Julie had been lost before she and Sammy had even left the Royal Palace. Very little made sense, nothing went as it should. She couldn’t so simply describe her feelings as “happy” or “sad”, often too busy to actually think over how she felt; however, even when she had the time to think, it felt like there weren’t the words to describe how she truly felt. Rather than emotions, she had often felt compulsions rise up inside of her, unbidden desires, impulses to act.
This was one of those times.
Holding Sammy, listening to such a cruel tale, Julie’s heart pounded painfully in her chest. From what she knew of the Princess, she could think of no punishment more horrible than to be locked away alone. Her Princess—who loved to tease, loved to smile and laugh—was put through that every month for years.
Overwhelmingly intense, Julie felt the need to comfort Sammy. But she already had Sammy in her arms and didn’t trust herself to say the right thing. Then she remembered what Sammy wanted, always asked for, and all the reservations she usually had stayed silent.
Raising her chin, Julie left a soft kiss on the back of Sammy’s head. In her arms, she felt Sammy still, only to then feel Sammy lean back into her.
“Say, did you do that because you wished to, or because you thought I wished for you to?” Sammy softly asked.
Julie thought for a moment before she said, “D’you feel better?”
Sammy hummed a note. “I do,” she said.
“That’s all I wanted,” Julie said, pulling Sammy that little tighter as she spoke.
Whether or not that was the answer Sammy wanted, no reply came. Julie didn’t mind the silence, though, didn’t mind feeling Sammy’s warmth bleed through the clothes separating them. In particular, she came to be fascinated by the feeling under her hands; Sammy’s stomach reminded Julie of her bed back at the garrison: a thin softness atop something hard.
And that was so very comforting to Julie. She’d long held Sammy as the epitome of feminine beauty, yet even Sammy had muscles. When Julie thought of it like that, she felt ridiculous—Sammy could hardly carry such heavy packs with ease if she was all softness. Still, it made Julie feel better about herself to realise that.
Besides that, Julie just felt strangely at peace. Even though she was the who held Sammy, it was like Sammy was holding her back, a reassuring and warm pressure against her, comforting.
As silence settled (the two still joined), Julie’s thoughts drifted back-and-forth across the morning. Only, she became stuck on that kiss which she had so freely given. Never before had she volunteered a kiss. It had always been Sammy who had asked for one first, Sammy who had set the mood, coaxed it out. That wasn’t to say Julie regretted any of those times, just that they had been, in a way, rewards for Sammy for being patient and caring—for knowing how Julie felt and what to say to put her at ease. So Julie was a little bit pleased with herself, feeling like she’d taken a small step forwards in their relationship.
As if Sammy heard those thoughts and wanted to test them, she broke the silence and said, “You know, another kiss would help me feel even better.”
Lost in thought, it took Julie a moment to react, breaking into a gentle chuckle. Yet her heart began to beat more heavily, straddling the line between anxiety and anticipation at that request. “Really? Where d’you want me to kiss you?” she asked.
Sammy hummed a note and then said, “Well, there is not a place on my body I would not wish for you to kiss.”
Giddy from the intense feelings, Julie let out another few chuckles. After she settled, a smile lingered on her lips, reaching her eyes. As far as a kiss went, she was rather limited in her choices while keeping hold of Sammy. Not wanting to place it in the same place, she let her gaze wander over the little of Sammy she could see, which was mostly loose hair.
In the end, Julie lowered her head and kissed Sammy on the shoulder.
Although there was a shirt between, Sammy swore she could feel the warmth and softness of those lips, sending out a warm tingle through the rest of her body. Such a precious touch, more tender than any she’d felt before. Priceless.
“Perhaps… another?” Sammy whispered, voice light.
That straw broke the camel’s back and Julie dissolved into laughter, squeezing Sammy tighter as she did. A most beautiful sound, Sammy thought, smiling as she enjoyed it so near to her ear.
Once silence returned, Sammy brought up her hands to rest atop of Julie’s. Then she started humming—a pleasant tune that Julie quickly recognised—as she swayed side to side, Julie following her lead after a moment. Who led and who followed ebbed back and forth between the two of them until they fell into the same pace.
And whenever Sammy felt a particularly painful cramp, she squeezed Julie’s hands, and Julie would squeeze her back. Something that small meant the world to Sammy. Unlike ever before, she didn’t have to focus on the pain, could focus on Julie.
And when Sammy focused on Julie, she couldn’t help but smile, but feel so safe. She loved being in love with Julie. It almost felt unfair, finding such happiness in merely a person’s presence.
They stayed like that, gently moving, close, for the better part of an hour. It may have gone on even longer if Sammy didn’t need to excuse herself, but she did—the on-and-off drizzling outside hadn’t helped matters.
Like a puppy, Julie dutifully followed Sammy to the water closet, where she waited outside. Afterwards, they returned to the room. As much as Sammy would have loved to carry on what they had been doing before, she instead settled down on the bed, snuggling amongst the thin duvet with her book. Lost for a moment, Julie eventually made herself comfortable by the window; nothing much happened outside, but she had stood guard many times before and the rain was vastly more interesting than squinting at every rustle on a dark night.
Although hard to tell, midday came around and so Julie found Lucia, managing to ask to have lunch in their room. That went well enough, but, when it came to what food, Julie was entirely clueless at the words Lucia spouted. Thus Sammy had to be involved—and was once again amused by Lucia “complimenting” Julie’s Sonlettian.
The afternoon saw the rain clear up and a bit of sunshine breaking through. Other than another trip to the water closet and the laundry room, the two stayed in the room until supper. As worried as Julie was, Sammy wanted a break from the dreary bedroom, so they ate out in the main room of the inn.
By late evening, the worst of the discomfort had passed for Sammy; she made sure to tell Julie that, and to thank her for making the day so very pleasant.
“I didn’t really do anything,” Julie mumbled.
Sammy giggled before settling into a smile. “Then, please, don’t really do anything next month too, and let me not really do anything for you.”
Unable to come up with a reply to that, Julie turned away with a pout. That made Sammy all-too-pleased with herself and it was probably for the best that Julie didn’t see the smug expression.
The next morning, with Julie still worrying, the two of them saddled up the horses and attached their packs. On the way out of the village, they stocked up on horse feed and bought some cheese and butter, as well as flatbread to go with it (coca, the baker called it), and some sweet potatoes (a local delicacy, Sammy said).
Once they passed the last building, they finally mounted their horses. Unlike before, though, Sammy rode side-saddle—that did not reassure Julie. However, Sammy insisted she was fine and so on they went, following the river.
As expected, the country roads had turned to mud. While they still made progress, it wasn’t enough to get them to the next village before the horses needed a break, so they stopped under the (relative) dryness of a particularly large cedar tree. When they dismounted, Julie fussed over Sammy before then checking over the horses; being Julie’s top priority made Sammy childishly pleased.
Making use of the break (and the river), Sammy tended to a bit of laundry. Julie, not wanting to think about what Sammy was doing, took out her backsword and did some light practice with it.
Midway through, Julie (rather expectedly) noticed Sammy watching her. Most of the embarrassment had worn off by now, yet, whenever their eyes met, Julie felt a twinge of something and her gaze would linger on Sammy for just a moment.
By the end, Julie had worked up a slight sweat, but had been careful not to tire herself out. While putting away the sword, she took out a cloth; lightly wetting it in the river, she wiped herself down as best she could without taking off her clothes, the chill welcome.
“As beautiful as always,” Sammy said.
Julie stilled at those words. Impulsively, she didn’t believe them, empty words meant to flatter her. Even when she thought it over, she didn’t think she was wrong. She asked herself what beauty Sammy could really see in her—what beauty the Princess who chased delicate noble daughters could see in her.
Afraid of asking Sammy that question, Julie just wrung out the cloth and pretended she hadn’t heard anything. As if picking up on that, Sammy said no more, and the two carried on a comfortable silence.
Once the horses were rested and had grazed enough, they travelled until midday. Rather than stop at a village, they decided on having a picnic—that is, Sammy suggested it and Julie agreed without question.
With dry sticks plucked off the trees, Julie started a fire and they roasted the sweet potatoes and toasted their sandwiches. As they did, Sammy noticed that Julie paid her more attention than usual—asking which sweet potato she wanted, how much cheese to put in, if she was thirsty—and she took advantage of that. After all, she was a princess and princesses were rather skilled at being spoiled.
The warm and sunny weather of the next couple of days saw their pace pick up, even as Julie kept checking if Sammy needed a break; Sammy sometimes indulged, even though her only lingering problem was that she didn’t trust the sanitary cloth to stay in place if she rode astride. But, by the end of the fifth day, it seemed to Sammy that her monthly had made a timely departure. For the first time, she almost felt disappointed, having enjoyed being the focus of Julie’s attention.
When they set off early the next morning, they were greeted by a very fresh breeze that confused Julie. Everything about the wind seemed off to her: too cold, smelled strange, and it even had an odd taste to it. She held off for a while, but eventually asked, “Can you smell something weird?”
Sammy raised her chin a touch and sniffed. After showing a puzzled expression for a moment, she burst into a smile. “Ah, you have not travelled beyond Schtat much, have you?”
“Never,” Julie replied.
Sammy giggled, the sound sweet enough that Julie didn’t have the heart to be annoyed, even though she felt like she was the butt of a joke.
“Well,” Sammy said, “it is a sea breeze. We are… fairly near to the coast—a day, maybe two.”
“Oh,” Julie mumbled. She’d certainly heard about seas. She had even heard about the smell of the sea before, just didn’t recognise the smell as salty.
Around them, crop fields and pastures still made up most of the landscape with a dense forest to the south, and they still followed a (by now) fairly large river. The last few villages had been larger too, dirt path now paved, no longer a trip in solitude as they often passed wagons and people.
After passing through a few villages, they came to a sprawling town; it clung to both sides of the river as well as the roads leading into it, the buildings a mishmash of styles and materials, sandstone houses beside brick-and-mortar stores beside wooden stables. The actual roads themselves were much the same, cobblestone that was a mosaic of colours and textures. Carts crowded the roads, pushing the streams of people to the sides, stalls jutting out like rocks in a river. If all that wasn’t enough to offend a person, the wall of noise and lingering stench would—not even a strong breeze from the coast enough to clear it.
All Julie could do was tightly hold Sammy’s hand as she was led from the stable on the outskirts into the town proper. Fortunately, they only followed the main road for a bit before slipping down a side road, and then down another.
Sammy squeezed Julie’s hand and said, “It is rather more intense than Hopschtat, isn’t it?”
Julie returned the squeeze. “Yeah,” she mumbled.
“Let us not dally, then,” Sammy said.
The next leg of their journey would be by boat, so their first stop was for food. While Sammy didn’t know her way around the town at first, she charmed the odd passer-by, asking them for directions—and what choice there was, all kinds of speciality stores selling everything imaginable. Julie didn’t think she’d lived a sheltered life, but discovering that there was more than one kind of cheese (that came from cow’s milk) rattled her.
Of course, a lot of what they saw was rather expensive; however, Sammy picked out a frugal selection as they went and haggled down the price that little more. After purchasing a few days worth of food and drink for themselves, they filled up on feed and clean water for the horses.
With the necessities out the way, Sammy asked, “Shall we be on our way?”
Julie hesitated in answering. It was just that, when she thought back to the start of their journey—feeling so much longer ago than it actually was—Sammy had seemed to enjoy visiting the stores so much, even when she didn’t buy anything.
“You don’t want to look around some more?” Julie tentatively asked.
Sammy glanced at the crowd, a steady trickle of people walking past them on the street, then turned her gaze back to Julie. “I wouldn’t want you to push yourself,” she said softly.
Julie gave a little smile in reply. “It was a bit overwhelming at the start, but I’m fine now.”
After a moment, Sammy smiled back and reached over to hold Julie’s hand, squeezing it. “Let me know if I am dallying, understand?”
Julie considered objecting, but quickly realised that probably wouldn’t go anywhere. Nodding her head, she said, “Yeah.”
“Wonderful,” Sammy said, and her lips settled into something more than a small smile, Julie’s gaze lingering for a moment. Then Sammy pulled Julie closer, reaching over to her other hand. And Julie froze, staring into Sammy’s eyes as their faces came near, no more than a hand apart. In a low, caressing voice, Sammy said, “As I am inconveniencing us, allow me.”
Before Julie understood what was happening, Sammy took the pack from her. In an effortless motion, Sammy then lifted it up, looping the strap over her shoulder.
“Now then, let us make the most of our time,” Sammy said, gently tugging Julie into motion.
Julie offered no resistance as she followed behind Sammy. As busy as the world around them was, all she could see was the back of Sammy’s head, her heart pounding in her chest. Her pulse didn’t settle for the whole of the (albeit short) walk to the first store that grabbed Sammy’s interest.
A fairly narrow building, the bookshop made up for it with height as it stretched three crooked storeys high. Julie didn’t realise what the shop was until they were inside, though, the change in atmosphere a shock. Books plastered every wall, muffling the rest of the world, and the air had a very musty smell to it, even the sunlight struggling to get through the floating dust.
Sammy let go of Julie’s hand, immediately darting to the nearest bookcase. While her gaze flickered from spine to spine, shuffling along now and then, Julie simply watched her.
At least, that was her plan.
“Puzh vou sedeh?” said someone behind her—a fairly deep voice that seemed to crackle, not quite raspy.
Julie almost jumped—well, her heart did. She turned around slowly, hoping the surprise didn’t show on her face. The man standing there looked like he had sounded: in his later years, short hair dashed with grey, yet his skin made a strange contrast, lacking any kind of freckles while not pale. At a guess, Julie thought he naturally had tanned skin and had seen little sun in his years.
Belatedly, she remembered he’d spoken to her, and then realised that she felt like she almost understood what he’d said. Brow furrowed, she latched on to the word she thought he’d said. “Um, sedeh pa?”
He squinted back at her, his mouth pulled up by it into a strange expression. “Ajooda?”
“Ajooda… pa?” Julie said, more lost now than before.
Narrowing his eyes to the point she doubted he could even see anything, he gave her another look. “You are Schtish?”
“Yes!” she said and nearly clapped her hands together, stopping herself at the last moment as she realised she was being way too excited. “Yes, Schtish,” she said more soberly.
“My Schtish is okay, better than your Sonlettian,” he said, no emotion to his voice.
Julie agreed with his assessment, giving an awkward smile in reply.
“You want book? I have lots of books,” he said.
Although he’d relaxed his eyes, they were still fixed on Julie, worsening her feeling of awkwardness. Breaking away to look at Sammy, she said, “No, she is.”
He nodded, and then cleared his throat. “What book you want?”
Julie chuckled, shaking her head. “No book.”
“Books are special,” he said, the words coming out heavier than before. “No man finishes a book the same—for better and for worse.”
There was something to what he’d said, giving her pause. Books had never been much of a thing for her. When she was young, sisters from the Royal Abbey had taught her to read with the holy books, and the others in her dormitory had (on very rare occasions) brought something back from the capital.
But Sammy liked books. Although Julie knew that was a silly reason to buy a book, it made her think about Sammy, remembering little things.
“Do you have a book about… wild plants you can eat?” she asked, trying to phrase it simply for him.
“Cooking? You will be good wife,” he said, head bobbing along.
“No, no,” she said quickly, only to leave an awkward pause as she thought of what to say next. “Um, we are travelling.”
He scratched his beard for a moment before replying. “Wild plants not good to be eated, get sick easy.”
Julie felt embarrassed. She hadn’t thought beyond wanting to make their camping meals taste better, but, chastised by him, she realised how silly she was being. While she knew some of the edible plants native to Schtat, that meant nothing since they’d crossed the mountains. No, worse than nothing: she could well have served up something poisonous by mistake. Besides all that, there probably wasn’t a book that showed every wild plant in every country.
Her poor mood plain to see, the shopkeeper asked, “What books you read?”
It took Julie a moment to understand what he was asking. “Romance?” she said, unsure if he’d know the word.
“Yes, very good,” he said, tapping his fingertips together.
Then, after holding a finger up, he darted over to a bookshelf, no hesitation as he reached down and plucked out a book. Coming back over to her, he had a gleam in his eye.
“This is good book. See, the girl no fall in love with prince, wants to make friends. My daughter read it and decide not marry, save me lots of money for more books.”
Julie couldn’t tell if that was supposed be a joke, but she couldn’t stop herself from laughing either, covering her mouth as a few chuckles slipped out.
At the least, he didn’t look offended by her reaction and, after a pause, he continued. “Everyone tell you marry, but books”—he patted the book—“special, tell you to think for you. And from me, you spend all life with you and not with everyone, so better you happy with you.”
Julie was caught off-guard by that. His somewhat broken Schtish had made it hard for her to take him seriously, but his little monologue reminded her that he’d probably read most of the books around her—maybe all of them, maybe more than all of them. Not only that, but the sort of selfishness to his words reminded her of Sammy: the Princess who did whatever she wanted.
Maybe, Julie thought, reading books did that to a person. A darker thought followed, wondering if Sammy’s queerness came from reading the wrong books. She tried to ignore it as soon as it came to her, but it was the kind of thought that couldn’t be forgotten, lurking in the back of her mind.
To stop herself fixating on that, Julie looked at the book. It had a simple cover like most printed books—nothing more than the title, author, and a flower she didn’t recognise. After a moment of inspecting it, she shook her head and said, “No book.”
His squint returned, pinning her in place. Seconds trickled by as she fought the urge to fidget, unsure what expression to make, what else she could say.
Eventually, he came to a decision. “Your sister buy a book, I give this free for you, okay? If it stay here, it get lonely.”
Surprised as Julie was by the offer, her first impulse was to correct him—to tell him they weren’t sisters. Only, once she thought it through, she got stuck on what would happen next: would he ask what their relationships was, could she tell him they were lovers, and how would he react if she did?
When Sammy told someone, Julie didn’t have to worry about those kinds of things quite so much; but, now, she was the one talking to him.
And she couldn’t.
With a small smile, Julie softly said, “Really? Thank you.”
It didn’t take much longer for Sammy to choose a couple of books, very pleased with them. Although the shopkeeper spoke to her in Schtish at first, she responded in Sonlettian, the two falling into a chat as he checked the books over for damage and added the gifted book to the pile. Julie struggled to understand much of anything said, but it sounded light and pleasant.
The books neatly tied into a bundle, Sammy counted out a few coins and handed them over. After saying a goodbye to the shopkeeper, she turned to Julie with a mischievous smile and said, “Come on, big sister.”
Julie’s stomach dropped. With her thoughts in disarray, the two walked out, freshly confronted by the racket and stench of the busy merchant town—almost (but not quite) enough to distract Julie.
As for Sammy, she deeply regretted not having a spare hand to hold Julie’s, so she made do by being close enough that their shoulders bumped together most of their steps. Her thoughts then drifted to where else she would like to go, gaze skipping across the stores. It had been a while since she’d dressed up Julie in cute clothing, and she wanted to buy more matching accessories for them both, perhaps find another massager for her self-care.
However, Sammy soon caught sight of Julie’s stiff expression. She wondered if the town was too intense, but Julie didn’t look the same as when they’d first arrived, something different bothering her, Thinking it over, Sammy guessed her teasing had missed the mark earlier.
So Sammy guided them to a quieter road, one where they could actually hear each other speak. She nudged Julie’s shoulder with her own, and she said, “You know, mama and papa would be livid if we told them we are lovers. Yet, even if everyone in the world tells us we are wrong to indulge in this forbidden love, I cannot deny my feelings for you.”
After a second’s pause, Julie burst into laughter, shoulders shaking as she tried to keep it in, covering her mouth. Such a pleasant sight made Sammy smile, relieved.
Breathless from chuckling, Julie asked, “What is it with you and sisters?”
“Well, it just so happened that the girls I pursued often likened their feelings to that of sisterly affection,” Sammy said honestly.
“It’s a good thing you’re an only daughter—I can’t imagine what’d happen with two of you around,” Julie said, her tone light.
Hearing that, Sammy’s gaze grew distant and her smile a touch ironic. “I doubt I would get on with her,” she muttered.
“Sorry?” Julie said, turning to Sammy.
Sammy softly shook her head. “Nothing,” she said.
The conversation died out there and so did Sammy’s desire to continue shopping. The two headed back to the stables, stopping for a light lunch from a stall on the way: grilled chicken skewers with onion and olives sandwiched between the meat, minced garlic for seasoning. Julie found the olives rather strong, almost putting her off it entirely, but Sammy happily ate them for her and they didn’t leave any flavour behind.
Back on their horses, they circled the town (knowing better than trying to get through that crowd) and carried on their way.