Author: inwardtransience PM
Ilesa, second Princess of Birn, was promised to the Heir of Nisea, the future ruler of a powerful distant nation. But the Heir isn't exactly what she expected. (F/F)Rated: Fiction T - English - Fantasy/Drama - Chapters: 3 - Words: 17,774 - Reviews: 8 - Favs: 2 - Follows: 6 - Updated: 01-07-13 - Published: 12-25-12 - id: 3086106
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Ilesa hated indecision. She was torn by it now, hovering in her library, flitting from shelf to table to chair to shelf even as two slaves watched. Normally being in such a state before others would make her uncomfortable, but she had long ago gotten used to servants being around.
At the beginning, this whole thing had been easy. The clothes she would be bringing on her person were a simple matter to put together. The Heir had had one of her people give her an empty bag, in which she was supposed to put the clothes and books she would want on her for the trip. The bag was a little bigger than she had been expecting, but she supposed if she were to have a whole horse to herself it wasn't really all that surprising. She picked the obvious things out of her wardrobe: the riding clothes she already had, of which she had several sets—her father had decided it was best for her to be taught how to ride a horse, since it was a skill she would very likely need at some point, so she had been outfitted some time ago—along with one nicer dress she would need for her arrival at Nise. She was glad she had Kali coming with her, for she doubted she would be able to get in it herself, and she also doubted any of the Niseans would be able to figure it out. While she was at it, she amassed a collection of clothes she would like to have once she got to Nise, which ended up being a good portion of her wardrobe. She needed to be prepared for everything, after all. She put this aside to be packed later.
That certainly sounded simple, but it had taken the rest of the day.
Then she had had a slave carry the bag, the one for her trip, to her library, and gotten down to the task of selecting books she could read on the way. This was a little harder. It seemed simple on the surface, but going through her books was very distracting—frequently she would pick up a book only to open it and read a couple pages before remembering she was supposed to be doing something. She eventually selected a slew of novels she hadn't read yet, as well as a couple books on Nise, and crammed them all into her bag. By nightfall, the time spent split with other little missions around the palace, that was done.
Then the crates had come. She had found one of them in the room she'd left the clothes she was shipping, complete with a couple servants. For a few moments she had supervised the packing, but had quickly decided the slaves knew what they were doing, and headed off to an adjacent room where she usually took breakfast. After she was done with that, she had headed immediately to her library, only to find another crate. The slaves there had asked which books she was taking.
It hadn't occurred to her until then how small the crate would be. Sure, it didn't seem all that small, but when compared to the size of the library she had amassed, it was small. It had sunk in then how few of her books she'd really be able to ship. The first thing she had said to the servants was to ask if there wasn't some way she could get a bigger crate. No. Shipping rates to the north from here, due to high demand and low supply, were extremely expensive, and the Nisean delegation hadn't brought enough money to afford any more. Which she grudgingly admitted was probably a safe precaution—as some of her novels had taught her, things could easily be lost or stolen on a long journey. At first she had wondered why the Niseans hadn't simply asked her father to pay for it, but she realized quickly that that would be something of an embarrassment. She was the Heir's responsibility now, legally and financially. Although she hadn't the first clue exactly what that meant in Nisea. She was pretty sure the legal provisions of marriage were different there, but she wasn't even close to sure how. She naturally gravitated toward her books, specifically one she had already packed away in her travel bag.
An hour later, she was somewhat more informed on the topic—the whole concept of husband and wife—or, disturbingly enough, husband and husband or wife and wife—being equal partners in a marriage was completely barbaric and absolutely fascinating—but had made no progress on selecting books to bring with her. If she were counting the days properly she had until the morning after next to make her choices, but she should probably take a good chunk of tomorrow to say goodbye to her mother and certain friends she had among the nobles in the city.
She wasn't saying goodbye to her father, though—she was done with him.
But back to her books. She called up her organizational system in her mind, and contemplated the various sections. Before long she decided she wouldn't need the vast majority of her nonfiction books—any of those would be easily replaceable in Nisea—so crossed those sections out. She moved a small number of rare or personalized books to the crate, though. The fiction would be harder. She wasn't sure how available southern literature, especially Birn, would be in the north, and she was sure she would come to miss it if she didn't take any. But she couldn't just take it all—she didn't have room for that. And so, once again, she found herself flitting back and forth in her library.
She calmed her distracted panic a little and started figuring this out. She started with classics and favorites she absolutely had to have, such as The Ballad of Vithos, an old epic poem,or On the River, a favorite of hers that had just been published two years ago. These, she was horrified to discover upon gathering all the books there was no choice but to keep, already filled half the crate. How did that happen? She mentally went through all the books she had gathered and realized it was a bit more than she'd thought, but it still wasn't all that many. That was one tiny crate.
These final choices were torturous. There was a whole pile of books she hadn't even read yet. What was she supposed to do with those? Some of those she had already put in her travel bag, but there was still a large number of them. She sorted through them arduously, picking out authors she knew she liked, then added them to the crate. Then she reviewed what she had heard or read of the others, and picked a few more to add to the crate. She stared at the crate in disbelief. Almost full.
Eventually, Ilesa was standing before the crate, thinking maybe there was room for a couple more, holding a book in each hand—Sir Goffe by Endris Lam in her right and The Comedy of Tempal by a mysterious person known only as Somma in her left. She had read Sir Goffe before, a great example of Kessism, and she particularly loved this one section involving aesthetic spellcasting somewhere in the middle. The other she hadn't read, but she had heard great things about Somma, and was as curious as many as to whom this Somma person actually was. Or maybe she could take that book over there, a collection of poems by Kotra Nishal, which included a good number of inspiring bits about loyalty and devotion, though she hadn't even gotten through most of it yet. This was one hard decision after many hard decisions and her brain was starting to shut down. She noticed something strange in her peripheral vision, and glanced up. It was dark outside. That's funny—when did that happen? She hadn't even eaten since morning. Inspired by the late hour, she topped the crate off with Nishal and Somma. Done.
That would probably close.
The next morning, after getting dressed and taking breakfast, Ilesa left her apartments for other areas of the palace. She made her way to the front, which involved taking a turn, down a flight of stairs, around two more turns, and through a hall the purpose of which she was never really clear on. Before long, she found her way to the outside of the nearest guard post, squirreled away within the walls of the palace near the main entrance. The moment she peeked her head in the door, which had been left hanging open, the laughing within quit. Some playing a strategy game against the wall, some sitting talking, others sprawled out on the bunks. All straightened upon seeing her and snapped out more or less rigid salutes.
Ilesa raised her chin slightly in response, then explained her plans, that she was going out into the inner city to say farewell to certain noble friends of hers. The highest ranking of those gathered—a captain, or so she assumed—quickly assigned six men to go with her. Ilesa didn't contribute a word in the choosing—soldiers were soldiers. She led them toward a somewhat less tiresome exit just to the side of the main entrance—though they would keep her within a protected bubble in the city, in here she was on point. Soon she was in the yard, and making her way toward the gate. What she saw there made her frown.
The Heir and four of her men were standing just inside the gate, a huge preponderance of wood and stone worked into the flawless wall, clearly waiting for it to open for the day. It was closed overnight, and sometimes the opening in the morning could be slow in coming, if there was no use for it. Even as Ilesa approached, the soldiers manning the gate started the process of getting it open, but whether or not that was in response to her presence she wasn't sure.
Her guards tensed around her, as though anticipating trouble from the armed Niseans, but they kept themselves to her back and sides, leaving the space between her and the Niseans open. Eris hadn't noticed her right away, but after one of her men—Is that a woman?—pointed her out, Eris looked over her shoulder, and her face broke into a smile. "If it isn't the Princess!" she said in her strangely accented Birn. "And how are you this beautiful southern morning?"
Ilesa, coming to a stop a few paces away from the Niseans, decided not to answer that. She knew it was rude, but she had already learned from experience the Heir didn't really care whether she was rude or not, which she had to admit was something of a pleasant development. "And is it that? Beautiful?"
"I'm sorry?" muttered Eris, her smile faltering.
"I would think it would be cold for you."
"Oh! Yes, it is, rather. But not too bad," she said, waving her arms a little. Ilesa supposed that was intended to draw attention to her perpetually short sleeves. "What's more unnerving than anything is not hearing the ocean. In my home, the voice of the sea is always there, and it feels very strange to be away from it."
"I've never seen the ocean before," said Ilesa, perfectly aware her tone came out contemplative.
Eris's face and voice turned excited. "That's right, you haven't! It's beautiful, you'll absolutely love it. It's wonderful. I can't really think of the words to describe it, so you'll just have to wait and see."
"I suppose so," said Ilesa, continuing her thoughtful tone.
For a few moments there was silence, save for the chirping of the birds and the noises of the gate starting to open. The two women allowed the silence to continue. Then one of Eris's guards said something low in Nisean, to which Eris gave a curt reply in the same language. Then she said, "My guards are the most insolent people, I swear."
Ilesa kept her face frozen. "Perhaps they would respond to a royal presence."
"Ouch, good one," said Eris with a wide smile. "So, what are you doing in the city today? That is, as soon as they get this preposterous gate open."
Eris's good cheer faltered, then vanished a moment later as her shoulders slumped. "Oh." Her eyes dropped, and she turned partly away, looking at the wall with an expression Ilesa couldn't quite read. "I'm sorry about that."
With a frown, Ilesa said, "Sorry about what?"
"Making you say goodbye."
Ilesa internalized a sigh. "I've always known my life here was temporary. I would be married off to someone sooner or later, and I would doubtless leave this city for the rest of my life. It was going to happen anyway. And as you said a few days ago, my prospects could be worse." She couldn't believe she had said that, to Eris herself no less.
With each word Eris seemed to draw strength, and soon she had straightened and was again smiling in her typical unrestrained fashion. "Well, that's not so bad then. Sorry for getting all sullen on you there."
"No matter." The gates had opened, revealing the green, sparkling inner city beyond, but Ilesa hesitated for a moment. "What is your business in the city?" she asked.
"Just getting prepared for our trip," Eris said with a shrug. "We need to do a little bit of resupplying, and I suspect we'll be able to find everything we need here. I forgot to ask: do you have a horse?"
Ilesa blinked at the sudden change in topic, but soon recovered. "I have one set aside for me at the city stables. Why?"
"Then I only have to buy one," explained Eris, "for Kali. Unless there's anyone else you would like to bring with you?"
Yesterday at dinner, her mother had suggested she bring her old governess, but she had declined immediately. She had had several over the years, and had never really grown attached to any one in particular. "No, just Kali. Couldn't you have someone else do your shopping for you?" The unspoken implication was that she thought it strange for a royal to be doing that herself, that it was below her, and Eris herself was probably a little strange for doing it.
"I had to get out. This palace of yours is a little confining for my tastes."
Ilesa couldn't imagine a palace being built any other way. The purpose of a palace was for defense, and if it weren't confining it wouldn't be defensible. So she asked, "What is your home like?"
A sort of wistful expression crossed Eris's face; Ilesa supposed she was homesick. "eNisekam—that's what the palace is called—is a collection of low buildings along the shore just to the north of Nise—the city, not the Counties. Most are made of wood, enchanted to resist the wet air, none more than two stories. The outside rooms of most are open to the air, but still furnished. Between the buildings are wide avenues, all filled with strip gardens and..." Eris broke off, her eyes gazing unseeing into the distance. One of her guards sighed and roughly smacked her on the shoulder. Her gaze refocused, and she gave the guard a glare before finishing, "It's nice. You'll love it."
She really was homesick. "I suppose we'll find out. Well, I should be going," Ilesa said, gesturing to the open gate with her eyes. "Lots of nobles to talk to..."
"...and they sure love to talk," Eris agreed with a nod. "See you at dinner, Princess." And off she went into the city.
Dinner? Oh yes. She was reminded by Eris's words that she was to have dinner with her family and the Heir along with an assortment of nobles that night, as a sort of farewell reception mirroring the welcoming one. She had entirely forgotten. There went her unformed plan of a private one with her mother. It was only with some amount of effort that she pulled herself out of her thoughts so she could go forward with the rest of the day. She moved into the city, the guards silently spreading into a protective circle around her.
She sort of put herself on automatic for these meetings with nobles. As Eris said, they do love to talk. But, as it came to about midday, and after she had spent grueling hours with proper nonsense talk, she stopped with the soldiers before one house in particular. The mansion was like any other in the inner city, sort of like the palace in miniature. This one held no special traits that made it stick out from the rest—the same stone, the walls painted with similar gaudy landscapes.
What made it special were the people inside. This was the home of a noble—by title, not by blood—named Olk Tanel. Tanel had been born a commoner, in a village some distance out in the country. His parents were slaves, and he himself had been a slave, and had served for most of his life on a farm, until he was drafted for the king's conquests. Those in charge of the king's army were no strangers to the concept of motivation, so it had been a standing policy that any slave who served with distinction would be awarded with freedom; Tanel was one of the few that was so freed. After being freed, he had first joined a shipping company as a guard, but had been quickly promoted to a desk job, which he managed through an education he had gained sporadically over his early life. After a maze of internal politicking, Tanel had found himself the head of the company. After another maze of external politicking, he had found himself the head of a conglomerate of shipping companies, their reach stretching all the way to the north—in fact, his conglomerate was the only reliable access to the various goods of the north. His story became an inspiration to the commoners, and the king had granted him title in response. Ilesa wasn't entirely sure why her father would do something like that, but his logic was his own.
She approached the front entrance, a double door sculpted into swirls, two birds up at the apex. To indicate her arrival, she swiped a hand across a marked section of the stone along the edge; the spellcasting contained inside would release energy on the other side of the wall in the form of sound, announcing herself to those inside. Ilesa thought it was rather a waste—a bellpull would have worked just as well. Spellcasting wasn't plentiful enough of a resource to just be throwing around. Hardly an instant passed before a servant—but not a slave, as Tanel owned no slaves—opened the door. Ilesa recognized the somewhat aged man by sight, but she couldn't remember his name. The man certainly recognized her, and bowed at the waist before opening the door the rest of the way and motioning her in. After an entreaty for Ilesa to stay there alone—her guards were waiting for her outside—he skipped up the stairs with an energy half his age to find the lord. Ilesa waited on the couch she had been guided to, in a room plastered with various tokens of the lord's escapades. Farm tools, weapons, important documents, artifacts from foreign lands. The entire house was decorated so.
Before too long, Lord Tanel bounded into the room. He was a large man, broad in the shoulders, standing far above Ilesa's own head. There were various scars on his muscular arms, exposed past the sleeves of his tunic. Ilesa was sure he had a story for each. His hair had started to gray at the edges of his worn face, the only indication to Ilesa that he had aged at all. Even now his face burst into a smile at the sight of her, and his arms opened as if to scoop her up off the couch. "Your Highness! How good it is to see you! I was worried you would vanish on us without coming over to see goodbye first."
"I would do no such thing, Olk," Ilesa said with her own thin smile. "If I did, your daughter would probably haunt me."
"You're too right on that. Where is she, anyway? She should be here." He stepped back over to the threshold of the room—he had wandered gradually toward her as they spoke—and leaned his head out the door. "LIFA!"
Ilesa barely heard a voice yell back, "What?"
"PRINCESS!" Tanel apparently heard something she did not, for he nodded and turned back to her. "She's on her way." Sauntering over to another couch, he said, "I'm afraid we caught her in the middle of painting. She's been rather consumed with her art recently. She made her first sale, you know."
"No, I didn't," Ilesa said, letting her surprise show on her face.
"Yes," said Olk with a nod. "You know that one with the deer?"
Ilesa nodded back. "Standing there in the middle of the city."
"That's the one. Got quite a good price for it, too."
"I'm sure she's excited."
"Damn straight I'm excited," came a voice from the door. Standing in the threshold, propping herself up against the jamb with an arm, was a tall woman—at least, taller than Ilesa—wearing pants and a tunic, her blonde hair tied back, blotched all over with various colors of paint. Her gentle face was drawn into something of an overconfident smirk. She was rather, Ilesa just noticed, like Eris, but dirtier. "Nice of you to drop by, Ilesa. Here I thought you had forgot about us poor commoners."
Ilesa shook her head in false annoyance. "You're neither poor nor a commoner, Lifa."
"Details." Lifa sauntered, in much the same manner as her father, to Ilesa's couch, and flopped into sitting next to her. As surreptitiously as possible, Ilesa inched over a little; she didn't want to get paint on her dress. Furniture all over the mansion was already spotted with it. "So, tell me about the Heir. Is he cute at least?"
Ilesa withheld a groan. Was the Heir all anyone wanted to talk about? There was no use in delaying things, she decided. With other nobles she had entirely refused comment, but there was no reason she shouldn't tell the Tanels. "The Heir of Nisea is a woman."
There was a long silence in which both Tanels looked at each other, then back at Ilesa. Then back at each other. Finally, Lifa raised an eyebrow to Ilesa, and said, "Lucky you."
"Lucky me?" repeated Ilesa, frowning at Lifa in surprise. Olk was snickering to the other side.
"Yes, lucky you. Not only are you marrying one of the wealthiest, most powerful people from the most influential country on the face of the planet, but it's not even a man? Sign me up."
"What? Are you, what is the word..." Ilesa searched her mind for a couple seconds, trying to remember terminology she had never had to use before. "...homosexual?"
Lifa looked confused for a moment—it wasn't a commonly used word in Birn—but then rolled her eyes. "Did I say that? I mean, some men are cute, but fuck 'em." Usually, Ilesa would be put quite off-balance by someone using that sort of language, but she had long gotten used to Lifa. "Is she cute at least?"
"I..." Ilesa just stared at her for a moment. "How should I know?"
"Come now, Your Highness," Olk said, smiling widely, "you must have certainly learned to notice what beauty is in a woman by now."
"Yeah," agreed Lifa. "If only academically. So come on, give us your academic opinion."
They were taking pleasure in this, she was sure. How infuriating. "I just... I can't even think about this."
"Spoilsport," Lifa scoffed. "When I saw the Niseans coming in I thought for sure that big dark man, black as night, was the Heir."
"Andru, the head of her guard," said Ilesa. "I had assumed the same at first."
It looked like Olk was studying the ceiling in fascination, but it was obvious to anyone who knew him that he was picking apart his memories. He and his daughter shared a perfect visual memory. "So, it must have been that woman with him in the middle."
Lifa had a similar expression on her face. "Yes, which one was that again?"
"I don't know. All those dark people looked the same to me."
"Oh, I remember. The one with the nose. She didn't hold herself like a servant. She had that enormous, ridiculous smile on her face."
"That would be Eris," Ilesa muttered.
"Eris?" repeated Olk with a frown. "Did you know that was her name beforehand?"
"Well, yes," she said, frowning right back at him. "Why?"
"And you didn't know she was a woman."
Instead of answering, Ilesa just stared at him in confusion, so Lifa explained. "Eris is a feminine name; anything that ends in 'is' is. Anyone who knew the first bit about Nisean would recognized that immediately, so you should have had some warning."
"Oh," she said blankly. "I don't speak any Nisean."
Olk shrugged. "You have to to get anywhere in my business."
"But as I was saying," said Lifa, again with her smirk dominating her face. "If Eris was the one with the smile, you really are lucky."
"Oh, be quiet."
Olk let out a short laugh. "Stop it, Lifa, you're making the bride blush."
Releasing a very unladylike snort, Ilesa crossed her arms and glared at the floor.
A long "oh" worked its way out of Lifa's mouth. Eventually she said, "Fine, we'll be good. New topic, new topic."
Ilesa had managed to fit all of her other meetings with nobles in before lunch, and she had planned it that way, so she could have lunch at the Tanels'. This wasn't the first time she had eaten there—the Tanels even jokingly referred to one of the chairs at the main dining table as hers. Ilesa had first met the family as part of her father's design on her social exposure, in controlled situations with nobles. Actually, Olk had been doing a similar thing with his daughter, but for different reasons: the Lady Tanel had died not long before that, and Olk had been concerned with how Lifa was handling it, so had thought he may be able to distract Lifa from her pain with friends her age. So one day their schedules had coincided, and Lifa was brought up to the palace. Since that day, and over the years, they had frequently met either at the palace or at the Tanel mansion; Lifa was actually the only real friend Ilesa had retained from her father's little experiment. Olk had said not long ago that he was glad the two of them had managed to fill holes in each other's lives, and that even he himself thought it was a little lonely in the house without a second woman around. Ilesa suspected that her own father was simply glad she had not completely spurned the nobles, though she could have picked a more well-established family. Or at least, she supposed, one with a man she could be married off to.
They talked for hours. Most of her talks with the Tanels mostly consisted of her sitting back and listening to the two banter about this or that, only jumping in for the occasional comment. But she liked it that way. The Tanels certainly were entertaining, and she found something about the way they thought intriguing, though she couldn't put her finger on exactly what.
Some time later—it was actually nearing time for her to return to the palace, if she were to make it back for dinner—she was up in Lifa's studio. Lifa had first picked up watercolors when her mother was still alive. As far as she could tell, for Lifa refused to talk about it, the Lady Tanel had introduced her to painting, though exactly how and why Ilesa wasn't sure. She did know that Lifa had refused to touch any of her art supplies for a couple years after her mother's death, until her father's and Ilesa's prodding, along with a certain incident in the market, had conspired to get her started again, and she had since taken up an entire room in the mansion. It was hard to tell what the floor was made of, as it was covered in some sort of white cloth, absolutely littered with blotches of paint in all colors. There was a window overlooking the palace; Ilesa had noticed before that she could see her balcony from this window. The only other thing of note in the otherwise dull room was Lifa's paintings. Dozens of them, all shapes and sizes, all variety of subject matter. Ilesa didn't really have the vocabulary to describe art, but whatever Lifa's paintings were actually of, they always seemed they were only vaguely that while also vaguely something unnamable. It had always confused Ilesa more than anything, but she knew that from an objective standpoint Lifa was good at what she did, even if Ilesa couldn't understand it.
After a short moment of Lifa going off about something, she seemed to realize Ilesa never followed her painting talk, so she stopped before too long. Then Lifa just stood there, staring at Ilesa. A great big something floated into the air, and Ilesa wasn't exactly sure what, but it was a looming and uncomfortable something, and she didn't really want to find out exactly what it was. So Ilesa broke eye contact after a few seconds, and found herself staring at an ass. The thing was on top of a house. Now, why would a donkey be on top of a house? This wasn't helping. She heard herself say, "I really should be getting back to the palace. It's late."
"Yeah, I suppose so." Ilesa looked up to see that Lifa had turned away herself, and was looking to one of her paintings, so Ilesa followed her gaze. It was a rather normal one, as far as normal went with Lifa: simply the palace in the night, bathed in light from the speckled sky. "You don't expect me to cry, do you?" said Lifa. "Because I'll have to disappoint. I'm not really the crying type, you see."
Ilesa could see in her peripheral vision that Lifa was watching her again, but she found herself simply staring at the floor. "I know you're not. I'm not either, really. I can't recall having ever cried, now that I think about it."
"That's because you're a princess." Just from her voice, Ilesa could tell Lifa was smiling. She could just imagine the smile too, her playful one, the one she always wore whenever she was saying something stupid she would insist until death was genius. "Princesses don't cry."
"We should get an alchemist to isolate this and sell it in bottles. The Crown will never want for gold again."
"You know, that joke doesn't work for everything."
"No, but it's worth trying."
There was another silence, a much shorter one, before Lifa said, "I have something for you." Ilesa looked up to see Lifa a few steps from where she had been, flipping through a stack of paintings leaning against a wall. After a couple seconds of searching she pulled out one canvas, stretched across a wooden frame like all the others. "Remember that sketch that one commoner—I forget his name—did of us in the market?" She turned the frame around.
It was simple on the surface. Before her was a portrait of the two of them, around ten years old, sitting on the steps of a building at the edge of the market—exactly what the building was, Ilesa couldn't remember. Ilesa remembered she and Lifa had sat on the steps for about an hour, eating sweets, talking, and playing a game with little rubber balls they had brought with them—Ilesa had forgotten what that was called too—while the commoner made right around ten sketches. Ilesa couldn't remember why they had done that. But anyway, Lifa had apparently used one of those sketches as a template: in this one, Lifa had her arm around Ilesa's shoulders, and had the other finger pointing at her cheek, but Ilesa's arms seemed to be pushing that hand away—she guessed Lifa had been trying to poke her. That's what it was vaguely, and there was still that something unnamed lurking under the surface, visible in every brushstroke. This unnamed something reminded her of that unspeakable something that had loomed between them just a minute ago. It was trying to tell her something, but she wasn't sure she wanted to hear it. In fact, she was pretty sure she didn't.
"I want you to take this with you. I mean, I want to go with you, but I'm not allowed to go with you, so I think you should have this. Next best thing. Ilesa? Your Highness?"
"It's beautiful." Well, she supposed it was that. "But I can't take it."
Lifa's face fell dramatically, but this new expression vanished behind the smile she always wore when she wanted to hide that she was hurting. "I don't think you understand the concept of a gift, Your Highness."
Somehow Ilesa didn't even notice she was being patronized. "I don't have room to bring it with me on my trip. No room."
"I anticipated that. I had a spellcaster make a copy." Lifa turned the frame and let it fall against the nearest wall. She moved to a desk in a corner, shuffled around in it—the entire room was a mess—before coming out with a thick, long roll of canvas, which she held out to Ilesa when she returned. "It's been treated. It won't even get wet."
Ilesa lifted her hand to take the roll, only realizing her hand was shaking when she forcibly steadied it. What was wrong with her? All this talk about somethings, her hand shaking. She didn't even feel sad about saying goodbye, not really. What she was feeling she didn't know. She supposed it was sort of like that sinking feeling she had had when she had been told about the Pukavi, but why should she be afraid now? What was there to be afraid of? She mastered herself and took the roll with a steady hand.
Her eyes flicked back up to Lifa's face, where she found an uneasy smile. "Can I...?"
Ilesa blinked. Actually, she seemed to be blinking a lot. "What?"
Hesitantly, Lifa raised her arms a little and took a step forward. When she received no sign she should stop, she moved the rest of the way to Ilesa and took her in a hug. For a moment Ilesa just stood there. Then she lifted her arms to hold Lifa to her, and buried her face in Lifa's shoulder. This was nice. It had been so long since they had hugged; they had been children. For some reason, it had just never seemed proper once they were older. But this was nice, it made her feel all warm inside. That something in the air was yelling at her still, but it was rather easy to ignore in favor of the feel of Lifa against her. "The night sky just won't be the same without you," Lifa said into her hair. Ilesa had no idea what that meant. Eventually they parted.
Then Lifa's lips were against hers.
The next thing she knew, she was outside the mansion with her guards. She had no idea where that time had gone. She stopped halfway through a dazed step, and turned to stare back at the Tanel mansion. That might have been Lifa ducking out of sight of that window on the second floor. She felt like she had run a mile. She felt like she had been hit in the face. She felt like the last six years had fallen apart in her hands, and she didn't know what to make of the remains.
What the hell was that?