The full moon lit her way, and even so close to dawn the stone wall felt warm through her thin-soled shoes. Rina dropped from the top of the wall and wound through the enclosed garden. Sweet water burbled from a central fountain into cardinal channels, then underground again. Rina caught a flash of her reflection as she crossed to a juniper grove, where she made herself a shadow among shadows.
An oil lamp glowed in one window, a single light piercing the low silhouette of the dwelling that made up the far wall of the garden. It seemed insignificant from a ship-length away, but it still cast out against the light of the moon. Every nearby shadow doubled in outlines of clear white and yellow-orange. Inside, a woman sat by the window in hope of a night breeze. Rina knew that profile: proud cheekbones and a stubborn jaw cut across the gentle curves of Berber features. As she watched, one of those elegant, long-fingered hands brushed a braid behind her ear. It fell back across her face as she tilted her head. She was reading, Rina realised, something she herself had never learned to do with any confidence.
Rina broke from the trees and crossed the remainder of the garden. By the time she tapped the open shutter, Nala's head had already turned to watch her approach. She came up through the deeper shadows beside the house, with the moon behind her, her face obscured, but even so Nala's eyes narrowed in suspicion rather than widening in alarm.
The look bit into Rina's stomach with an acid defensiveness not even Anwar's parents had provoked. She forced a smile onto her lips, and said, "You're up late"
Nala paused. She smoothed the papers on her writing desk, then squared the edges. She lifted a glass tea cup to her lips, taking a sip to moisten them, then asked, "Is something the matter?"
Rina felt her smile faltering and turned for a moment to hide her face again in shadow. When she had control of her self again, she hopped up to sit in the window, back against one side, her toes touching the other. She made her voice light, easy. "Are you expecting there to be?"
"It's the middle of the night, and you have stolen past my gatekeeper and into my garden." The words didn't sound accusing to Rina, and she took a slow breath as Nala tilted her head and smiled a little herself. "I didn't know The Providence was in port."
"We came in with the night tide," Rina said.
"And the others, where are they?"
Rina lifted one shoulder slightly and let it drop. She made a point of studying Nala, her disordered braids, the simple white gown that pulled tight across her breasts. It was almost translucent, that gown. No one besides her maid likely ever saw her in it. Her maid, and Rina, and a lover, if Nala had one, but Rina didn't think she did. When her eyes traced every curve back up to her face, she saw a flush in those high cheeks.
"Then you came alone in the night." Nala bit her lip and shifted a little in her high-backed chair. "To see me."
"To be first to see you."
Nala's laugh sounded lighter than the brush of night air against the juniper branches. "Ah. Before Sinbad, then."
She was exactly right, but Rina said, "Before anyone. I couldn't wait."
"Ah," Nala said again, but in a different tone altogether, all knowing this time. She'd always had a way to make Rina feel small, and Rina could never tell if she meant to or not. She'd always thought that so fine a lady might do it unawares, but sometimes it seemed to her that the intent was there.
Meant or not, it had made them hiss and spit at each other all across the ocean and back. Only once Nala had gone had Rina realised why the lost princess, of all people, had set her on her back foot so easily. It wasn't just envy that had built to such frustration. After all their time pressed together in that little ship, wanting Nala's finery for her own had drifted into just wanting Nala.
"Anwar fell in love with a pretty little djinn who said she was a god," she said, and Nala blinked. "Cook killed a woman who had turned into a snake, and Sinbad saw his future. We sailed to the far side of the world. We fought monsters, and found the land of the dead, and then fought more monsters. One looked like a little girl. Then we came back again to where we all started." She paused, trying to see what effect this off handed recitation of adventures had had. Nothing, which made her add, "Sinbad found a big cat to flirt with, but I don't know if he means it." Still, Nala watched her steadily, like a big cat herself. Rina clutched the stone of the windowsill and leaned in over Nala's writing desk. Their foreheads almost touched. "Every step of the way," she whispered, "I wished you were there."
Nala took a short, sharp breath. "Why is that?" she asked, her a little too loud for being so close.
Rina's shoulder rose again, stayed hunched up around her ears, and then fell. She tilted her head to look more evenly into Nala's eyes. A little hair fell untidily across her cheek, and she stopped herself from smoothing it back. "Because."
"Mmmm..." Nala licked her lips. She took another breath, slow and even this time. "I have thought of this as well."
It took Rina by surprise as Nala bent forward and touched their lips together. They felt full and soft, and she wouldn't have thought anything could seem so perfect. She shifted, sliding her legs inside, her knees brushing edge of the desk, and leaned into the kiss.
Heat flushed through her, and she felt her hair sticking to her cheeks. She kept one hand locked on the outside of the sill to keep herself from falling forward, while the other clenched Nala's shoulder. Nala moaned, the vibration running through both their bodies. It shocked Rina, being able to make Nala feel so strongly. She opened her mouth and gave herself to the kiss.
Rina knew she should take this while she could. If some madness had struck Nala, then she could climb through the window and press against her before it passed. She desired more than anything the feel of those soft, full breasts against her bare skin. She wanted to know what Nala's hips felt like under her hands, what sounds she would make with Rina's fingers inside her.
The strength of her desire shook her. No matter how many times she'd toyed with these images before, being here, with Nala here, and having the possibility of actually taking what she wanted suddenly felt too daring.
Rina didn't understand why she was pulling away even as she did. Nala's wet lips parted to speak, then closed in a thin line. Her eyes were full of questions, and Rina didn't know what to say.
"When I came," she started, then realised her hand still clutched Nala's shoulder. She crossed her arms. "I came to say what I did. I didn't expect you to do this." Somehow, it was important that Nala knew that, that they should have a single moment of honesty at the start.
"Why did you say it, then?"
"I went to the Land of the Dead, too." Rina kicked at a leg of desk, shoes scuffing the wood. "It's not just Sinbad who's allowed to be brave."
Nala laughed again, that same gusty sound. "It has been a long time since you've needed to prove that to me, Rina."
"I didn't know that," she said.
"Now you do."
Rina considered that, watching the lamp light flicker shadows across Nala's face. Then she nodded and slid off the windowsill into Nala's room. "Now I do."
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