Rastaban purrs as he winds around her legs. She places the small wooden bowl of meat on the ground in front of him, trying not to laugh about how loudly he meows as he barges past her hand to get at the food. She gives him a gentle pat, then straightens, rolling her stiffening shoulders and muffling a yawn in the crease of her elbow.
The tiny tavern room is warm and welcoming. A fire crackles merrily in the hearth, the vast bed taking much of the available space. Fareeha eyes it appreciatively, looking forward to the warmth and solace a comfortable bed provides, but turns away to watch Angela fiddling with the curtains. The Priestess peers out of the window curiously, no doubt watching the port town’s people. They are busy with preparations for something; laughter and shouting echoes through the streets.
“We’re meeting the captain tomorrow, yes?” Angela says, glancing around at her.
Fareeha nods, idly fingering Raptora’s hilt. She ignores the way Angela’s eyes dart down to watch it, looking away when she nibbles her lip. “We are meeting him tomorrow. At noon.”
“Well, that does not mean we can’t enjoy the evening,” Angela smiles brightly and trots to her bags, fishing around in them as she pulls out fresh clothes. Fareeha stands awkwardly beside the bed, still fiddling with Raptora until Angela tugs her shirt up over her head. Fareeha feels herself blush, looking away quickly. Not quickly enough not to notice the two vertical scars over Angela’s shoulder blades, or the detailed black tattoo etched up her back; two snakes, entwined around a staff.
They had agreed to maintain a respectful distance. Confessions of love aside, they are still Knight and Priestess. The roles hold a certain expectation of decorum. Still, the fact that in the eyes of the law they are technically engaged does not escape Fareeha’s mind. Indeed, it’s all she can think about. She imagines wrapping her cloak around Angela’s shoulders in the eyes of the God, watched by her Chapter, back at the temple. It’s hard to shake the image away, but she manages, looking up when she is sure Angela is fully dressed.
She sweeps her white cloak around her shoulders, pinning it carefully, before pulling out a small dagger from her bag. She winds it into her belt, patting it and nodding.
“There. Just to be safe.” She turns to Fareeha, brushing her dark leather breeches free of wrinkles before resting her hands on her hips. “I’m asking you to join me for dinner.”
Fareeha raises an eyebrow. “We eat dinner together every night.”
Angela actually rolls her eyes, then advances towards her, fingers going to her sword belt. Fareeha nearly slaps her hands away, blushing so hard she thinks her head might explode as Angela unbuckles her belt, laying Raptora gently aside.
“Relax, Knight.” Angela glances up at her, smirking. “We’re safe. You don’t need your sword. Don’t you have clothes for a special occasion stuffed in your saddle bags?”
Half an hour later Fareeha finds herself dressed in her finest black leathers, her torn cloak flowing off her shoulders, the golden trim glinting in the dying sunlight. Raptora hangs from her hip, her hand wrapped idly around its hilt to reassure herself of its presence. Angela’s arm is linked with hers, clutching her forearm as they stride down the main street and onto the beach. Sand crunches under their boots, the rush of the sea greeting them and they draw to a halt, gazing out at the infinite horizon. The air is cool and fresh, the breeze ruffling Fareeha’s hair. She inhales, tasting the salt, eyes lingering over the shape of a fishing ship pulling in its lines.
“I’ve only seen the sea once before,” Fareeha blurts, slightly dumbstruck at the size of the ocean. Angela’s grip on her arm tightens as though to encourage her. “It was one of the only times my mother took me with her into the field.” She bends down, plucking up a smooth stone in her blackened, dead fingers, enjoying the gentle tingle as she tightens her grip on it and straightens. Ana seems to hang over her for a moment, her memory as crushing as she had been in life.
Angela hums softly. “Your mother would have wanted you to follow in her footsteps.”
“Did she?” Ironic laughter bubbles up her throat and she shoves it down, thinking of her mother’s cold, dark eyes. The same eyes she sees whenever she looks into a mirror. You must be stronger, Fareeha. You will never be anything unless you are strong. “She never mentioned that to me.”
“Well, if it makes a difference, I think you are a fine warrior, and an excellent Barren Knight.” Angela leans up towards her, placing a whisper of a kiss against her cheek. Surprised, Fareeha peers down at her, blinking and trying to contain her blush. Angela smiles kindly at her.
“It will never be enough,” Fareeha tries to stop the words, but they come out anyway. Hot and angry, washed red with old pain. Angela stays quiet, letting her speak. For that, she is grateful. “I was never good enough. When I managed to see my mother, she was telling me to train harder. Always picking at my skills, criticising me. To everyone else she was an inspiration; kind and loyal and dutiful, and honourable.” She inhales shakily, clenching her fist around the stone until it burns. “I never felt as though I measured up to anything.”
Her gaze hasn’t left Angela’s face. The Priestess’s eyes are wide and round, her lips parted in surprise. When she sees pity lingering in the corners around Angela’s eyes she looks away, throwing the stone into the sea as hard as she can. It sinks below the waves with a thick splash.
“Fareeha, listen to me.” Angela tugs on her arm until Fareeha meets her gaze. “You died for me. In that arena. You went above and beyond the line of duty for me. Your charge. I don’t care what your mother said. To me, you are twice the woman your mother was.”
“I did what was expected of me.” Fareeha replies stubbornly.
Angela shakes her head. “You fought for my hand in marriage to stop some strange lord from taking me. And won. You didn’t have to do that.”
When she opens her mouth to protest, Angela interrupts her angrily. “Don’t. Don’t pretend any of your Chapter wouldn’t have retreated and waited for aid.” Fareeha grinds her teeth, knowing Angela is right. She glowers at the sand as Angela continues. “You entered that tournament and fought by yourself against fifteen people, and you won. And now here we are. We’re...”
She hesitates, clearly searching for a word.
“Engaged.” Fareeha supplies dully.
Angela purses her lips. “Yes. We’re engaged by eastern law. You saved my life. You did more than that; you ensured my freedom and died for me. You are the sun and the stars; braver and more beautiful than anyone I’ve ever met.”
Stomach wobbling stupidly, Fareeha examines Angela’s painfully open expression, looking for mocking or pity. She finds none. Just a ferocity she has seen only once before: on the battlefield, right before her wings had burst out of her back and she had killed Dustra’an.
Angela’s eyebrow quirks. Flattered, Fareeha looks at the sand, shuffling her boots amongst the golden grains, before muttering her thanks, embarrassed and oddly pleased. A tiny bubble of pride blooms in her chest. She cradles it in her heart, allowing herself to feel it, standing as tall as any lord for the briefest of moments. As tall as her mother.
Angela’s hand tightens briefly on her arm before she takes Fareeha’s hand, leading her across the sand. They walk in silence; Fareeha watches the lapping waves, gazing out at the endless horizon and the first pinpricks of stars. Angela squeezes her for a moment before she lets go, hurrying down to the sea and ducking down to comb her hand through the surf. She straightens, her shoulders hunching, head dipping as she inspects whatever she has found.
“My father used to take me to the sea all the time,” she says, turning around. Fareeha joins her, raising an eyebrow at the small pink shell cradled in her delicate fingers. “He used to gather them up and make necklaces for my mother and I.”
Angela hesitates, before handing Fareeha the shell, smiling sadly. Fareeha’s stained black fingers trace over its surface, unable to feel its texture beyond the cool wet on its smooth curves. She clenches it in her palm, holding it to her heart, before taking Angela’s hand again and tucking the shell into her pocket. They stare out together, the sea lapping gently at the toes of their boots. The dusk has truly fallen now, night sweeping its veil across the sky, inky black and deep as the abyss. It wheels overhead, small clouds passing delicately in front of a half-hung moon.
A half-heard song comes to them on the breeze. The notes flicker in and out of her hearing, scatterings of words hovering about them. She tastes them, feeling Angela’s eyes on her as she struggles to recall the song itself, listening to the lapping waves and sighing sea at their feet.
Slowly, but surely, the words come to her. She sings softly in a trembling voice, trying to ignore the way Angela is staring up at her, trying to keep her tune steady. The music grows in strength, drawing them together - Fareeha turns to face Angela, taking her in a small embrace, the shell trapped between them as their boots scuff the sand. Angela rests her head against Fareeha’s chest; Fareeha feels her heart squeeze when she sees the woman’s eyes close.
They dance slowly. Fareeha tries not to stand on Angela’s toes, distracted with the way her lips curl into a tiny, private smile, even when Fareeha’s voice breaks on a note too high for her. Blushing hard, she continues to sing, tightening her grip on Angela’s waist, relishing her warmth as a cool wind curls her cloak about them. Angela tucks her head under Fareeha’s chin, sighing happily and winding her fingers into the cloth of her dark shirt. The tickle of her hair nearly makes Fareeha laugh, but she swallows the urge, relaxing against Angela as they sway together, finding peace in the infinite darkness behind her eyelids.
“Mm,” Angela murmurs when the last note spirits up above them, lost amongst the glittering stars. “That was lovely. Thank you.”
They peer into each other. Fareeha experiences another dizzying rush of affection and she leans down to press a gentle kiss against Angela’s forehead.
“Please…” Angela breathes softly, her hands sliding up to cup Fareeha’s shoulders, coiling into the folds of her cloak. She continues in her strange language, her throat bobbing as she swallows, her breath quick and hot against Fareeha’s mouth. Head spinning, heart racing, Fareeha takes pity on the Priestess, brushing her lips against Angela’s in the barest hint of a kiss.
The groan that echoes out of Angela’s chest takes Fareeha aback, but she barely has time to remark on it before Angela is dragging her further down by a fistful of her hair, her smooth, soft mouth moving hungrily against hers; devouring, worshiping, all consuming. Fareeha’s breath comes in hard, sharp bursts, their noses nudging each other as their teeth clack awkwardly together.
Fareeha tightens her grip on Angela’s waist, lifting her up onto her toes, enjoying the tiny gasp Angela makes as she is hoisted into the air.
“You’re so strong,” Angela says breathlessly, breaking the kiss as her arms clench tightly around Fareeha’s neck.
“Is… is that all right?” Fareeha replies, making as though to put Angela back down. The pair of legs which wrap around her waist stop her.
A bolt of surprise streaks down Fareeha’s spine as she feels teeth nip at her ear. Blushing hard and struggling not to dump Angela onto the sand, she hardly hears Angela’s whispered, “Of course.”
They hold each other tightly. Fareeha buries her face into the crook of Angela’s neck, taking comfort in the clean grace of her scent. Fresh and pure and good, like what she imagines snow might smell like. Angela cradles the back of Fareeha’s head, stroking the tender hairs at there.
Eventually, Fareeha lets her down, setting her on the sand lightly and tucking a strand of hair behind her ear.
“Shall we get something to eat?” Fareeha asks, taking Angela’s hand again. The Priestess nods shyly and together they walk back up the beach.
The town is buzzing with life. Here and there people flit, hanging lamps and laughing. Priestess and Knight walk through them unnoticed, anonymous amongst the crowd, their boots scuffing the stone cobbles below, leaving nary a trace of their presence as they pass. The half-moon hides briefly behind a cloud. The orange glow of lights guide their path as they make their way past several giggling women hanging flowers, and a father hoisting his child onto his shoulders, letting them place a tiny wooden bird in a plant pot. Angela’s fingers wind themselves with Fareeha’s, squeezing her gently. They share a secret look.
Fareeha holds the tavern door open for Angela when they arrive and they find themselves a place to sit beside the window, tucked neatly into an alcove and out the way. Angela makes herself comfortable, unclipping her cloak and letting it fall about the chair’s back, leaning on her elbows on the table. The candle between them flickers in her eyes; Fareeha looks away before she can get lost in them.
“You sing beautifully.” Angela murmurs. Fareeha blushes.
“Thank you.” She replies stiffly. “I sing only when I must.”
Angela laughs softly. “Yes. I seem to recall you saying you only sing for your God.”
Fareeha raises her gaze to Angela’s face, keeping her expression neutral, folding her hands carefully on the worn wooden surface of the table. It takes Angela a moment before she understands. Her cheeks flush and she looks away, eyes widening as one of the barmaids arrives with two flagons of mead.
“Thank you,” Fareeha says, and quickly orders food for the pair of them.
“Anything else, brave warrior?” The barmaid purrs, a gentle hand resting idly on Fareeha’s shoulder and giving it a gentle squeeze. “You certainly look well dressed. Are you here for the festival?”
“Festival?” Fareeha takes a sip of her mead, enjoying the refreshingly fruity flavour.
The barmaid’s grip tightens on her shoulder. She leans forward slightly and Fareeha receives an impressive eyeful of her breasts, barely contained by her tight cream shirt. Blinking, a little nonplussed, she misses the first half of the woman’s sentence, half wondering if the maid knows she’s about to burst her buttons.
“... of the Moon, yes.” The maid finishes. She smirks and leans forward a little more. Fareeha doesn’t miss the hungry expression on her face. She knows what she’s doing.
“It’s a festival of fertility.” The barmaid straightens slightly, her hand still resting on Fareeha’s shoulder. “We dance naked in the sea, picking partners for the night and hoping the moon will bless us with good crops and healthy children. You should stay for a while. It lasts about a week - starts tomorrow, if you’re interested.”
“Apologies,” Fareeha replies. “We are leaving on the morrow.”
The barmaid runs her hand across Fareeha’s shoulder, plucking at her cloak until it lies straight, her plump lips pouting in disappointment. Fareeha feels herself stiffen slightly, shifting away from the barmaid and glancing out of the dark windows. “Are you sure I can’t tempt you to stay a little longer?”
Fareeha is about to reply when Angela cuts across her sharply. “No. I’m sure you can’t tempt us to stay longer.” Angela’s mouth has twisted in that way which indicates displeasure, her knuckles white as she grips the table top. “Besides, she already has a partner.”
The barmaid laughs softly, then shrugs. “Marriage contracts don’t matter during the festival.” She turns to Fareeha and winks. “When you get tired of this one, I’ll be waiting.”
The barmaid sweeps away, her dress doing nothing to hide the voluptuous swell of her hips. Fareeha watches her go, highly amused and a little befuddled, unsure what just transpired. Angela lets out a great huff of exasperated laughter, muttering irritably in her strange language, cheeks flushed.
“She's no Yeisa,” Fareeha hears herself say. Angela glances at her.
“More forward than that.” Fareeha brushes some invisible dust off the table. “She was quite vocal about wanting to lay with you. To me, at any rate.”
Angela’s lips purse at once. “Yeisa was harmless. I knew you wouldn't- I mean, not that it mattered. I- you-”
“You don't have to be jealous.” Fareeha cannot help but smirk, recalling the tent in the forest and the evening before the battle.
“I am not jealous.” Angela swells like some sort of bird, puffing up its feathers indignantly before a challenge. Fareeha raises her eyebrow, offering Angela the barest hint of a smile as she leans over the table.
“I’m your Knight, Angela. I swore my oath to you. Not that barmaid.”
Angela looks as though she is about to say something when their food arrives. Two steaming bowls of fish soup accompanied by a large loaf of bread sets themselves down between them. The barmaid is back, and she is wearing a new scent; something flowery and coy which makes Fareeha look up into her broad smile.
“Is there anything else I can get you?” She asks, tucking a strand of mousey hair behind her ear. The tavern door opens and four men stagger in, singing drunkenly and throwing themselves into their seats. The barmaid glances around at them, and Fareeha doesn’t miss the momentary flash of fear that splashes across her face.
“That will be all, thank you.” Angela replies primly, picking up her spoon and straightening in her seat. The barmaid passes her an empty smile and excuses herself, squeezing her way between tables and chairs to attend to the newest arrivals.
Fareeha turns to her meal, plucking up her spoon and ignoring the determined rumble of her stomach as she digs in, finding a healthy chunk of white fish and eating it, humming in pleasure at the taste. It is rich and creamy, lank strips of green vegetables floating in amongst the hunks of meat, lost in the sea of pale soup. They eat in a silence afforded when engrossed by the delicious food - Fareeha offers Angela a morsel of crab meat, ignoring the pang in her belly when she watches Angela’s lips curl around the spoon, and receives some potato in return, trying not to laugh at the way Angela’s tongue pokes out when she tries not to spill anything.
The table of men gets rowdier and rowdier. Their laughter rings so loudly it shakes the window panes, the unearthly thunder of their mugs slamming against wood deafening in the cramped room. Fareeha glances their way just in time to see the barmaid being dragged onto a thick lap. Her laughter is too loud. The edge of it makes the hairs on the back of Fareeha’s neck rise; Angela notices too and she takes to watching the group. Five very drunk men. Sailors, by the strength in their arms and the weather worn lines of their hard, narrow faces.
Fareeha is about to go back to her food when she sees a pair of hands tear the barmaid’s dress open. She gives a cry of surprise and pain and Fareeha is on her feet at once, one hand resting on Raptora’s hilt, her chair clattering backwards. Angela follows her lead, untucking her dagger from her belt and holding it loosely - sheathed still - at her side.
“Let her go.” Angela’s voice is hard as they approach the table. The sailors twist in their chairs to look at them, sneering and leering. Their captain and leader, made obvious the way he clutches the barmaid tightly, gives Angela an obvious once over.
“Didn’ know y’ had friends, Meera,” he grunts, baring a grin of gravestone teeth. “They wanna join us an’ all?”
Meera struggles weakly on his lap, spluttering something which makes his gang roar with laughter. Fareeha tightens her grip on Raptora, preparing to draw it as Angela takes a step forward.
“I am Mercy of the Pale, and I command you to release her.”
The captain grunts a laugh, tightening his grip on Meera’s breast. “I’ll shove more than y’ command up y’ arse. I’ll have y’ squealin’ bloody mercy before th’ night’s done.”
Fareeha doesn’t hesitate.
She strikes like lightning. Raptora sings as it bursts out of its scabbard, the blade flashing as she snaps it outwards and tucks its tip right under the sailor’s chin, the thin edge pressing into his unshaven throat. His companions let out cries of panic, jerking away from her as she inches closer, holding Raptora steady.
“Let her go.” Fareeha says softly, staring into the captain’s dull grey eyes. “If you leave now I will let you keep your life.”
“E-easy,” he says, raising his hands. Meera scurries out of his grip, hitching her torn dress about her as she hurries away. “It were jus’ a bit’ve fun.”
Fareeha leans a little harder against Raptora. A thin trickle of blood dribbles languidly down the captain’s neck, pooling in the sweaty hollow of his throat. His Adam’s apple bobs, chin tilting up in an attempt to escape the scimitar’s razor edge.
“If I ever hear you treating another woman like that again,” she says in the same low, dangerous voice, “I will introduce Raptora to more than your throat. Is that clear?”
“Aye.” He gives the barest hint of a nod, the whites of his eyes stark and bright in the half light. Fareeha lowers Raptora only to wipe the captain’s blood off on his shoulder before sheathing it. The group of sailors leave quickly after that, closing the tavern door behind them and escaping into the night.
Angela pats her arm. “Thank you for defending my honour.”
Fareeha offers her a tiny smile before they return to their meals, wolfing down the last of the soup and bread. Fareeha barely tastes it, watching the door, waiting for the sailors to return with more men. Thankfully, they do not and eventually Meera creeps out of her hiding place, clothed in a different dress.
“Thank you,” she says, peering meekly down at them as she comes to stand beside their table.
“Does that happen a lot?” Angela asks gently. Meera shakes her head, inhaling shakily and running a hand through her mousey hair.
“That group has been troubling me for some time. This is the first time they’ve touched me though. I usually have my brother helping me but…” She gestures idly out of the window where the village is still alive with festival preparations.
Fareeha frowns out of the window, concern stealing over her heart. This is wrong. Where are the guard? The Marguey would never allow this to happen in Shala’Zor. She looks at Angela who is nibbling her lip, clearly debating something. The Priestess hesitates, then raises her dagger, pressing it into Meera’s hands.
“Next time that happens don’t hesitate to cut them.” Angela says seriously. Meera takes the dagger in shaking fingers, blinking, confused, her mouth opening to refuse. Angela doesn’t let her. “I do not usually condone violence, but in some cases, it is needed. Keep the blade. Wear it on you at all times.”
“I will do, m’lady, thank you.” Meera gives an awkward little curtsey. “Begging your pardons about before. I- It’s just-”
“It’s all right.” Angela smiles soothingly, patting Meera’s arm. “I couldn’t resist when I first met her either.”
Cheeks feeling suspiciously warm, Fareeha clears her throat and taps the table with her fingers. Angela and Meera laugh. Fareeha busies herself with clenching and unclenching her fists, willing feeling back into the dead black limbs. Only the burning remains.
Meera takes their bowls away, trotting neatly back into the kitchen and leaving them alone together.
“We sail tomorrow, then?” Fareeha places several coins on the table, stacking them neatly for Meera to collect.
Angela nods, “We’ll be in Axis soon enough, provided the weather’s not too bad.” She muffles a yawn into her fist before dragging her cloak around her shoulders.
“Bed?” She asks, half rising.
Fareeha stands, stretches, and nods, before following the Priestess to the back of the tavern and up the narrow flight of stairs.