It is, by all means, a council meeting like any other.
It's held one of the many balconies, overlooking the golden streets, the solar mirrors, and one of the great waterfalls, as the old throne room is still under construction. Although Janai had wanted to tend to the palace first — to her sister's memory — she'd put her people and their homes, conveniences and safety, well above herself. The monster army of humans had ransacked their streets and the king-mage, Viren, had done more than enough damage just by stealing their primal. Janai is still trying to track down a Sun archdragon to give a new one, now that Sol Regem has flown off somewhere unknown to fume — or so the northern Sunfire elves say, content in the care of her brother.
Janai's five advisors are there — Abdul droning on about something in his typical monotone, aqueducts, Janai thinks, but it's hard to focus on something so cut and dry after knowing the heat of the Breach and battle for years — and she finds herself wishing Amaya was still here.
The general has been in Lux Aurea for six months and usually attends these sorts of meetings even though she doesn't have to. Janai had always appreciated the act of solidarity as Amaya likely found the meetings just as boring as she did, or close to. Beyond just a more familiar presence than her sister's old advisors or her burgeoning own, Amaya is, well, fun. Amaya pulls faces behind the council's backs, rolls her eyes, and signs her opinion discreetly, although it's not like any of the council has learned how to translate except for her and Kazi, and more than once Janai has had to turn a cough into a laugh because she has to stay queenly and professional. But a letter from one of her nephews had arrived and Amaya had looked at her with big, pleading eyes and Janai let her go with a wave of her hand.
If there's one thing Amaya holds more dear to her than duty it's family, and Janai is envious in a way that someone still has both of those options.
It doesn't keep her from watching the General leave, either, her brown eyes tracking her even if she doesn't let herself turn her head to continue peering behind the pillar and then the doorway that the other woman disappears behind. It does, however, break her focus, and Janai's cheeks heat when she turns back to find her council staring at her, waiting for some sort of response.
She clears her throat and looks towards Abdul. "Repeat that more clearly," she says, as though it was his fault for being too pompous rather than her being too distracted.
"Of course, Your Radiance." Abdul doesn't look pleased—or fooled, though. But he strokes his short, neatly trimmed beard all the same and fulfills her request. "As I was saying, the city's aqueducts were kept at bay due to the Sunforge soaking up light and causing higher levels of evaporation by extension, but without it, we must now figure out a way to keep the water from flooding over more than it already has—"
This time, Janai makes sure to pay attention, even if one thought is still wherever Amaya went off to. Janai knows Amaya is happy whenever she receives a letter from Katolis, and some part of Janai warms to see the big grin on the general's face, but... There's a pit of worry in her stomach, as small and as dangerous as a pomegranate seed (the land of the dead is a land with no sun). Because what if a letter from home is what brings Amaya home? It was never the plan to have Amaya stay in Lux Aurea forever—she has to go back to her army or family or Katolis eventually—but somewhere, selfishly, like a child, Janai wants to ask her to.
It's not like the queen has the nerve to do so, though; feelings have never her forte. She and Amaya are friends—she knows that much—maybe a little more, but... They've never said or done anything. There's no label.
The mess of it all is enough to make her let out a heavy, perhaps too longing sigh, once the meeting is over, and she finds Abdul staring at her.
"You know," her advisor says, adjusting his glasses. "I do not mind the honoured general joining our meetings, but you could make your love affair less obvious, Your Radiance."
Stupidly, Janai blinks. "My what?"
Now Abdul somehow looks both confused and impatient. "She is your lover, is she not?"
Janai swallows. Amaya, her lover? Her partner? It sounds wonderful, and as real as a dream. Her whole face feels hot. She hopes she's not blushing. "No," is all she manages to ground out, and thankfully sounds properly annoyed about it. It should be dismissed with as Abdul's singular ridiculous speculations, or (worse) a palace rumour that's gotten out of hand.
Abdul nods and maybe rolls his eyes, but Janai can't really tell because she is very pointedly not looking at him. "I'll take my leave then," he says after a short, awkward pause (at least to her) and Janai lets him go.
Goes out to one of the balconies and has a servant bring her warm tea with honey. It does little to ease the raging fire in her chest and the way she can't quite shake her thoughts.
Janai's not stupid. She knows she likes Amaya. How could she not? Know, that is. Not not like Amaya. (Although she supposes there's that too.) Eventually she had to stop chalking up the warm fluttery feeling in her chest whenever Amaya walked into the room to something other than her heat-being inner fire randomly stirring.
But what to do with it, that's more unsure. What if she starts a fire she can't put out? Her tea feels cold even if her cheeks heat, remembering Abdul's words. The assumption that Amaya would like her, too. Janai sets her cup down in its golden saucer. What if she already has?
"So," Janai signs, glad it's hard to silently sound nervous as she and Amaya take a stroll around the inner sanctum, "what did your letter say?"
Amaya smiles. She still chooses to wear her armour in Lux Aurea and it glints like the rooftops the frame the inner sanctum's main courtyards. Marble pillars create circular, half indoor gardens consisting of trimmed hedges and smooth, quiet rectangular pools aligned with each other. Calm blue amid the heat of the sun. Janai has spent all her life surrounded by reds and golds. It is nice to be surrounded, even momentarily, by Amaya's blue every once in a while.
"Rayla and Ezran are working to broker in a new treaty clause," Amaya relays. She signs a little more slowly for Janai's benefit. While the queen has gotten much better, six months is not a long time to learn and completely memorize a new language amid all of her new and other duties (and grief). Janai knows she can stop and ask the general to repeat something if need be. "Callum has managed to get his hands on some more advanced Sky magic scrolls and has been whooshing around the courtyard when he's not helping them. Oh, and Ezran notified me on army relations as well."
"Oh?" Janai knows things between Katolis and Duren, and the rest of the Pentarchy, has been tense since the final battle to say the least.
"A new rebuilding program is going to be implemented," Amaya explains with a smirk. "We shall have to see how my old troops handle it." They had been on their way back to Katolis after her capture and missed Viren's coup, nor did they listen to it. "I will have approve many promotions."
"You won't be going back yourself?" Janai says, as carefully as she can. Out loud too (like a fool) before she hastily signs it. Her face feels warm.
"Not yet," Amaya says and there's a knowing glint in her eye that Janai doesn't know what to do with, so it's a good thing she has to focus on the general's hands rather than her face. "Katolis can survive without me for a little longer. I want to live, first."
And Janai thinks she understands, perhaps, as she invites her to dine with her that day for lunch and Amaya accepts. Perhaps.
When Amaya is not spending time with Janai (whether for pleasure or business, she thinks with a smirk), she spends most of it alone, training, or with Kazi. The translator got an upgrade to palace scholar six months ago and has been nervously, sweetly excitable ever since. Kazi reminds Amaya a little of Callum and even Gren, in some ways, and is the only other person Amaya can really communicate with, so she spends a lot of time their library.
There are two libraries in the palace, one in the east wing and one in the west wing. Both, Amaya learns, are exactly identical, down to the scrolls each carries. "One is for those with fire forms," Kazi explains on one particularly hot day. "The other is for everyone else."
"Why?" Amaya signs.
"Queen Aditi's grandfather was a great man and scholar. Lux Aurea became the capital of our lands in both military might and immense intellect. But His Radiance had a furious temper and one day touched a bookshelf while enraged and without noticing for quite some time. By the time anyone realized, the library was on fire and countless, one of a kind scrolls were lost. That is why we replicate each one and regulate who uses which library. Sunfire elves without fire forms can go into either one, of course, but otherwise... it is one of the only separations we have here in Lux Aurea."
It makes Amaya think of the grand library of Katolis that her and Sarai had always favoured courtyard sparring over (even if Sarai had loved literature, too—Amaya thinks that's where Callum gets his equally grand imagination. And because she is a good aunt, she has Kazi pick out spare copies of books on Sun magic to send to her nephew). It makes her think of the letters her nephews write her, and one of Rayla's little P.S. notes attached because as fond of the girl as Amaya is, they're both still sussing out their new friendship together, and the letters Amaya herself writes back.
How one day she may have to write letters to Janai. She is running out of political excuses to stay in Lux Aurea for much longer and still the queen has not offered the invitation for Amaya to stay for the reasons she wants to. Janai cannot be that dense, can she?
"General Amaya," greets Abdul, sweeping in wearing scarlet robes. "I thought I'd find you here."
Kazi gets up from their chair as Amaya stops sitting on one of the library's many study desks and moves to translate as Amaya signs her response. "Councilman Abdul," they translate. "Is there something you need?"
"Yes," the councilman answers, stroking his tiny beard. "Is there a reason you are not attending this afternoon's political meeting?"
Amaya blinks, then signs, "Was I supposed to?" She thought she was free to dip in and out of those meetings as she pleased. There hasn't been one specifically about Katolis' relations to Lux Aurea in a while. Has she somehow forgotten one?
"It would be in the council's best interest for you to attend," says Abdul. "We've taken a break for tea but I doubt the resumption of our meeting will go much better than the first half if you are not there."
"And..." Amaya and Kazi share an uncertain look, before she signs, "Why is that?"
Abdul draws himself up smartly, as though his queen and general of a residing kingdom are school girls—and pehaps to him in his 60s, the comparison is somewhat apt. They are both new to royal politics in the grand scheme of things. "Her Radiance has trouble focusing when you are around," says Abdul, "but has even more trouble focusing when you are not."
Amaya's eyes widen, heat spreading across her cheeks for a second, before she nearly smirks. She has a little more conversation—agreeing to going to the meeting with Abdul, saying goodbye to Kazi—but Amaya barely pays attention, her mind on Janai. When she walks into the formal meeting room, she catches Janai's eye, the fateful slim curve of excitement in the queen's smile, and Amaya simply winks back.
They won't burn the libraries down. What's the worst that can happen if they make it official?
Janai thought Amaya would be the death of her before. Quite literally in battle, even if she wouldn't admit (the stone had scraped her back and she's not immune to feeling the heat of lava that had felled her other elves in tandem with the human general's kicks); then in Lux Aurea when she unlocked the prisoner's chains and thought If she's wrong or lying Khessa will kill me; and many times since arriving in Lux Aurea and getting used to Amaya's generally smug but endearing, flirty behaviour.
That was before the general turned it up several notches, too. Amaya nudges her into inviting her to dinner and wears a stunning deep red dress that makes Janai's cheeks match. Brief arm touches linger even in front of the other council. Every moment feels like a wildfire and perhaps Janai would let it overtake her if she didn't have a mind for duty and new pressing matters to attend to.
The Sunforge needs to be rebuilt in time for spring so in late February, Janai finds herself going down every day to talk to engineers, architects, blacksmiths, priests, and Sun mages alike, for whom the Sunforge is of utmost appearance and who have been doing their best to get it fixed and ready for proper Purification in time for the Festival of the Flower Sun and other springtime rituals. It's hard, coordinated work that keeps her away from the inner sanctums of the palace after meetings are done for the day, and even worse, away from Amaya.
It's two weeks of this and one late night when Janai goes up to the top of the Sunforge to oversee the progress on crafting a new Sun primal that Amaya finds her. The fire is still dim with a vague, warm hum of sound and heat, and Janai sees the shadows as Amaya walks up.
"What are you doing here?" Janai asks.
"I couldn't sleep," she admits. They stand in silence, overlooking the city which is as dark as it will ever be, this time of night. "Are you excited for the festivities?"
"I'm excited for this to be finished," says Janai.
"I know how you feel," Amaya says. "I have been hearing about it in meetings for almost a year now. So many of your problems will be solved." It is not possible for Amaya to grow quieter, but it feels like something shifts to do so. "I will be going back to Katolis for my nephew's birthday."
Ezran is turning eleven this March, Janai remembers. Her heart sinks. "Ah, of course. I will... miss you, very much."
"Why?" Amaya asks, her lips curling. Her eyes twinkle like the stars above them. "I will only be gone two weeks."
Janai turns towards her, stunned. "You're coming back?" she breathes, signing hesitantly and full of hope.
Amaya's smile grows. "I would call it coming home," she admits. "If you'll let me." She jerks her head towards the Sun primal. "Isn't fire also life? Rebirth and..." Amaya signs quickly, or maybe she doesn't and it just takes Janai longer to process it because it feels so big and bold, as Amaya takes her hand and laces their fingers together. "New beginnings."
It's the same hand she once burnt, to save an enemy. This time, Janai squeezes it, before she leans in and kisses a friend. The fire consumes her, and it's both hot and exhilarating and warm and safe at the same time. When they break apart, Janai knows each of them are beaming brighter than the Sunforge could ever hope to.
It's almost amazing, how little changes after that. There is perhaps more consistency, though, Abdul decides. The general is at every meeting instead of just most of them. She brings the queen tea with honey during late nights at the Sunforge, which dwindle as the days grow warmer and the project comes closer to completion. Her assortment of things is quietly moved from her room to the queen's chambers. The minimal amount of gossip flares up about the queen and the general courting, which is what the rumours were before, anyway, except this time it is clearly true. They flirt more blatantly, Janai pressing a kiss to the scar on Amaya's cheek when they have to part and laughing, huddled together, before meetings. Amaya will reach over and adjust Janai's crown sometimes.
Abdul had seen the queen, then princess, have teenage dalliances before she went off to the border to be a general. Her relationship and behaviour with Amaya reminds him a little of those, even if this is naturally something deeper, weathered by war age and mature. Richer. Evident to anyone who sees them, and his eyes may not be what they used to be, but he can.
(Janai's focus in many ways is even worse now, but Abdul has never seen her happier, so he can let it slide.)
The restored Sunforge continues to shine.