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The next morning, Julie woke up and was mildly surprised to see Sammy beside her. At first, that was because they didn’t normally sleep so close, and then because Sammy practically always woke up first. Finally, she was surprised because she went to move and realised Sammy was holding her hand. (In all fairness, their joined hands were very much in the middle of them both, so she couldn’t rightly say which of them had grabbed the other’s hand.)

Such a strange morning, all she could do was lie there and wait for Sammy to wake up.

As she waited, she looked upon Sammy’s face in the dawn light spilling around the curtains. Oh it was a beautiful face, she knew, one she’d seen so many times over the years—but not often from so close. A soft, feminine shape, slender nose, lips neither too thin nor thick (and a demure shade of pink). Even after all their travelling, no spots blemished her complexion, skin still clear from last night’s wash—something Julie knew was not so true for herself.

Yet, with so much beauty to choose from, Julie’s gaze settled on Sammy’s eyelashes. Long and thick, they looked very beautiful. She’d seen many a famous portrait in the Royal Palace that had similar ones. However, when she stared at Sammy’s, she felt almost ticklish, reminded of the eyes that rested behind those eyelids.

Mischievous eyes, cheery eyes, warm eyes that Julie found some small (but not insignificant) comfort from seeing. After all, it meant that everything would be okay. Whenever anything happened, or even if nothing much of anything had happened, something in Sammy’s gaze always told Julie that there was no need to worry.

With far too much time to think about trivial things, Julie’s thoughts carried on that bit too far and asked the question: Does Sammy find some small comfort in seeing me?

It was the kind of question she knew could never be answered—that she would never believe Sammy’s answer if she ever dared ask it. As warm as her mood had been before, she fell into the cold spiral of self-loathing, growing ever more restless and upset with herself as the darker parts of her mind brought up her every insecurity.

Unconsciously, her grip on Sammy’s hand tightened; Sammy stirred, squeezed Julie’s hand back.

Julie stilled, every thought forgotten, transfixed by the fluttering of those beautiful eyelashes. But a memory forced its way through, reminded of when they’d last slept together like this. Not exactly a conscious decision, she remembered how Sammy had stroked her cheek those mornings, and her hand reached out, coming to rest on Sammy’s cheek.

Sammy turned her head slightly and whispered, “Good morning, Lia,” ending with a light kiss on Julie’s palm.

It took Julie a moment to realise what had happened, then she quickly pulled back her hand. Sammy laughed, light and tinkling, and she took her turn to caress Julie; she found the cheek rather hot under her fingertips.

“G’morning, Sammy,” Julie mumbled—not ending her greeting with a kiss. Only, still looking at Sammy’s face, Julie felt like there was a flicker of disappointment there; giving in, she summoned her determination and kissed Sammy’s wrist.

And Sammy beamed, her smile so bright that Julie had to duck her head, breaking away from Sammy’s touch.

When Julie dared to look up again, her eyes met Sammy’s; after a moment, they both burst into giggles. Julie just felt so giddy, shyness fading away and leaving behind an elated feeling from breaking their little bout of abstinence. It sounded silly even to her, but those brief kisses were like the sun’s warmth after an overcast week, piercing deeper than her skin.

Meanwhile, Sammy certainly noticed that Julie’s blush had become more of a flush, acutely aware of the change in Julie’s eyes. Such enticing eyes. They begged Sammy to come closer, to try and peer at the soul behind them.

However, Sammy knew better than to charge, instead laying traps. She bowed her head a touch, fluttering her eyelashes, and she ran the tip of her tongue between her lips. After Julie had moved, Sammy’s hand had settled on a shoulder, and she now followed that shoulder back to Julie’s neck, tracing Julie’s jawline before lingering on her chin.

Only then did Sammy fire the first shot: in a low and gentle voice, she whispered, “Lia.”

Through her touch, Sammy felt Julie shiver. That sent a throb of satisfaction through her own body, becoming heady with the power she held over Julie, held down by the responsibility she had—the trust Julie had in her. A bickering in her mind between the selfish desire to read consent in Julie’s reaction, and the sobering truth that Julie hadn’t consented.

“Lia,” she said again—an almost desperate moan, pleading, needy.

It was all too clear to Julie what Sammy was begging for, and she wanted to give it. For Sammy to whine, Julie’s heart ached, already soft when it came to Sammy and now melted by the mood.

Julie’s gaze flickered to Sammy’s lips; noticing that, Sammy closed her eyes, tilted back her head to bring her lips that bit closer to Julie. And Julie moved, drawn like a moth to a flame, drawing ever closer.

Her heart pounded in her ears, vision narrowed to those eyelashes she had been admiring earlier. So near, so very near—

But not quite there.

The scrape of a door opening cut through the atmosphere, freezing Julie in place, only for a sudden flush of heat to cascade over her skin as she came to terms with her compromising position, somehow feeling more bare than if she was merely naked. Still lying down, she couldn’t even move easily—didn’t even know if she could move or if her body would refuse.

No other hope, she prayed that this moment would pass.

As if hearing her prayer, Sammy’s eyes fluttered open, gaze found Julie’s. Seeing such a look of shock, Sammy couldn’t help but take pity on her precious jewel.

“If you would go about your business,” Sammy said loudly, speaking Sonlettian.

A light chuckling accompanied another scrape of the door. “Should I knock when I come back?” Chloé asked.

“This is your home, so only if you are worried you may see something you wish not to,” Sammy replied.

Chloé crossed the room with another few chuckles, then slipped out the front door. The peace took a couple of seconds longer to return, a sigh of relief finally slipping out of Julie. Her senses returning, she let go of Sammy’s hand to cover her face as she mumbled, “She saw us like that.”

Sammy brought her freed hand to cup Julie’s cheek. “I shall take responsibility,” she said.

Julie heard those words, and she knew they must have had some kind of meaning to them, but she couldn’t think of it at this time. “Okay,” she said.

An unexpected answer, Sammy almost laughed; however, she saw in Julie’s expression that the subtleties of her proposal had, unfortunately, been missed. She thought that was likely for the best, certainly better times for such things. At the least, though, Julie looked to have regained some semblance of calm; Sammy was glad to see that.

“Let us get ready for the day,” Sammy said, taking back her hand.

So they did, changing into dayclothes and brushing out their hair (Julie was frustrated over the few knots in her hair, having grown long enough to tangle). They packed away their bedrolls and returned the table to where it had been the night before, tucking in the chairs as well.

Chloé had yet to return, but Sammy thought it wouldn’t be long, surely too early to work. So she thought it best to wait for Chloé before leaving, if only to give thanks.

As for Julie, she had strange thoughts that culminated in a very unexpected question. “You… didn’t say anything bad to Chloé, did you?”

Sammy narrowed her eyes, wondering where that had come from. “Of course not. Why would you even think so?”

Julie looked away, bringing up her hand as if to hide behind it. “Because she… interrupted,” she mumbled.

Yet Sammy heard those words clearly, overwhelmed by laughter that bubbled up from her stomach. Such a sweet girl was her precious jewel. There lay in her such a natural kindness, such innate grace. The more Sammy thought about it, the more she realised that, if a convenience like fate existed, then of course her partner would be her opposite—her complement.

“How miserly do you think me to care about one lost kiss when I still have a lifetime’s worth to taste?” Sammy said.

Julie stared at her blankly in response, but eventually understood, turning away with a noticeable warmth to her tanned cheeks. Oh Sammy enjoyed the sight.

Before anything else had the chance to happen, a knocking rang out, gentle yet firm. Sammy guessed who it likely was and said in Sonlettian, “We are presentable.”

The door shuddered open a crack, then leapt halfway open, Chloé rubbing her hip on the other side. Although Sammy couldn’t make out entirely what Chloé muttered, she guessed the threat of an axing was directed at the door. When Chloé looked over at them, she put on a polite smile and said, “It likes to stick on cold mornings.”

By the time the sun had risen enough to start the day, Sammy and Julie were ready to leave. With a last goodbye to Chloé, they went to the stable they left their horses in and saddled them up.

Mounting up at the village’s edge, a sea breeze greeted them. Although Julie had grown used to the stench of muck around the village, the fresh air reminded her how pleasant nature could smell. There was even a crispness to it, the chill refreshing, pulling her out of the comfortable mood Sammy had left her in; as a guard, she preferred not to be comfortable—one step away from complacent.

Despite feeling more alert, Julie had little to notice. Their surroundings looked little different than the sights of the last week, their only company on the broad road herds of cattle and sometimes horses.

Yet Sammy still glanced at the distant forest. Julie tried not to think about that, thought that Sammy would say if she realised what it was she was looking there for.

Despite being stuck behind the odd herd now and then, they kept a good pace, reaching a small inn amongst a hamlet of houses and stables by midday. It wasn’t much, but it had walls, a roaring fire, and hot food. Julie hadn’t noticed just how cold she was until she thawed out; she guessed that, slowly by surely, the wind had wicked away her warmth.

And Julie noticed that Sammy seemed distracted. It was the sort of thing Julie knew shouldn’t bother her, but it did. The Sammy she knew never missed the chance to flirt with a young lady… but had barely spared Julie a glance since the morning, even after their eventful wake up.

Without Sammy to distract her, Julie worked herself into all kind of knots over the couple of hours they gave the horses to rest. Just as weeds grew in abandoned fields, all kinds of strange thoughts had come to Julie, left to grow into conspiracies without Sammy to tackle them at their roots.

So it was that, when they took to the road again and went some distance from the hamlet, Julie asked Sammy to stop. Though confused as to why, Sammy obliged. Carefully, Julie guided her horse close to Sammy’s, then beckoned Sammy closer. More amused than anything else by now, Sammy leant over as far as she comfortably could in the saddle.

“Close your eyes,” Julie said—and Sammy noticed there was a distinct blush on those pretty cheeks.

“Very well,” Sammy replied with a smile.

Julie took a long moment to gather her determination before she finally moved. Leaning over, she left a kiss on Sammy’s cheek—close to the corner of her mouth. Neither light nor long, it felt just right to Sammy. A familiar kiss. A kiss she hoped to become more familiar with. Cheating, she opened her eyes in time to see Julie pull back, saw the delicate expression Julie made when kissing, caught the moment when her eyes opened, eyelashes fluttering.

Oh Sammy’s heart wanted to burst, something so indescribable about such a disciplined woman having such tender eyes.

Upon their gazes meeting, Julie ducked her head, overwhelmed by a rush of embarrassment; once that impulse quieted, she realised how silly it was and looked back up. What she found was a look that seemed to stir the embers in her chest, her next breath coming out slow, hot.

But that look lasted but a breath, Sammy shifting into a teasing smile. “While I would be so very happy for you to do that whenever you wished and without justification, I am curious if you have a certain reason this time,” Sammy said.

As Sammy had spoken, Julie suddenly felt like her reasoning was likely wrong. The tide of embarrassment swelling once more, she looked down, spoke softly. “It’s just… I thought, since we were interrupted this morning… you might be… waiting for me to make up for it like I did last time.”

Sammy’s face scrunched up, every muscle smiling in adoration of her sweet, sweet lover. She had never been one for regrets—it was easy to make mistakes when she cared so little for what others thought of her—yet she knew she would never regret undergoing this journey. This gentle and warming love satisfied her far more than any flames from the past. It was a love she could touch, hold, feel with her own hands. And to know Julie was always thinking of her—Sammy couldn’t think of anything she would rather hear than that her precious jewel was worried over her.

While there was a temptation to reach over and caress Julie’s cheek, Sammy thought better of doing so—surprises and horse riding rather disagreed with each other. “As I said, I hold no grudge,” Sammy said sweetly. “Unless… do you not intend to kiss me ever again?”

Julie’s eyes widened, mouth opened to speak before she could think of anything to say, much to Sammy’s amusement. Eventually, Julie put together a reply. “I, um, intend to,” she said, barely above a mumble. “It’s just… difficult.”

“I promise, I am very easy to kiss,” Sammy said, unable to help herself.

Julie frowned one moment, bit her lip the next, face flitting between emotions as thought after thought stumbled through her mind.

Taking pity, Sammy put an end to that. “That is just a joke. Of course, since we are now lovers, you are the only one who may kiss me. And I do understand that a woman’s kiss is not something so easily given, which is why I intend to cherish every one you will ever give me.”

That gave Julie pause. Slowly, she looked up until she met Sammy’s eye, asking her, “Really?”

“Truly,” Sammy said without hesitation. After all, she had already cherished their accidental kiss all these years, despite remembering nothing more of the experience than that it had happened. Giving Julie a last smile, she said, “Let’s not dally,” and set her horse to walk with a click of her tongue.

Julie hadn’t known what to think before and this certainly hadn’t helped matters for her. Honestly, she thought, it was a miracle Sammy hadn’t seduced any of the girls she had pursued. That wasn’t to say Julie felt seduced, but she certainly felt something. How Sammy had said she would treasure a kiss, oh, Julie wanted to give it to her, wanted to be an important part of the princess’s memories.

After all, no one knew when their journey would end, what the circumstances would be. Much like “a stone’s throw”, “a lifetime” was the sort of measurement that depended on the person.

Yet Julie still couldn’t think of actually giving Sammy the kiss she so desired. It was like a tickle in her mind, the mental squirming becoming too intense the more she considered it. But she felt she was closer than before. No, she knew she was. That she could now (barely) give Sammy a kiss of her own will was proof of her growth. Soon, she hoped, she could finally cross that hurdle.

Of the other hurdles that lay beyond, Julie gave no thought, which was probably for the best.

As for Sammy, she still felt the distracting pull from the forest; however, knowing she was worrying Julie, she made more of an effort to focus on her immediate surrounding. There just really wasn’t much to take notice of. That Julie had fallen into thought didn’t help matters, nothing to keep her company but the steady rhythm of hooves on the well-trodden dirt road.

Until she finally caught sight of it some hour later.

“Julie,” she said quietly, yet the tone sent Julie’s hand straight to the scabbard attached to her saddle.

“Where?” Julie whispered. Though she followed Sammy’s gaze to the edge of the forest, she could see nothing but shadows, even the breeze barely disturbing the bushes and ferns at its edge.

“The darkness.”

Julie frowned at the cryptic answer, but an unsettling feeling quickly welled up inside her, eyes trying to avoid looking at a certain spot. Recognising that, she focused there. Sure enough, she gradually understood what Sammy had meant: a shadow darker than the shade around it.

“A wild beast,” Julie murmured.

Sammy heard her and nodded. “I think it is alone, probably weak.” After a pause, she said, “My bow.”

“You can really hit it from here?” Julie asked.

Sammy let out a note of laughter. “I am glad you believe so firmly in me, but the bow I brought along is hardly suited for this range—the beast will have ample time to move.”

Despite the serious situation, Julie felt suitably embarrassed at how obvious Sammy’s answer was. But she forced that feeling down and moved. Dismounted, she undid the straps holding on their weapons pack; it was unlike the others, longer and made of sturdier leather. She hadn’t a reason to think of the small bow inside it before, but it was certainly there, along with a quiver and a generous pile of arrows.

Holding the bow, Julie’s heart began to pound in her chest. Glimpses of destruction the last wild beast had left behind flickered across her mind’s eye: the wing of the Royal Palace levelled to the ground, half-buried corpses, flesh pockmarked by drops of corruption—some holes the size of a fist.

There’d been enough adrenalin to keep Julie focused that time, but now she felt a heavy weight. A Royal Guard was prepared to give her life or take another’s in defence of the royalty. But here she was, taking Sammy farther away from the safety of her country, forcing her to confront danger.

Yet she couldn’t say anything as she handed over the bow to (the also dismounted) Sammy, and she hated herself for that.

Oblivious to Julie’s quandary, Sammy kept her focus on the wild beast. Unlike that first time, tendrils of divine power did not wrap around the bow, instead only the arrow. “We must approach—are you prepared?”

Julie shook off the lingering thoughts and cleared her mind. Before she answered, she took out a narrow shield from the weapons pack. “Yes.”

“Regardless of how fast it approaches, do not move in front until I loose the arrow.”

Julie swallowed the lump in her throat. “Yes.”

Sammy didn’t smile, but her voice had a softer tone when she then said, “I am trusting you with my life.”

Such heavy words, but Julie relaxed upon hearing them. They sharpened her focus and brought out the instincts she had spent a lifetime training. “I am ready to give my life for you,” she said—the mantra she’d been taught to banish lingering doubts.

Sammy didn’t want to disrupt Julie’s mood, but she joked to herself that it wasn’t the best time to exchange wedding vows. Only, thinking it over, she thought it probably was, saddening herself that they couldn’t seal their vows with a kiss.

Putting an end to her frivolous thoughts, Sammy pushed out the last of her hesitation with a deep breath.

“Then let us approach,” Sammy said, raising the bow.

“Yes, Ma’am,” Julie said, falling on old habits.

With the horses left there, they shuffled down the embankment and back up the other side of the ditch. Keeping eyes on the wild beast, they took every step slow; four hundred or so paces to the forest’s edge, it would have taken them hours to reach.

But they didn’t need to get that close.

Sammy kept the bow raised the whole time, arrow nocked, and Julie held her shield up, sword loose at her side. After every step, Sammy considered the wind and the range. And the wild beast never moved, never so much as stirred, at their approach.

Finally, the distance had shrunk to half. Sammy felt the breeze and tensed the bowstring. She took one more step to find good footing, then stopped; without a word said, Julie came to a stop as well, close to Sammy’s side.

In a trusting silence, Sammy pulled back the arrow to her cheek, bow bending with a creak. The arrow rested there comfortably, no rush for her to loose it. She drew in deep breaths and let them slip out between her barely parted lips until it felt like her heart had stopped beating.

A streak of light, a twang, then a flare of smoke let out a most unnatural howl, more like the gasps of damp firewood steaming than any living creature. From the smoke, a lump of tar leapt, only to stumble and again become engulfed by the smoke billowing from where the arrow had landed. Erratic and uncoordinated, it continued to move in jerks and falls, losing strength, and it eventually made a final push towards them, barely managing the first step and crashing to the ground with the second.

There it lay, slowly consumed by the divine power. All in all, it had barely made it a dozen paces, nowhere close to reaching them.

It was a gruesome sight to watch, neither Sammy nor Julie lacking sympathy—not that they cared for it, but that they simply couldn’t see that and not think it was in pain; they watched it until the last tendrils of acrid smoke dispersed. All that remained of what had been the wild beast was a trail of scorched earth.

And they kept watch for a quarter of an hour longer, just to make sure.

Finally, Sammy turned around and began a slow walk back to the horses, Julie following behind while constantly glancing back. Even then, they were reluctant to put away their weapons, so Julie mounted up still with her shield, Sammy swapping her bow for a sword like Julie’s.

As they readied up, a herder rode up and called out to them. “Is there trouble around?”

Sammy turned to him with a smile and said, “We thought we saw a wolf, so we are taking precautions.”

“Ah, that right? Some trappers were saying the forest seemed too quiet…” he said.

Sammy inclined her head. “If you would excuse us,” she said.

“Right, safe travels,” he said, tipping his broad hat.

A click of her tongue and off she went, Julie quickly following. After a few seconds, Sammy told Julie what the man had asked and what she’d said, leaving Julie to think it over.

“You didn’t want to tell him it was a wild beast?” Julie asked.

Sammy shook her head. “There is no need,” she said softly.

Julie could think of some reasons, but, since she could think of them, she was sure Sammy could too; if Sammy still thought there was no need, Julie believed her.

Another hour of riding brought them to midafternoon, a time when they would usually rest the horses, but the earlier incident had given the horses a break and Sammy thought it not much farther to their destination. So they pushed onwards, soon enough cresting a long and gentle slope.

“Wow,” Julie murmured, bringing a smile to Sammy’s lips.

Grazing land stretched out before them, fenced by a sprawling town; beyond that strip of buildings was a vast and endless sea. Even though Julie had seen massive lakes before, she could tell this sight was something far different. The way the waves rose and broke made the ships and piers look like toys and twigs, the houses pebbles on the shore.

Meanwhile, Sammy’s expression drooped the more she looked, eyebrows low and mouth flat. “We may have to wait to sail,” she muttered.

Julie didn’t hear, but she followed when Sammy set off, the two taking the road down to the town. The tension they’d carried with them since vanquishing the wild beast finally melted away.

For Julie, it felt like a far different place to anywhere she’d ever been. The mismatched chorus of moos and snorts coming from the pastures had to contend with the distant crash of waves; the smell of muck washed away by a chilly sea breeze, but only for moments now and then.

Down at the town’s edge, though, the wind struggled to wind between the buildings, giving it the all-too-familiar scent every sizeable settlement had; Julie quickly got used to it. Unlike the other towns, Sammy said there was no need to dismount, so they put away their weapons and trundled through the broad-yet-crowded streets towards the docks.

Unfortunately, Sammy’s earlier thought proved correct. “Won’t be ships out fer two, maybe tree days,” the man said in Sonlettian, a stick of something jutting out his mouth. “Haf to see where the storm heads.”

Once Sammy relayed the news to Julie, she said, “There is actually somewhere nearby I would like to visit. Would you mind?”

Julie fell into thought, her forehead wrinkling. “Is it far out the way? Um, if we followed the coast,” she said.

Sammy gave her a confused look back for a moment, then understanding dawned on her. “We are sailing across to Dworfen and it rather must be from here. You see, this is where most of the cattle is ferried over, so we should have little trouble bringing the horses with us.”

“Oh,” Julie said, bowing her head.

Sammy giggled, covering her mouth; if they were not on horseback, she would have liked to caress Julie’s cheek, showing such a cute expression. “Then, shall we?”

Julie nodded.

So the two… didn’t set off, not until they’d rested the horses and had a snack.

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