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In the morning, Sammy stirred. Coming out of her dreamless sleep, her thoughts settled on Julie—as they always did. So she turned her head, only to find Julie much closer than she’d expected. A laugh almost slipped out of her, but she managed to catch it, instead settling into a warm smile.

For the first time, Julie had slept on her side. Julie hadn’t been like that when they’d gone to sleep, Sammy knew, so she wondered when Julie had turned. However, that wondering didn’t last long. Like this, Sammy had such a beautiful view of Julie, of those sun-bleached eyelashes, warm skin, cute nose.

Of course, it wasn’t long before Sammy was drawn to Julie’s lips. There was something funny to her about how, despite the many times they’d kissed, she still cherished each one, found something about it to make it special. She knew that would probably change, but, for now, it brought her such joy.

Julie brought her such joy.

Every day she could wake up beside the woman she loved, she was so very thankful. The last couple of months had been far more vivid than the years before. That awful feeling of being out of place had left, no longer numb to the loneliness that had cocooned her.

Just that, those changes had happened before Julie had even kissed her, slowly unravelling since their journey began. It was hard to put to words why exactly. Perhaps the simplest way of putting it, it wasn’t that Julie liked her in spite of her queerness, but that Julie had never held any spite towards her queerness, simply accepted her as she was.

Lost in those thoughts, Sammy bathed in the feeling of being loved. Even though Julie hadn’t said those three words, Sammy felt loved, and that was enough. She’d spent years chasing the fiery heat of a kiss and now knew the gentle warmth of an embrace.

Of course, she was glad she didn’t have to make a choice between the two.

As if Julie could hear that thought, her eyes flickered open, unfocused gaze settling on Sammy. “Morning,” she mumbled.

“Good morning, my love,” Sammy whispered.

Tickled by the words, Julie shied away, ducking her head, a small smile on her lips. But she was drawn back by the sound Sammy made—kissing the air. Their gazes meeting again, Sammy pursed her lips, what she wanted so very clear.

And Julie liked granting Sammy’s wishes, so she shuffled closer, stretching her head until she just managed to meet Sammy’s lips for a peck. With the wish granted, her shyness returned and she slid out of the bed. Sammy watched for a moment longer, amused at how Julie could still be so unintentionally seductive, then turned over, giving Julie privacy to change.

From there, their morning routine carried on as normal. Julie went out to practise, Sammy spent some time indulging herself—reading, this morning—before going to watch Julie. They even had time afterwards to read together, Julie steadily making progress on her book.

Finally, the early hours of the morning over, they went to the main room of the inn for breakfast and there found Yewry and her guards, sat at a large table. The other tables had a person or two at them, the room seeming both full and yet quiet. Like most of the inns since they’d crossed the central mountain, the morning meal had the smell of soups and broths, as well as something sour—pickled vegetables, Sammy thought.

On the walk over, Julie squeezed Sammy’s hand. Although Sammy didn’t particularly feel like she needed to be reassured, she took Julie’s good intentions, squeezing back.

There was a heavy silence when Sammy and Julie sat down. Despite there being plenty of space, Sammy was amused by just how close Julie ended up, their knees touching under the table. She joked to herself she should offer up her lap as a seat, then let out her humour with a breath and focused.

An ingrained etiquette, Sammy took a moment to look at each of the other four, unconsciously noting their expressions. There wasn’t much to gleam, though. They had neutral expressions, Yewry putting on the barest of polite smiles, avoiding meeting her eyes.

Sammy took that in and decided to frame the discussion as a “conflict”. She didn’t know why, but, whenever she did that, people tended to simply go with whatever she said. That might have simply been because she was a princess and the queen-to-be, but she wanted to try now and see.

“Well,” Sammy quietly said, “I am sure you understand that I am a hero chosen by the gods. There is nothing else in particular I wish to add.”

Oh Sammy could see that Yewry wanted to ask, yet no questions ever came. All Yewry said was, “Of course,” and then brought up breakfast.

Sammy found that bittersweet. It was useful to her that that method worked on others, but it also reinforced the responsibility she owed to Julie. She had to be so careful with what she asked, how she asked, always wanting Julie to feel like there was a real choice. A fleeting thought, but one that often came back to her.

Breakfast passed in an awkward silence, then they were back on the road, trotting along. By lunchtime, though, Yewry finally broke and, throughout the afternoon, put her little questions to Sammy. “When were you chosen?” and, “Did you talk to a god?” and, “What blessings do you have?” were a few of them.

And every time after Sammy answered, Julie just happened to have something to ask too. So Yewry never got more than a brief answer.

Come the end of the day’s light, the thick forest thinned and the gentle incline levelled out. However, there still wasn’t much cleared land, a broad lake taking up most of the plateau that they could see. A decently large town—among the largest they’d seen in Dworfen—hugged the edge of it, making a loose crescent.

“If I am correct, there is a river that runs down to the ocean from here, so a lot of goods end up here to be shipped,” Sammy said to Julie, then she checked with Yo’can that she was right.

Yo’can took an awkwardly long moment before she replied. “I don’t really know, but I was told this is a good place to buy supplies.”

They followed well-worn tracks to a road and, once they reached the outskirts, Yewry’s guards dismounted while she, Sammy, and Julie continued by horse. It was easy enough to find an inn with a stable. Although it was a small place, it was in good condition and well decorated. That was true of the food too, their meal more than just something starchy or pickled or a river fish—dried fruits, salted meats, and fresh vegetables offered, not to mention a choice of drinks.

After such a long day of travelling, the good food was a most welcome change. Even though there was still some lingering awkwardness between them, a good mood had built up, helped by Go’eh and Kaygo indulging in the local stout.

Still, it had been a long day and the women soon retired, leaving those two to earn their hangovers.

Like always, Sammy and Julie had a room to themselves. It was rather quaint, reminding Sammy of the start of their journey; Yewry had chosen more extravagant lodgings so far. Well, the bed was rather soft, duvet thick, and the candles scented, so the familiarity was more about the size than the quality.

But the real difference was how, when Sammy sat down, Julie sat right next to her and leant against her. Sammy chuckled to herself, then asked, “Not that I am complaining, but is something the matter?”

There was a moment of silence, seconds ticking. Finally, Julie spoke, her voice soft. “Is Yewry gonna be your lover?”

Sammy’s eyes widened, that question entirely unexpected. “No? Why would she?” she asked, matching Julie’s quietness.

Julie fidgeted, coming to pinch Sammy’s riding habit. “She… only liked me because she thought I used the war bow, but now….”

Pieces falling into place, Sammy smiled. Oh she adored Julie’s occasional bouts of childishness. “Even if she did like me, I love you and I don’t love her, so I am afraid you are stuck being my lover.”

The teasing wasn’t lost on Julie, her face scrunching up, but their situation wasn’t so easily addressed, the thoughts she’d been thinking since yesterday more stubborn than that. “You’d love her too. She’s like me, but better. Short hair, good at archery, and she’s kind of like a princess, so you have a lot in common.”

It seemed to Sammy that Julie really had read a lot of romance books—and not particularly good ones. Joking aside, Sammy understood Julie was upset, but she was happy at the display of jealousy. So very happy.

Of course, Sammy kept that to herself, pivoting her thoughts to reassuring Julie. In pursuit of that noble cause—certainly no ulterior motives going on—she turned to Julie and reached up, cupping Julie’s cheek. Then she nudged Julie’s chin around so they were facing each other. After looking Julie in the eye, Sammy finally leaned in and kissed her.

But it wasn’t the chaste peck on the lips they often shared. Sammy tried to convey everything, stymied by how little detail books went into when it came to kisses, making up for it with enthusiasm. To a fly on the wall, it would have looked strange and funny, their lips squirming, making strange sounds.

Yet it was so incredible to them. A moment of youth for the two teens who knew no better.

Their breaths growing short, they reluctantly parted, a heat lingering between their open mouths. Feeling light-headed, Julie clutched Sammy’s shoulder. And Sammy moved over her hand, rested it on Julie’s, and gently squeezed.

“I love you. I love who you are, I love how beautiful you are. If our fate be willing, your lips will be the only I ever know, so please try to listen to me instead of those baseless doubts,” Sammy whispered.

Perhaps losing to the mood, Julie thought that that was the most beautiful thing she had ever heard. But that just reinforced her fear by reminding her how much she had to lose. Really, it was funny. When she’d made that offer to Sammy months ago, she hadn’t the slightest clue what would happen. Even now, she didn’t know what would happen next, taking each day as it came.

But, for this moment, she wanted to believe Sammy, wanted to believe they really would be together forever, even though she didn’t know what that would bring.

Sammy not one to sit idly by, she gently ran her fingers through Julie’s hair. A bit oily, but soft, and it showed such beautiful colours in the flickering candlelight. Eventually, that stroking lulled Julie into a stupor, Sammy smiling to herself at the silly look on Julie’s face.

“We should go to bed soon,” Sammy whispered.

“Okay,” Julie mumbled, her lips barely moving.

Despite saying that, Sammy struggled to sleep. A day or two before her period would start, her mind was not quite as usual, holding onto emotions that kept her up. They weren’t unpleasant emotions, though. Her heart beat that little harder than it normally did, hands itched to go back to stroking Julie’s hair, but then she also felt a yearning to be loved, her thoughts unnaturally fixating on how to have Julie say those three words back.

In the morning, Julie found Sammy rather soundly asleep. Even after changing and taking out her sword, she looked over and Sammy hadn’t stirred, so very still. It was strangely unnerving, but she could see the duvet rising and falling with Sammy’s breaths.

What was more off-putting was how that got in the way of their morning routine. After hesitating for a good few seconds, Julie made her choice. She quietly walked over, leaned down, and left a kiss on Sammy’s forehead.

Really, Julie had half-expected Sammy to spring up and give her a fright. But no, Sammy didn’t react at all, even her expression the same. Julie was strangely disappointed. Maybe because of that, she lifted the blanket enough to see Sammy’s hand. She then reached down and gently lifted it up.

It was a beautiful hand, she thought, with long, slim fingers—just perfect for playing the piano. She turned it over, a bittersweet smile coming to her as she inspected it.

“No scar,” she murmured, and gently put the hand back under the duvet.

By the time Julie returned from her morning training, Sammy had woken up, albeit with a lingering drowsiness, her eyes glistening and expression droopy. Though Julie had given Sammy a kiss good morning earlier, she obliged Sammy’s request for another.

Like the dinner, the breakfast was a good spread. There was porridge—something they hadn’t seen since leaving the east coast—and cured meats on top of the usual vegetable soup and such. The women of the group were the only ones to indulge, though, Go’eh and Kaygo arriving late and with little appetite beyond a strange ritual. Sammy told Julie it was a drink of fermented fish sauce, ginger, lime juice, and with a freshly caught clam in the bottom, which was then followed by eating a pickled plum (the more sour, the better).

Apparently, that was a popular hangover cure in Dworfen, and Julie felt she would rather never get drunk than ever try it.

They then wandered around the town for supplies. It was a very different town to most they’d been to in Dworfen, something about it familiar to Sammy and Julie, the natural sprawl of a merchant hub making it like Hopschtat. And like Hopschtat, they found all sorts of little shops here.

When they came across a clothing store, Sammy couldn’t help but indulge, so Julie found herself with a quaint dress. “Something to relax in if more storms roll in,” Sammy so very convincingly explained.

Finally, stocked up again, they carried on, following the road that loosely followed the broad river. That brought them through a few villages, easy enough to find places to rest and have lunch and, by evening, a comfortable place to sleep.

While Julie hadn’t been overly clingy during the day, Sammy was equal parts amused and pleased to have so little space between them when the candles were blown out. And while their kiss goodnight wasn’t quite as intense as yesterday’s, oh it lingered, tickling each other with their breaths as they parted the least distance possible.

“Goodnight, Lia. I love you,” Sammy whispered, Julie feeling the words brush against her lips, a tingle running down her spine.

“G’night,” Julie replied.

Sammy smiled, hoping that Julie would soon have a little more to say at bedtimes.

The morning saw the two of them go through their usual routine and then they left with Yewry and her guards. Closer to the coast now, the paths were mostly paved and clear of debris, making much better time than the days before.

But they didn’t go to the coast, soon veering north and following a decently large road that was intended for pilgrims. Plenty of modest inns were scattered along it, so they had the basic comforts when they rested the horses, which was particularly helpful for Sammy as it let her change and clean her sanitary cloths without a fuss. Well, except for the fussing Julie did, but Sammy didn’t mind that.

It was a good time of year to travel too, the road mostly clear but for traders. And since they didn’t have a cart, it was easy enough to go around the lumbering wagons. Seeing them, Julie remembered what Sammy had told her—these really were the only wagons she’d seen in Dworfen. She thought these traders must just go back and forth along this road.

Late in the afternoon, but long before evening (the days that bit longer after travelling north), they arrived at the edge of the holy grounds: an ornate archway, made of bronze long turned green. It was about ten paces wide and tall, a simple shape with countless engravings of religious iconography for the twelve gods.

After they all took a minute to admire it, Sammy said to Julie, “We are to walk the last thousand steps.”

Julie nodded, then quickly dismounted to get to Sammy’s side and help her. With Sammy having been riding sidesaddle, that was easy enough, and Sammy smiled with humour on her lips as Julie eased her down.

“Thank you,” Sammy whispered.

Julie returned Sammy’s smile, though it turned a bit silly from that thanks, pinching her eyes.

A bit to their side, Yewry cleared her throat and brought the moment of flirting to an unceremonious end. “We should make good time.”

“Indeed, we should,” Sammy said, her tone making it sound like Yewry had been the one dawdling.

As used to it as Yewry was by now, she still bristled at the jab. Yet she knew she would be forever thankful for this trip: no matter how annoying anyone else she may happen to meet might be, she could always think to herself, “At least they are not as bad as Sammy.”

Yo’can, experienced with how these two were, managed to get the group moving. Fortunately, they could still bring along their horses, so there was no need to carry the packs. That said, Sammy took out a small box. At Julie’s curious look, she smiled and said, “Incense—my offering to the gods.”

Of course, that had been said in Schtish, so Yewry’s curious gaze went unanswered, her pride not yet recovered enough to ask.

The road straight and the sides cleared for farmland, orchards, and pastures, they could already see Saynarue Cathedral. Well, it was just a spot in the distance at the start. Over time, it grew and grew until it was a building unlike any Julie had seen before. It wasn’t as sprawling as the Royal Palace of Schtat, but it was much taller, the two bell towers at its front bigger than any she’d ever seen. And then the cathedral itself had a giant dome, something bewildering to her about seeing something so unnatural that it ended up looking natural—impossible to believe that ordinary people could have possibly made it, so it must have always been there.

Eventually, she remembered something else Sammy had told her: the gods had chosen someone to design and build it. That was a reassuring thought now.

The cathedral was part of a compound set around a large courtyard; one side was a wing with bedrooms for the clergy, the other side a wing with a kitchen, dining hall, and so on; opposite the cathedral were a pair of reflection rooms for meditation and teaching.

Other buildings—like lodging and stables for pilgrims—were scattered to the side, making a small village. Yo’can led them there. Once the horses were unsaddled and checked (Julie mentioned to Sammy that they should look out for a farrier again) and the packs taken to their rooms, they wandered to the cathedral’s courtyard.

There was still some daylight, and that made the cathedral quite the sight. While the huge dome was a shiny brown like bronze, it hadn’t suffered from the weather, the one side shining in the setting light. But the rest of the building was incredibly impressive too, flawless walls of perfectly joined porcelain bricks that glowed a chalky white. How those bricks were made was still a mystery, the long-dead maker taking the method to his grave, but they were an incredible stroke of genius—a glossy porcelain would have made the cathedral hard to look at on sunny days.

Bright and vibrant and with an ethereal light to it all, it certainly looked to Julie like a holy place.

Meanwhile, their presence hadn’t gone unnoticed, some clergy waiting nearby. After giving the pilgrims a minute to admire the cathedral, a pair of priests shuffled over.

“Would our dear guests wish for a tour?”

Sammy and Yewry spoke with them and they, hearing there were guests from Schtat, sent an apprentice off. She soon returned with a middle-aged man, his face rough and smile sincere.

“Little Sho tells me we have some pilgrims who have made quite the pilgrimage?” he said in perfect Schtish, hands clasped together.

“Something like that,” Sammy said with a slight smile.

He chuckled. “The little ones have to call me Father, but you can call me Simon.”

So their group split in three: Yewry, having been before, returned to her room to rest, Yo’can accompanying her; Go’eh and Kaygo went with a Dworfish priest; and Sammy and Julie followed Simon.

Alongside Simon’s monologue about the history of the cathedral, he told them about his own past, born in Schtat and gradually travelling north-west, one church at a time, until he ended up here.

In the course of that, Sammy mentioned the priory they’d stayed at.

“You met Little Tutty? What a small world,” he said with a chuckle.

The tour soon took them inside the cathedral, but it was, in a way, disappointing to Sammy. It had an emptiness to it, nothing more than rows and rows of pews. Hollow. There was an arrogance to it too, she thought, a room to seat half a thousand people and tell them how great the gods were—a room the gods had made the people build. It wasn’t made to be lived in, hence the buildings around the courtyard, and it had no purpose beyond preaching.

However, it was not so simple a room. It was rounded and the pews loosely followed the curve, and each pew was a step lower than the last and the podium was raised, making it easy for everyone to see the preacher. There was no decoration, but it still looked beautiful. The walls on the inside were made of the same porcelain bricks, yet it was even more impressive now, still flawless despite the curve.

There was one last trick, though.

“Please, stay here for a moment,” Simon said.

He left Sammy and Julie near the back of the room while he shuffled up to the podium. Once there, he took a deep breath in, then let out a note. It was a clear note, deep and rumbling, and it resonated with the dome, echoed off the walls—loud for Sammy and Julie. After holding it for a good ten seconds, he stopped and quickly shuffled back, grinning.

“How was it? Even our most mumbly preachers can still be heard at the back,” he said, chortling at his own joke.

Sammy smiled and offered an empty agreement, her thoughts rather on what a waste it was. The people could have had the most beautiful stage for music and theatre and instead had this empty hall that could only echo the past.

As for Julie, she was still lost in the grandness of it all. To her, it kind of felt like the hall actually belonged to a giant, could imagine a huge table and chairs and a crackling fireplace that used entire trees as logs. But, well, giants were just stories to scare children, she knew.

Not much to show beyond the building itself, Simon led them outside again. “If you don’t mind waiting, it’s almost time for the evening chime,” he said, gesturing up.

Sammy and Julie looked up, the two bell towers seeming so much taller now they were right in front of them. Like the cathedral, they were made of the porcelain bricks, square base about four paces by four, and about fifty paces tall.

Some of the novelty wearing off, though, Julie realised that the cathedral wasn’t as impossible as she’d thought. Hopschtat had its own grand cathedral with a spire that pierced the heavens, just that it was surrounded by the tall buildings of the capital which were often two or three storeys.

Lost in those thoughts, the ringing of the bell caught Julie off guard, giving her a fright. Two clear, harmonising tones that boomed despite their higher pitch.

Once the notes quieted, Simon started walking them to the dining hall, talking as he did. “You know, the top of the dome isn’t actually perfectly smooth.”

“Really?” Sammy asked.

He tapped his nose. “To clean it, we throw ropes over the top and a sort of cross-shaped groove stops them from just slipping down. Well, I’m a bit old for that, but I’ve seen the little ones at it,” he said, ending with another chortle.

“Oh, is that why it isn’t green?” Julie asked.

Simon’s eyes opened wide at that and he scratched his chin. “I don’t rightly know,” he confessed.

“The structure as a whole is blessed,” Sammy said, “so it will never tarnish nor show its age. However, dirt and such can build up on it.”

Simon nodded. “Right, right, that’s it.”

At the dining hall, Simon went his own way while Sammy and Julie joined Yewry and Yo’can; the other two guards arrived a few minutes into the meal. As for the meal, it was much like at the priory: vegetarian and plain. Still, Julie was used to eating whatever was put in front of her. Sammy, on the other hand, didn’t have much of an appetite, but forced herself to eat lest she worry Julie.

The bell had rung at sunset and, by the time everyone had finished eating, twilight had firmly settled. Sammy and Yewry spoke for a moment, then Sammy left with Julie. On the way to their room, Sammy said, “I will make my offering tomorrow, then we shall be parting with Yewry.”

“Okay,” Julie said. She didn’t have any particular feelings to the news, just accepted it, no point thinking it through.

Once they were in their room, Sammy indulged and pulled Julie into a cuddle. Although her cramps had been better this month, she still felt drained from ignoring them, an ever-present niggle in her mind that had constantly tried to distract her. Her other symptoms hadn’t exactly helped either.

However, now that Sammy could hold tight her precious jewel, every ache melted away. And Julie certainly helped by playing her part, gently rubbing Sammy’s back.

“D’you want to sleep?” Julie whispered, worry in her voice.

Sammy gave one last squeeze—careful not to hurt Julie—and then pulled back, softly smiling. “I have to prepare something first.”

“Okay, I’ll wait.”

Though Julie said that, she could only bring herself to read for an hour, after that struggling to stay awake as she watched Sammy sit at the desk and write. So it was that, when Sammy finally finished her extensive notes, she turned around and found Julie awkwardly slumped over, the loose neckline of the nightdress giving Sammy quite the view. But her gaze didn’t linger therein, a promise once made important to keep.

Sammy was nothing if not someone who kept her promises.

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mialbowy

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