The morning broke late with thick, white clouds in the sky. Julie stayed in bed for a few minutes, unsure whether she’d woken up early, but, not feeling tired, she got up in the end. As she did, she looked over and found Sammy watching her.

“Morning,” she said, giving a small wave.

“Good morning, Lia,” Sammy replied, saying that nickname slowly, savouring it.

And Julie savoured hearing it. She still didn’t understand a lot about the relationship between them, but she found a small happiness in how Sammy treated her specially. That said, she didn’t know if it was actually a romantic feeling. With how much she admired Sammy, she was sure that, regardless of if they were lovers or just friends, she would be happy to have Sammy say her name.

Those kinds of thoughts often came to Julie. Until Sammy, no one had really challenged her feelings. She hadn’t needed to try and understand how she felt or why she felt that way. Over the years, a few boys had shown an interest in her (she had only realised after the fact, and that was because her dormmates had told her), but she had found that interest uncomfortable.

Really, she had thought it was because she disliked attention. She’d hated how they had asked her questions and then listened expectantly for the answers. She’d hated being given gifts, felt put upon as she’d tried to reject them, avoided agreeing to meet up with them—“No,” had always been met with challenges, so she’d tried to always have a busy schedule.

Then there was Sammy, who gave her so much attention, yet she never found it uncomfortable.

Julie’s thoughts trailed off there as Sammy sat up and beckoned her over. Following the request, she walked over to the other bed. Before she could ask Sammy what she wanted, though, Julie found her hand being held.

“May I have a morning kiss?” Sammy said.

Julie smiled; Sammy really did swing between childish and romantic, she thought. Lowering her head and bringing up Sammy’s hand, she left a light kiss on it.

“Do you want one as well?” Sammy asked, squeezing Julie’s hand.

And the mood changed, a glint in Sammy’s eye along with a coyness to her smile, voice deeper, alluring. Julie’s breath hitched, an itch sprouting in her chest. “I mean, if you want,” she mumbled, the words struggling to get past the lump in her throat.

“Mm, but I am asking if you would like one,” Sammy replied.

That phrasing reminded Julie of what Sammy had told her before, and that memory brought with it a creeping blush. She wondered if it really did feel so beautiful to be desired. Well, Sammy had been straightforward in her desires, yet Julie hardly felt beautiful. She’d never heard a story with a princess like herself in it. There was, in her mind, a good reason that stories had “fair maidens” and not “tanned tomboys”: one was beautiful, the other not.

Pushing aside that flicker of self-degradation, Julie knew that she wanted Sammy to be happy, so she said, “I do.”

Only for Sammy to ask, “Are you really saying that, or are you saying it because you think that is what I want to hear?”

Julie froze, the unexpected question like an accusation of lying to her. Her mind simply couldn’t think of how to reply. It wasn’t even that she didn’t know whether to apologise, or to repeat what she’d said—she was in shock. So she simply stared at Sammy, waiting for another cue to bring her out of it.

Meanwhile, Sammy was stuck between laughing at the somewhat exaggerated reaction, letting out a sigh of exasperation at just how delicate Julie could be, and comforting her precious jewel. Of course, she soon settled on that last choice of action upon seeing that Julie wouldn’t be responding. She rather liked this cute side of Julie anyway.

Leaning forwards, Sammy gave Julie a peck on the tip of her nose. “Even if it is the latter, I am glad that you wish to please me,” she whispered, her free hand coming up to complement the words with a tender caress of Julie’s cheek.

Broken from her stupor, Julie bowed her head. She still wasn’t sure what answer to give, but that Sammy didn’t pressure her for one gave her the space to breathe.

Sammy left things there, though, giving Julie’s hand a last squeeze before she stood up. And even that was enough to cause incident, the covers gone and nightgown loose and Julie’s gaze growing ever more honest. Sammy relished the second until Julie’s senses returned.

From there, Julie dressed to travel and went about her morning ablutions. Sammy relaxed in the room. “The next village is near, so we need not rush.”

Julie had no reason to challenge Sammy on that, so she thought what she could do. It didn’t take her long to think back to her life in the barracks and she chided herself for being lax with her training. “I’m gonna do some exercises,” she said, rifling through one of the packs for her preferred backsword.

“Outside?” Sammy asked.

“Yeah,” Julie said.

Sammy hummed a note, and then said, “Could you tell Pam to not disturb me?”

“Sure,” Julie said. She guessed Sammy might go back to sleep—it was early.

With her sword (in its sheathe) and a cloth for wiping sweat, Julie left the room, closing the door behind her. Despite the hour, she heard someone in the kitchen as she went downstairs, but it was Marge rather than Pam. Julie passed on the message anyway, which ended up in a sticky conversation that tried to keep her talking. (At the least, with the flicker of a memory from the night before, she specially chose a few things for Sammy’s breakfast.)

Finally making it outside, Julie let out a long sigh. There was a touch of a chill to the air and a lingering moisture that made it worse. She’d never given much thought to the climate at the palace, but, now, she missed it for a moment.

Julie left the sheathe and cloth on the outside table, moving to the middle of the small garden. Her sword was one-handed and a short length—needing to fit in a pack—but still a hefty weight for its size, able to carry a good momentum through the edge. She had trained with similar swords for the last few years; the shorter length made it better suited for use in hallways, the single-edge a design that was cheap and sturdy to produce. Although she had been clumsy with it at first, heavy as it was, she had grown adept at handling it, usually with a small-but-tough shield on her other arm.

Like Julie had for nearly every day of her life since her father had died, she swung her sword through the air. Calm, measured, exerting her control over the sword, working her muscles, melting away the cold. But the fortnight-odd break had weakened her, swing unsteady, and she hated that feeling.

All Julie had to offer Sammy was her strength.

No stranger to impulses of frustration, Julie put aside her emotions and dutifully continued her practice. As a child, she had often channelled her feelings into her swings—her loneliness, anger, sadness, and even her apathy—but had since learned how futile that was, now trying to keep her mind and body in harmony.

In Julie’s own words, her feelings didn’t make her sword any sharper. No, a sword worked best when used consciously and precisely. It did her no good to wear herself out, to risk injuring herself, to leave herself open to parries or counter-attacks. She was a guard, her first priority always to protect, only attacking when that was the best way to keep Sammy safe.

It had been that way ever since Sammy had rescued her from Aaron’s archery bet. But, even before that, Julie had held Sammy’s encouragement from their first meeting close to her heart.

With her mind refocused, Julie continued her exercises. Although she had lost a bit of strength, she’d hardly been idle, gradually readjusting to the weight of the sword. Meanwhile, the cold returned to bite at her sweat; her breaths grew deeper, only to make her shudder, lungs freezing.

And she pushed through it.

Careful, she carried on, making sure she wasn’t wearing herself out before the day had begun. Not just her sword arm, but her legs and core as well. She practised steps and side-steps, twists and bends, push-ups and crunches.

After half an hour, absorbed in her work, she didn’t notice Sammy coming to watch.

Sammy herself had a lingering heat from what she had been doing, and seeing Julie only stoked that smouldering fire. There was something indescribably beautiful to her about Julie’s exercises. Indeed, she had no words because she had never so much as read a book of a woman daring to lift a sword before, never mind to swing it with skill.

Even without being able to put her fascination to words, Sammy knew she liked what she saw. How her gaze delighted in Julie’s arms tensing, her hands itching to feel the muscles, and her mind wandered to what other muscles Julie had. She found herself wanting to touch that strong abdomen, those sturdy legs. The glitter of sweat bid her tongue to dart out, a desire for something salty, breathing through her nose as she subconsciously tried to smell Julie’s scent.

Although Sammy could have watched all day, it wasn’t long before Julie noticed her. Moreover, it wasn’t hard for Julie to notice how Sammy was looking at her, embarrassed at the attention.

Satisfied she had trained enough, Julie returned her sword to its sheathe and went to pick up the cloth she’d brought. Only, Sammy put her hand on top of it and asked, “May I?”

Julie hadn’t been close to anyone else back at the dormitory, but it hadn’t been unusual for the others to help each other when wiping down. Yet, when Sammy asked, Julie felt almost scared, suddenly oh so conscious of how dreadful she must look, how she must stink.

“I’m fine,” she mumbled, leaning back onto her heels.

Sammy followed the reaction closely, trying to read Julie. So she took back her hand and gave Julie a stride of space. However, that didn’t mean Sammy didn’t watch Julie as she wiped off the sweat from her face and arms.

Once Julie finished, Sammy said, “You know, when you are attracted to someone, their sweat smells sweet.”

Julie’s face showed her surprise. “Really?” she asked.

Sammy’s smile stretched into something sly. “Possibly, but I just made that up,” she said. While Julie was stuck on that reply, Sammy leant forwards and sniffed. “Not quite sweet, yet there is something rather… nice about it.”

Stunned, Julie just stood there.

“Breakfast is nearly ready,” Sammy said, turning around. “We shouldn’t keep our benefactors waiting.”

Once Julie recovered, despite Sammy’s words, she slipped back upstairs to properly wipe herself down and put away her sword, only then coming down to eat. As far as breakfasts went, it was simple: porridge sweetened with raisins (“Sonlettier is known for her grapes—and her wine,” Sammy said). Compared to the “porridge” they had been eating, Julie thought it tasted divine; Sammy seemed happy enough to finish her portion too.

Then they prepared to leave. Julie took inventory as she went through their packs, making a note of what they’d used up in their camping. When it came to the sanitary cloths, though, she paused.

“D’you know the date?” Julie asked.

Sammy said, “It should be the first of Mensber, is it not?”

Julie nodded, that the day she thought it was.

“Why do you ask?” Sammy said, a curiosity in her eyes.

Julie’s breath caught in her throat, but she soon let it out. Although her first instinct was to lie, uncomfortable with the topic, Sammy had always been so open about similar things and, well, they were travelling together, so such lies only made things needlessly complicated.

Gathering her courage, Julie half-mumbled, “It’s almost time for my monthly.”

“Ah, is that so? Do we need to take a few days break, or travel slowly?” Sammy asked.

And that caught Julie by surprise. She had sort of expected Sammy to make a joke about it, make light of it—make fun of her. That was what the other girls had done back at the barracks, after all. Instead, she’d heard a touch of worry in Sammy’s voice. “No, I’m fine,” Julie said softly. “It’s pretty light for me, so….”

Sammy nodded and, when it seemed like Julie wouldn’t continue, she said, “Oh that’s good. Mine should come next week, but it is usually moderate enough that it shouldn’t slow us down.”

“I mean, if you need to rest then, that’s fine,” Julie said, her mind switching at the slightest concern for Sammy.

However, Sammy met her statement with a rueful smile. “The same goes for you, understand?” she said.

It took Julie all of a second to realise the small trap Sammy had caught her in. She bowed her head and weakly said, “Yes.”

“Good,” Sammy said, her smile softening into something sweet. “Honestly, they call it a ‘cleansing of the soul’, yet why is ours so unpleasant compared to the men’s? And what of the elderly—are their souls clean, or does the ‘Great Mother’ Menses just give up on them? What a fickle goddess she is.”

Julie listened intently, falling into a chuckle at the end. “No one really taught me the holy book well, but isn’t it that, like, we give birth to evil? What is it… the original sin?”

Sammy clicked her tongue. “We are imperfect and thus sinful, yet the gods who created us imperfect are without sin? Besides, if a child’s sin is her mother’s sin, then all evil falls on the gods.”

Again, Julie couldn’t help but laugh. “Please try not to blaspheme in public—you never know when a priest will hear and drag you into an argument.”

“As if any delegate of the gods could best me in a battle of wits,” Sammy said with a certain pride, eyes sparkling.

Julie truly felt sorry for any priest or priestess who would try.

That brought the conversation to a natural end, and it was only when Julie went back to the pack that she remembered how it had started. Sammy really did coddle her, she thought, a small smile on her lips.

Before anything else came up, there was a knock on the door. “You may enter,” Sammy said.

After a slight pause, the handle turned, door opening ajar. Pam poked her head through and said, “Just checking ya really don’t wanna stay fer lunch.”

“While we appreciate your hospitality, we have a long journey ahead of us and a schedule to keep,” Sammy replied, smiling.

Pam awkwardly returned the smile and nodded her head. “Right, right….”

With Pam not saying any more, Julie naturally looked back over to Sammy—just in time for an all-too-familiar smile to show. “Is there, perhaps, something you still wished to discuss?” Sammy asked.

Pam tensed, her breath held.

Sammy let out a disarming giggle, hand covering her mouth, and then patted the end of the bed she was sitting on. “Well, if you would indulge me.”

Pam gave a stiff nod before closing the door and shuffling over. She sat precisely where Sammy had patted, putting them at arm’s length, and her gaze settled on the floor in front of her.

Sammy looked rather amused—she thought it was as if she’d caught Pam in some wrongdoing and was about to ask Pam what she had done. Once Sammy had indulged in that enough, she settled into a moment of thought, thinking over what she wanted to convey.

“If I may show my vanity, let me share my wisdom,” Sammy said, and then let out a long breath before continuing. “That I am only attracted to women, what I call my queerness, has led me to heartbreak after heartbreak. Even though I knew I should temper my expectations, every time hurt.”

Sammy paused for a moment. “Pam, I fear you may come to know that same pain. Those like us are rare to begin with, and then she has to be someone who both likes women and detests the thought of a man. If not the latter, she would certainly prefer the simple life laid out before her—mutual love is not a requirement for marriage nor consummation.

“Despite all that,” Sammy said, her voice growing strained, soft, “I hope you find her. I hope you find love and live happily ever after in your own way.”

Those words hung in the air, heavy. Julie felt her own breath quiver in her chest, heart unsteady; that had been the first time she had really heard Sammy speak of the past. To Julie, Sammy had always looked so happy, flitting between beautiful girls like a butterfly amongst flowers. Now, she realised those flowers had lacked the nectar Sammy needed.

Moment after moment flickered through Julie’s mind, of kisses and touches and closeness that she had denied Sammy.

Meanwhile, Pam had grown teary-eyed, bunching up her dress in her hands. “H-How?” she whispered. “I, I didn’t even think two girls could…. And what would, would everyone think….”

Sammy put on a brave smile, her own emotions swelling up as well. “The way I think of it, if you are to live a lie, it is better to let the truth be your happiness. If need be, find a woman to love and live with her and everyone else can think you two are but friends as close as sisters.”

Stopping there, Sammy reached over to pat Pam’s shoulder, ending with a squeeze. Pam sniffled, but otherwise kept herself under control even as thoughts—countless fears and hopes—swirled around her mind in a chaotic mess.

Eventually, Pam calmed down. As she did, question after question came to her, and she quietly voiced a handful of them, Sammy patiently answering each one.

Then there was finally silence.

But, when Sammy was sure Pam had nothing more to ask, she had one last thing to discuss. “Did you enjoy Louise’s company last night?”

Pam stilled, and then softly nodded her head. “She’s fairly sweet.”

“Fair and sweet, you mean?” Sammy said, a knowing look in her eye.

Pam could only hang her head lower at the question, to which Sammy giggled.

“I may be wrong, but my impression is that she has no particular interest in men. Whether she has an interest in women, I did not notice anything, yet she may well make a good friend for you either way—and you for her.”

After a long moment, Pam gently nodded again. Sammy broke into a smile and, looking closely, Julie thought it really was a genuine smile; a prick of annoyance tickled her at that, but she couldn’t think why.

A few more words were exchanged before Sammy sent Pam on her way—“We need to finish packing, if that is okay.”

The room again settled into a silence once Pam left, Sammy lost in thought, Julie watching her. However, soon merely watching wasn’t enough and so Julie walked over. Sammy’s turn to watch, she followed Julie’s movement, curious yet unwilling to ask, thinking there was something nice about the look in Julie’s eyes.

And Sammy was right, Julie coming to a stop in front of her before holding out her arms. Not one to waste such an offer, Sammy reached up and pulled Julie down into an embrace, falling back on the bed. Julie let out gasp of surprise as she fell, but quickly settled, aided by Sammy’s hand rubbing a soothing circle on her back.

When Julie’s wits returned to her, she let out a long breath and then spoke the words she’d been waiting to say for a while. “I’m sorry if I’m hurting you.”

Sammy giggled, music to Julie’s ears. “You are rather light and I am not so delicate,” Sammy said, pulling Julie tighter as if to prove her words.

Julie fought herself to stay focused. “No, um, I mean… as your lover.”

As general as that statement was, it didn’t take Sammy long to understand what Julie was trying to say when she went back over what she’d told Pam. “You are you, and you are not the girls who broke my heart,” Sammy said softly, sincere. “Besides, I am not so delicate.”

Amused with that bit of repetition, Sammy found herself unprepared for Julie’s reply.

“It’s okay if you are delicate.”

Sammy’s mind blanked, a moment passing before she whispered, “Pardon?”

This time, Julie gave her a squeeze. “You might be a princess, but you don’t have to be perfect, so you just be you.” Julie paused there, her mouth scrunching up in thought. “Sorry. I’m, um, not making sense.”

Sammy listened to Julie’s breathing, organising her thoughts and emotions. Meanwhile, Julie became increasingly uncomfortable as the silence left her to focus on their… compromising position. She didn’t dare move, though, not until Sammy gave her the signal, so she tried to think about something else lest her face catch fire, the blush on her cheeks already hot.

“Thank you,” Sammy eventually said.

Broken from her thoughts, Julie asked, “What for?”

“You said something far sweeter than you can imagine, and I dare say this is the first time anyone has comforted me since I was but a babe. So, for that, I thank you,” Sammy said.

Julie fought the urge to squirm under the praise, if only because she might hurt Sammy given their current closeness. “I mean, isn’t that normal since we’re… lovers?”

“When it comes to people, there is no such thing as normal—and that includes the relationships between them,” Sammy said. As she spoke, her hand crept up Julie’s back, coming to cradle the back of her head. “However, I am glad you think so.”

The unease Julie had been feeling melted away under Sammy’s light touch, her focus entirely on those slender fingertips, enthralled. But that only lasted a handful of seconds before Sammy felt like she’d indulged enough, so she moved both her hands to the side. Julie picked up on the cue and carefully pushed herself up to her feet.

“Let us finish our preparations—there will be many more opportunities to flirt,” Sammy said, an unusual rosiness to her cheeks.

Julie’s gaze lingered, and then she nodded, turning away.

Yet Sammy had one last thing to ask. “Do you think I said too much?” she whispered.

Softly smiling, Julie shook her head. “She looked… relieved, I guess? It’s probably been hard for her.”

“That’s good, then,” Sammy said.

In a comfortable silence, Julie finished checking the packs. Before they left, though, Sammy saw fit to repay Marge’s kindness by fixing the cumbersome front door. While Marge kept insisting there was no need, what with how heavy the door was, and that it was only natural to offer kindness to strangers, she abruptly stopped when Sammy cleanly lifted the door out of the frame by herself. Fortunately, Pete wasn’t frozen in surprise and he greased up the joints and then put the pins back in after Sammy returned the door to its rightful place.

Trying it out, although it still stuck a bit on the frame, he only had half the trouble opening it compared to before.

“Ah, shall we adjust the hinges?” Sammy asked, already reaching out to the door.

Marge quickly, albeit politely, declined.

Nothing more to keep them there, Sammy and Julie said their last goodbyes and carried on their journey together.


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