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The next couple of days brought them through a handful of small villages and hamlets. “With the cities ever swelling, these parts are sometimes called, if you would forgive my creative translation, the abandoned abundance,” Sammy said. Julie could understand why as they traversed the paths between fields and orchards, seeming like there was far more food than people to tend to it. When Julie voiced that thought, Sammy spoke about labourers moving between the fields and the coasts, an ebb and flow that followed the seasons.

By the end of the second day, though, the landscape had become mostly wild, fields fenced off for cattle, the trees old growth. They were lucky enough that the village had a tavern and the owner offered them a side room to sleep in. Sammy, not one to selfishly accept charity, helped bring up barrels from the basement; of course, Julie couldn’t simply watch and so helped too.

Come morning, the pleasant weather they had mostly enjoyed gave way to a gloomy sky. Knowing they might get caught in the rain, Julie insisted they brought along food more edible than hard tack—not that Sammy resisted, all too happy to enjoy a picnic with her precious jewel.

However, Sammy did give a solemn warning: “We must take care for wolves here on out.”

Julie took it to heart, attaching her scabbard to the saddle once they were outside the village.

As they travelled through the morning, the landscape became hillier, full of rises and falls, even some small cliffs where huge chunks of rock jutted out. While there were still pastures (mostly of goats), they weren’t as closely packed any more and kept a noticeable distance from the thick forest that formed a meandering wall to their south.

It surprised Julie just how big the forest was. Schtat certainly had grand woodland of its own, particularly the Royal hunting grounds, but that was a forest full of trails and paths whereas this forest looked to truly be wild, overgrown.

The perfect lair for wolves.

Although the odd drizzle slowed their progress, they made it to the village Sammy had hoped to reach a short while after midday. With it looking like the on-off drizzling would continue all day, though, Sammy guessed they wouldn’t make it much farther, dirt roads (if they could even be called that) already turning to mud.

Having similar thoughts of her own, Julie asked, “Are we going to stay here for the day?”

Sammy idly stared at the window, following the droplets as they raced down the pane. “We can at least make it to the next stop, I would say.”

Julie made a face. “We don’t have to rush,” she muttered.

“There are people dying—we do not have time to waste,” Sammy replied, unthinking.

It took Julie all of a second to realise that those words sounded familiar. Shame quickly set in, so reminded of her outburst from not even three weeks earlier. Like a scab yet to heal and now picked, it stung again. But what hurt most was the reminder that Sammy could die on their journey, tightly gripping Julie’s heart, every beat painful.

Sammy didn’t notice the turmoil she’d caused. That off-hand remark really hadn’t been said in spite—Sammy knew Julie cared about Lilith’s victims and so was trying to make the journey quick without being reckless.

By the time Sammy looked over, Julie had a blank look on her face that persisted even after their eyes met. Although Sammy thought something was wrong (she was rather used to seeing Julie with at least a small smile), she didn’t press the issue, attributing it to the poor weather rather than what she’d said.

In silence, they waited for a break in the rain. When it came, they quickly saddled up and set out, their already-slow pace worsened by the deteriorating road.

Fortunately, they made it to the next village where they found an inn with a stable. An old building, it had seen better years: a few buckets were scattered around, catching leaks; the large beam running across the main room had cracked, now held up by a pillar; the grimy floor had a noticeable clean patch where Sammy thought the wood had probably rotted through and been replaced.

In its favour, it kept out the wind and most of the rain.

Once Sammy negotiated a room, they went and dropped off the packs. Julie then went back to check on the horses, leaving Sammy to jokingly wish that Julie paid her as much attention. Only, that fantasy got the better of her, thoughts running wild.

Oh Sammy imagined lying naked on the bed, Julie wiping her down, brushing her hair, meticulously checking her over for any sores. Yet, rather than rouse intense feelings, it filled her a calm longing. Being so cared for, she could only wish for it to one day become true.

When Julie returned, she simply found Sammy again staring out the window, lost in thought.

The silence between them didn’t linger, Julie eventually speaking. “Those horses are pretty good.”

Broken from her thoughts, Sammy stifled the spike of jealousy. “They are indeed.”

One second trickled by, then another, and Julie was unwilling to wait for a third. “Um, do they have names?”

“They do. Your one is Hope, and my one is Faith—my mother named them,” Sammy said.

“Her Majesty did?” Julie asked, a frown touching her eyebrows.

Sammy looked over and found the sight rather cute, a smile coming to her. “They are, in fact, my parents’ personal steeds for when they accompany the Grand Hunt. My father told me to take whatever would be necessary, but I doubt he expected to lose his most precious horses,” Sammy said, laughter in her tone.

Julie could only look on in shock before finally breaking into a chuckle—and what a pleasant sound it was, Sammy thought. “That’s very much the sort of thing you’d do,” Julie said.

“Thank you,” Sammy replied, taking it as a compliment whether it was intended as one or not.

And that set Julie off again, chuckling as she gently shook her head.

The silence that then settled felt comfortable to Sammy. There was nothing she wanted to say, content to simply gaze upon her precious jewel, admiring the many facets. Oh how she fancied the soft outline of Julie’s face, full of curves. If only, she thought, her education had included painting portraits—how sweet it would have been to put to canvas the beauty stirring in her chest.

Under such a tender (yet intense) gaze, Julie could only hold out for so long before succumbing to a blush, turning away. In doing so, she exposed such a beautiful neck. Sammy really couldn’t believe her own good fortune, treated to such a sight, setting her heart to a steady thumping. As if to indulge Sammy further, Julie then brought up a hand and tucked some loose strands of hair behind her ear.

Sammy didn’t know what to do. The feelings in her chest overflowed to the point that she knew she must be in love, and that realisation was so overwhelming. She became unable to control herself, tears pooling, lips trembling. After a shaky breath, she managed to pull herself back to some semblance of together; a few blinks cleared away most of the tears.

Unaware of the turmoil she’d caused, Julie continued to look anywhere but at Sammy.

In the moments of silence following, Sammy diagnosed herself, confident with the answer she came to. So she rifled through her pack and then excused herself; when she returned, she took out a book to pass the time until supper.

With the “picnic” having gone uneaten at lunchtime, they decided to eat it in their room. That worked out rather well, Sammy thought, the main room of the inn turning rather noisy by the end of the afternoon.

Of course, Sammy insisted they still spread out a blanket on the floor. Julie couldn’t suppress her amusement, and Sammy cherished it, those little smiles sustenance for her growing love. Feeling emboldened, Sammy made sure to provide ample flirting to go with the meal. She would break off bits of bread for Julie, making sure their hands brushed as she handed it over; she’d cut off little pieces of the ham and feed it to Julie—and make sure she left a smudge of gravy on Julie’s lips, watching as the tip of the tongue darted out to wipe it off; she took charge of the bottle of petty wine, pouring out but a sip so Julie would have to keep asking for more (and Julie looked to be on the verge of laughter every time Sammy handed her back a nearly empty cup, which only further encouraged Sammy’s behaviour).

Even with so few words said, the two were in good spirits by the time they finished. Smiling had become their natural expressions, a rosiness to their cheeks, their gazes constantly drawn to each other only to dart away if they ever met.

Julie got to her feet first to tidy up, wiping clean what they had used and packing it up. Sammy watched her for a bit longer before picking herself up. Returning to her bed, she got comfortable and then went back to reading.

However, as evening came, Sammy struggled to keep her focus on the book. At first, she just felt a tension in her stomach, but, after some hour, her breasts began to ache, uncomfortable. She finally gave in and told Julie she would be bathing, and so she stripped before carefully wiping down her body. But, even without her corset on, the tenderness persisted.

Any doubts she may have had about her diagnosis were cleared by these latest symptoms.

Nightfall soon followed, both of them settling into bed. Heavy clouds kept away any trickles of moonlight. Despite that, Sammy picked out Julie’s silhouette, followed the rise and fall of her chest.

“Goodnight, Lia.”

“G’night, Sammy,” Julie mumbled back.

Sammy softly smiled as she continued watching, listening. So familiar with the routine, she knew the very moment Julie fell asleep, at which point she murmured, “Sleep well.”

In the silence that followed—Julie’s breaths, the night chorus of insects, distant chatter fading in and out elsewhere in the inn—Sammy found dreaming to be rather distant. Thoughts crowded her mind, no matter how much she ignored them and how often she swept them out, and her body refused to find any position comfortable, always something to complain about.

So Sammy always returned to Julie. Everything else quieted when Sammy looked at her, thought about her. And Sammy was reminded of the earlier revelation: that, now, she truly loved Julie. She couldn’t quite decide how much of that had come from the bouts of mania she’d been inflicted with, but there was a truth to it, humbling and warm.

With the novelty having worn off, no longer seeking every opportunity to lure out a kiss, Sammy still wanted Julie. She wanted Julie in her sight, at her side, hands joined, voice in her ear, gentle laughter.

A new kind of want that Sammy hadn’t experienced before.

Especially now, with her carnal desires reduced to embers, she still yearned to be touched, to be comforted. Her imagination getting away from her again, Sammy wished to hold Julie, to feel the warmth of her body, the warmth of her breath, to feel the pounding of her heart and have both their hearts beat in unison.

She didn’t want to feel alone. She’d never known a person could feel so lonely when their beloved was so near, that a mere stride was such a distance to a pining heart. It suddenly made perfect sense to her why so many had written such sappy poems over the centuries.

Eventually, Sammy’s thoughts dissolved into dreams.

Rain drizzled through the night, wind howled, rattled at the windows and slipped through the cracks. When morning came, Sammy pulled the covers up to her chin as she woke up. Stuck between the lingering drowsiness and her natural rhythm, she slipped in and out of sleep, fragments of dreams coming in and out of focus, until she finally registered the unpleasant feeling in her gut.

Sitting up, her gaze found Julie already awake; Sammy almost clicked her tongue, disappointed she wouldn't get to indulge in Julie’s sleepy expressions. As for Julie, she stood beside the window, looking out as her hand held the curtain slightly open.

“Good morning, Lia,” Sammy softly said.

Julie let go of the curtain, the room darkening as it settled back against the window. “Morning,” she said, turning around.

The thoughts Sammy had been mulling before falling asleep returned to her upon seeing that face. Love truly did give meaning to her feelings, she thought, yet nothing had truly changed. Or rather, barely anything had changed from the day before, and barely anything had changed between the day before and the day before that day; but it was the sum of all those barelies that laid bare her affection.

Feeling the weight of Sammy’s thoughtful gaze, Julie squirmed. At first, her smile turned awkward, then her eyes found other places to look, then she gave up entirely and looked to the side, bringing up a hand to hide behind, brushing her short fringe.

Sammy had come out of her thoughts halfway through, but enjoyed watching too much to stop.

Julie was soon spared by the complaints Sammy’s body made. Finally breaking away, Sammy lifted her covers and checked her sanitary cloth. As she expected, it was fairly soiled. Fortunately, there looked to be nothing unusual about her flow, even with all the changes that travelling had brought.

Once Sammy had seen enough, she lowered the covers and looked back at Julie. There, she found a rather concerned expression and a mouth that wanted to speak, but lacked any words to say, much resembling a fish.

Taking pity on Julie, Sammy smiled. “My monthly has made its timely arrival.”

“Right,” Julie mumbled. After a second, she turned around, already striding towards the door as she said, “I’ll get you some fresh water.”

Sammy wasn’t sure why that would be useful, but nevertheless said, “Thank you.”

So Julie left the room, bucket in hand.

Thinking further on it, Sammy guessed Julie merely wanted to give her some privacy; with that in mind, she turned in place, legs sliding out the covers and feet finding the floor. She didn’t exactly feel weak, but the dull aching near her stomach begged her to curl up, fought her as she pushed herself to her feet.

That impulse soon died down, letting her focus. From her pack, she took out a fresh sanitary cloth and a leather pouch, and then returned to the bed, perching on the edge of it. After a breath, she set about cleaning up and replacing her soiled cloth, neatly packing it into the pouch.

Altogether, that took Sammy a handful of seconds (years of practice behind her). Considering how she had no sooner pulled up her undergarments than Julie opened the door, Julie was rather fortunate for Sammy’s quickness.

“I’m back,” Julie said, shuffling through the barely opened door.

Julie had been spared the sight of a princess with her knickers around her ankles, but not the sight of long, slender legs, shown in full as the bottom half of the nightgown pooled at Sammy’s waist.

And Sammy knew exactly when Julie saw that sight. Oh how Julie’s eyes widened, mouth froze open, body stilling—Sammy thoroughly enjoyed the reaction. Not only that, but she relished the attention as Julie continued to stare. She even played to it, slowly and deliberately lifting one leg up, then brought down her hands, holding the scrunched hem of her nightgown as if about to pull it higher.

That last bit of teasing broke Julie out of her stupor. Her face near-enough glowing, she turned away, the water in the bucket almost sloshing out. Sammy giggled, all too pleased with herself.

“Sorry, I should’ve knocked,” Julie mumbled.

“Did you enjoy the sights?” Sammy asked.

Rather than answer with words, Julie bowed her head, the redness on her cheeks saying everything that needed to be said. Without quite looking towards Sammy, Julie took a few steps and eased down the bucket. “Here we go.”

“Thank you,” Sammy said, still unsure what she was to do with it.

Julie straightened up and turned to face the doorway. “Are you… done?” she asked.

Sammy hummed a note and then said, “I am.”

“Then could you, um, be presentable?” Julie half-said, half-asked.

“Was that not enough of a present for you?” Sammy clicked her tongue. “My, how lewd my lover is.”

“That’s not—” Julie said, turning around, only to stop herself halfway. She took in a deep breath and blew it out. “Please, it’s too early to tease me so much.”

Sammy disagreed—those reactions having been very amusing—but kept that to herself. “Very well,” she said and brushed down her nightgown. Then, turning her gaze to the bucket, she asked, “What am I to do with the water?”

Julie’s reply came only after a pause. “I don’t know,” she mumbled.

Unable to stop herself, Sammy giggled; she eventually put her thoughts back to practical topics. “Say, it is best to wash the cloths quickly, is it not?” she asked.

That question turned Julie around, finally looking at Sammy again. Julie showed a confused expression and an unspoken question lingered on her parted mouth for a moment, only for her face to then be engulfed by a flash of realisation; that was closely followed by an avoidant gaze.

“Um, yeah,” Julie said, barely above a whisper and directed more to the floor than Sammy.

Sammy nodded. “Then, would you accompany me? I must change first, but shan’t take long,” she said, and she pushed herself to her feet.

A look of panic overcame Julie at those words, her hands coming up as she said, “W-what?”

Sammy offered her a small smile. “I would like to wash the soiled cloth,” she said.

“No! We can, um, just… buy new ones,” Julie said.

“That is rather frivolous, and I sincerely doubt they sell such fine cotton in these parts,” Sammy said.

Julie had no immediate reply, but eventually took a step forward. “I-I’ll wash it.”

Sammy raised a hand, stopping her from coming any closer. “Would you have let me wash yours?”

Again, it took Julie more than a moment to go through the question, her expression showing flickers of her thoughts as she did. Rather than amused, Sammy felt a kind of guilt this time, Julie seemingly in anguish.

It made Sammy wonder if she was being unreasonable. However, princesses were rather known for being unreasonable; more importantly, she herself was known for being very unreasonable, something which Julie was very familiar with by now.

Even as Sammy joked to herself, though, she knew she was being reasonable, that she was no longer a princess and Julie no longer her servant. And Sammy knew that the most convincing argument for Julie was always one of reciprocation, so she had made that one. In truth, she simply thought of it as a personal thing—she would hardly ask Julie to help her after any other bodily function, not unless she was incapable of doing it herself.

Despite what Julie may have thought, Sammy was confident she was capable of washing a cloth.

While Sammy had mulled over those thoughts, Julie had found her resolve, finally giving a reply. “Okay,” she quietly said.

In their dayclothes, Sammy and Julie soon after left the room, tracking down the missus innkeeper—Lucia. When they did, Sammy was treated to Lucia relaying how Julie had come through earlier, saying water over and over in a strange accent, making stranger gestures.

“Your Sonlettian left a strong impression,” Sammy said when Julie asked what was so funny.

Julie didn’t appreciate that answer.

Returning to the matter at hand, Sammy asked what Julie told her to ask, and Lucia handed over a key to the laundry room. There, Sammy found a small washtub and a large tub of clean-looking water.

A sombre affair, Julie talked Sammy through the basics from the opposite side of the room, sounding as if presiding over the funeral for the last of her innocence. Sammy found that thought rather funny, but kept it to herself.

The task far from complicated, it didn’t take Sammy long to wash the soiled cloth and rinse the pouch, yet Julie looked far too exhausted by the end. Taking pity on her, Sammy held back from talking on their silent walk back to the room (returning the key on the way).

For breakfast, they ate a porridge sweetened with raisins and drank water (Julie made sure to have Sammy ask for it to be boiled, not wanting a repeat of their first night). Meanwhile, the drizzle continued outside. In a simple agreement, they put off travelling for the day, handing over a few more coins to the innkeepers.

Once back at the room, Julie didn’t stay long as she went to check on the horses, leaving Sammy behind. The world oh so quiet amidst the rain, Sammy simply snuggled under the covers and watched the droplets run down the window. Soon, even that distraction abandoned her, the rain coming to an end. So she curled up and tried to balance the lingering ache of cramps with the encroaching loneliness.

A while later, gentle knocking broke Sammy out of her trance. “Can I come in?” Julie asked, voice muffled.

And the sound of that voice brought a smile to Sammy. “You may,” she said.

Very slowly, Julie eased the door open ajar before poking her head through, sparing Sammy a rather timid glance. Seemingly only then satisfied, Julie opened the door more and stepped inside.

A brittle silence sprang up, always on the verge of being broken as Julie looked at Sammy, an unspoken word on her lips, yet Julie managed to busy herself doing nothing for the better part of a minute.

“How are you?” Julie finally asked.

Sammy made a noise that spoke of her complicated condition. “More than anything, bored,” she said.

“Can I… help?” Julie said.

Mulling it over, Sammy thought through a few things until something stood out to her. “You know, I rather enjoyed watching your swordsmanship… or should that be swordswomanship? Well, the rain has stopped for now, so if it is not too much to ask,” Sammy said.

Although Julie showed surprise at the rambling, she quickly settled into a smile. “No, I mean, if you want to watch—”

“I do,” Sammy said.

Julie paused at the interruption, but then nodded, smiling. “Sure.”

With that, Julie picked up her pack and Sammy put on a coat and the two headed out. On the way, Sammy spoke with Lucia, telling her what they were doing and asking where a good place for that would be; Lucia suggested the chicken pen—so long as the hens weren’t out looking for worms.

While not a large space, the backyard had enough room to swing a sword around (with room to spare for Sammy). The chickens weren’t co-operative at first, but Sammy shepherded them to a corner where they then huddled around her.

Closed in on all sides by low buildings, Sammy fell into a world that consisted only of Julie, transfixed. More so than the time before, Sammy found such beauty and grace in every movement. Like that, time lost all meaning to her, only brought back to the world by the raindrops splashing off of Julie’s (already damp with sweat) arms.

They came to a silent agreement to return to the room. By the time they got there, a steady pitter-patter fell against the window..

“Could you… while I… wash,” Julie mumbled, pointing to the bed.

A side-thought, Sammy glanced at the bucket of water that finally had a purpose. “Of course,” Sammy replied, smiling, and then she did as asked of her.

Sitting on the bed, knees pulled up, Sammy turned her head towards the wall and closed her eyes. She listened to the rustle of clothing, the drips falling from the cloth into the bucket, hearing even the sound of skin being scrubbed.

But there was also a scent in the air, subtle, one Sammy didn’t notice right away. “Do you smell something sweet?” she asked.

Julie sniffed a couple of time. “Nothing… sweet?” she said, sounding confused. “Maybe someone’s baking?”

“It is more like a flower,” Sammy muttered, speaking aloud rather than speaking to Julie, “or perhaps wine—a touch of earthiness.”

Julie had nothing else to say and Sammy said no more, the topic put to rest. Shortly thereafter, Julie finished wiping herself down and dressed again, which meant Sammy could look at her again, smile returning to her.

“Did that… help at all?” Julie asked, lightly gesturing along with her words.

Sammy nodded. “I forgot all my troubles while gazing upon your splendid figure,” she said, the words rolling off her tongue rather naturally.

Julie fidgeted at the praise, turning away with an almost displeased expression, Sammy thought, but she couldn’t think why.

“Is there anything else I can do?” Julie said.

Sammy tried to think, but her mind felt cluttered, averse to focusing. On the other hand, her heart had no such qualms and so she ended up listening to her feelings. “Could you touch me?”

A strange silence followed, Julie neither willing to look at Sammy nor speak.

However, Sammy took that silence as a willingness, one that merely lacked a means to express itself. So she gave it a means. Getting back to her feet, she stood up with her back to Julie. “If you feel comfortable doing so, could you hold me?”

And Sammy waited.

One second became two became ten, unable to hear anything but the sounds of rain and wind, every breath heavy, every thought questioning if she had correctly understood Julie. Soon, she convinced herself she had simply decided how Julie felt. That doubt caught, inflaming her heart to beat heavier, loud in her ear, making it all she could hear. It became overwhelming to the point it took all of her focus, this drumming.

Only for everything to shatter as Sammy felt a hand on her shoulder. She couldn’t think, couldn’t move, only feeling that touch as if pricked by a needle.

The intensity of the sensation quickly faded, though, and in its place came a rush of warmth, thawing her out. Another hand held her other shoulder, and then a pressure fell upon her back.

“Like this?” Julie whispered, her breath teasing where Sammy’s neck and shoulder met.

Sammy resisted the urge to shiver, only for it to come out as a shudder. Before she knew it, her eyes had teared up, flickers of memories threatening to spill.

“Are you okay?” Julie asked.

And Sammy felt such concern in that tone of voice, in how the grip tightened on her shoulders and how the pressure on her back grew. It was too much. Overflowing with selfish greed, needing to be comforted, Sammy reached up and (one after the other) guided Julie’s hands down until they both rested on Sammy’s stomach.

“Am I disgusting?” Sammy whispered.

She felt Julie’s head move behind her, followed by a quietly said, “No.”

Sammy smiled, but it didn’t come close to reaching her eyes. “I would be sequestered in my room on these first days. No guests would be permitted, not even my tutors. A maid would come by three times a day with my meals and, after three days, the wooden bin with the soiled cloths would be taken away—I believe to be burnt in its entirety.”

Pausing there, Sammy struggled to draw in her breath, throat as swollen as her eyes. But she managed, if only to bring closure to what she had been saying.

“Yet, even as the world tried to make me feel disgusted with myself, I refused. All my life, I have refused to accept that who I am is unnatural or wrong. All my life, all I have wanted is someone who accepts me as I am. So, please may I say again, I am so very happy that it is you here with me. If not, I could not be so comfortable and happy.”

Silence followed Sammy’s words, but she didn’t care: nothing mattered to her with Julie embracing her. At peace, every worry felt hollow and she doubted every doubt.

The Royal Palace had never been her home; it was here, in Julie’s arms.

Just when Sammy thought nothing could sway her from her peace, she felt something touch the back of her head—and then heard a kiss.

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