Samantha and Julie said nothing; there was simply nothing that needed to be said that hadn’t already. So they rode along the paved road that led from the palace to the nearest town. Once there, they found a place to tie up their horses for a rest and then wandered around on foot.
Far south as they were, the climate changed little over the months, but the summer heat still clung tight in the humid air. The town itself along the trunk road between the Royal Palace and the capital, many stalls sold such things as parasols and fans, and there were tea rooms for ladies, and fresh fruit floating in cool water. Many of the other shops similarly appealed to travellers with spending money.
Fascinated by the trinkets on sale, Samantha constantly pestered Julie for money to buy things. After growing tired of trying to deflect and her refusals being met with yet more requests, Julie said, “Ma’am, we have to ration our money carefully to last us the journey.”
To which Samantha said, “Oh I wouldn’t worry. With so much money, we are bound to lose it at some point, so we might as well spend it while we can.”
Julie had never heard someone say something so ridiculous and wrong with such conviction before in her life. Considering she’d lived alongside the boys and men of the garrison, that was an impressive achievement. “Ma’am, we’re not in a book where every turn of good fortune has to lead to danger or ruin,” she said dryly.
“Fine, but at least stop addressing me like that—it’s rather conspicuous. Use my name,” she said.
“Yes… Samantha,” Julie said.
They soon after had a small and affordable lunch and then, once the worst of the midday sun had passed, they continued on, heading north to the next village along the trunk road at a slower, more comfortable pace.
It still felt so surreal to Julie. Her intention at the time had simply been to wait behind at the palace for the Princess to return, knowing full well she had not yet completed her training, unworthy of being in the Princess’s entourage. Now she was the Princess’s only guard. Only, from what she knew of the Princess’s natural ability, she herself was surely the one being guarded.
Those feelings were difficult. She had long held a deep admiration for the Princess, had worked so hard towards her dream of becoming a member of the Royal Guard because of that admiration, so it was mildly frustrating and even a little humiliating to now be in the Princess’s care.
However, she recognised how little sense it made to resent the Princess for being admirable. More rationally, she knew that the Princess’s abilities weren’t perfect, that there would be times when she could help. If not with her body, her mind had knowledge of things a princess wouldn’t know.
Although lost in those kinds of thoughts, she immediately noticed when the Princess slowed her horse and came to a stop beside her. “Is something wrong, Ma’am?” Julie asked.
“I said to call me Samantha, didn’t I?” she replied, sounding impatient.
Julie swallowed her concern, knowing it couldn’t be anything too serious if the Princess could quibble over that. “There’s no one else around.”
“What if a gang of robbers was hiding in the bushes?” Samantha asked.
“Fine, I understand. Is something wrong, Samantha?” she asked.
Samantha raised her chin, fairly pleased with herself. Then she remembered why she’d come to a stop and squeezed her thighs against saddle. “I need to pee,” she said.
Julie blanked for a moment, and then doubted her ears, saying, “Pardon?”
“I. Need. To. Pee,” Samantha said.
Unable to think just yet, Julie looked ahead, but there was no village in sight. After a moment, she tried asking, “Can’t you hold it?” in case that worked.
“I could if I wasn’t riding a horse,” Samantha said.
Julie knew what to do. At least, she knew what to do if it was her in that situation. It was simple: pee behind a bush. It was just that she wasn’t sure if a princess could do that. She didn’t know what undergarments a princess wore, if her skirt could be hiked up and, lost in that sense of knowing nothing, she didn’t know if a princess was even allowed to squat.
“In your training, didn’t you have to pee outside?” Samantha asked.
That snapped Julie out of her nonsensical thoughts. “Let’s, um, find somewhere private,” she said, dismounting her horse. She went over to help the Princess down as well, and then led the horses to the side of the road. The road itself was fortunately quiet at this time of year and she couldn’t see anyone coming their way.
There were bushes a few paces away, and she selected one that was particularly bushy. Yet every step took her longer, desperate to avoid the words she had to say, but it was inevitable. She gestured for the Princess to go around to the other side and she said, “You, um, squat down and… clear the way. And mind your balance.”
“Will you stay and keep watch?” Samantha quietly asked.
Julie had hoped to flee and avoid some of the awkwardness, but that timid voice nailed her to the ground. “Of course.”
A moment passed, and then Samantha said, “Thank you.”
Julie said nothing else. However, there wasn’t silence, her trained ears unable to not hear every rustle of clothing, every shuffle of a foot, nor could she ignore the drawn-out sound of mildly pressured water hitting the grassy ground.
Most of the garrison had been male and, even when she’d been out with other girls also aspiring to join the Royal Guard, she hadn’t stood so close. Those rare times had been uncomfortable without hearing what was happening, yet now she felt ready to die.
She had already learned over the years that her princess was unlike those from fairy tales. However, her princess was still firmly a princess in Julie’s mind. The only two bodily functions Julie thought princesses capable of were eating and giving birth. She had distantly seen the Princess at feasts, and she had heard and read of other princesses having children, and that was it. Princesses in fairy tales were locked up in towers for years and there was never a mention of a chamber pot.
While her thoughts kept her from focusing on the noise as much, she soon found out that the ordeal hadn’t finished.
“Do you have a cloth?” Samantha asked.
Julie took a moment to process the question and work out why the Princess needed a cloth. Of course, when it had been her, she had just used a leaf and, in the present, she had subconsciously chosen a bush that had leaves that could be used.
However, she had to stop herself from saying that. There was something incredibly offensive to her sensibilities to tell a Princess—a Princess—to wipe herself with a leaf. So her mind worked through what they had brought with them and she thought of the sanitary cloths. For a moment, she mentally stumbled through the realisation that the Princess would one day soon be using those. Once over that, she couldn’t bring herself to make the suggestion, her practicality pointing out that it would be a waste of cloth and money—they could hardly bring along the soiled pieces to clean later.
Gathering her will, Julie took a final breath. “You can… use a leaf,” she said, little more than a whisper. Thankfully, the Princess heard her, a moment later the sound of a leaf being plucked piercing the silence. And then another one.
The rustle of clothing was like rain after a long drought to Julie, only the metaphor was somewhat backwards. Regardless, she was possibly more relieved than the Princess was when all was said and done, letting out a long sigh.
Once again, Julie was caught thinking the worst was over too soon.
“If I need to do the other one, how does that work?” Samantha asked.
Julie stumbled, her mind coming to a complete stop. Although there was a temptation to try and ignore the question, she knew that was useless, knew her only choice was to answer quickly and put it behind her. “We have hand shovels with us, so you… dig a small hole, then fill it in afterwards.”
“Ah, I see,” Samantha said, nodding.
Julie hoped with all her heart to be spared from that ordeal, at least for the rest of the day.
After helping the Princess onto her horse, not that the Princess needed the help, she mounted her horse and the two of them carried on. Slowly, her feelings of embarrassment faded and she returned to a state of calm.
Some while later, Samantha softly said, “Julianne.”
Julie was surprised to hear that name, few having called her by it in the last year. “Yes, Ma—Samantha?” she asked, catching herself in time.
Samantha shook her head, though. “My apologies. I am thinking of another nickname for you,” she said.
“What’s wrong with Julie?” she asked.
Samantha made a noise that spoke of her complicated opinion on the matter. “Well, it is just that everyone calls you by that these days, so I want something special that only I call you. We are lovers now, after all.”
Julie winced at those words; feeling somewhat guilty, she moved her gaze away from the Princess. “I… didn’t expect to be coming with you. When I said that, I was thinking of when you come back,” she said honestly.
Samantha had already expected as much, and that was why she had been so insistent on Julie being her only companion. While she didn’t know how the journey would end, she wanted to use the journey itself to grow closer to Julie. She hoped, through sharing countless small moments, perhaps an ember of affection—romantic affection—could be lit and nurtured and brought to a passionate blaze. If not, then she would release Julie of that offer.
From her experience, she felt that there was a spark between herself and Julie, but a spark by itself was no fire, first needing hay to catch light.
So she put some hay between them. “If you say it like that, then I suppose I shall chase other women as we come across them. Who knows, perhaps one of them will become my lover in your stead,” Samantha said, her tone a touch aloof.
Although she didn’t look back, she thought the lack of a reply from Julie was a good sign—it suggested Julie may well have a hint of possessiveness, otherwise she surely would have made some comment of relief or encouragement.
Carrying on, Samantha struck the flint and steel over the hay. “However, once we have our first kiss, I suppose I will consider you my lover and be loyal and affectionate to only you.” Of course, she didn’t say that they had in fact already had that kiss, and it went without saying that teasing was her highest form of (non-physical) affection.
Behind her, Julie simply blushed in silence as even she had no idea how exactly she felt on the matter.
With that addressed, Samantha returned to her earlier exercise, talking to herself. “Julianne, Julianne…. Julian? Lianne? Julia, Julie, Julie, Julie…. Jules, Jule. Ju-ju, Li-li—no. Anne, Annie….”
Hearing her name said so many times and in so many ways, Julie was starting to forget what her name actually was. Yet she found herself feeling strangely content listening to the Princess say her name over and over; she would have been happy with nearly any of those nicknames.
In that light, she could understand the Princess’s insistence on being called Samantha.
A few times, they stopped to give the horses a break, taking the chance to stretch their legs and Julie checked the conditions of the horses. Knowing just how good the horses were, Julie wanted to travel as far as possible without replacing them. Their journey was better measured in months than days, so it wasn’t realistic to go at a gallop and swap horses at every town—never mind the Princess, Julie doubted she could have managed such intense riding for more than a week.
They reached a large village as dusk approached. While the last town had been like a spot to pick up a last minute gift before heading to the palace, this village was more about accommodating overnight travellers and they found an inn easily enough.
Julie tied up the horses and gave them a last look over for the day. After taking the packs off and handing the stable master a coin, they walked around to the entrance.
It was a small building which had an old feel to it. The roof was low enough that Samantha worried about hitting her head on the lumpy beams going across, a mild sense of claustrophobia twinging. Neither the walls nor the floor were entirely flat, reminding her of softly rolling hills, and the furniture around was bulky and made of dark wood, drinking the feeble light of the oil lamps.
Julie put down the packs by the counter and opened their purse, ready to pay for the room.
“Oh hello, dears,” the old lady behind the counter said. “After a room, are we?”
Before Julie could answer, Samantha stepped forward and said, “Yes, one to share.”
Surprised, it took Julie a moment to recover. Yet, before she could object, the Princess turned around and stilled her with a smile.
“We have to save money where we can, isn’t that right?” Samantha said.
Julie could only swallow her objection when faced with her own words, counting out the money for a single room.
“Rare to see two young women travelling alone—you must be good friends,” the old lady said as she accepted the payment.
Again, Samantha beat Julie to the punch, and she said, “We’re lovers, actually.”
As mortified as Julie was to be outed like that, the old lady didn’t react at all. “Heading to the capital to look for husbands, eh? Good luck.”
Samantha considered having a second go at correcting their relationship, but Julie held her hand, so she decided to let it slide. Julie had simply wanted to get away as quickly as possible, picking up their packs and taking the Princess’s hand to tug her away, and she said, “Thank you, aunty.”
The old lady let out a raspy chuckle, holding up a hand and shaking it. “I’m far too old to be your aunty.”
Julie smiled, but said nothing. Going back to her current mission, she led the Princess to the stairs, ignoring the dining (and drinking) area. Only when they’d climbed the flight of stairs and reached their room did she let go of the Princess’s hand. Her other arm ached, the packs not exactly light.
“Can you not wait to be alone with me?” Samantha whispered, her mouth close to Julie’s ear.
Julie’s breath hitched, and then she let out a long sigh. “Let’s just settle down, have dinner, then sleep—we need to leave early tomorrow.” She opened the room as she spoke, dragging in the packs until the Princess carried them; Julie noticed how the Princess showed no strain and had a brief burst of envy.
With the door closed, the distant chatter of the drinkers died down to a wind-like muffle. Yet the silence in their room didn’t last.
“Do you not want me to tell people we are lovers?” Samantha asked.
Julie stiffened up, the tone the Princess had used so strange—worried. It just sounded so wrong to her. “We, we aren’t lovers yet,” she mumbled. She dared not look at the Princess, but a fear that she had upset the Princess sprang up and forced her to glance over.
However, Samantha simply sat on the edge of the bed with a small smile. “When we are lovers, then, may I tell everyone the truth? I do not want to hide who I am, but nor do I want to make you feel humiliated.”
Julie didn’t have an immediate answer for her.
The simplest way Julie could describe the Princess was that she liked beautiful women romantically. And rather than that being how she thought of the Princess, that was how she thought the Princess defined herself. The Princess unabashedly invited her friends over and took them on long walks while holding hands, trying to talk them into a kiss, all the while neglecting any (male) suitors who turned up. When nothing else had managed to move the Princess, the offer of a woman as a lover did.
On the other hand, Julie wasn’t sure how she really felt about being the lover of another woman. It was a distant thing in her mind, something to think about later—much later. On the simplest level, she knew that two women (or two men) being lovers was taboo and it was believed to be a corruption of the soul. Because of that, she was reluctant to be labelled, afraid what people would think of her. That much she did know.
So she didn’t want the Princess to call her her lover in front of others. However, she understood that, to the Princess, it was important and that she would rather be known with prejudice than not known at all.
When Julie reduced it to that, the answer seemed so difficult to reason out and yet came so naturally. “You should… be honest,” she said softly.
Whether or not her instinct had been correct, she saw the Princess’s smile widen and thought it was fine if she was wrong.
After some resting, they went down for dinner, the inn offering cheap yet filling meals. Julie was afraid the taste might be too bland for the Princess, but that fear seemed unfounded. As for drinks, she ignored the Princess’s suggestion of beer, the water fine to drink in the region.
At the end of the meal, the Princess dragged her out for a walk. Like with the climate, the sun was fairly regular, hardly changing when it rose and fell as the year progressed, so the early evening still brought darkness, the air pleasantly cool. While few others were out on the streets, liveliness leaked out of the various inns and pubs and such. Although most of the buildings had been whitewashed, the bumpy walls swallowed the moonlight and appeared dark, the thatching on the roofs black. The scenes inside the building were emphasised by that, the eye naturally drawn to the light amongst the gloom.
Julie had found it a bit uncomfortable to hold the Princess’s hand at first, but soon settled and forgot about it entirely, her idle thoughts following the sights she saw beyond the windows—men in a line, singing a round between sips of beer or ale; a middle-aged couple reading; some older girls dancing as one of them played a harp.
Each was a vastly different sight to the ones at the palace, yet she could somewhat understand why the Princess had been so fond of walks. After such a day, there was a lot of peace to be found in seeing the world as it was, as if her mind itself left her body and brushed out the wrinkles and creases.
They didn’t dawdle, walking only some of the way to the edge of the village and then returning. Still, it was enough exercise for Julie to feel something of a high, entering their room with a smile.
But it shortly after became a strained smile.
“I need to pee,” Samantha said.
“There’s a water closet at the end of the hall,” Julie said; she had been before dinner.
“Can you keep watch? I might be too scared to go otherwise,” Samantha said.
Julie sighed and was ready to chide the Princess, but, when she turned, she saw such a tender expression that her heart ached—so used to seeing that face full of confidence and cheer. It reminded her that, at the palace, the Princess had surely had a private water closet to use, not like Julie who had had to put up with the other girls banging on the door for her to hurry.
“Okay,” she said.
At the least, the earlier ordeal had certainly worn away the worst of the shock, and there was a door between them. For some reason, that door was a lot more comforting to Julie than a bush. Beyond that, she’d heard the tinny and trickling sounds that went on in a woman’s water closet before, and even the unplanned sounds that sometimes accompanied squeezing the muscles down there hardly fazed her. Focusing on the water closet rather than the Princess, she felt it was so familiar as to be mundane and she chided herself for her exaggerated reaction earlier in the day.
Once the Princess finished up in there, they returned to the room. Although the night was still young for the people downstairs, Julie asked, “Ready to sleep?” as she went to check the bed.
“In a minute,” Samantha said.
Julie turned around to ask why, only to be met by a lot more fair skin than she had been expecting, instantly jerking her gaze away. “W-what are you doing?”
Samantha simply said, “I am changing.”
“I saw that, but why?” Julie asked, not realising how silly of a question it was.
“We are going to sleep, are we not? Am I supposed to sleep in these clothes I’ve been wearing all day in the heat while riding?”
Chided, Julie bowed her head.
Watching Julie, Samantha let out a long sigh, her ironic smile becoming empty. “I am sorry. I will tell you next time before I start, and rest assured I shan’t watch you change. If you would give me a moment, I’ll wipe myself down and put on my nightgown,” she quietly said.
Julie knew it had been childish to react like that. She had seen plenty of her peers in varying states of undress, having lived in a dormitory since childhood. Ignoring that, the Princess could hardly change elsewhere, so it only made sense for Julie to simply look away at such times.
To try and lighten the mood, Samantha, in the middle of wiping off sweat with a damp cloth, said, “Isn’t this weather just the worst? There is so much sweat beneath my breasts, I may need another bucket.”
Unfortunately, she had forgotten her audience; Julie dryly chuckled, and then said, “I wouldn’t know.”
The silence a magnitude more uncomfortable than before, Samantha went through her backlog of experience before settling on a response. “You know, I find your size attractive,” she simply said.
Julie had no idea how to reply and so just said, “Thanks?”
Samantha finished freshening up and then slipped on her nightgown. “You can look now,” she said.
Somewhat hesitant, Julie slowly turned, ready at every moment to look away. Yet the Princess was indeed covered, only she held in her hands her undergarments. Julie swallowed the outburst that had reached her throat, how the Princess had chided her before still relevant, but to her mind came a question, and that question made her eyes wander down from the Princess’s face until she caught herself.
Covering her self-inflicted embarrassment, she took out her own nightclothes and a change of undergarments and shuffled over to the bucket of water. They’d travelled along a paved road, so the water wasn’t thick with dirt from the Princess’s cleaning, but she knew it contained some of the Princess’s sweat. Never before had she had such a thought, despite having shared water with other girls in the dormitory.
Ignoring her intrusive thoughts, she went ahead and stripped and wiped off the sticky sweat, feeling a pleasant chill across her skin. She was quick out of habit. Clothed, she glanced behind and saw that the Princess seemed to have stuck to her word, lying on the bed while facing the wall.
“I’m finished,” Julie said, bundling her dirtied clothes together.
Samantha lazily rolled over, her gaze starting at Julie’s bare feet before climbing up her body. “Those clothes look good on you,” Samantha said.
Julie frowned. She was merely wearing the pyjamas the garrison had handed out—a pair of loose trousers and a baggy shirt, made with a burly man in mind rather than her slight frame. “What are you saying? These are… ugly,” she said, unable to think of a better word.
Rather than reply right away, Samantha stared at her with a gentle smile for a long moment. “You make them look good.”
That made Julie feel like she was being teased; she tried to escape the feeling by ignoring it and saying, “We should sleep.”
Samantha still held that gentle smile, and she nodded her head. “Will you be joining me?” she asked, her voice low.
Having already thought about this issue, Julie had her response ready. “I’ll sleep on the floor.”
“I wouldn’t mind sharing,” Samantha said.
Julie tried not to get pulled along by the Princess’s charisma and so, knowing that anything she said would be used against her, simply chose to extinguish the candles. Although she’d planned to use her laundry bag for a pillow, the Princess threw a pillow from the bed at her when she turned around. With a small smile, Julie placed it on the ground and beside it lay out a bedroll—supple leather padded with wool, more to take the edge off the cold or wet ground than provide comfort. To go with it, a cotton blanket suited to the warm climate.
Really, it was as comfortable as her bed back in the dormitory, except for the lack of a sheet meaning there were places where her bare skin touched the leather. That was fortunately only the backs of her feet, and she soon grew used to it.
When she closed her eyes, there were distant murmurs and the nearby sound of another person breathing, something about it familiar from her time at the garrison, and yet she had never found it as peaceful as now. Sleep came quick.
However, in the middle of the night—not a sound to be heard but the chorus of bugs—she was awoken by a sudden noise, short and high-pitched. Used to waking up at a moment’s notice, she had the wits to recognise the sound as a fart. It had sounded, perhaps, as cute as a fart could sound, but it had been a fart nonetheless.
Never in her life had she wanted it to be the case that she was the person who farted, yet at this moment she so desperately wished that was the case with all of her heart. A moment later, a grumble of indigestion followed, coming from the bed. Julie held her breath, hopeful that that was the end of it.
It was not.
“Julie,” Samantha whispered.
Stuck in an impossible position, Julie decided it was best if she had been dreaming until this moment, and so let out an exaggerated yawn. “Yeah?”
“I need to go to the water closet—the dinner and I seem to be having a disagreement,” she quietly said.
Julie could only accept her fate. “You want me to come with you?” she asked.
“If you would be so kind,” Samantha said, sounding relieved.
So the two of them crept along by the moonlight, going back to that door. Julie stood beside it. She couldn’t not hear the sounds, especially in the deep silence of the night, but she was at peace. After all, she couldn’t blame a princess for being sensitive to unusual food and water. It might have even been her own insistence on drinking the local water rather than beer that was the cause.
More than that, though, she had suffered from the runs a handful of times over the years herself, and so she empathised with Samantha.
Her mind drifted back to hearing Samantha trying to come up with a new nickname for her, and she found herself smiling; she decided to do the same. “Samantha,” she said in her head. “Sa, man, tha…. Sam, Ann. Sammy, Annie.”
Repeating those syllables in her head over and over again, the sounds losing all meaning, it felt like hardly any time had passed when she heard the toilet flush. A long moment later, the door opened and Samantha shuffled out.
“Are you okay?” Julie asked.
Samantha nodded, but she didn’t lift her head high like usual, leaving Julie with a dull ache in her chest. In silence, the two returned to their room, and Julie then prepared for Samantha a drink of clean water (from their packs) with sugar and salt mixed into it. Although somewhat unpleasant, she knew it helped with dehydration.
“Thank you,” Samantha whispered. She drank it all without complaint.
Julie watched her by the fickle light falling through the window, and she smiled. In a moment of clarity, she realised that, while she had always thought of Samantha as a princess with many caveats, it was a lot simpler to think of her being a princess as the only caveat. If Julie ignored what she thought a princess ought to have been like, then Samantha truly was easy to understand.
But Julie wasn’t the only one thinking of the other.
“I am… really glad you are the one here with me,” Samantha said, her voice soft and tender. “If I was alone, I would be afraid; if I was with Royal Guards, I would be lonely. But, here with you, I both feel safe and can be honest with my feelings. And that is not because I think of you as my lover, but because I consider you my close friend. So thank you.”
Julie had not expected such sweet words. Her mind sought to disagree, a sense of dysphoria coming from being praised. Yet she couldn’t settle on a point to disagree over as Samantha had so succinctly phrased it all in terms of her feelings, and Julie could hardly claim to know Samantha’s feelings better then she herself did.
Once that initial sensation passed, she found a need to say something, to say, “I am really happy to hear that, and I am really happy to be here with you too,” because she really was.
Samantha smiled. “You know, I have settled on a nickname for you. Or rather, I have two of them,” she said, and paused for a moment. “A term of endearment, I shall sometimes be calling you my precious jewel. In public, I will still use Julie for the most part.”
Julie would have been lying if she said her heart didn’t squeeze at being called Samantha’s precious jewel. However, her thoughts quickly found something else to notice. “Will you have a different name for me in private?”
That smile Samantha wore turned wicked. “Lia,” she said, and there was a breathlessness to the way she’d said it, a suggestiveness.
Julie tried to ignore the heat rising in her cheeks. In a weak attempt to stop Samantha going any further with that, she said, “Sammy.”
It worked, stilling Samantha for a moment. “Pardon?”
“I thought… I could have a nickname for you too,” Julie said.
Samantha mumbled, “Sammy,” to herself a few times, and then came to a decision. “Very well. From now on, I shall be Sammy.”
Smiling, Julie settled down on her makeshift bed, and she whispered, “Goodnight, Sammy.”
The newly-nicknamed Sammy laid down too, her stomach troubles entirely forgotten. “Goodnight, Lia.”