“Please, Flik, not now,” Odessa groaned as Flik nuzzled her neck from behind. “I need to document our progress in my logbook and then we need to inspect the weapons and send a few runners out to gather provisions. I heard the storerooms are running on empty. Can’t you at least make yourself useful?”
Flik removed his hand from her shoulder and took a step back. Realizing what sort of tone she had just taken with him, Odessa blushed and turned around to apologize.
“I’m sorry,” she said sincerely. “I did not mean to snap at you.”
Flik softly kissed the top of her head. “It’s all right. I understand.”
Odessa closed her eyes and smiled. “Come and find me tomorrow afternoon, after the council of the unit leaders. Then we can spend some time alone together. I promise.”
Flik nodded and left the chamber. The turnout was admittedly rather disappointing, especially since he’d had to wait five days just to be able to find Odessa alone. He knew he couldn’t blame her, however—everything she did, she did for the sake of others, with little regard for her own needs. He’d never asked her, and never would, which came first—him or the Liberation Army. He accepted without question that demanding that Odessa give up her cause would be like asking her to stop breathing. Yet even knowing that did not make it any easier to court the leader of the Liberation Army.
He returned to the troops’ main assembling area, where the perpetual hustle and bustle of army life served as at least a temporary distraction from his troubles. The day having given way to evening a couple of hours earlier, a few of the soldiers had nodded off—though none of them had a very accurate sense of time, given that it was always dark in the sewers. Most, however, were still up and about, sharpening their weapons or quietly discussing the day’s labor in a corner. He strolled around the room, making idle banter and exercising his duty as one of the commanding officers to keep the morale up.
Some of the men were antsy. They had had to suspend their activities for a few days while all of the unit leaders gathered in Lenankamp to discuss strategy for the coming months. Tomorrow, the grand council would take place—but Flik found himself thinking more of his promised rendezvous with Odessa afterwards. It had simply been too long since they had had any time alone together.
He found Viktor by the makeshift bar, which was really no more than a plank of wood resting on two large barrels, behind which designated soldiers took turns rationing out the evening’s allowance of drink; except when celebrating victories, Odessa had strict rules about the amount of alcohol that she allowed to be served. The ale was stale and rather tasteless, but most of the men agreed that anything was better than nothing.
“I thought you were going to meet your princess for a liaison,” Viktor remarked crudely as Flik took a seat on a barrel beside him.
Flik shrugged and sighed. “Not tonight.”
Viktor took one look at his friend’s face and knew better than to ask. He simply waved at the man behind the bar to supply Flik with a tankard of ale. The soldier complied, and soon, Flik, too, stared off into space as he sipped at his drink in silence.
A few times, Viktor started to say something, but in the end, he opted to keep his mouth shut. Though a few might perceive him as dim-witted, he had a pretty damn good idea what was troubling his best friend, and since there was nothing that he could say to make it better, he didn’t try. In this case, his reticence was his way of showing he cared, and he knew that Flik would understand that.
“Well, we’d better turn in early,” he said in his usual gruff manner. “Tomorrow will be a long day.”
“Right.” Flik stood up, straightened, and gave Viktor a pat on the back before heading off. “Thanks for being a good friend.”
The council convened at dawn the next morning. Several of the men were still rubbing the sleep out of their eyes when they sat down on the floor of the large stone chamber. None of them were thrilled about the early hour, but some of the units had to return to their stations by nightfall, which meant they had to be done by the early afternoon.
There weren’t many of them. Many of the units numbered only a handful of men, although the Liberation Army did pride itself on having a unit stationed in almost every major town and city, even if they did not accomplish much. They mostly occupied their time gathering intelligence for when the main force had grown enough and gained enough momentum to initiate a cohesive movement.
Still, Odessa wasn’t willing to wait a lifetime for the right moment, and as the years of their labors dragged on, it began to seem as though that was what it might take—a lifetime. And so she had called upon the council to discuss a new strategy for the coming months. Among them, she planned to advance the idea to hold a few more skirmishes in the outlying areas to make it appear like the movement was larger and more widespread than it truly was. However, as a leader who favored democracy whenever it was plausible, she intended to open the issue to discussion and debate.
They talked for two hours, reviewing their progress since they had last convened and outlining their agenda for the rest of the conclave. They then broke for breakfast, reassembling afterward, everyone instinctively gravitating toward the same seats.
Flik sat to Odessa’s right, with Viktor on his other side. They both hated these functions, preferring the simple forwardness of battle to the endless bickering of politics and agendas. A sword could settle things so much faster than words could, even if it wasn’t always the most ethical solution. But Odessa believed in the most ethical solution, and Flik believed in Odessa, and so he found himself here, offering what support he could.
As the deliberations dragged on, he could tell that Odessa was growing weary. In theory, her role was only as mediator of the discussions, but in reality, she often found herself having to defend her proposals in a debate. She bore it all with a smile, of course, but no one’s strength was limitless, and Flik was the one who knew best just how little sleep she had been getting in the days leading up to the council.
Reaching over, he gently squeezed her hand. Furtively, of course—wouldn’t want to make a scene or suggest that the leader of the Liberation Army was feeling a little weak around the edges.
He simply casually leaned over and whispered in her ear, “Think of how blue the sky is outside right now.”
It didn’t mean anything in particular; it wasn’t a phrase of personal significance. It was simply a reminder that there was a world beyond these chambers, a bright and wonderful world. The image was plain yet dazzling in its lack of artificiality and constraints—the perfect diversion from the here-and-now, with the endless yapping of men whose voices seemed to be getting more monotone by the minute. Odessa smiled back at him gratefully, indicating that she understood his meaning.
When finally deliberations ended and the council adjourned, most of Odessa’s proposals having passed the approval of the assembled unit leaders, though with several modifications and additions, the participants literally stumbled out of the room. Sitting on the stone floor for hours had caused many feet to fall asleep and legs to go numb. Many hurried off to relieve themselves, others to prepare for departure.
Like a true soldier, Flik helped Odessa to her feet. Normally, she would have refused his help—being perceived as frail would be devastating for an army commander—but today she seemed eager to accept his aid. This, combined with the wilting smile, was cause for worry.
He followed behind her silently as she returned to her chamber, trying not to seem pushy but also unwilling to give up quite yet. When she became aware of his presence in the doorway, she turned briefly and nodded at him.
“Fret not, I didn’t forget my promise,” she explained as she turned back around to set some papers back on her desk. “Just give me half an hour to change and freshen up a bit, and I’ll meet you by the southwest exit.”
With that, she shooed him off, a bit of her youth showing through in her sudden desire for privacy. Flik shook his head, smiled to himself, and wandered off, passing the time by chatting with the troops until he headed off for the exit.
Odessa did not keep him waiting for long. Still visibly tired, she smelled faintly of soap and looked a bit more relaxed. There was an unmistakable, lively sparkle in her eyes that hadn’t been there earlier.
“Let’s get out of these sewers for a change,” Odessa suggested, her voice a mixture of mischief and frustration.
Flik frowned and insisted, “But it’s broad daylight outside. What if we’re seen?”
“That is why we’re not going into the city.” Odessa beamed as she took control of the situation. “Let’s just start with the countryside, and we’ll see where we go from there.”
Flik nodded in compliance, and Odessa led the way. Wrapping their cloaks about them, they managed to slip out of the town undetected. Soon, they were out in the fields, the land stretching out around them, not a living soul in sight. With a sigh, Odessa collapsed on the ground, spreading out as she lay back in the grass. Flik waited a moment to see what she would do. When she made no other move, he joined her.
Odessa stayed quiet for long enough that he began to wonder if she had fallen asleep.
Then, finally, she whispered, “I’m so very, very tired.”
He looked at her, and from her expression, he could tell she was not lying. All of a sudden, she looked ten years older. There were premature lines in her skin, and he wondered why he hadn’t noticed earlier how thin her face had grown. Her cheekbones were suddenly very visible. There were dark shadows under her eyes.
“I suppose this means no frolicking in the hay today?” Flik posed it as a question, but the tone was more jesting than disappointed.
“I’m sorry,” she replied, her voice serious. “I know how much you wanted to—”
“—spend time with you, alone together,” he finished. “That was all I wanted, so this is fine. This is perfect.”
He looked up at the clear blue sky, impressed by the vastness of it, and reached out a hand to his beloved. Odessa took it as an invitation to cuddle up beside him, her eyes, too, cast upward toward the heavens. She held her other hand up in the same direction, stretching out her fingers as she seemed to prepare to grab the air itself.
“Don’t you wish you could touch it?” she mused, riding a sudden wave of excitement. “Grab it, hold it, and never let it go for as long as you live, and spend the rest of your days flying without wings?”
Flik watched her as she spoke—the way her face lit up and her lips curved as she spoke of the sky. He had eyes only for her.
“Yes, I do,” he murmured, more for his own benefit than for hers. “I do.”