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A boat, beneath a sunny sky

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Lasaraleen's presence extended well beyond her actual body, courtesy of her perfume, the bells braided into her hair, and the careless thump of her feet on the dock. Aravis studiously ignored her, choosing instead to stare at the intricate nets of sunlight that danced on the ruffled surface of the Lake of Mezreel. The cool water lapped around her ankles, rising and falling to the same rhythm as her breath.

"It's official. Your father is going to marry Ilroozeh Tarkheena," Lasaraleen announced as she settled herself cross-legged beside Aravis in a flurry of silk.

"Truly, your perception is flawless," Aravis said without bothering to face the other girl.

Lasaraleen blithely overlooked the sourness of her tone. "Well, of course it is, darling! I told you after that first party that this would happen unless we could find the terrible secrets I'm still certain she's hiding. What I meant is that they've just made the announcement and set a date. Which you would know if you hadn't run off, like always."

"She could still fall off a boat and drown," Aravis said. "Or catch a chill, or fall into the hands of rebels while cleaning out her first husband's house." She twitched her feet, dislodging a school of curious minnows.

"She won't go back west. I don't know why you think people should manage that sort of thing in person. That's what armsmen and slaves are for," Lasaraleen said. "Really, darling, you should pay more attention when people talk. You'd spend so much less time being angry if you weren't always getting caught by surprise, and being angry is exhausting -- not to mention terrible for your skin."

"I don't care about my skin!" Aravis said.

Lasaraleen patted her shoulder. "Darling, that's obvious. But do cheer up! I know it's a chore listening to Ilroozeh's voice, and her stories about debts are so tedious, but she's marrying into your family. She'll want your help keeping your father happy. If you manage things well, she might end up owing you and your brother all kinds of favors."

"I'd rather run away," Aravis said.

"Nonsense! But if you'd like, we can take your silly boat out for a bit. I won't even tell anyone if you practice that ridiculous spear-fishing your brother's been teaching you."

This was probably true, unlikely as it sounded. Lasaraleen didn't see the point in most secrets, but if a friend asked her to hold her silence, she would. And since she talked incessantly about everything else, hardly anybody realized she might be leaving certain things out of her stories.

Aravis had no idea why Lasaraleen liked her. They had hardly anything in common, beyond being the only girls of their age staying at Mezreel this summer, and a mutual dislike of Ilroozeh Tarkheena (though for very different reasons). Lasaraleen liked clothes and gossip and people, while Aravis liked swimming and weapons and animals. But she supposed it was nice to have someone to talk to besides her brother, and thankfully Lasaraleen had no interest in marrying Zandri, which had always been the chief problem with other Tarkheenas her own age.

"All right. You can tell me all about your sisters and their own marriage plans while we're on the water. That ought to take half the afternoon, if not more," Aravis said as she swung her legs up onto the dock and stood, dripping slightly on the sun-warmed boards.

"Oh, darling, why bother? I've told you all of that already. Let's pretend we're having an adventure," Lasaraleen said as she rose gracefully to her own feet. "We'll be two cousins escaping from a rebel siege in the west, fleeing across a lake to where a noble Tarkaan waits to whisk us off to Tashbaan!"

"Why should he care?" Aravis asked as she bent to untie the mooring rope of the miniature pleasure boat her father had purchased for her and Zandri. "Are we rich? Do we have valuable military intelligence?"

"Oh, maybe!" Lasaraleen said as she carefully stepped down into the boat and seated herself near the bow. "But more importantly, he's madly in love with you, while I'm madly in love with him, and you only care about winning support to find and free your brother who's been captured and taken to a hidden rebel fort. Doesn't that sound exciting?"

Aravis turned that scenario around in her head. She could have done without the love story, but the rest sounded promising. She lifted the pole from its hooks on the side of the boat and thrust it down through the clear, shallow water, pushing them steadily away from the dock.

"As you say, O my cousin and O the adornment of my eyes. The night is dark, with no moon, but I can navigate by the stars. I will bring us safe to the far shore... unless we were noticed as we fled down to the water?"

Lasaraleen clapped her hands dramatically to her chest. "Surely not! And yet, I do think I hear splashing. Oh-- ah-- Aravis, darling. Your father...?"

Aravis glanced behind and saw her father, her brother, and Ilroozeh Tarkheena at the water's edge. Kidrash Tarkaan waved his arms and called their names, beckoning them back to shore. Behind him, Zandri discreetly shook his head. "O my cousin, we are pursued!" Aravis said, and pushed harder, picking up speed as best she could.

Lasaraleen blinked, but willingly jumped back into their imagined adventure. "Alas, that we have been discovered! If we return, we will be slaughtered, but the dark journey is full of danger, and I am small and scared," she proclaimed as best she could through a sudden fit of giggles.

Aravis took one hand off her pole and pressed it to her heart. "O my cousin, stay by my side and we shall be brave together!" And she would be brave, she thought, though a change in her family was not nearly so dramatic as the tale Lasaraleen had spun for her today. But first, she would drink this small taste of freedom.

As the boat rocked and sunlight danced on gentle waves, the two girls caught each other's eyes, and smiled.