"If I never dance another step, it will be too soon," Snow said, and threw herself onto her bed, keeping her feet off the ground. She'd been caught up in the curse that took over the nine princesses of Harraine, and while it was in effect, she'd danced as though she'd loved it more than breathing, every night.
The curse had caught Danielle as well, though she'd been a better dancer than Snow in the breach. Even without her glass slippers, she was as nimble as any mortal girl could be. But the curse had forced Danielle to dance with a prince from another country, over and over again; now she was with Armand, reuniting and reconciling, and she'd made it clear that no one was to disturb them for anything short of a royal emergency. She'd earned it in the final battle where she'd used her sword to protect her friends from the trees that meant to keep them in the wrong kingdom indefinitely.
That left Snow with her feet aching, not quite alone in her chamber. She'd made mental promises to read up on the ways the trees had been forced into being part of the spell, and how she might use that kind of magic to protect Lorindar.
Talia hadn't left her side for a moment since they escaped from the gold trees, the diamond trees, and the silver trees. The other princesses might have worn through their shoes every night, but Talia's had stayed whole thanks to her fairy grace. "I don't think anyone will require you to dance," she said.
If Snow hadn't seen her pirouetting her way across the dance floor every night, she would've sworn that Talia was as rested as anyone could hope to be. "Sit down," she said. "Watching you stand makes my toes hurt even more, and I can't take it."
Talia hesitated, frowning slightly, before she sat on the chair by Snow's desk. "I could go," she offered.
Snow's rooms would be too quiet without some kind of company, especially after nights and nights of chattering, singing, dancing girls. The freed princesses had all gone to their respective homes, gathering up their beautiful dresses and their tired selves. "You could stay," Snow said, though she couldn't look at Talia when she said it.
On any other trip where they'd met twelve handsome princes, Snow was sure she'd have gotten herself into worse trouble by flirting with one of them--more than the spell required, which was technically just dancing. If she'd started to have feelings for one of the men who turned out to be demonic vessels, she might've ended up stuck in the other world.
Somehow she'd been distracted the whole time, and while she wanted to believe it was just that none of the twelve princes had been to her taste, she had to admit that that wasn't likely. There had been tall ones, short ones, broad ones, slim ones, enough of a variety that no one would've believed they were all siblings, and each more handsome than the last if they were lined up in a very precise order dictated by the viewer's preferences.
Still, Talia on the dancefloor was enough of a sight to turn anyone's head, and Snow had had to come to terms with the fact that she couldn't stop looking, watching, taking in every last twist of her wrist and smooth gliding step.
It had saved them in the end, having one sorceress distracted enough that she didn't immediately believe her prince's blandishments. But in Lorindar, where Talia rarely danced, and never with such abandon without a weapon in her hand, Snow felt that it deserved some sort of an explanation. "You were amazing," she said, when she could find the words.
Talia looked away from her, shaking her head. "That's the fairies' doing."
"Not just that." Snow swallowed, thinking of the way Talia had looked at her prince: hungry, seductive, desirous. She'd never caught Talia looking at her with that sort of expression, but she'd been careful from the start to make it clear that she didn't want any such thing from Talia. Except now, she was far less certain that was true. She was afraid to seem any stranger than she already did, afraid to be any stranger than she already was, but that was a losing battle. Every passing year took her closer to the end of her life, which was already too near--thanks to a few spells she'd had to cast--for her to waste another moment. Enough fear, then; enough hesitation. Snow cleared her throat. "I have to apologize."
"Do you?" Talia frowned at her. "You haven't done anything but save our lives again. I've almost completely forgotten the last time you turned my knife into a newt."
Snow winced. That had been before the incident with the dancing princesses, and Talia had nearly dropped the weapon. Anyone else would have flung it aside. "I shouldn't have done that," she said, though it hadn't been more than a momentary distraction at the time. "But that's not what I meant, either." She had to look away.
The trouble with Talia--one of the troubles with Talia--was that she was very good at waiting until the person talking to her came up with the right words. She didn't offer any suggestions, or anything at all but silence and stillness.
"You see," Snow said, hedging until all her phrases fell into place, "it's just that--I think--you're beautiful."
Talia pressed her lips together for a moment before she spoke. "I'm aware of that." Her voice was cold, the voice of a woman who's been told precisely that in word and deed by any number of people, many of whom wanted to possess her beauty.
That wasn't what Snow wanted at all, except for how it was, in a way. "No, I meant--" she bit her tongue, wishing she had a spell for picking the best words. Mirror, mirror, bright as day, help me know just what to say. But any attempt she made along those lines, Talia would hear, and it wouldn't be fair to use magic when she ought to be able to do it all on her own. She'd spent enough time thinking the words that she was at the point of plain speaking, rather than verse. "I meant, well. You're one of my best friends, and you're amazing, and I love you."
Talia stood with her perfect grace, as regal in irritation as she was in the rest of her life. "If this is some sort of mockery, spare me."
"Nothing of the sort," Snow said, frowning, though she could see Talia's point. She'd spent enough of her time professing her affection--physical, if nothing else--for the attractive men of Lorindar's castle, while pretending not to see Talia's emotions, that she'd as good as taught Talia that nothing would ever blossom between them.
But after Arathea--after watching Talia with Faziya--Snow had reconsidered her stance, and her self-perception. If she'd grown up in the desert country, would Snow have grown up thinking of love between two women as something perverse?
She knew, with more sense of the wordplay than anything else, that if she were from Arathea she wouldn't be the same Snow. That Snow--the one with sand ground into places she didn't want to think about--might well look at her objectively beautiful, objectively dangerous, objectively wonderful dear friend and do what this Snow was resolved on.
Except that Talia, swift as ever, dodged the kiss. "Are you enchanted?" she asked.
"If I was, would I be able to tell you?" Snow let her whiplash anger at the implicit rejection show in those words. "Do you trust my magic to protect you?"
Talia opened her hand and showed Snow a small knife. "Not as much as I trust my own skills."
Snow sighed and wished she could begin again, possibly as a new version of herself, possibly with a new version of Talia, one who hadn't been hurt, one whom Snow hadn't managed to hurt so effectively. "The whole time we were trying to save those twittering princesses--"
"--You were making cow's eyes at the demon prince you were with." But something in that exchange reassured Talia, enough that she put the knife away.
"Because I had to." Snow drew herself up. "But every spare moment, when I wasn't worried about the spell or the prince, I was watching you, and wishing I was assigned to dance with you, not some clod-footed, flame-eyed fool."
Talia looked away from her. "You don't need to say such things."
"I want to." Snow offered her one hand, empty of weapons and mirrors, and Talia didn't immediately bat it away. It felt like a halting sort of progress. "I'm sorry I shut you out when I realized how you felt."
"So am I, but I've recovered. Are you done?"
The words stung. "I should never have been so quick to judge you--or to judge myself." Snow couldn't look at her and say it, and unlike the rugs in the rest of the castle, Talia kept her floor bare. That made it easier to blurt the words out, with no distractions to look at. "I should have listened to my own impulses and--and kissed you, then."
"You didn't want anything like that." Talia wasn't frowning quite so hard, now; Snow tried to take it as a good sign. "Are you sure you didn't enchant yourself by mistake, or slip and hit your head?"
"I'm not Jakob. When I hurt myself, I remember." Snow tried to smile at her. "I'm not doing this to play games, or to hurt you--certainly not that. I want to try this, once--no, at least once--and see if we can make it work."
"It's like throwing knives," Talia said, her voice light, but still angry. "It's easy to hurt someone when you don't know what you're doing, and though you may miss your mark one hundred times, every knife hits something."
Snow blinked at her. "I think I know female anatomy better than that."
"I meant love." Talia met her eyes, and that made it harder to speak but easier to feel.
"Ah." Snow cleared her throat and wished again for a spell of speech. "But I do love you. You are my dearest friend--and far more than that, don't scowl at me."
"Don't say foolish things. I'm not some well-muscled guard you can have for the night and then flirt with." Talia started pacing. "I've had enough of people who want my body for what I can give them."
"I want your body because it belongs to you, and because I care about you." Snow bit her tongue at this last. If that was the best she could do for sweet nothings, no wonder Talia was looking at her with such disdain. "Whatever happens, I will still love you."
"You'll still be my friend." Talia's voice was as dry as the winds of her home country.
Snow closed her eyes, admitting defeat. It was a terrible phrase to bring into a romance, even if it was the only magic words she had. "I can't promise to be anything more than what I already am. I'm sorry."
Talia kissed her lightly, the brush of her lips just long enough that Snow could feel it and opened her eyes to see if she was imagining it. Talia was right in front of her, close enough to kiss again, close enough to embrace. "I don't fear your being anything more. I fear your becoming less than what you are."
"Let me kiss you and see if you still fear it afterward," Snow said.
Talia hesitated another moment, then kissed her again. There was no hesitation in this kiss--it was a kiss fit to wake a princess, sweet and long, the flicker and tease of her tongue as gentle and then knowing as any man's Snow had ever felt, as graceful as only Talia could be. It left them both breathless, and Snow was sure her cheeks were pink. "All right?" Talia asked.
"Only if you'll do that again."
Talia's smile broke like dawn over the desert. "As many times as you like."