It's not easy, exactly, to slip out of Lord David's castle, but it's not hard either. And it's not that she's not grateful for the Marquis's hospitality, but sometimes she needs to be able to move, and breathe. The castle's big, but not quite big enough.
Besides, Athlum is a safe city. Irina takes her staff, because there's no point in being stupid, but she doesn’t really think she'll have to use it. She makes her way to Virtus Parish, and finds the Warrior's Honor. Rush has talked about it enough that she's curious; she wants to see the place for herself. Rush definitely would not approve of her going, but that's why he doesn’t know. She feels a little guilty keeping it from him, but he can't keep her wrapped in cotton wool forever, and even if he still thinks he needs to pay for that day in the forest, she's already forgiven him. She forgave him before she got kidnapped.
She's through the door and just congratulating herself on a successful escape when she nearly walks into Emmy Honeywell.
"Miss Irina!" Emmy looks surprised, and Irina thinks that maybe this is the first time she's seen that particular expression on Emmy's face. "What are you doing here?"
"I—" Irina tries to keep her voice down; strictly speaking, she's probably not old enough to be in here, and not only does she not want to draw attention to herself, she doesn't want to get Emmy in trouble. "I didn't want to be in the castle anymore," she says, somewhat awkwardly. "It's so close there—I couldn't breathe." She wonders if Emmy can hear her over all the conversations that are echoing in the room.
Emmy must have heard her, or heard enough, because she nods. "I feel that way myself, sometimes," she says, pitching her voice to be heard past the noise of the tavern. Irina looks around, taking in the scene. This late in the day, it looks as though the mercenary crowds have begun to filter in; she sees a lot of men and women carrying a variety of weapons, and of all races. She can smell the stew that is being served, the fresh bread that goes with it, and a sour undertone that she guesses would be the ale. She can also smell the familiar sharp tang of wine, and it brings back a memory of childhood dinners, when her parents would drink wine at the table.
Emmy is staring at her very intently, and the other woman shifts to block the bartender's view of Irina. "If you'd like to talk," Emmy offers briskly, "we can go outside. Even if you don't want to talk, you won't be able to stay here."
Irina sighs. Emmy gives her an understanding smile and rests a hand on her shoulder, warm even through Irina's shirt. Emmy isn't in full armor today; Irina would bet money that she's still armed and armored, just not in the full weight of plate mail. "Let's go," she says.
The street outside seems surprisingly quiet, after the chatter of the tavern. Emmy leads her down the street into a part of the city that Irina doesn't know, and finds a quiet square with a little fountain. The square is nearly empty, and Emmy chooses a seat on a bench that faces the fountain. Irina sits down next to her.
"If you're going to engage in a bit of rebellion," Emmy says, "the Honor isn't the worst place you could choose for it, but you'll need to know more about how to defend yourself before you go. You're a good fighter in a team, but fighting for yourself is something different altogether."
Irina opens her mouth and then closes it again. "Is it that obvious?" she asks.
Emmy laughs. "Miss Irina, if my mother had kept me wrapped in cotton wool the way Rush is trying to do with you, I'd have been fighting back long before this."
"You can just call me Irina," she says shyly. She likes Emmy, and she wonders if they could be friends, like their mothers were. "And Rush means well. He's just doing what Mom and Dad wanted, and taking care of me." Even though Emmy's echoing her own thoughts, she feels like she ought to defend her brother.
"Of course he is," Emmy says, "but he's going to make a bigger problem if he never lets you out on your own. Which he is showing no inclination of doing, ever."
Irina sighs a little, because it's true: Rush is never going to let her out of his sight. It's been two years since the Sacred Lands and the fight with the Conqueror, and he still insists on sending half a squad with her when she wants to go shopping.
"Of course," Emmy says, and Irina looks up to see her smile, "there are ways around that. If we could demonstrate that you're capable of taking care of yourself, most of his arguments against you going out on your own would be invalid."
"If surviving the fight against the Conqueror didn't do that, what will?" Irina knows she sounds both whiny and forlorn, but she's so tired of being cooped up when she knows she can do better. The thought of another Forest Incident has kept her from doing it so far—that, and the fact that she's not foolish enough to leave Athlum alone and she's been too nervous to ask anyone to go with her—but if she doesn't get to do something besides study and flop around the castle soon, she's going to lose her mind.
Emmy's smile takes on a sharp edge, like one of her blades, and Irina thinks she's very glad that Emmy's helping her right now, and not trying to stop her. "I hardly think Rush could argue with the assessment of one of the Four Generals of Athlum," she says. "If I were to teach you some fighting skills and declare you ready to lead a unit, Lord David would accept my judgment—and I think it likely he would be willing to argue your case."
Lord David has always been kind to her, but the idea that he might argue with Rush for her is something Irina has never considered. "Do you really think he would?" she asks.
"Lord David, too, knows what it is like to chafe at the restrictions one's family places for one's own good," Emmy assures her. "Would you like to get started? I have the afternoon free."
"Yes, thank you!" Irina scrambles to her feet and she's so impatient to get started that she ends up leading the way back to the castle. Fortunately, Emmy doesn't seem to mind.
"Yes, like that, good!" Emmy catches Irina's staff in the space between her crossed wooden practice swords, but Irina expected that, and instead of pulling back on her staff to free it, she pushes it forward, causing Emmy to have to duck or get a staff to the face, which no one really wants. She remembers what Emmy's taught her and instead of putting all her weight into the follow-through—which would let Emmy throw her off balance—she steps sideways instead and her staff slides free, letting her fall back into her stance while Emmy regains hers.
"Excellent," Emmy says, and Irina blushes just a little because Emmy isn't very generous with praise, so she must have done really well. They have been at this for weeks now, and for all Irina learned about fighting before Rush went away, she's always amazed at how much she doesn't know. Emmy's patient with her, but doesn't let her get away with any less than her best, and Irina really likes that.
She also likes how Emmy looks when she's focused on something, all concentration and a kind of purity that draws the eye like moths to a flame. Emmy looks that way a lot when she's showing Irina how certain tactics work, pushing around little clay figures on a map to show how formations affect different things. She likes the feel of Emmy's hand on her shoulder when she's done well, callused and warm and friendly. She likes a lot of things about Emmy, and she'd really better stop staring or it's going to be sort of awkward.
"Irina, are you all right?" Emmy asks.
So much for not being awkward.
"Yes, I'm fine," she says, too quickly, too breathlessly, and Emmy gives her a strange look but doesn't question it.
"Let's go clean up," Emmy says. "I think we've had enough for today."
There's a room off the training courtyard where they can bathe and change. Irina makes a concerted effort to keep her eyes averted, but after all the times they've done this, she can picture many of Emmy's scars, and the smooth movement of muscle under her skin. And she really, really has to stop thinking about this. Or else do something about it, but that thought is a whole different kind of alarming, so she squeezes her eyes shut to keep the soap out of them and ducks back under the water until she's pretty sure she can't stay there any longer.
She pulls her shirt over her head too fast and winds up trying to fit her head into a sleeve, which is not really ideal; she eventually sorts it out and emerges flustered and red-faced to find a fully dressed Emmy looking at her thoughtfully.
"I think we're about ready to speak to your brother and Lord David," Emmy says, but almost hesitantly, like she meant to say something else and changed her mind.
That's both awesome and sad; awesome because she'll finally get to go out and find new things to do (she doesn't know what they are yet but looking is going to be so much fun), but sad because it means she and Emmy won't have these afternoons together anymore.
"Thank you for taking the time to teach me," she says, because she doesn't want Emmy to think she takes her for granted.
Emmy puts a hand on her shoulder and squeezes. "You're a quick study," she says. "And it wasn't exactly a hardship."
If they're done here anyway, Irina doesn't figure she can screw this up much if she acts on it; Emmy's a woman of her word and she won't go back on her offer to help. So Irina leans forward and kisses Emmy, a quick and awkward peck that nonetheless sends little flutters down into her stomach.
Emmy looks surprised, but not angry, and that's a relief. "Irina," Emmy says carefully, and then pauses.
"I like you," Irina says in a rush, and she can feel heat rushing to her face and she hates it because it must make her look so young, and probably that's part of why Emmy's being so careful. "You don't have to like me back." Oh, this is the most embarrassing thing ever, and she just wants to sink into the floor.
"It's not that," Emmy says, and her other hand comes up so she's grasping both of Irina's shoulders and looking her right in the eye. "It's not that at all." She looks flustered and kind of embarrassed, too, and this is just an entire world full of awkward. "It's just—Irina, are you sure this is what you want?"
Irina nods, but she knows by now that Emmy won't accept just gestures; she always makes Irina say that she's had enough, or say affirmatively that she's not tired and can keep training. "I like you," she repeats, and if her voice wobbles a little bit she hopes Emmy takes it for the nervousness it is and not something else.
Emmy smiles, and it's the softer smile, the one she doesn't show to very many people outside of Lord David's inner circle. Her hands slide inward, up Irina's neck and into her hair, and the rasp of her calluses on Irina's skin makes those little flutters in her stomach that much more noticeable.
When Emmy leans in to kiss her, it's soft and careful, like she's afraid of frightening Irina, but it feels so nice and Irina reaches up to rest her hands on Emmy's shoulders, soft and cautious. It's her first kiss—apart from the one she just gave Emmy—and she's sure Emmy can tell, but she's a quick study here, too, and it's not hard to pick up some of the details. When the kiss stops, Irina finds she'd closed her eyes, and she opens them to find Emmy looking at her with more warmth than she hoped for even in her daydreams.
She holds Emmy's hand, their fingers laced together, and she smiles because everything is okay—better than okay—and this is something she's been thinking about for a while. "Ready to go?" she asks, and Emmy squeezes her hand.