Elena can curtsy deeply without tipping over. Elena can dance, and walk down stairs, and stand straight, and eat without dropping her food, and her hair is smooth and golden and—and she couldn’t do any of it before.
It’s like she’s been wrapped in cotton wool her whole life and is only now freed, and everything is loud and bewildering and strange.
Riding feels the same. She does it more than she used to.
She visits Vivian, mostly to take her mind from her own problems and how empty and strange the halls of Gawant feel without Grunhilda there, and Vivian will speak only of Arthur of Camelot. She’s sad, and wistful, and not Vivian at all. Her hair is messy and braided-back, her movements jerky, and her attention isn’t on her father’s court like usual. For once, Elena is the better princess, and it makes her feel sick.
“Would you look at me?” Elena asks when more subtle methods fail, helpless and upset, and Vivian looks at her, eyes clear and disinterested, waiting for her to say something that’s more pressing than the latest news of Arthur (which Elena foolishly brought). “Never mind,” she says, and Vivian starts talking again about how maybe her next letter will be answered, when Elena knows they’re never even sent.
She visits Mithian, afterwards, because the long rides make her feel more herself, and they go riding out together. Elena waits until they’re well away from Nemeth’s echoing halls to speak. “Vivian—”
Mithian frowns. “I know.” Her horse slows. “Arthur of Camelot must be a very wonderful man.”
Elena forces a laugh. “He’s not. Not really. Just … kind, perhaps.”
There’s a notch between Mithian’s brows, something terribly sad in her expression. “You’ve changed as well. Is it him?”
“No. It’s …” It’s her skin fitting wrong. It’s sudden, terrifying grace. It isn’t love. “I’ve just grown up, is all.”
Mithian visits her, mouth tight and hands clutched around her reins, and talks politely and with no emotion until Elena draws her away to her chambers, excusing herself to her father with the need for gossip. When Mithian cries, her shoulders shake and she holds on to Elena like she fears she might drown. “Did you love him?” Elena asks.
“No, but I wanted to. It would have been so easy.” She stops crying, but she keeps holding on.
They spend the rest of Mithian’s visit pretending they aren’t princesses. They wander barefoot in the woods, Elena’s skirt hiked up around her knees and Mithian’s sleeves in ribbons from trying to pick roses. Elena makes her a crown of daisies and Mithian kisses her, hesitant and sweet. It feels strange and almost-too-much, but Elena kisses back, tipping Mithian on her back in her enthusiasm until they’re both laughing, content to rest and look at the clouds through the trees.
“It would be a great deal easier to love you,” says Mithian before she leaves, and Elena carries the memory of the press of fingers against her cheek for weeks.
They can’t make each other any promises, but they knew that already.
Vivian visits with a knight-husband, and she is undeniably and startlingly herself, sharp tongue and sharp wit. He follows her like a helpless puppy and it makes Elena confused even as it makes her smile. “You have nothing to say about King Arthur?” Elena asks at dinner, testing her.
“Why must everyone ask me about tiresome King Arthur?” Vivian rolls her eyes and huffs. “Girlish infatuations can’t stand in the face of true love, Elena. You’ll learn someday.”
Elena wonders more if it’s that a woman can’t step foot in Camelot without coming out changed somehow, but Vivian enjoys frivolity, not nonsense. She won’t care, and either way she’s somehow become herself again, and Elena isn’t sure that’s her problem at all.
“You’ve changed,” Vivian says, like Mithian did once. It’s been a long time, now, since Elena went to Camelot, but she still sometimes finds herself startled to make it through a whole diplomatic dinner without incident, startled to discover she has no desire to catch a passing frog, startled she can walk down steps without tripping.
“Haven’t we all?” Elena asks, and turns the subject back to Vivian’s wedding.
When Elena hears of Mithian’s hurt at Lady Morgana’s hands she rides for Nemeth without thought. Mithian greets her by throwing her arms around her neck, and Elena holds on as tight as she can and lets them both breathe. It’s Mithian’s father who interrupts them, with something a little too shaky to be a laugh. When he speaks, it’s the closest to a blessing Elena could hope for. “Mithian, show her to the guest chambers, my dear.”
Mithian doesn’t. They go to her own chambers instead, and Elena tumbles her onto her bed, kissing her hard and trying to think of anything but how close she came to losing her. Mithian kisses back with equal force, hands straying over her body. Elena catches one in hers, notes the shiny, raw-looking skin at the wrist, and kisses it, frantic and wishing a simple kiss could make it better.
Maybe it does, though, because Mithian grows more pliant and less desperate from there, wrapping her arms firmly around Elena and sliding a leg up in between hers for Elena to ride. It’s a sudden shock, to be doing more than kissing, but Elena loves the sharpness of the pleasure, the way Mithian’s head falls back when Elena puts her mouth to her breast. They tangle themselves together so tightly that nothing could get between them, Elena impatiently pushing Mithian’s skirts out of her way to slip her hand between her legs, making her gasp and shiver. It’s easy to learn this, the rhythm of her body and Mithian’s together, better than anything she could imagine.
When Mithian comes apart beneath her, hands clutching in her hair, it’s enough to tip Elena over the edge as well. After, curled into a Mithian who looks herself again, cheeks flushed with color, Elena feels at home in her skin for perhaps the first time in her life.
Vivian visits Gawant again while Mithian is already there, and Elena finds herself riding with both of them and Vivian’s husband, Mithian and the knight up ahead arguing about crossbow techniques while Elena and Vivian lag behind. “Remember what I said about true love?” Vivian says with a sly smile.
Elena only grins at her and prods her horse to go a little faster, enjoying the sun on her face, the world bright and loud around her, and Mithian waiting just ahead, already turning around to smile at her. Vivian laughs and moves to catch up, and Elena feels as though a weight that’s been around her neck since Camelot disappears.