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Sammy and Julie left the village by horse, travelling west. They arrived at the next village around midday (as Sammy had said) and had lunch there while they let the horses rest.

Once again, Julie found herself reminded that they were very much in foreign lands. Everyone spoke Sonlettian, the houses strange, clothes stranger, every little interaction twinging her sense of surrealness. A familiar lunch of potato, meat, and veg was prepared and arranged unlike any she’d eaten before.

But it wasn’t that she missed home, just that she felt a pang of not belonging.

After the horses had rested, they set off again, keeping a steady pace on the small road to the next town over. Julie lingered in her thoughts and Sammy left her to. After all, Sammy wasn’t a mind-reader, had no distinct idea of what had engrossed Julie’s attention. Only guesses, nothing certain.

So the silence lasted half an hour before Julie processed her feelings into a plan. Breaking the silence, she said, “Sammy?”

“Yes, Lia?”

Surprised, Julie’s thoughts tried to scatter at hearing that nickname, so used to it being confined to the bedroom. Pulling herself back together, she said, “I was wondering if… you could maybe… teach me some Sonlettian?”

Sammy made a small noise of agreement. “Of course,” she said. “However, we shan’t be here for long—would you rather practise the main Dworfen language?”

Julie didn’t know. Really, ever since meeting Sammy, her life had somehow become very complicated, making her think more, the answers hardly ever clear. Slowly but surely, she thought through what Sammy had said.

“I mean, I’m not… clever, so it’s not like I can, well, learn much. Just, like, a few phrases,” Julie said.

Sammy wanted to say something about the self-deprecation, but held back. “Well, do you happen to know any?” she asked.

The palace had hardly been a stranger to foreign guests and Julie remembered that, for a time, the maids had taken on a certain greeting. “Saloo,” Julie said. And Sammy giggled, making Julie feel awfully self-conscious. “W-what?” she asked, almost a whine.

Sammy gently shook her head. “While that is a Sonlettian greeting, it is not one much used in these parts. Or rather, this region has a distinct dialect of its own,” she said, suppressing her urge to regurgitate knowledge. Maps highlighting the mountain ranges dividing the country flickered across her mind’s eye, accompanied by snippets of a middle-aged man’s ramblings.

Meanwhile, Julie simply said, “Oh,” as she deflated in her saddle.

Coming out of her thoughts, Sammy spared Julie a soft smile. “What most people mean when speaking of ‘Sonlettian’ is the ‘Republican’ dialect. That’s what they use in the twin capitals and main trade port, so the traders bring it to…. My apologies, you are not my old geography tutor. That is, in these parts, it is more of a rural dialect which can vary even from village to village.”

Sammy paused there, looking over to see how Julie reacted to all that. To Sammy’s relief, Julie appeared interested, gently nodding her head along.

“The local greeting, then,” Sammy said, “is adioh.”

“Adjoh,” Julie repeated.

“A-di-oh,” Sammy said slowly.

“A-di-oh,” Julie repeated slowly.

“Adioh,” Sammy said.

“Adioh,” Julie repeated.

“Good,” Sammy said, her smile bright. “Now, let us practise saying it as fast as the locals do—the secret to sounding fluent is to speak so quickly that even they do not have time to hear your mistakes.”

That piece of wisdom gave Julie pause, but Sammy continued before Julie could properly understand what had been said. So they passed the afternoon travels in such conversation.

By evening, they arrived at more of a town, the buildings sprawled along the river and the flat land beside it. Rather than the sandstone of the villages, the houses here were built of clay bricks, speckled with moss and bleached by sunlight, yet often accompanied by bright doors and windows that had surely met the business end of a paintbrush in the last year. As well as that, some of the roads were made of brick, the other half cobblestone. Right by the river were a few warehouses, bulky and square.

“There is a rather large clay quarry upriver,” Sammy said. “In fact, the majority of all bricks in Sonlettier are made along this very river, and so it is often called the Riu de Maon.”

“Really?” Julie asked.

“Oh yes. However, we shan’t be following her any further than here. While she meanders north, our journey takes us ever westerly,” Sammy said, her gaze settling on the distant plains.

Julie followed where Sammy looked, not noticing anything of note off in that direction.

Arriving at the edge of the town, they dismounted and then started searching for a stable; Sammy asked a woman for directions, so it didn’t take long. Finding an inn also posed no trouble at all, the town accommodating and Sammy’s Southern Sonlettian flawless.

Despite their earlier practice, Julie could barely pick up on the handful of words she knew—still a long way to go.

For supper, they chose to check the local businesses. Along the main street, a few stalls sold soups and stews, fragrant in the chilly twilight; Sammy and Julie found a bakery and bought a small loaf for dunking to go with a vegetable soup (even Sammy wasn’t entirely sure of which vegetables, vegetable names not exactly an important area of study for a princess), and then paired it with what Sammy called a petty wine.

“I assure you, it is more of a fruity drink than an alcoholic beverage,” Sammy said convincingly. Julie had never quite forgiven herself for what had happened to Sammy their first night, so she made no fuss over it. That said, she could certainly taste some alcohol in the wine, but not enough to worry her. Other than that, it was very easy to drink; Sammy said, “It has a certain popularity with the lesser noblewomen in Sonlettier,” and Julie could see why.

Well fed, they lingered on the streets with the last of the day’s light, looking at the shops. Unsurprisingly, there were a few potteries, some selling plates and such while others sold figurines, neatly painted in vibrant colours; but there were also a couple of boutiques near the centre of the town, and little dressmakers and tailors, carpenters and tinsmiths, not to mention an entire road of brick kilns beside the riverside warehouses.

Amidst the gaslights, they walked back to the inn, hand in hand.

A cramped room, there was little more than a bed and a tiny tub of fresh water, candle sitting on the floor. By now, Julie was used to their morning and evening routines, so she wasn’t flustered when Sammy started stripping down, simply looking away. And when it was her turn, she didn’t have to check Sammy wasn’t looking to feel comfortable stripping down and wiping herself down.

Before Julie got that far, though, she checked her sanitary cloth. As if triggered by the sight that greeted her, her gut started to clench. At the least, she thought, she’d already broached the subject with Sammy. If she hadn’t, she couldn’t imagine just how embarrassed she would have been.

Putting those thought away, Julie went through the motions and then prepared for the evening, setting out her bedroll, settling down. But that proved difficult. Maybe because of the colder night, maybe because of the foreign foods—really, she didn’t know what did it—the cramping grew from a discomfort to a sort of dull ache.

Lost in her focus, Julie got a fright when Sammy spoke.

“How are you?” Sammy asked, tone soft, gentle.

Julie sucked in a breath, trying to clear her head to reply. Coming to her senses, she realised she’d lain down at some point and was on her side, half-curled up. Her gaze drifted over towards the bed in and then climbed up until it met Sammy’s. “I’m fine,” she mumbled, putting on a smile.

Sammy stared back at Julie with a piercing gaze. After a moment, she asked, “Shall I get a hot towel?”

“No! No,” Julie said unthinkingly, a rush of panic coming at the thought of inconveniencing Sammy.

However, Sammy wasn’t done. After another moment, she rose to her feet and stepped over to Julie before lowering herself, neatly sitting on the floor. The whole movement graceful, it left Julie mesmerised; belatedly, she realised just how close Sammy had come, pulling up her blanket as if to hide.

Slowly, Sammy reached out, only for Julie to shy away from the touch. Seeing that, Sammy brought her hand back and put on a small smile. “May I comfort you?” she asked.

Julie couldn’t look Sammy in the eye, staring down at her hands as they fidgeted with the edge of the blanket. “I’m fine.”

Pausing there, Sammy took a few seconds to think through the best way to phrase what she wanted to ask. “That is, do you not want me to touch you, or do you think I should not touch you?”

It was another of those questions that left Julie’s mind blank, making her feel like a liar being called out. So it took her a few seconds to recover and then another to actually come up with an answer. “Just, not right now,” she said, hoping that would be enough for Sammy.

Sammy smiled, but Julie found it different to the smiles she liked to see. There was something… sad about it, she thought.

“You know,” Sammy said, her gaze moving to the drawn curtains, “there is nothing disgusting about being a woman. Whether that is our monthly, or bearing a child, or then feeding her—we are who we are.”

Julie listened, but didn’t know what to make of it. That was, she kind of agreed, just… it was easy to think something and much harder to feel it. Even after two weeks, she hadn’t made much progress on becoming Sammy’s lover.

Meanwhile, Sammy went back to her bed and opened one of their packs, taking out another blanket.

“Stay warm, and do let me know if you require help getting to the water closet,” Sammy softly said, laying the blanket on top of the one Julie already had.

Julie softly nodded. As much as she hoped it didn’t come to that, she knew better than to argue, knew that Sammy would simply turn the situation around. Indeed, if it was Sammy having trouble, well, Julie had helped Sammy that first night, so she knew she couldn’t decline Sammy’s offer to do the same.

Still, Julie lay down again and curled up, hoping she wouldn’t have to impose on Sammy.

“Goodnight, Lia.”

Julie’s breath hitched, so focused on trying to empty her mind that those words gave her a small fright. But then her breath eased out, unknowingly leaving behind a small smile. “G’night, Sammy,” she whispered back.

Despite Julie’s worries, the night passed in peace and morning dawned.

Groggy, Julie pushed herself up, idly looking around the room. Unsurprising to her, Sammy had already woken up. “Morning, Lia,” she said.

Julie gave a weak smile in reply. “Morning,” she mumbled, closely followed by a stifled yawn. “Mm, it feels so early.”

“We have headed a decent distance west, so the night starts and ends, say, an hour later than we are used to,” Sammy said, her voice soft as she spoke her thinking. “It is important to remember that the nights will eventually become shorter too.”

Julie nodded along, taking Sammy’s word as gospel.

“Would you like to go back to sleep for a bit?” Sammy asked, her voice now with a different softness, comforting to Julie’s ears.

This time, Julie gently shook her head. “I’m fine.”

Mouth quirked into a coy smile, Sammy said, “I would rather you are better than simply fine.”

Julie quickly looked away, thinking she was perhaps reading too much into that smile and those words.

From there, their morning carried on normally enough. Well, mostly normal—Julie was keenly aware of how Sammy pampered her at breakfast. Rather than the usual gruel or bread, Sammy specially requested a spinach salad, fruit, and a ginger tea for Julie.

That carried on afterwards as they prepared for the day. Sammy said there wouldn’t be anywhere to stop for lunch, so they went to buy food for lunch and Sammy insisted on pâte sandwiches. Really, Julie thought she was maybe overthinking it, but Sammy hadn’t made such specific requests before.

Whatever the reason, they bought the pâte and fresh bread and a bottle of petty wine. With that done, they collected their horses from the stables and (after Julie checked them over) left the town.

They headed further west. More of a trail than a road, the buildings soon gave way to crop fields, little more than weeds amidst the recently-tilled earth. Eventually, the fields became meadows, sheep and cows plodding about.

Once they’d ridden for a couple of hours, they stopped in the shade of a copse of trees to give the horses a break.

“How are you feeling?” Sammy asked.

Julie finished checking for saddle sores before replying. “I’m fine,” she said softly.

“Truly?”

Julie almost snorted, a breath of laughter slipping through her lips. “Yeah.”

Sammy lingered for a moment longer and then gave Julie some space. When Julie finished the rest of her checks, she joined Sammy beneath the trees, carefully lowering herself to the ground. Although her gut still felt tight, the cramps hadn’t been particularly painful since her sleep. That said, she was thankful the horses had such smooth gaits—she hadn’t been so lucky in the past.

Pulling Julie out of her thoughts, Sammy reached over and gently held her hand. A beat passed, and then Julie squeezed Sammy’s hand, trying to convey that there really wasn’t any reason to worry.

Around them, wild fields stretched in all directions: tall grass, messy bushes, overgrown shrubs, splodges of flowers. It was easy to breathe, a hay-like smell in the dry air. In the near-distance, a sheepdog would bark now and then, bleating—both unseen beyond the natural rise and fall of the land—and the weak whistle of the wind.

Julie felt so calm and at peace that she struggled to stay awake. It brought her back to her childhood, to practising her swordsmanship until she couldn’t even stand and then simply lying amidst the dry grass until her strength returned.

She wondered what that child would think of where she had ended up. Back then, she hadn’t ever thought about romance or love. Rather, she had ignored it, the other girls more than happy to chat about it near her. Words like “handsome” or “dashing” meant nothing to her—at least, when used for boys. After all, Sammy had been so dashing that day she’d saved Julie from the archery bet. As for handsome, well, Julie had never seen a boy that caught her eye.

As for Sammy, she passed the time by staring down at their joined hands, showing a small smile, memories both recent and distant flickering across her mind’s eye.

After an hour, they saddled up again and carried on. Rather than the silence of earlier, though, Julie brought up learning some more Sonlettian, so they went back and forth on that as midmorning turned to midday.

Finding another shaded spot, they stopped for lunch. Again, Julie couldn’t help but notice the pampering, Sammy nonchalant as she went about preparing the sandwiches. Not one to sit around, Julie poured them both some of the petty wine and made sure the horses were grazing.

At the end of the meal, Sammy asked, “Have you had enough to eat?”

Julie giggled to herself. Letting out a sigh, her gaze settled on her lap, a soft smile lingering on her lips. “Yeah,” she said.

“Do you need anything else?”

Julie gently shook her head as she said, “No, thanks.”

“Do tell me if that changes,” Sammy said. After a second, she turned her gaze forwards, settling on the distant horizon. “It should only be two hours or so to the village.”

Julie made a noise in reply.

The sun crested above them and then began its gradual descent, accompanied by their quiet conversation, Sonlettian flowing between them. Or rather, it flowed from Sammy before spluttering out of Julie.

At a point, Julie excused herself, relieving herself behind a bush and changing out her sanitary cloth. Sammy then excused herself afterwards, and it struck Julie a bit funny that she didn’t think anything of it any more—their first day together really felt like another lifetime.

Once the growing heat broke, they saddled up and set off. Around them, the landscape eventually gave way to hilly moors, something about the gloomy browns and greys awfully depressing to Julie. When she looked back, she realised they’d actually been climbing a gentle slope most of the day, horizon distant.

Meandering between the hills as best they could, they broke through to more plains and, soon after that, farmland. From there, it wasn’t long before a couple of hamlets popped up, but they continued on to a village.

While not particularly big, it had a stable and inn on its outskirts, so Julie had no complaints. With nothing really to see, they stayed in their room after bringing in their luggage. However, Julie wondered if that was Sammy pampering her again, confident Sammy actually did want to look around. Not only that, but it seemed to Julie that Sammy was rather pointedly giving her space after supper. Instead of bringing that up, Julie changed out her sanitary cloth again and then excused herself to wash the soiled ones, as well as do some of their other washing.

The next morning, Julie was relieved that her flow had lightened. Not only that, but her symptoms had settled down to mild twinges, easily ignored.

Another day of travelling brought them to a sizeable town. By the look of it, Julie guessed it to be a crossroads of sorts, several stables on the outskirts and inns littered about the place as they wandered around. Other than places to drink, it offered little more than butchers and bakers, the stores a hodgepodge of essentials for travellers.

As though still being considerate, Sammy didn’t keep Julie out for long before they chose an inn to stay at. Once they’d dropped off their packs in their room and had a moment to freshen up, they headed down for supper.

It just so happened that, entering the hall, Julie caught familiar words amongst the noise. For a second, she had a burst of giddiness, thinking her Sonlettian practice with Sammy was working, only to belatedly realise it was Schtish she could hear.

“—miss old Hopschtat already.”

Looking around, Julie thought it came from a nearby table. She then glanced at Sammy, and something about the look in those eyes told Julie that something… interesting would soon be happening.

But before anything did, Sammy leaned close to Julie’s ear and whispered, “Shall we greet our fellow countryman?”

Julie didn’t care either way and had every reason to indulge Sammy. “Sure,” she said.

Sammy flashed an all-too-mischievous and then tugged Julie’s hand, leading them to the table. “Excuse me,” she said in Schtish, “but you haven’t come from the capital, have you?”

The man and his pair of companions stopped their conversation, turning to Sammy and Julie. Julie particularly noted how their gazes… lingered on Sammy; for a reason she didn’t know, she felt a burst of irritation.

“Oh yes, month or so ago,” the man said, nodding.

He was an older man, or at least looked it with leathery skin and his hair and beard peppered with grey. The other two were younger, Julie guessing in their mid-twenties, perhaps the man’s sons, perhaps just in his employ.

Sammy clapped her hands together happily. Then, gesturing at the empty chairs, she asked, “May we? I am rather interested in hearing any news.”

The man was all too eager, saying, “No, no—join us,” as he gestured at the chairs himself. “Name’s Jacob, Jacob Leafer. My son-in-law James, and my son Anthony—we call him Ant,” he said, his hands continuing to gesture along at the men with him.

James and Ant gave a brief greeting each, but lacked Jacob’s enthusiasm.

“And who might you two be?” Jacob asked.

Sammy and Julie had sat down while they spoke and, as always, Julie left the speaking to Sammy. “I am Sammy, and this is Julie.”

“Ah, named after the Princess, eh?” Jacob said, cracking a grin. “Hardly the first.”

While Julie felt a sudden fear trickle down her spine, Sammy laughed, covering her mouth. “In a way,” she said.

Jacob chuckled, his face scrunching towards his nose, and then let out a long sigh. “Say, you two not on the road alone, are ya?” he asked.

“We are travelling together,” Sammy said, emphasising the last word.

“I see, I see,” he said, stroking his beard. “Ya know, mind me but I’m getting on in years—don’t s’pose ya could take a fancy to my old son here?”

“Dad—” Ant said.

“No, no, no,” Jacob said, interrupting him. “I’ve given ya, what, ten years? And let’s not forget the lasses Ma brought over, eh?” Jacob shook his head and then leaned forwards. “So, what do ya two think? He’s not bad to look at and I promise I’ll pass down the business once he’s got his ducks in a row.”

Sammy offered him a polite, albeit thin, smile as she held back her laughter. Once she calmed down, she gave him a reply. “I am afraid we are already engaged.”

Deflating in his seat, he solemnly said, “Ah, I knew two lasses pretty as ya would be spoken for.”

“Indeed,” Sammy said, squeezing Julie’s hand under the table.

Julie almost yelped, surprised by the sudden squeeze. After a second, though, she returned it.

Jacob took a moment to recover from the rejection before going back to his jovial appearance from earlier. There certainly was some truth, Sammy thought, to the saying that merchants were simply thespians who preferred fortune to fame.

“Ah, well, what was it… news, you were after?” he said.

Sammy nodded. “Yes, did I overhear that you have travelled from Hopschtat?” she asked.

His smile turned crooked. “Didn’ yer old ma tell ya it’s rude to eavesdrop?” he asked.

“She did not,” Sammy replied, her smile slight and eyes bright.

He lasted all of a second before cracking, boisterous laughter pouring out. As he calmed down, he smacked Ant on the back, heavy enough to get a wince out of him. “Good thing she turned ya down or I might’ve left the ol’ business to her,” Jacob said to Ant. “What do I always say? Wit and confidence—two’f the three pillars of trading.”

Julie got caught on that sentence, curious what the third was. As if Jacob could hear her thoughts, he turned back to Sammy, humour in his eyes.

“And what d’ya reckon the last is, eh?” he asked.

Sammy brought a finger to her lips, and then pointed it at him. “Starting capital.”

His mouth split into a grin so broad that it made his cheeks bulge. “Go on, then, ya’ve amused me enough for a bit of gossip. What’s interesting to ya?”

Sammy feigned a moment of thought before she said, “Well, when we left, there was some talk going on regarding the Princess.”

Julie couldn’t believe what she’d heard, freezing up, mind blanking. If Jacob noticed her reaction, he didn’t show it. “Ah, she’s a popular one, ain’t she? Yeah, there was some thing or another going on when we left. Mind me, this is just old men chatting, but seems the Royal purse was buying up a fair pile more supplies than normal, ya get me?”

Sammy nodded, her brow furrowed and mouth a touch pursed. “Mind us, this is just young women chatting, but we heard the Princess may have left the Royal Palace.”

Jacob held her gaze for a long moment be he broke into another grin. “Friends with good ears, eh? Yeah—a pilgrimage, I heard. O’ course, every’ne knows it’s just an excuse.”

“Really? What for?” Sammy asked, her surprise appearing very natural.

He seemed to be weighing something in his head, tilting one way and then the other. Coming to a decision, he said, “Well, she’s a pretty lass with a bit of a brain, right? Hard to believe she’s not engaged, right? So, the way we old men see it, she’s on the look out for a Prince Charming.”

Sammy nodded along. “That does seem reasonable,” she said.

He replied with a little smile and then leaned forward in his seat. “And what are ya young women seeing that our old eyes don’t, eh?” he asked.

Sammy held his gaze for a long moment before she leaned closer herself. “We heard she has eloped with a member of her Royal Guard, everything now a show until she is formally struck from the line of succession.”

It took him over a second to react, pulling back and bursting into a hearty laugh, eyes scrunched, shoulders shaking. “What do I always say? No such thing as an idle mind,” he said, clapping Ant on the back.

Sammy thought over that saying and then asked, “What do you mean?”

Jacob calmed down, but held on to his good humour, smiling. “No ’fence, but only a bunch of ladies could come up with that story. Gotta fill the time at all those tea parties some way, eh?” he said with a knowing look in his eye.

Sammy’s mouth pulled to the side, not quite a pout yet still expressing a modicum of displeasure. “I was rather sure,” she murmured, just loud enough for the others to hear.

“Oh, who knows? World’s a crazy place,” Jacob said.

“Well, if we happen to meet again once the truth is known, we can have a good laugh over which of us is right and wrong,” Sammy said, and she eased her chair back as she did.

Jacob enthusiastically nodded. “All too right,” he said.

Julie a step behind, Sammy was first on her feet and she offered Julie a hand up—a hand which then didn’t let go. Jacob certainly noticed that, but he didn’t react as far as Sammy could tell. “Thank you for your time, and have a good evening,” Sammy said, giving a shallow bow.

“Yeah, same to ya,” Jacob said, gesturing as if tipping his hat.

James and Ant gave their own parting words a beat after, leaving Julie to awkwardly give hers last. Sammy then led Julie to an empty table.

For a minute, they just say there in silence, Sammy looking around at the other patrons, Julie lost in thought. Eventually, Julie found the courage to speak. “Do you really have to do that?”

Sammy drew out a hum before she said, “No. Would you prefer I did not in the future?”

Julie mentally stuttered, not quite expecting that blunt response. “I mean, um, yeah, I would… I think.”

“If I may, what is it in particular you dislike? That I asked after the Princess, or that I said she eloped—or who I said she eloped with?” Sammy asked, her pacing erratic as she said what came to mind. Realising that, she focused her thoughts. “My apologies. I really am unsure, not at all trying to overwhelm you.”

Julie appreciated that apology, having been, if not overwhelmed, then at least whelmed by that string of questions. Taking a moment to think it through and reflect on her own feelings, she put together an answer.

“It’s just… I get anxious, or maybe scared? Um, when you… bring up the Princess. I mean, if we get caught…” Julie said, trailing off.

Sammy nodded along, entirely focused on Julie and what she’d said. Once Sammy was sure that Julie wasn’t going to pick up that sentence, she replied, “You think I could talk myself into trouble that I cannot talk myself out of?”

Julie almost bit her tongue, mouth moving to deny that before her thoughts could catch up, but Sammy stopped her, holding up a hand.

“My apologies for teasing you,” Sammy said, humour on her lips. Then she reached over and rested her hand on top of Julie’s. “I certainly do not want you to have such unpleasant feelings, so I will try to avoid the topic where I can. Does that reassure you?”

Julie slowly thought it over. As far as she could remember, Sammy had always kept her word. And especially the way Sammy had put it, it was hardly the first time she had made it clear she wanted Julie to be happy, so it really was convincing.

“I think so,” Julie softly said.

“I am glad to hear that,” Sammy replied.

After a pleasant moment of silence between them, they ordered supper—a vegetable stew with bread and small beer—and then returned to their room.

Julie took the opportunity to do some more washing, Sammy reading a book from her luggage. That surprised Julie a bit, having not noticed Sammy read other than their stay back at the hotel, but that surprise wasn’t why she had to stare.

Sammy sitting in bed, dressed in a nightdress, covers pulled up to her waist, book resting on her knees, hand idly brushing loose hair behind her ear, lit by warm candlelight: Julie thought it could have been a famous painting. The sight mesmerised her for a handful of seconds before she broke away, heading to the laundry room.

Left behind, Sammy’s gaze slid to the closing door, a smile on her lips.

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mialbowy

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