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Julie had to admit that Sammy was incredibly talented at accepting hospitality. Before she knew it, Sammy had gratefully agreed to stay in a spare room for the night, making it clear that there was no need to prepare a second: “Julie will be accompanying me.”

Whenever Yewry thought she had recovered her balance, Sammy made sure to give her a slight push. To escape the pressure, she excused herself, saying she needed to ready some things for travelling.

So Sammy and Julie made use of the quiet afternoon to go through their packs. The clothes were aired out, rations checked for spoilage, water replaced with (boiled) water. Sammy gave her massage tools a good clean too.

When evening came, whether for the best or not, Sammy declined the invitation to dinner. “A pilgrim should only take as much of a stranger’s kindness as she needs.”

The maid bowed and left; shortly thereafter another pair of maids brought two small meals to the room.

While they ate at the table in the room, Julie couldn’t help but think too much and, once they finished, she spoke her mind. “You asked me what I thought of Yewry, but what do you think of her?”

Sammy hummed a note with her lazy gaze wandering across Julie’s face. Julie felt the urge to fidget, not expecting to be so thoroughly stared at, but managed to stay calm. It was hardly the first time Sammy had stared at her.

“She’s a good girl,” Sammy said softly, then shook her head. “My apologies, a woman. She is spoiled, but not rotten, rather childish beyond her years.”

Julie felt like she was being told more of a riddle than an answer. “Do you think she’s… queer?” she whispered.

Sammy gently laughed. “So far, I do not have that impression. My feeling is that she is rather like Chloé and has an interest in a softer kind of man. That said… they would perhaps find a certain interest in each other,” she said, talking more to herself by the end.

“You mean?” Julie asked.

“Well, the heart is fickle, so I cannot simply say. In particular, Yewry is harder to read with her focus on you,” Sammy said, ending with a teasing smile.

Julie fell onto her arms, hiding her face before she blushed. More of a whine, she mumbled, “Sammy, please.”

Sammy chuckled and reached over, stroking Julie’s arm. “At the very least, I can say that Yewry has good taste,” she said.

How Yewry managed to convince her father remained a mystery to Sammy and Julie, but, sure enough, she saddled up alongside them in the early hours of the morning. That said, it had clearly been a negotiation as three guards on horseback joined them outside the stable. Of them, one was female and she stuck close to Yewry’s side, the other two following behind.

“While I do not to question our lady’s honour, have you arranged for a war bow?” Sammy quietly asked.

Yewry hesitated, but finally nodded. “We are already saddled, so let us exchange it later,” she said.

Sammy smiled in reply.

So the six trotted out of the castle and down to the crossroads. While they did, Sammy stayed on Yewry’s other side. “My Lady, us two had planned to follow the sea—is that route suitable?”

Yewry seemed put off by the formal speech at first, but caught on by the end. She turned to her guards while saying to Sammy, “Please, we are now fellow pilgrims before the gods—let us speak freely.”

Sammy gave her a smile that made her suddenly doubt she had understood. “My apologies. Although I only know how to speak Dworfen in a polite manner, I shall try to be more casual.”

Despite the urge to wince, Yewry smiled back. “As for my fellow pilgrim’s matter,” she said, unconsciously falling back to polite speech, “may this one make a suggestion?”

“Please, we are fellow pilgrims—speak freely,” Sammy replied with that same smile.

Too embarrassed to be annoyed, Yewry cleared her throat and looked to the guard at her side. “Yo’can, would you know the best route to Saynarue Cathedral?” she asked.

Yo’can seemed to swell from the question, her head raised and back straight. “Yes, My Lady,” she said briskly.

Yewry turned back to Sammy. “May my guard lead?” she asked.

“Please do, Ms Yo’can,” Sammy said with a smile.

Yo’can stilled for a moment, but then nodded. “Yes, miss,” she said.

So their arrangement changed a little, now with Yo’can in front, the other two guards at the back, and the three “pilgrims” in the middle. While it started with Sammy in the centre, they took a break after an hour’s travel and, when they carried on, it happened that Julie was now in the middle.

After all, Sammy was a lady of her word—and she had given so many words. Many of those had been to herself, promises she wanted to hold herself to. Yes, she had mislead Yewry with that promise of an opportunity, but she had long before promised herself that she wouldn’t hold Julie too tightly.

Besides, she would rather find how to make the most of the present than needlessly worry. Right now, that meant stepping back, quietly helping.

Yewry was also making the most of the current arrangement, putting questions to Julie in Sonlettian. However, it was a slow process, Julie’s grip on the grammar mediocre and vocabulary narrow. So they still relied a lot on Sammy. But she was careful not to take over the conversation, merely facilitate it.

Like that, they travelled further inland and, after a stop for lunch, carried on along the forested roads in the midafternoon shade. Although the climate was cooler and less dry than when Sammy and Julie had been travelling before, Yewry’s and her guards’ horses weren’t quite as suited to the heavy travelling. That was true for the riders too.

Fortunately, before it got dark, they made it to a lake with a small town hugging the southern shore. More good fortune, Yewry was on good terms with a lady there. Well, being upper class, a day’s travel made them practically neighbours.

The estate was on the outskirts of the town, built upon a chunk of sturdy rock that jutted a bit into the lake. While not the same, it was somewhat similar, a tall building in the middle of a walled courtyard. Within that large courtyard, there was a stable and servants’ quarters (Julie guessed for the men, women usually housed in the attic), as well as a few small buildings. Smoke came out of one right next to the “keep”, probably the kitchen, and the building next to that was maybe a larder.

Julie lost interest then, focusing on Sammy and Yewry instead. The two quietly conversed right up until they dismounted. Though Julie was curious, curiosity was one of many traits ground down in guards.

On the walk up to the main building, Sammy fell in step with Julie and took her hand. It was strange, but Julie felt her emotions swell, threatening to burst, squeezing Sammy’s hand tightly in response. Surely, it must have hurt, but Sammy didn’t so much as flinch. No, she lightly squeezed her hand back.

Julie settled down by the time they reached the door. With a servant having gone to fetch the lady the moment they’d arrived, Yewry didn’t have to knock for the door to open, the butler inviting her and her guests inside.

Something strange, Julie noticed she was the same height as the butler. That thought quickly passed, though, her gaze drifting across the entrance hall. It was more of a hallway, going deeper inside with a single staircase at the end. Otherwise, it had its similarities and differences to the castle keep, still mostly exposed stone with rugs and draperies, but the size and decorations were more like a normal house—well, normal mansion.

Meanwhile, Yewry had greeted her friend: Lady Hannah. Of course, it was a coincidence that a foreign culture had a similarly pronounced name, but Julie didn’t think anything of it until Sammy told her later.

For now, Yewry introduced Sammy and Julie in Dworfen.

“A pleasure to make your acquaintance,” Hannah said, giving a small curtsey; she had picked up on Yewry’s more casual tone and carried it on.

But Julie, having no clue what had been said, had to go back to her training and responded to the curtsey with a full bow. Then she said the only bit of Dworfen she knew: “Agattoh.”

Sammy managed not to laugh, smiling softly. “My lover does not speak Dworfen, so let this guest return our host’s sentiment,” she said, then whispered a translation for Julie.

But Julie barely listened, overwhelmed with embarrassment at what she’d done. There’d been no need for her to do anything. Gods, she thought, the day must have worn her out.

There was a little more said between Yewry and Hannah, but Julie was too lost in thought to pay attention. However, Sammy watched closely, followed the tiniest interactions. After all, the best thing in the world was talking to a beautiful woman, the second best watching two beautiful women talk—well, that list was a bit outdated now she’d hugged and kissed Julie.

Anyway, Sammy watched, listened, noticed. Oh she noticed the kinds of smiles they shared, the looks and laughs, where their eyes wandered, the postures they held, even how they breathed. So familiar.

Still some time before dinner, the guests were shown upstairs. Of course, Sammy had negotiated a shared room for herself and Julie and, unlike Yewry who had tried to give them two single beds, this room had a bed for two. Not overly spacious, but enough room for a good cuddle. It did have an attached bathroom too, but just a toilet and sink, no bath. However, a pair of maids brought up a small tub of hot water shortly after.

So Sammy and Julie (and presumably Yewry) had a chance to freshen up. That didn’t take long, the two soon sitting on the edge of the bed, holding hands, leaning against each other.

“Tired?” Sammy whispered.

“Mm, a bit,” Julie said.

Sammy brought up her other hand and gently stroked all over Julie’s face, going from the jawline to the cheeks to the nose to the forehead to the far ear. Wherever she touched, Julie felt a warmth linger, comforted. Once out of face to stroke, Sammy brought back her hand and kissed two fingers and then softly left that kiss on Julie’s lips.

Immediately, Julie flushed knowing where those fingers had just come from, also because it was such a strange touch, not that different from actually being kissed. As if proving that, she found herself chasing after the “kiss” when Sammy moved her hand away.

“Better?” Sammy asked, her voice deeper, smoother, a breathiness to it that seemed to tickle Julie’s ears.

“Yeah,” Julie mumbled.

Sammy squeezed her hand. “Do you wish to talk about it?” she asked, soft voice otherwise back to normal.

Julie hesitated, but she eventually nodded. “Yewry had so many questions. It’s just… a lot of talking—for me,” she said, her thoughts scattered.

“Did her questions make you uncomfortable or was it the attention?”

Julie stilled for a moment, surprised by that question that cut straight through her muddled mind. Sammy was right. Julie had been too busy to think it through, but she now realised the attention had drained her.

Just like back at the barracks, pestered by men interested in her, asked questions and yet the answers never felt like they’d mattered.

“Both,” Julie whispered.

Sammy softy smiled in sympathy and let go of Julie’s hand to wrap her arm around Julie’s far shoulder, then she turned and left a kiss on Julie’s near shoulder, and lastly reached over to hold Julie’s hand again with her free hand.

An unconscious reaction, Julie nestled in closer without Sammy needing to pull her in. That meant the world to Sammy. She loved knowing Julie felt safe with her, loved that Julie volunteered these small acts of affection.

“While I did promise Yewry she would have the chance to spend time with you, of course my promise to make you happy comes first,” Sammy said.

Julie frowned in thought. “When did you promise that?” she asked, then added, “To me, I mean.”

Sammy laughed and, to Julie, it was such a beautiful sound. She’d always loved the Princess’s laughter; this journey had only surprised her by showing just how much she loved it.

“You are my lover,” was all Sammy said, satisfied that that would answer Julie’s question.

It did. Julie ducked her head and tried to hide, snuggling closer, overcome by a shyness. That word had become so much more ticklish now that they’d kissed and they shared a bed. But it was a warm ticklishness, one that brought a smile to her face and made her want to be closer to Sammy.

Too soon—and it would have been too soon regardless of how long had actually passed—a maid knocked on the door, inviting them to dinner.

“Let us be good guests,” Sammy murmured near Julie’s ear before standing up.

Julie didn’t know what that meant. At least, not yet.

With the guests being friends of Hannah (loosely speaking), she sat them in a separate room than the rest of her family. The master of the house may have given them permission to stay, but he hadn’t invited them and encouraging any old acquaintance to drop over unannounced wasn’t the thing to do in the upper class.

That this made everyone more comfortable was, of course, simply a coincidence.

Julie didn’t know where Yewry’s guards were, but, given her own experience, guessed they were eating in the servants’ hall or in their quarters.

Onto the meal, one of the things Sammy had discussed with Yewry earlier in the day—which Yewry had then later discussed with Hannah—the food was more simple than expected of such a house.

“A pilgrim should ask for no more than she needs,” Sammy had said.

That wasn’t to say the food was bad. No, good ingredients with a light seasoning made it rather tasty—at least for Sammy and Julie. Yewry and Hannah somewhat struggled through, especially missing the spicy condiments so common to the richer households of Dworfen.

After the meal, Sammy showed how good of a guest she was.

“Thank you for our meal,” she said in Dworfen, noticeably leaning against Julie as she did. “If I may, would some entertainment be suitable? I am familiar with some instruments milady may have.”

Although both were confused at first, Yewry half-heartedly vouched that Sammy was of a “good upbringing”, and so Hannah led them to the parlour where there was a piano.

Meanwhile, Julie practically buzzed with excitement. It had been so long since she’d last heard Sammy play. Well, at those times, she had just been fortunate enough to be in training, waiting outside the room. In a way, this would be the first time she actually heard Sammy’s playing.

Even before Sammy lifted the keyboard lid, Julie was satisfied, the sight alone perfect. For all Sammy’s jokes and flirting, there was no questioning her elegance and the piano magnified it.

After a last wipe of her hands on a handkerchief, Sammy began. She did not test the keys nor did she check the sound, but she simply played, trusting the piano. Notes twinkled and rolled, her fingers in constant motion, striking chords and bringing forth a flowing harmony, all kept to an upbeat rhythm that pulled at idle bodies, making them sway, feet tap, hands clap.

Julie knew well the magic of Sammy’s humming, but the vibrancy of the piano’s melody overwhelmed her with the urge to dance. She moved over so Sammy could see her, their eyes briefly meeting, then she gave in, clapping to the beat, swaying in time.

Infectious, Yewry and Hannah joined in, the former leading the latter in a waltz.

So half an hour passed, Sammy playing through a few songs. At the end, she thanked Lady Hannah and excused herself and Julie, the two heading back to their room.

That wasn’t to say they went to sleep early, Sammy eager to dance too.

In the morning, routines trickled by until the convoy was out in the morning’s chill, preparing their horses. With how the stables were laid out, that put Sammy and Yewry next to each other.

As if waiting for this, Yewry said, “Just an idle observation, you have entirely treated me like a nuisance and yet behaved so well for Hannah.”

Despite the disinterested tone, Sammy knew how frustrated Yewry was. That kind of petulant sentence didn’t easily come from someone raised in the upper class.

“Well, one generously offered her kindness on our journey, the other interfered and made empty promises,” Sammy said evenly.

Yewry winced at the words, regretting her outburst.

“Speaking of—would now be a suitable time to accept the gift you have promised us?” Sammy asked, her tone still nonchalant.

With a sigh, Yewry fell into a nod. “Of course,” she said and went to her guards, shortly after returning with a long wrap made of leather. But she didn’t hand it over, instead pointedly looking at Julie.

Sammy smiled. “Julie, our fellow pilgrim would like to make good on her promise,” she said in Schtish.

Both Julie and Yewry could hear the teasing tone; Julie hurried over, hoping not to start the day with an incident. When Julie came around the horse, Sammy gestured at Yewry.

Yewry cleared her throat, then carefully said in Sonlettian, “This is a recognition of your skill and talent which our people greatly respect. Few are entrusted with such an honour and responsibility; however, I have no doubts that you will treat our heritage with the same respect we are showing you.”

Out of respect, Sammy had let Yewry speak without translating for Julie. Unfortunately, this meant that Julie didn’t know most of what Yewry had said; right after Yewry handed over the war bow, Julie thanked her, then handed it to Sammy.

Perhaps if Yewry hadn’t already had the pleasure of their company for a couple of days, she would have reacted harshly. But, as it was, she just bowed her head, a sad smile on her lips.

Sammy caught that and a distant part of her ached—the part that had hated seeing beautiful women upset. Now, though, she had Julie. Those childish impulses had to be put to rest lest she end up making Julie feel neglected.

Still, she told Julie what Yewry had said and faithfully translated the reply.

“She is most thankful and shall try to meet your expectations.”

Then, being the hypocrite she was, Sammy helped strap the war bow to Julie’s horse, not once looking back at Yewry.

So their second day of travelling together began.

The harsher realities of long-distance travel by horse setting in for Yewry, their progress was slower. Fortunately, she had been an avid rider, so there weren’t any issues of chafing or sores. But she was sore, a lingering fatigue and her muscles were worked harder than any time before.

She kept that to herself. It seemed pointless to try and have any pride while in Sammy’s company, but she would have felt too vulnerable without it.

With Yo’can leading, they managed to keep a modicum of comfort, reaching a woodcutter’s camp for lunch and a small village by dusk. The level of service wasn’t quite up to par for a petty king’s daughter, so it was lucky she was now a pilgrim. Reminding herself of that made it bearable, rationalising her suffering even though she wasn’t an overly religious or pious person.

Sammy did her best to keep both promises over the day. While she didn’t gift Yewry quite so much time to chat with Julie, she made up for it with stories of the past, conveniently not mentioning anything that spoke of her own status.

Like that, both sides seemed happy, which made Sammy happy. She may have tricked Yewry into accompanying them, but she held no spite now that all dues were paid.

So one day became a week. Mostly, they stopped at small villages or camps, but they passed a couple of towns, Yewry’s friendships earning comfortable lodgings those days.

This was one of those days.

As always, Sammy and Julie shared a room, the former looking over a map on the table. By her estimations, they were travelling slower than before, but she thought that the more direct route they were taking would even out in the end. It was hard to say without knowing the terrain, but she put the Holy Cathedral at another ten days of travel.

Meanwhile, Julie started on some exercises. The way the days went, she usually didn’t have time to practise with her sword in the mornings. A small room wasn’t exactly the best place to swing a sword, though, so she’d been using a heavy pack to keep her strength in good condition; her footwork didn’t need her to hold a sword, so that was fine.

However, the lack of a sword didn’t stop Sammy from watching Julie. Once she was done with the map, she watched so—very—closely.

“Is it… really… that interesting?” Julie asked, her breaths heavy.

“I have read of so many maidens entranced by the sight of a man working up a sweat and never saw the appeal, not until I met you,” Sammy replied, neither joking nor flirting, simply stating a truth.

Julie picked up on that, all the more embarrassed by the honesty. But she was used to being embarrassed and continued on.

A while later, Julie finally completed her routine. The nice thing about exercising in the evening instead was that she could tire herself out. Sure enough, her heart pounded in her chest, skin slick, muscles felt a touch weak and heavy.

So she sat down on the floor, not wanting to stain the fancy chairs in the room with her sweat. But no sooner did she sit than Sammy walked over, a damp cloth in hand, and she gently wiped Julie’s brow. The cold touch almost made Julie flinch, did make her wince, but it felt so good, closing her eyes as a sigh slipped through her lips.

Only, that sigh was caught by Sammy, the sight far too inviting to decline. She kissed Julie, the cloth coming to cup Julie’s cheek while her other hand ran through Julie’s short, damp hair.

Julie flickered from surprise to acceptance to shyness. As that last set in, she broke away and mumbled, “Not now, I’m dirty.”

“Then won’t you dirty me?” Sammy asked, her voice a low, rolling whisper, both hot in Julie’s ear and yet sending a shiver down her spine.

Despite how convincing that request was, Julie couldn’t forget the state she was in and so had to respectfully decline. “Not tonight.”

“Another night, then?” Sammy replied.

This time, Julie had to laugh. Oh Sammy knew how to take that little step too far to make it absurd. After all that exercise, a little laughter was enough to make her light-headed, her chuckles becoming giggly. Forgetting how she was covered in sweat, she gently tugged Sammy’s nightdress and Sammy obliged, wrapping her into a hug.

They stayed like that until Julie calmed down and collected herself. Then they separated, Sammy reading while Julie bathed, before finally settling into bed—together.

As had become usual, they held hands under the covers and quietly talked about the day.

Tonight, Julie had something in particular on her mind, built up from the last few days. “Before, you said you don’t think Yewry is queer, but she was so close to Lady Hannah. And the way Yo’can acts—maybe it’s because I have the same job, but she….”

Sammy hummed a note. “I am still of that opinion,” she said.

Julie had the urge to ask why, but waited, hoping Sammy would say it without asking. Her patience was soon rewarded.

“This is more me speaking from my past experiences, but, especially for girls who are kept very separate from boys, I think there is… a desire for games of pretend. It is both a very real romance in the moment, yet easily brushed aside after the moment. Safe. Even if they go so far as to kiss, they can simply say that it’s practice for when they marry, that a kiss between girls doesn’t count. That love between girls is just a special friendship, excusing their closeness as a sisterly bond.”

Sammy had spoken with a detachment, her voice level, but an emptiness to it.

“Love between women is then a childishness, an unwillingness to grow up and accept our place in society. This indicates a corruption of the soul. After all, if we are not fulfilling our social contract, we are, by definition, evil…” she said, voice softening until she simply trailed off.

Julie had followed the first part well enough and it had made a certain sense. At the barracks, the other female guards—young, unmarried women—had always spoken about the men they fancied, always read romance books. Girls like Sammy and Yewry must have had the same urges, but couldn’t just flirt with boys. So what Sammy had said made sense.

The second part, though, left Julie feeling lost. She knew the holy book well enough, but she hadn’t studied it. Corruption and sin were more like words from a story than real life to her. Well, she knew that a corrupted soul was prone to evil, but she’d known Sammy for years and there was nothing evil there despite the queerness, so she’d had no reason to ever think that the bible was actually telling the truth.

While Julie struggled through those thoughts, Sammy settled herself.

“I think Yewry has a certain attraction too. Just as Chloé has an interest in a softer man, Yewry has a masculinity that makes it easy to pretend she’s a man. Assertive, athletic, handsome. I found that girls are rather drawn to confidence too.”

After hearing that, Julie felt irritated and said, “That’s enough.”

Sammy giggled, squeezing Julie’s hand. “Are you jealous?”

Now realising how childish her outburst had been, Julie winced. “No.”

Giggling again, Sammy brought over her free hand, stroking Julie’s cheek. “I love you.”

Those words cut straight to Julie’s heart, skipping a beat. Just, it turned out a heart skipping a beat wasn’t very pleasant, a momentary ache in her chest. That only distracted her for a second, though.

“You do?” Julie asked, afraid she’d misheard.

“I love you,” Sammy said again.

Julie’s lips quivered, unable to decide whether to smile or frown, her eyes prickling, a nervous laugh trying to spill out.

“What are you saying,” she whispered.

“I love you like I haven’t loved anyone else.”

Julie couldn’t help but break down, wiping the tears before they spilled with a goofy grin on her face. She hadn’t ever thought about wanting to hear those words, but here she was, wanting to hear them again already. Whatever jealousy she’d felt earlier had been entirely forgotten.

The hypocrite she was, she said, “That’s enough.”

But Sammy could see right through her. “Goodnight, my love.”

“G’night.”

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mialbowy

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