makes demands; a woman sure of her control and commands. But yet she does it with the same tender genteel of the first day, when she had greeted Arjana with a servant’s gesture and a crooked smile.

“That sounds as though it will serve,” she whispers. Yrel kisses her cheek.

She moves as if she has all the time in the world. Slowly, Yrel strips her out of the nightgown, while Arjana tries not to go soft at the knees. Her nipples are aching like they never have before, and she wants to cup her breasts and pinch them, except to do so while Yrel’s dark observant eyes are on her would be agony itself. When Arjana is finally naked and fairly trembling with longing, Yrel touches them for her, with a warm hand on each breast and a thumb grazing the jewel-hard peak of each nipple.

“Do you like that?” Yrel murmurs, and Arjana chokes out her affirmative. She feels like she needs to sit. She feels like she needs to cross her legs. She feels so much.

Yrel pulls her to her body, crushing her breasts against the stiff linen of her shirt and teasing her nipples even more, before giving her the first kiss of the night. It’s warm and slow and dizzying, so much so that Arjana only vaguely registers them moving to the bed. Yrel coaxes her to open her mouth while they kiss, and the sensation is a truly delicious one. Arjana finds herself on her back, being pressed into the pillows, while Yrel’s mouth moves from her mouth to her jaw to her neck. The sensation is strange but good; Arjana can feel the edge of her scar on her skin, the jaggedness an echo of the violence that had made it. At the place on her neck where her pulse beats strong, Yrel kisses her with extreme lightness and delicacy. Surely not enough to make her cry out, and make her hips arch, but that is indeed what happens.

“Do you like that?” she asks.

“Y-yes,” Arjana breathes.

Kissing takes on another meaning for Arjana. Every spot on her body where Yrel places her lips becomes sacred to her, until the upper part of her body is holy ground, sanctified with the brush of lips and the scrape of teeth. Yrel sucks on her nipple and kneads her breasts until Arjana is writhing and begging for she knows not what. At first she looks at the frescoed ceiling, gasping heavily, but then she has to look. And oh, heavenly hearth, but sight was made for this; for Yrel’s pink mouth closing over her nipple, her pink tongue flicking out to taste it. When she thinks she might be done, that the sweet torture is going to abate, Yrel simply switches breasts and begins all over again.

Finally, Yrel breaks away, makes a hot trek around Arjana’s stomach and back up to her mouth. Her strong right hand rests on Arjana’s stomach while they kiss and kiss and kiss. Higher and lower; it doesn’t matter where the hand moves, because she feels ready to shatter.

That’s what she thinks, until Yrel taps her on the stomach and says, “Bend your left knee, my sweet.”

Arjana blinks. “I…”

“Go on, lift it.” She taps the limb in question. “Foot flat on the bed, there you are. Spread a bit.”

Good gods. The chamber is warm, but she shivers anyway. The position makes her feel… good is such a trivial word, and she doesn’t know if it encompasses the heat in her face, the rush of blood throughout her body, but good it is, nonetheless. Yrel grabs her right hand, and guides it down between her legs.

“I want you to touch yourself for me, like you do when you’re alone.”

Good gods. Arjana is gasping just from the words alone. She squeezes her eyes shut, prizes them open to find her wife staring at her intently. She moans again. At the back of her mind, some kind of protest is forming, to lie and say she has never done such a thing. But she doesn’t have a head for dishonesty now, not when every nerve ending in her body seems electric. Guided by Yrel’s hand, she brings her fingers between her legs, between her lips, to the spot that makes her see stars. She rubs against it with two fingers, and feels herself sinking further into the bed, moaning louder than ever.

“Do you like that?” Yrel asks, desire making her voice even rougher.

“Yes, yes, yes,” Arjana chants, fingers moving in a jerky circle. “I like it, I do, please…”

“Show me.”

“Oh… Yrel!”

She feels utterly wanton, and can’t bring herself to care, not when Yrel’s eyes and lips and movements are saying she’s the most beautiful woman on earth. Her palm rubs against her wiry curls as she moves, fingers already slippery. There’s a mouth at her ear.

“Do you ever put fingers inside yourself?”

Her excitement triples. The fact that Yrel says things like this… “Ah… oh gods, y-yes.”

“How many?”

“Just one. Oh Yrel, please.”

That earns her a quick kiss. Yrel shifts to get a better position, hand moving past Arjana’s. The finger that very slowly breaches and seats itself inside her feels nothing like her own. It’s longer, and thicker, and isn’t content to stay still, or give the occasional clumsy push. Looking deep into her eyes, Yrel slides in and out, in and out, making love to her with her eyes and words and that one finger, while Arjana rubs herself earnestly, feeling like she’s never done this before.

“Oh, oh, oh,” she cries, and can’t help the needy motion of her hips, thrusting to meet Yrel’s finger with voluptuous eagerness. She purses her lips together, and every instinct tells her to close her eyes, but she doesn’t think she could bear it if her climax comes upon her while she’s not looking at this stunning, strong woman whom fate decreed that she could have all to her own.

“Arjana,” Yrel whispers hoarsely, and even though she’s still clothed she sounds inches away from coming herself. She thrusts into her faster, and bends to take a nipple into her mouth, and doesn’t break eye contact as she sucks hard. Arjana cries out, reaching her peak, her whole body arching, and at the last moment she has to close her eyes, it’s so much. Shivers race all over her body, and it’s like nothing she’s ever experienced before: the ache of it, the long slow pulses of pleasure, the heart-wracking tenderness of it. Yrel whispers nonsense words to her, easing her finger out and moving down her body to kiss her, good gods, right between her legs where she’s so wet and sensitive, licking that little bud, and she feels like she’ll never stop coming.

She does, eventually; the earthquake in her body settling into aftershocks. There are still tears on her cheeks as she helps Yrel out of her clothes, allowing herself the luxury of touching every single scar and imperfection on the long, wiry body. There are many, received under sword slash and spear point and boot heel. She kisses them all with equal wonder and fervour, delighting in making this big strong woman melt and sigh.

Always, she returns to the scar she saw at first, the one that made a ruin of whatever classic good looks Yrel once had and replaced it with a dignity and handsome fierceness that Arjana would not trade for all heaven and earth. The scar that makes her scowl, and makes her smile uniquely devastating.

Arjana traces it with a finger, like she might a road on a map. She wants to learn this face by heart; there could never be a more dear geography.

*

vii.

Today, there will be a grand melee held in their honour, and Yrel intends to participate. Arjana wakes to see her making preparations; through half-opened eyes she spies a small army of maids marching into the adjoining bath house with buckets of hot water. Yrel stops most of them at the door to carefully let the buckets change hands and carry the weight herself. Each maid is dismissed with a quick kiss and a kind word.

When she feels awake enough, Arjana slips into a robe and joins her in the next room. The queen is already soaking in the carved, stone tub, and smiles immediately upon seeing Arjana.

“Good morning, My Queen,” says Arjana.

“Good morning, Queen Consort,” says Yrel. “Would you like to join me?”

“I would, but you have to leave much in advance of me. I can help you.”

And so she does. She gathers soap and a washcloth, and lathers Yrel’s shoulders and back and chest. She washes her hair, and combs out any knots that might not have been detected yesterday. They talk of nothing in particular: their departure tomorrow, what they’ll have for breakfast, what token Arjana should bestow on Yrel for the melee. (After Yrel explains what a token is, Arjana decides on one of the feathers from her handfasting tiara.) When they talk, it’s sweet; when there’s silence, it’s comfortable.

Arjana is on her way back from putting away the soaps, when Yrel’s hand reaches out and snags her by the wrist, tugging her down. Arjana gets a good look at her face while she tumbles, and it’s as cool as ever, with that sabre’s edge of amusement. She lands in the bath with a huge splash, tossing water everywhere, and finds herself seated directly on Yrel’s lap, her chest, bottom, and thighs soaked, looking into Yrel’s grinning face.

“Yrel!” she scolds, smacking her wife’s arm, desperately trying not to give away a smile in return.

Yrel chuckles, shaking wet hair out of her eyes.

“Have I…”

“No, no, you have not displeased me,” Arjana interrupts, chuckling, before she can ask. She nuzzles her face into the warmth of Yrel’s neck, where her words are muffled, but still heard. “You please me very much.”

She lifts her head and kisses her; just for the miracle of being here, being hers, and making her smile. A little kiss turns into a longer one, and longer, and longer, until her arms are wound around Yrel’s neck, clinging as they kiss. As they do, and when they break apart, Arjana traces her scar, just as she’d done last night before discovering all the ways to make her come. Yrel’s face is slack and carefree and young in a way she can’t quite remember from the past few days, and she wants nothing more than for that expression to stay forever.

Arjana tilts her head.

“I am going to love you," she realises with some wonder. She doesn’t right now, it’s true, but she can feel it coming, like thunder, or spring, and the knowledge of it claws at her like a rare flower, bursting with the urge to call out her name. She really is going to love this woman.

Yrel brings up one big hand to cup her cheek tenderly.

“Is that so?” she asks seriously. “Well, then. I can only endeavour to be worthy of your affection.”

I will love you also, Arjana hears, and wraps her arms tighter around the beloved neck, slipping further into the bathwater with her wife, the queen.