Festival Activities

For the next few days, the three fell into a familiar pattern of seeking, hunting, and fighting in order to rout the remainder of the bandits and pirates. They had taken care of the majority of them, but there was still a small group leftover that, without their more intelligent leader, were now little more than thugs and low lives that were no longer trying to remain quiet. As though made desperate by their dramatic and sudden loss in numbers, they became far more ruthless and less discriminating about their choice of targets.

Addie would spend the day collecting information on any new attacks and where the attackers had started hiding, then Emilien and Lea would go to dispatch them that night.

After three days, the massive increase in power and skills stolen from the original group faded away forever. Lea could only steal things for a limited time. After three days, if it didn't return to their original owners, it was just gone. She was still taking from the men they captured and doling out their strength accordingly, but they weren't as ridiculously strong as they had been on that night.

Emilien thought that was only right. It didn't seem like a good thing for any one person, even someone of such impeachable moral character as a paladin, to only to compound their strength and abilities infinitely through their life.

After the first night, the entire city began spreading the news that a paladin was in their midst. It wasn't the kind of thing that could be kept quiet, especially not with groups of bandits being left weakened in the streets every night. Lea hadn't identified herself, but every paladin and her power was known throughout the kingdom – with the sole exception of Addie. It didn't take long for them to put the state of the men together with Lea, Naught of Power, and guess it was her.

However, none of them actually knew what she looked like. Lea remained in their borrowed house unless she and Emilien were going out hunting. Addie fetched anything they might need, but Marc's wife provided most of it. There was little reason for either of them to show their faces. People could only guess at who, of the dozens to hundreds of new faces in the city at any given day, might be Lea.

After the second night, when the weakened and helpless bodies of a dozen more of the bandits were found in the streets, the mayor made an announcement. The three of them didn't bother to go see it in person, but Marc brought them the gist. He had asked Lady Lea to please come forward. He wanted nothing more than to thank her in person, to house her in his manor where, by all rights, she, as a paladin, should be staying.

Both Addie and Lea assured Emilien that, under no circumstances, would they be gracing his manor with their presence. Emilien thought it only to be a desire to keep themselves – and himself – a secret for a while longer.

However, the truth was revealed the next day when rumors began abounding that Lady Lea had snubbed the mayor's invitation. That night, Lea and Emilien had taken down a pirate ship and left a group of seven men in the streets for the city guard, so everyone knew that she was still there, but she had deliberately ignored the mayor.

Which was not only a grave insult, but it sent a message. The lady paladin had condemned the lord mayor's actions without saying a single word.

People began to talk about what would happen to the mayor now. They had always suspected that the mayor had been keeping their plight a secret, but it was as though Lea's refusal to see him had confirmed it. They began to talk about him possibly being removed from office and what that would mean for Guarin.

Lea said that they probably weren't wrong. The king would likely strip the mayor's title from him for his actions.

But that was neither her problem nor her concern.

She and Addie were both far more focused on completing their task of cleaning up the streets of Guarin and making the night safe for the people once again.

The winter festival was coming soon, and they wanted everyone to celebrate without fear.

The winter festival was a celebration that they had even in Gascony. The two kingdoms had been connected for a long time and it wasn't the only holiday that they shared. He could understand why they were so dedicated to making it a safe one.

"Here you go," Addie said one evening, sliding a piece of paper across the small dining table where Emilien and Lea were sharing their breakfast – though it was past noon.

Since they stayed up so late tracking down then defeating the renegades, they also tended to sleep in later, meaning they didn't get to eat until past what would normally be the midday meal. Neither of them was bothered by the upset to their usual schedule.

Lea, still chewing on the grilled fish Marc's wife had brought over to them, lifted the small paper in surprise. She swallowed quickly, turning to Addie.

"Only three?"

"They're getting pretty thin on the ground," Addie grinned. "I heard some of them have even decided to flee Guarin altogether. Your reputation proceeds you, lady paladin. They're running scared. Makes our lives easier."

"It actually makes them harder." Lea frowned at the three names and locations. "I want to track them down. I want them all brought to justice."

"Lea, plenty of paladins and kings and soldiers have tried to eliminate crime for centuries and failed. Trust me: you are not going to be the one who ends piracy. Accept your victory for what it is."

Lea couldn't help but sulk. She knew that Addie was right, but she still wished that she would be able to get every single one of the men and women that had been terrorizing Guarin for months now. It felt like a great injustice for them to escape. Those who escaped could do more harm later. But she had no power to stop them.

"Why don't we look forward to the winter festival?" Emilien suggested, trying to turn her attentions away from her disappointment.

And it appeared to work as Lea smiled, setting the paper back down.

The three of them had already talked about whether or not they would be able to go to the winter festival. They wanted to return to Gwenael as soon as possible, of course, but they couldn't cross the Plains without a bigger ship, and since they were snubbing the soon-to-be-former lord mayor, they couldn't get one from him.

But with no indication that they would be leaving soon, they considered the possibility of actually being in Guarin when the holiday came, and if they would be celebrating it or not. Guarin was a large city, they could easily blend in with the crowds, and the idea of having something fun and normal back in their lives made Lea's chest burn with a strange yearning.

She had never been particularly attached to the holiday, but just then, it seemed to be the most incredible time of the year and she didn't know if that had to do with just coming out of her imprisonment or because she would be celebrating it with Emilien. She didn't want to examine the emotion too closely.

"We could go dress shopping tomorrow," Addie suggested, beaming. "It's been a while since I hit the market and had fun browsing."

Lea nodded, looking to Emilien. "Would you like to go shopping with us?"

"I'm afraid my figure isn't really complimented by dresses," he said apologetically before smiling at her. "Besides, how are you going to surprise me with your beauty if I'm allowed to see the dress before the festival?"

"Aww!" Addie cried out, crossing her hands over her heart as she swooned dramatically.

Lea's cheeks were pink, but she smiled shyly at him as she nodded. "Can we get you anything while we're out then?"

Emilien insisted that he was fine as Marc came walking into the dining room from the kitchen where he had been cleaning up after his wife had cooked. They had offered to do it, that it was the least they could do since the two were feeding them, but Marc insisted. He was eager to serve the lady paladin.

The older man had become noticeably happier since they had brought down the gang that had been plaguing them for so long. It had been a deeper worry on his mind than they had known. Apparently, he had a grown daughter whose own family was elsewhere in the city and he had always been afraid that something would happen to her or his grandchildren.

It was the least he could do to take care of them and, besides, he could hardly ask a lady paladin to wash dishes.

"Did I hear you're going dress shopping for the festival?" He asked, drying his hands on a small cloth as he approached. "I happen to know of a few wonderful little shops if you would like. I can promise their quality and price."

"What's your plan for the festival, Marc?" Addie asked as she helped herself to some of the bread and oil in the center of the table.

"My lady and I are going to go spend it with the grandchildren, so my daughter and her husband can have the day to themselves. We'll have family dinner tonight, of course, but I wanted to give them some time alone. It makes for a strong relationship to spend time together every now and again, even once you start having babies."

"You are so right," Addie said, nodding along with his wisdom. "I'm trying to figure out something for myself to do so I can give these two that same courtesy."

"Addie!" Lea burned bright red as she covered her face and Emilien chuckled, only slightly self-conscious about her remark.

But neither of them denied it.

After their breakfast/luncheon, Addie and Lea left together to go out into the market, armed with directions from Marc to the dress shops he recommended.

There was a bit of a bounce in Lea's step as she hit the streets with Addie. Addie was usually in a good mood, but even she seemed to be particularly upbeat. The two of them walked arm-in-arm, laughing and chatting like young girls, still in school.

The dress shop that Marc sent them to did fittings and made dresses by the order, but they also had a special stock of dresses that, for whatever reason, the person who ordered it didn't want. They might not have fit right or there was a mistake in the creation or perhaps the style had been wrong. For any number of reasons, the dresses were deemed imperfect for the original wearer and so the store sold them to others as they were at a discount with fittings costing just a bit extra.

Addie and Lea got lost in the discarded dresses, laughing and picking up particularly horrendous creations, wondering who could possibly think they were in good taste in the initial designing. They had particular fun with the ball gowns. Not that they needed ball gowns for the winter festival, but it was fun to lift some of the monstrosities up and imagine how they would look in them and the aneurysm that Felicie, Addie's fashion minded sister, would have if she saw either of them wearing one

That being said, there were plenty of dresses that, despite being cast offs, unwanted by the original customer, were actually quite lovely. In the tags attached to their fronts, the shop had written the reason for their rejection and Lea was surprised by how much of it was for completely frivolous things. The ones that were too small and, therefore, couldn't be fitted, at least made sense. But one dress had been rejected because the woman didn't like the seamstress who made it, despite the fact that the golden yellow dress with white accents was positively darling.

Lea lamented that, whoever had ordered it, was far bigger than herself. She would have had to pay a great deal to have it properly fitted. Practically remade.

"So, Lela," Addie started, calling to her by the fake name that they had decided on while they were in Guarin.

"Yes?" Lea responded cautiously, looking up from the racks of dresses. They were sorted first by size, then by color.

"Exactly how far have you and Emile gone?"

"Addie!"

"What?" She held up her hands in confusion. "I used his nickname."

"That's not even the problem here." Lea's face was burning red as she fingered the short, lacey sleeves of a small, creamy dress, meant to be worn with leggings. It was cute, and Lea had a preference for shorter dresses. But she wasn't actually looking at it. "You can't ask someone something like that. Especially not in public."

Addie scoffed playfully, rolling her eyes. "So, I guess, not very far then."

"If you haven't noticed, we've been incredibly busy."

"Uh-huh."

"And we've never really had privacy or, you know, romantic, er, opportunities."

"Uh-huh."

"And it's hardly a good time for that kind of thing."

"Mm..."

"Stop being so agreeable!"

"I'm sorry for being agreeable." Addie laughed at Lea's discomfort. "I only tease you because you make it so easy, you know."

Lea sighed, wishing she could bury her head in the dresses.

"You know, I'm not going to be around during the festival," Addie pointed out as she picked out a simple blue and yellow dress from the rack. "If you're looking for a good opportunity to further your relationship...?"

"What relationship?" Lea asked sadly, examining another dress without actually seeing it. "This isn't a relationship..."

"Not with that attitude, it's not." Addie frowned, coming closer to stand at her side, her playful demeanor dropping. "What's wrong?"

Lea hesitated a moment before answering softly, "It's impossible."

"What is?" Addie cocked her head in confusion. "A relationship?"

Lea nodded sadly.

Addie smacked her upside the back of her head.

"Ow! Hey!"

"Stupid answers get stupid responses."

"That wasn't stupid; it was violent."

"It can be both." Addie crossed her arms. "What's so impossible?"

"He's-" Lea cut herself off, her eyes glancing furtively around the store before hissing, "He is an enemy general, Addie! I am a paladin. What sort of relationship do you think the two of us could possibly have?"

"A happy, loving one, Lord willing. I thought we agreed that you weren't going to encourage him if you weren't serious."

"I am serious."

Addie raised a single, doubtful eyebrow.

"I love him," Lea said, her shoulder's slumping in defeat.

Both of Addie's brows raised.

"He's the one who put the boundaries on what we can be."

"And you're going to just be unhappy and pout about it?"

Lea frowned at her, confused at her unforgiving tone. "What's got you so angry?"

"You." Addie sighed, leaning against the end of the dress wrack. "I just don't understand how a great military leader can, simultaneously, be so cowardly and passive and... and just so... weak-hearted."

"Excuse me?" Lea crossed her arms, insulted. "You've no idea what we're going through. How can you say such things?"

"Because they're true. Is this how you run your military? Giving up on every campaign and battle just because it seems hard or has bad odds? I wonder how you managed to command the siege at Jorives with that kind of attitude."

"Leading a group of soldiers into battle is nowhere near similar to romance. You think I should, what? Just ignore his wishes? He wants nothing else from me. I've already agreed to that. If I try to force more from him, even emotionally, then I'm the one who's wrong."

"I didn't tell you to demand more from him. You should be demanding more from yourself."

"What are you even talking about?"

Addie gave her a soft smile. "Do you really love him?"

"I do."

"What do you love about him?"

"I love..." Lea's voice was slow, hesitant now. Not because she was uncertain, but because it seemed like such a difficult question to answer. "Everything... I love how strong he is."

"Yeah, those muscles are nice," Addie nodded in sage agreement.

"No. I mean, yes, they are," Lea chuckled, her cheeks turning pink. "But I meant his strength of character. Even after everything he's gone through, he's still able to smile at his enemies and help perfect strangers. Can you imagine losing everything and still having the will and kindness to want to help other people? To give when you have nothing?"

"He is a nice guy." Addie agreed, her expression softening.

"He just wants comfort. Something good. It's all I can give him."

"Stop lying. That's all he's willing to give, because he's a nice guy. He feels like he can't offer you anything, so he won't try."

"Or he really doesn't have the emotional capacity to love me back."

"Perhaps." Addie granted with a single motion. "But even if that were true, that holds no bearing over you. You can't take more than he's willing to give, but that doesn't mean that you can't give everything you wish."

"What?"

"He can't tell you not to love him, Lea, and there's no rule that says that you can't romance him."

Lea stared at her blankly for a moment, as though she didn't understand what Addie had said. The confusion only made Addie laugh.

"What? He wants something nice, right? Why not give it to him?"

"I... I can't do that," she mumbled under her breath.

"Certainly not with that attitude. What color do you look best in?"

"What?"

"Your color. I'm not the sister of the most fashionable woman in the country without learning something. So, what color flatters you most?"

"Er, red. But why?"

"Because I'm going to make you beautiful so that you can spend the festival romancing Emile and showering him with your love."

Lea's heart thumped at the idea, but she didn't stop Addie as she began going through the dresses, trying to find something red that would also look good on Lea.

"Is that really all right?" She asked in a small voice as Addie help up one of the choices to her body, trying to imagine how it would look on her.

"Why wouldn't it be?"

"He said that he could give me nothing else."

"But he didn't say he wouldn't." Addie smirked. "Go for it. You never know how far you're going to get unless you try, right?"

It was so tempting. Lea had already been considering allowing him into her bed. Taking her chance before they got to Gwenael where they might end up separated. It was an invitation she would need to give him because he wasn't pressuring her, which she appreciated.

Maybe she could offer more? If he didn't want to accept what she offered, it would hurt, but no more than the knowledge that she had let the opportunity to have more escape. Maybe it was her love for him making her brave, but for once in her life, she actually wanted to take that chance.

Addie helped her pick a dress that was only a bit too big, but with a few pins, it would be able to fit to her body better. The slightly pink red looked beautiful against her skin, bringing out the brighter colors of her hair.

As they were buying the dress, they heard a couple girls who were browsing the wracks whispering furtively to each other. Lea wasn't really paying much attention until she heard Sybille's name.

"...Lady Sybille didn't recover for days afterwards!"

"Is it true?"

"Yes! I heard she was poisoned so that the queen could be assassinated."

Lea shared a quick look with Addie. Her usual playful grin had faded. Both of them pricked their ears, but the gossiping girls had moved further away.

The look on their faces caught the attention of the woman who was selling the dresses. She finished her current transaction and waved them forward. Her own expression was grim, but they could tell by the way her eyes flashed that it was faked. She leaned forward over the counter as she took the dress that Addie had brought up.

"Have you not heard?" She asked in a soft voice.

Lea shook her head as Addie asked, in an equally soft voice, "What happened?"

"Well, I've heard, that Lady Sybille has had to take to her bed because she was poisoned." She told them both with that special air of superiority of older ladies spreading gossip. "But that it was some time ago now. We're only just now hearing about it because they finally caught the assassin."

"They caught an assassin?" Lea repeated, her shoulders relaxing in relief.

Until the lady continued to speak. "I've heard there's actually multiple assassins. Four or five at least. And the queen has been grievously injured. They just won't tell us. They even say that the Lady Sybille we're seeing isn't actually the real Lady Sybille, but a body double."

"Oh, my," Addie murmured. "That's... incredible."

The woman nodded as she accepted the gold and silver coins from Lea for the dress. "The king is said to be going out of his mind with worry. But I've also heard that Antonin Pass has been liberated. I don't know if I believe that though. It sounds too fantastic."

"Right." Lea mumbled as the woman put the dress in a box.

"I'm telling you, we're all going to end up Gasconites by the end of next year. You mark my words."

"Uh-huh."

Lea was quick to take the box from her and walk out of the shop. Addie, however, stayed inside, speaking to the gossipy woman. Lea didn't understand how she could listen to what was clearly just the ramblings of people that had nothing better to do but invent stories.

She waited for Addie outside, looking around as people passed. With the threat of the gangs and bandits alleviated, they all looked much happier. The streets were starting to be decorated in preparation for the winter festival. Long streamers and ribbons were hung and strung between the windows. People were beginning to prepare for the cooking and feasting that would take place tomorrow. It would predominantly be made of fish, since that was their major source of food. They were probably going to have a better feast than most of the country.

Addie finally returned, hiding a grim expression under a smile.

"Ready to go?" She asked.

Lea nodded, falling into step beside her as they began walking back. "Why did you bother to listen to that ridiculousness. A body double for Sybille. Really?"

"Sometimes, people whisper about my existence," Addie told her, shrugging. "I'm supposed to be a complete secret, but people still whisper. They wonder about the shadow paladin. Saying that she's a beast from the darkness who is too horrifying to behold and craves human blood. Rumors and gossip have a tendency to be greatly over exaggerated, but that doesn't mean they're not built around some grain of truth."

"You really think Sybille is using a body double?"

"No. But I think the story about the assassin is true. At least, part of it. I haven't heard from Sybille yet, so I don't know what's going on in the capital. But I'm not in Gascony any longer to warn her or stop potential assassination attempts. And Sybille isn't infallible."

Lea frowned. "Do you think the queen was really hurt?"

"Maybe. We won't know for sure until we return to Gwenael. But I have more bad news. And it's not actually gossip this time."

"Oh?" Lea braced herself uneasily.

"There's a big winter storm coming." Addie looked out to the horizon. "It's supposed to be here in a couple days, according to the weather watchers. It's the first blizzard of the winter. It's why they've decided to hold the winter festival a few days early."

"Are we early? I hadn't noticed."

"We're not exactly tracking days, but yes, it's a bit early. They want to host it before the snow sends us all indoors for an unknown amount of time."

"That's unfortunate," Lea mumbled, staring at the ground.

"It's actually dangerous." Addie sighed sadly. "I was really looking forward to going home. To seeing Ferrant again."

"Hm?"

"My husband." Addie smiled at her. "It wouldn't have been for long, but I would have liked even a single night with him. But if there's going to be a massive blizzard... I might have to leave here and return to Gascony now."

"You're not going to stay with us?"

Addie hesitated only a moment before shaking her head. "I've been away from Gascony long enough. Especially if assassins are already starting to get through. A blizzard could leave people trapped for weeks. I can't risk that."

Lea felt bad for her, but she couldn't argue with her decision. It was, after all, her decision and Lea was never going to discourage someone trying to help the kingdom. That didn't mean she didn't feel pity for what she had to sacrifice to do so.

Addie gave her a big smile. "Don't worry. I'll help dress you up pretty tomorrow before I leave. I'm still rooting for you and Emile."

The two of them hurried back to their house where Emilien was waiting. Addie told him everything they had heard at the dress shop. Emilien frowned at hearing the news, but didn't seem that surprised about it.

"We've been trying to sneak assassins into Gwenael for years. We were never successful."

"Thank you," Addie beamed like he had given her a wonderful compliment. Tossing back her hair in a dramatic fashion where she sat on the sofa.

Emilien and Lea were still standing, the former with his arms crossed as he thought over the information Addie had given them. He agreed that some of the gossip was probably exaggerations of the truth, but that there was still truth in there somewhere. Hearing the news of the incoming blizzard did seem to disturb him though.

"We don't have blizzards in Ambraude, but I've heard of them further north. They can shut down entire cities for weeks."

"Exactly why I have to leave tomorrow," Addie said regretfully.

Emilien's face fell. "I'm sorry. I'm sure you were looking forward to seeing Ferrant."

Lea frowned at him. "How do you know her husband and I don't?"

Addie sighed dramatically, covering her heart with both hands. "My enemy cares for me more than my own sister paladin. What tragedy does befall my life."

Lea shook her head as Emilien chuckled. A gentle knocking from the kitchen, originating from the back door, alerted them a moment before Marc stepped into the house. His arms were laden down with packages and he smiled at them.

"Good afternoon, my lady," he said to Lea specifically as Emilien rushed from the living room to help relieve him of his burden.

"What's all this?" Addie asked as she and Lea followed him at a more sedate pace.

"Supplies." He beamed, his face red from the outside chill and from carrying so much at once. "I don't know how long we're going to be trapped inside from this blizzard. So, I brought a lot. I hope it's enough, but, well, we'll cross that bridge, eh?"

"Thank you, Marc," Lea beamed at him as Addie and Emilien began opening the boxes, investigating the contents, so they could decide where to put them. "You're a treasure."

"Ah, it's my honor, my lady." He chuckled sheepishly. "Besides, I'm sure that Lady Sybille would have requested it of me anyway."

"Have you heard from her?" Lea asked, thinking about the gossip that she had heard today.

Marc must have seen that concern on her face because he scoffed, smiling. "I wouldn't listen to anything the old ladies say. They like to gossip. I'm certain that Lady Sybille is just fine. The queen as well. How can they not be? We have such great paladins to protect us."

Lea smiled, not bothering to mention that they were as fallible as anyone else. Instead, she thanked him again for the supplies before asking after him and his wife. She didn't want to take any supplies from them if they might need it more, but he assured her that they were fine. They were going to go to their children's home after the festival, so that they could be trapped with them. Which wasn't uncommon during winter storms. When you must be trapped inside for days to weeks at a time, it was better to be with people you loved.

And Lea was going to be with Emilien. Alone.

She cast a small look at him as he stored the boxes away into their small pantry. There was pickled fish aplenty, which neither of them liked. However, if it was a choice between pickled fish and starving, she supposed death was still slightly worse.

"I'm going to be leaving some fire supplies just inside the mudroom," Marc told her as he tightened his jacket up around his neck. "My daughter will have plenty at er home, so there's no point in bringing it with us. I've already stocked you up, but if you find yourself running out, you can always take what you need from mine."

"Thank you, Marc." Lea touched his shoulder gratefully. "I'll be sure to repay you for this when I return to Gwenael."

He grinned, nodding his head gratefully before asking if she needed anything else. He seemed to prefer talking to her the most, which didn't surprise Lea. She was the one that he recognized as a paladin, after all.

Once he was gone and all of their supplies had been stored away, Addie suggested that they start getting ready for their hunt. It was going to be their last one. Honestly, they probably could have stopped a few days ago. The numbers of criminals certainly seemed to be low enough now that the city guard could handle the rest.

Neither Lea nor Addie really wanted to, however. There was just something so fulfilling about hunting down petty criminals. It wasn't on the same scale of importance as routing enemy soldiers, stopping assassins, or winning battles over cities, but it was still something that needed doing. And maybe because it was less dire, but Lea almost felt like she was getting a treat by focusing on these little things that meant so much to these people.

She was going to speak to the king about the Lord Mayor of Guarin once she returned, his esteemed honor had certainly abused his power in keeping such things secret. But for now, it was enough to take down these criminals and bring them to justice.

The three of them left the house together for the last time that night. Addie didn't need to go with her, but even she seemed to want the distraction of the easier task before she had to return to her spy work without even the chance to see her husband again.

As though to herald the approaching blizzard, as the night hours passed, the temperature outside dropped dramatically and, by the time they returned home, there was a thin layer of ice over the town instead of the night dew.


The winter festival was a big holiday that the entire country celebrated. It was meant to be one last hurrah before the dark, cold winter nights set in and people were busy fighting against the change in seasons. The last of the fresh food was eaten before it could spoil and people were stuck eating salted, pickled, and stored supplies.

It was also a chance for families to celebrate each other. For lovers to remember why they had fallen in love in the first place. Gifts were exchanged and the lonely were reminded that they had brothers in their fellow countryman.

Lea had spent the last winter festival on the front lines of a war. She had traded a feather she had found to her captain for a pretty bead that she had since lost. Neither of them had anything or anyone else in those times.

This year, she stood in the front room of the house Sybille had arranged for them, wearing a dress that Addie had picked, staring at the reflection that Addie had created. Lea didn't dress up often – mostly because there was really no point. She wouldn't consider herself an ugly woman but sometimes she forgot, until she saw herself like this, that she was still a woman underneath it all.

The red dress that they had ended up choosing had been rejected as the mother of the girl who originally ordered it had determined that the sweetheart neckline had been too low. Lea, who didn't have an overbearing mother, wasn't bothered by the neckline. It was unusual, however, as she normally wore clothes with even her neck covered.

Her bare fingers touched along her bared chest curiously, as though her own skin were fascinating. The slightly pink color of the red brought a glow to her flesh and even highlighted a freckle she had never really paid much attention to at the base of her left collarbone. The sleeves were half length and form fitting, but her hands were uncovered. The skirt was rather plain, but stopped halfway down her shins, displaying her boots.

"Maybe just... gloves?" Lea suggested as Addie continued to pin back her hair. It wasn't long enough any longer to pull back properly, but Addie could keep it from falling into her face and disguise the rough cut that she had been forcibly given and still hadn't fixed.

Addie paused, catching her gaze in the mirror. "Are you asking me that because you want them covered or because you're nervous to have them uncovered?"

"Er, is there a difference?"

"No gloves." Addie grinned, returning to her task. "You want him to touch more than your hands anyway, right?"

"But what if I lose control?"

"Then, give back what you stole. Emile will understand."

That wasn't really Lea's point. She had such a tenuous grasp on what she took from people already. She didn't want to ruin an otherwise lovely night by taking from Emilien and forcing him to seize or vomit or anything else equally horrible.

"You're so tense. Ask him to give you a massage," Addie chuckled as she fluffed up the bottom of Lea's hair.

"How are you so calm about this?"

"The sage wisdom of a married woman, I'm sure." She declared, her head held high. "Perfume. Put it here on your neck, and here on your wrists. Not too much. Perfume is powerful."

Lea did as she was bid, sniffing at the local scent after she put it on. It smelled of an unfamiliar flower and the sweet freshness of the sea.

"Maybe I could just bring my gloves with me?" She suggested as she turned from the mirror, sniffing at her wrist. There was no response to her question and she turned.

Her eyes fell onto Addie who was standing awkwardly near the door. She shifted her weight as she pulled a letter from her pocket.

"Er, Lea, can I ask for a favor?"

"Sure. What is it?"

"Can you give this to my husband for me?" Addie smiled sheepishly, holding out the letter. It had the name Ferrant Barnabe across the front in Addie's smooth handwriting. "I... I don't get to write him because of my position, and since I won't be able to see him... I was just hoping that you-"

"Addie." Lea cut her off, laughing as she took the letter from her hands. "This isn't even a favor. I'm happy to do it."

The tension left Addie's shoulders as she smiled at her. "Thank you. I'm, er, really grateful. I'm going to be leaving while you two are out, so I won't be here when you get back."

"No, Addie, thank you." Lea set the letter down onto her bed before taking Addie's hands, smiling at her brightly. "For saving both of us. And for everything you do for us. If there's anything I can ever do for you, let me know. A letter is no problem at all."

Addie grinned, giving her a quick hug. "You can pay me back by ending the war as quickly as possible. The sooner this ends, the sooner I get to go home to my husband."

"I'll do my best."

They separated and Addie beamed at her before stepping back, taking a deep breath. "All right. You're lovely. I heard Emilien moving around, so he's probably downstairs by now. I'll clean up before I leave, so you just focus on having a good time."

Lea chuckled, playing with the skirt of the dress. "I feel like a young girl whose mother is helping her prepare for her first night out."

"Your reverse curfew is sunset. Don't you dare come back before then, young lady," Addie said in an authoritative tone, leveling a finger at her.

Lea chuckled, smoothing out her dress nervously. "All right. How do I look?"

"Lovely." Addie beamed. "Now, go. Don't keep him waiting. I'll have some silphium tea waiting for you to brew in the kitchen."

Lea paused with her hand over the door latch, looking back at her with a grin. "Have you ever wanted to be a mother, Addie?"

"Yes, eventually. Now, hurry up, romance our enemy, end this war, and let me come home so we can both have families."

"I think one of those things doesn't belong," Lea said, laughing.

Addie just gestured for her to hurry up and leave. Lea wasn't procrastinating, not really. She was nervous about what was about to happen, but she wasn't dreading it.

Down the hall, in the front room, Emilien was already dressed, ready and waiting, sitting on the sofa under the front window. He had one leg resting up on his thigh, a book in his hand, the other arm stretched across the back of the sofa. He had dressed up in a plain pair of slacks and a vest with a plain white shirt under it. His black coat was tossed over the arm of the sofa.

As Lea came walking into the room, his eyes lifted from the book and focused onto her.

Emilien hadn't minded waiting for Lea. In his experience – with his sister and mother – he knew that ladies would get dressed in their own time. Nothing could be done to rush them and being impatient or annoyed would affect only him. Some part of him even enjoyed, in a strange way, waiting for a woman to get ready. It was like a sweet anticipation that was building with each minute that passed, knowing that it was another minute the lady in question was becoming that much prettier.

It was an anticipation that more than paid off when Lea walked into the room. His eyes, lifting from the book, got to travel up the entirety of her body. Her long legs, to her trim waist, to her softly smiling face that was already slightly pink. The dress was plain, without an excess of lace, ribbons, bows, or buttons, but that simplicity only drew attention to her body, to her lovely face. The skirt fluttered freely around her legs with each step she took closer to him, her eyes sparkling with nervous delight.

Emilien closed the book with a snap, a grin forming as he got to his feet.

"Lea... You're perfect."

Lea chuckled sheepishly, pushing her hair behind her eras. "Thank you. You look very handsome, as well."

Emilien held out his arms, as though inviting her to look. "Marc gave me an old vest of his son-in-law's. It's a bit tight."

It was, but Lea wasn't complaining, because the tightness only made the muscles of his body that much more prominent. She found it difficult to swallow as he approached, setting down the book down onto a small side table and picking up his coat instead as he did so.

He smiled as he pulled it on, stealing the breath from her lungs with that, somehow graceful, action, before he offered her his hand. "Are you ready to go?"

"Wait!"

Before Lea could take it, a voice from down the hall stopped them. Addie came rushing towards them, coming to a sliding stop before Emilien.

"Aren't you going to say goodbye to me?" She asked, holding out her arms to him.

"Goodbye?" Emilien frowned. "You're leaving now?"

She nodded sadly. "I need to beat the storm. I won't be here when you get back."

Sorrow filled Emilien's eyes before he stepped forward, wrapping Addie up in his arms. He squeezed her tight as a lance of jealousy pierced Lea's belly.

She knew that Addie was married, but, somehow, seeing Emilien being so familiar with her hit right against her heart.

"Thank you for coming for me," Emilien murmured, still holding onto her. "I'm sorry that you didn't get to go back with us. And I'm sorry that I wasn't there to walk you down the aisle at your wedding like I promised."

Addie shook her head. "I'm just happy that you're all right. I was worried for you."

"Please, be careful when you go back. I want to see you back home. Safe and happy with Ferrant."

Addie nodded as she stepped back, still in his arms as she smiled sadly at him. "Will you give him my love for me? And Felicie too, if you happen to see her?"

"Ferrant, Felicie, and Cy. I'll tell them all." Emilien stepped back, holding onto her hands. "Thank you for everything, Addie. Really."

"Have fun, you two." Addie beamed at them, pulling her hands away and clasping them behind her back. "Don't toy with Lea's heart too badly, Emile. She's quite delicate, you know."

Lea flushed bright red as Emilien chuckled.

"I would do no such thing," he assured her as he reached back, taking Lea's hand, lacing his fingers through hers, pressing their palms together. "Stay safe, Addie."

She nodded, waving to the two of them as they stepped from the house.

The door shut behind the two and Lea frowned at the look of consternation on Emilien's face as he continued to hold onto the door latch as though he might push it open again in just a moment.

"We can stay, you know," Lea offered gently. He didn't respond immediately and, in response, she squeezed his hand.

He started in surprise, looking down as though just realizing he was even holding her hand. He lifted their conjoined fingers, staring at them as though intrigued.

"What is it?" Lea asked, confused.

He grinned, looking past their hands and into her eyes. "It's been a while since I've even seen you without gloves, much less touched your hands."

"Erm... is it... okay?" She asked hesitantly. The last time she had touched him so casually with her bare hands had been in Petrus Landebert. That had been some weeks ago. Sure, she had touched him to pass on things she had stolen from the bandits they had fought, but those touches had been quick, clinical, and completely aromantic.

Unlike now, when he lifted her hand to his mouth and slowly, sweetly kissed her knuckles.

"I'm all right," he promised, caressing the back of her hand with his thumb. "I trust you."

Something in Lea's chest eased at the sincerity of his assurance. She gave Addie a silent thanks about insisting that she not wear the gloves. The look in his eyes showed no hesitation, no guarded shadows or any concealed fear.

"Shall we?" He asked, gesturing with his head down the street.

Lea nodded eagerly, falling into step beside him as they began walking away from the house. He didn't look back once, focused only on her.

Guarin was alive with the joy and merriment of the winter festival. Most of the outdoor festivities seemed to be concentrated on the beaches and in the town square – which wasn't all that far from the main water docks. The scent of cooking fish hit their noses before they ever turned onto the first street that was lined with booths selling candies and goodies. They had walked right into the area filled with parents and their young children who were rushing about, fueled by sugar and the excitement of the holiday.

Emilien chuckled as the two of them walked through the gaggle of enthusiastic little ones.

"I've always wanted a big family for myself," he said, watching a group of children that were playing soldier with a soft smile.

Until one of the little boys shouted, in a sweet, baby voice-

"Down with Gascony!" He followed it with a loud battle roar that had the watching adults chuckling as he rushed into the battle – which was comprised of so many Vasconian 'soldiers', that they had needed to substitute dolls and puppets to be the Gasconites they conquered.

Lea quickly pulled Emilien past, smiling at him and squeezing his hand to catch his attention. "I want that too."

"You want... what?" He focused back onto her, having lost track of the conversation.

"I've always wanted a big family." She clarified, forcing him away from the children's war games. "At least five children. Maybe more."

He chuckled. "At the very least. And a large house. With a big courtyard!"

"With trees for climbing and a training area for fighting."

"But of course." He laughed, fully distracted. "And a beautiful wife to smile at me whenever I, er..."

His voice trailed off and the air between them became awkward. They were describing the same dream for the future, but had never promised anything to the other.

Just because he couldn't offer more, didn't mean she couldn't give him more. Taking those words from Addie to heart, Lea picked up right where he left off.

She gave him a big smile, stepping in just a bit closer to his side. "I've always wanted to live in the city as well. Or, at least, close to it. It's always so full of excitement and you can buy almost anything at the markets. Truly incredible."

He looked at her, his expression guarded. He didn't tack onto her dream any longer, but he didn't stop her from speaking as she continued to detail the life she had always wanted.

One day, after the war was over, when she could focus on policing the city again. When she had a home to return to, not just the Paladin's Suite. A house filled with the laughter of her children and the love of a husband that burned as truly for her as hers did for him. Maybe she spent a bit more time detailing that one thing, not quite looking into his face as she did so, but he didn't try to stop her. He just continued to watch in silence, as though hypnotized by the scene she described.

They walked past the area where the children were the thickest and into the town square, which seemed to be filled with the games that the festival was known for the most. Simple booths with cheap, little prizes that filled people with a special kind of delight. It wasn't so much the prize that mattered as winning it, and the memory that become attached to the object in doing so.

"Shall we play some games?" Emilien asked as she finished speaking. He didn't acknowledge her dream, but he also hadn't stopped her from speaking of it. His tone was strained and longing, even as he tried to force her to focus onto something else.

Which she allowed, pointing to the very first booth – which appeared to be a game wherein you threw balls at a stack of bottles in an attempt to knock them over. The bottles were heavier than the ball, making the task that much more difficult. Emilien eagerly offered to try to win her something but, though his aim was perfect with each throw, the lightweight ball simply couldn't topple more than a single bottle at a time.

But the game was fun nonetheless and, when they left the good-natured swindler to his next victims, both of them were smiling as they moved onto the next booth.

Two games later, and Emilien had still won nothing, though they were having a good time. It wasn't the victory so much as the play that made these things fun. Chasing what they knew was designed to be as difficult as possible without being impossible for a prize not nearly worth the work required to win it was strangely entertaining because they knew it meant nothing.

The fourth game, Lea volunteered to play. It was a game of pure chance as it involved catching little wooden fish in a paper net. The little fish had prizes – or jokes – written on the bottom. You could catch as many fish as the paper net could tolerate, but if you dropped the fish, you got nothing.

Emilien cheered her on as she looked over the mostly identical carved fish, searching for the one she liked the best. There was no way to tell, looking from above, which fish had good prizes so, in the end, she ended up scooping two up at random. She didn't think that the little paper net would be able to hold any more than that.

When the game master turned them over, one had a piece of bread carved on the back and the other had a little stick person. The man gave them a slip of paper to bring to his wife – a baker – to exchange for a free loaf of fruit bread and a little doll about the size of Lea's hand. It was a little girl with brown hair holding a fishing pole made of wood that was very obviously cheaply made and probably wouldn't last long with an actual child playing with it.

Lea turned, holding it out to Emilien with a grin. "I won you something."

He chuckled, taking the small toy in his large palm. "My hero. Just what I've always wanted."

"Shall we go get some bread and find ourselves a bowl of the fish stew?"

"Just so long as it's not as spicy as the last feast we ate," he said seriously, keeping hold of the doll with one hand while the other took hold of hers without any hesitation.

Lea smiled as they went to the baker and, after exchanging their ticket for a small loaf of sweet bread, asked what place sold the best stew, one that was definitely not too spicy. With her directions and recommendation, they found a shop run by a married couple who were happy to serve them two steaming bowls of a spiced stew with mushrooms and clam. Lea hadn't eaten clams before and she found that the texture was sickening. Emilien, however, loved them but despised mushrooms. They ended up trading, eating their preferences out of each others bowls as they sat on a bench near the stew seller so they could return her bowls.

Afterwards, they walked down towards the beach, sharing the bread as they chatted about everything and nothing at all.

When they stepped out of the protective shadows of the city and onto the beach, Lea flinched in surprise as a freezing cold breeze began to beat at her. She wrapped her arms around herself, not sure why she was surprised by how cold it was. She knew that there was a blizzard coming, likely to land sometime tonight. She could even see the dark clouds gathering on the horizon, just over the water, threatening them with their inevitable presence.

She and Addie had been so focused on making her pretty and letting her hands be free, that they had forgotten that it was blasted cold!

Emilien didn't notice immediately, taking in a deep breath of the salty sea air. "You can really feel the difference, even after only a few days..."

"What difference?" Lea asked, keeping step with him as they walked down the beach. They weren't the only couple that had chosen to do so. It seemed to be a popular spot. A bit out of the way and with the space to give everyone some relative privacy as no one stood too close.

"The bandits being gone." Emilien clarified, gesturing over the people. "They're smiling so much brighter now. No one looks so afraid anymore. And that's thanks to you."

"I just did my job," Lea assured him, smiling despite herself.

Emilien, however, frowned as he looked down at her. "What's wrong? Are you cold?"

"Er, yeah. I forgot my coat."

Lea hadn't even finished speaking before Emilien was unbuttoning his own coat, pulling it off of his shoulders.

"Oh, no." She held up her hands quickly. "I can't take yours. Keep it."

"Don't insult me, Lea." He ignored her protests as he swept the coat around her shoulders, tucking her into the deep blue fabric. "It's a poor man indeed who would wear a coat while a lady is shivering beside him."

He didn't mean it the way she was taking it.

For Gasconite men, offering a woman his coat had meaning. It was a way of sacrificing for her benefit and giving even if it meant having less for yourself. A man only gave his coat to his lady or his daughters. It was a sign of protection and love. Vasconian men would do the same, but it was more a sign of courtesy and chivalry. Offering a lady your coat was no different than offering to carry something heavy or opening a door for her.

He was doing it with the Vasconian meaning. No different from when he had offered her his shirt when she had been completely nude. He was being nice. She wasn't even a Gasconite, so the coat thing shouldn't have had any meaning to her at all.

But she knew that it would have had meaning to him, and that made it meaningful to her. Or, at least, it would have had meaning, were it not for what had happened to him in his home country.

She pulled his coat tighter around herself, snuggling into his warmth and scent that remained clinging tight to the fabric. After a moment of consideration, she decided not to slip her arms through the sleeves and instead wear it cape style, like a Gasconite woman would.

Emilien said nothing as he pulled his hands back slowly, staring at her with a guarded darkness in his eyes. He didn't miss the choice she had made in how she wore the coat, but said nothing about it. However, the way he looked at her spoke volumes.

Lea wondered, for a moment, if she shouldn't put her arms through the sleeves after all. Wear the coat as a lady accepting a gentleman's chivalry only. Emilien waited, watching, as though he could see the hesitation in her face.

Taking a breath, Lea reminded herself that he couldn't stop her from loving him. It was her right to be in love. Even if he could give her nothing else, that was something he couldn't deny her.

Making her decision, Lea dropped her hands away from the coat, huddling into it without putting her arms through the sleeves.

Emilien said nothing again, turning from her and walking towards the waves. Lea hesitated for only a moment before walking after him. The sand crunched loudly under her boots as they stood just at the edge of the water's reach.

She looked up at his face, then down to the ocean. The dark waters were a bit rough and choppy, likely in anticipation of the coming storm, in reflection of their emotions as they silently watched the waves crash against the distant sandbar.

Lea's fingers played with the hem of Emilien's coat. Though it was obvious that he regretted giving it to her, he was making no attempts to take it back. She was wondering if maybe it wasn't okay for her to be so freely in love when he finally spoke, so softly that she almost didn't hear him over the rushing of water.

"Don't ask anything from me, Lea."

"I wasn't asking for anything," she assured him equally quietly. She continued to fidget with the coat and, in doing so, felt the little doll she had given him hidden in the pocket.

Emilien sighed, his face pinching in pain.

Lea's insecurities mounted, but she maintained her position. "You can take your coat back if you want, but if you give it to me, I'm going to wear it like this."

He said nothing again and she waited for him to make a motion to take back the coat, but he did not. He remained quiet again for a long minute before trying again.

"That's asking too much of me."

"It's taking what you've given me, and nothing else."

"Lea..." He turned to face her at last but, in catching sight of her face, he quieted down. A long sigh left his lips as he stared into her pretty eyes. "Why do you insist on hurting me like this?"

Surprised, Lea turned to him. "That was never my intention..."

"You're succeeding nonetheless," he chuckled without humor, running a frustrated hand through his hair. "I have nothing for you, Lea. That coat isn't even mine. I have to give this outfit back to Marc after tonight."

Lea was already shaking her head. "I don't want to take anything from you, Emile. I want to give things to you."

He frowned at her, saying nothing.

Taking a breath, steeling her nerves, she stepped in closer to him. "It's all right if you have nothing, Emile. I don't need anything. I don't need you to support me or for you to give me your coat. Lord knows I've survived colder weather than this. The only thing I want is your hand in mine. For however long you'll let me hold it."

"Lea-"

"You just want a distraction." She cut him off before he could say it. "You want something to focus on that's not the things that have happened to you. And I'm telling you that I'm more than willing to give you that, but you can't stop me from giving you more."

He let out a short breath, turning his eyes away. She watched him quietly. Her heart was pounding, but her will was ironclad.

"You... are the only thing that seems real to me sometimes, Lea," he admitted in a soft voice.

She tilted her head curiously, waiting patiently for him to continue, which he only did after a long few seconds, his head falling back to look at the pale blue sky.

"Everything has been stripped away from me. I don't know how my family fares. I don't even know what my future holds."

"His majesty will forgive you for your part in the attack."

"That's not what worries me. I'm rather certain that he will. King Cyrille is a good man. Even if I don't feel I deserve it-"

"Why do you not feel you deserve it?" Lea cut him off before he could continue.

Emilien didn't say anything, which was enough of an answer. Lea reached out, taking hold of his cold hand. His fingers were chilled and she didn't know if it was because it was freezing outside and he no longer wore his coat or something else...

"Emile, nothing that happened was your fault."

"That does nothing to lessen my guilt."

"You took care of me. Didn't you do that to atone?"

"Protecting one life doesn't replace the ones that were lost."

"But those lives weren't taken by you."

"I'm not just referring to the ones in Gwenael." He looked at her sadly. His hand remained limp in her grasp. "Whatever my future holds, Lea, I don't want to bring you into it. I have no prospects. I have no gold. I don't even have the shirt on my back. Whatever happens to me, I'll accept it as my due and do my best to live through it, but you-"

"I can decide what I want for myself." She cut him off, squeezing his hand firmly. "If I decide I want to stand by you through that, that's my right. You can tell me to leave if you don't want me there, otherwise, I'm going to stand right here."

"Lea, I can give you nothing. You know that."

"I don't want anything but you. I don't know what's going to happen either. I don't know our future. But if I can give you as much as I can now, that will make me happy."

Emilien said nothing for a moment, but his fingers twitched in hers before softly returning her grasp as he continued to stare out at the ocean.

"You and I are so different..."

"I don't really think so," she smiled, leaning her forehead against his bicep.

He chuckled. "Not like that. I meant-"

"I know what you meant. I'm not asking for a ring. I just want to keep wearing your coat."

He chuckled once, without humor. "Those are the same things to me, Lea."

"Do you want it back?"

He didn't reply for a long moment, but she gave him as much time as he needed to think of his answer which was slow in coming.

"I don't," he finally admitted. "It's not mine... but I like you wearing it."

A smile pulled at Lea's lips as she intertwined their fingers again. "Do you not want me to stay beside you? Will you tell me no?"

He was faster to reply this time. "I do. I won't."

"Then, I can stay."

It wasn't a question, but he still nodded in confirmation before finally looking back at her.

"Lea... When we get to Gwenael..."

She shook her head. "I don't want to think about it. I know what my duty is, but as for the rest... I think we should just take it as it comes."

Emilien hesitated again. "And if your king doesn't forgive me? If I'm executed for my role?"

"You won't be."

"But if I am? If your king orders my death..."

Lea felt her heart splitting at even the thought, but she couldn't lie. "If it was my king's order, I can't disobey. But I would stay with you until the last moment."

Emilien smiled, putting his arms around her, holding her tight.

"You are an honorable woman, Lea. I would expect nothing else. I would do the same."

"Really?" She asked, feeling herself smile as he nodded.

"We are pretty similar, aren't we?"

She chuckled, leaning back to look him in the eye. "My duty means a lot to me. My oaths are the most valuable thing in the world to me, and I couldn't change that even if I wanted to. But I would stay with you, Emile, for as long as I can."

He beamed, resting his forehead against hers. "That's what I like best about you, Lea."

"You're the exact same way, you know," she reminded him, thinking of the way he wanted to continue adhering to his oaths to his country, even if it meant remaining in the jail cell that those he vowed himself to had sent him to die in. He only left because of her. He had only escaped because someone needed him more in that moment but she had no doubt that, if it weren't for her needing him, he might have very well have stayed in that cell.

He took in a deep breath, closing his eyes, but didn't deny her words.

"Let's not think about it. We're going to be trapped here until the blizzard passes. Can we just... be ourselves until then?"

Lea nodded. "I would like that."

Taking a step back, Emilien looked down at her, giving her a soft smile.

"You are the only one who feels real to me anymore, Lea. It's a lot to put on you, I know that, but would you mind... if you became the only reason that I live for?"

She smiled. "For now."

"For now? You plan to revoke it?"

"I plan on you growing and getting more to live for." She reached up, stroking his cheek gently. "You will find your place again, Emile. I promise. But, for now, if depending on me is what is keeping you going, then I want you to do it. I've said it from the beginning: use me. I want you to."

Emilien took her face in his hands and brought her close, kissing her sweetly. Lea was distantly aware of the fact that there were people around them that could see such an intimate moment, but she clung to his arms, only slightly embarrassed by the show of affection in such a public place.

When Emilien pulled away, he kept his hands on her face, stroking her cheeks with his thumbs. "We are going to be locked together for at least a few days. I want to spend those days loving you. If you'll let me."

Her heart skipped at the word 'love', but she knew he wasn't actually professing his love for her. She could only nod in agreement, silently promising that she was going to do the same. She wanted to give Emilien so much more, but showering him in love while they were trapped away from the world, blocked in by the storm, was good enough for now.

"Let's go enjoy the rest of the festival." Emilien took her hand, pulling her back up the beach, back towards the city. "I'm going to take each day as it comes, just in case it's my last."

Meaning, he wouldn't make any plans. He wouldn't give her any promises. But every day, he would give her everything he could, for that day.

Lea was more than willing to allow for that, since she couldn't give him anything else. The dreams they shared about a big house, a big family, and a long, happy life with a big love existed between them as just that - a dream. A wish. A fantasy.

They returned to the festival with big smiles, as though nothing had changed, though she could feel in her bones that something certainly had. They danced to the musicians in the square until they were both breathless, then lost more of the rigged festival games. Lea continued to cheer Emilien on at each booth they came to, but at the end of the day, they walked away with only the little fisherwoman doll that remained in his coat pocket around her shoulders.

As the night started to fall, the winds began whipping faster, coming up from the south. Children were put to bed and most of the adults gathered in the square, eating the last of the feast. It consisted mostly of the bounty of the sea, but it was still a bounty, and more than some had in the kingdom. Lea and Emilien gave thanks for their blessings before the two took turns feeding each other.

Before it got dark, Emilien went to an apothecary and bought her a few bags of silphium tea – a brew designed to prevent a pregnancy from taking hold. It spoke to his intentions for their time together, and she took the box without comment.

Snow began to fall even before the festivities were over. Such a festival would normally last hours into the night, but as the first flurries of snow began to sweep through the streets, it seemed to signal to everyone that it was time to seek the warmth of their homes.

Which Emilien and Lea did, holding hands as they walked back to their borrowed house. Marc's home next door was already dark, telling them that he and his wife had already made the trip to his daughter's place for the duration of the blizzard. When they walked inside their own house, it was to find it dark and quiet. Addie had already left.

The two of them worked together to make the last preparations for their lock down. Emilien pulled in most of the firewood, stacking it in a corner of the kitchen as Lea walked through the house, shutting and locking every door and window then finally the chimney grate. Snow had already started to pile up in the cold fireplace. The generators that powered the city were, themselves, powered by the movement of the ocean – though Lea didn't know the specifics. She did know that, according to Marc, they might lose power during the course of the storm, but that it would likely only be as a safety measure and that it would be restored shortly.

For now, it was still decently warm in the house and the two of them decided to make pallets in the front parlor where they could sleep and try to concentrate the warmth of the pipes and – once the worst of the storm had passed – the fireplace. Marc had come in at some point and left them cards and board game to play in the kitchen, which she brought with her. As she made the pallet – only the one – Emilien was moving the furniture out of the way, clearing space for them.

By the time they were laying down, the wind outside was roaring. The winter storm had descended upon them completely and was, no doubt, covering the entire city in a thick blanket of snow. But she laid down on the pallet next to Emilien, both of them fully clothed, holding hands, talking about their wishes and fantasies until they both slipped into a deep sleep, their words turning into dreams so beautiful that Lea woke the next morning, yearning and crying for what she didn't have.