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The Language of Affection

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"Bel!" Rowan reached out blindly, swimming up through foggy, sweat-soaked darkness. There was something important she had to tell Bel, something about the demon lands. She clenched her hands, straining for concentration, and tried again.

"Bel, the people...all dead in the streets..." The scene swam before her eyes, the silent houses and the streets full of the dead, the terrible humming and the even more terrible lack of it. She thought she was shouting, but her voice came out so faint she could scarcely hear it. The ground rocked beneath her. She was cocooned in something heavy; she thrashed ineffectually at it, trying to breathe.

Then a strong cool hand was in hers. She clung to it. The person disappeared, or maybe Rowan passed out, but after a while a wet cloth wiped across her brow. The heavy cocoon restricting her movement resolved into a woolen blanket. She felt it being lifted off her chest and tucked around her waist. Rowan sighed. "Bel..." But she couldn't remember what she had meant to say.

The comforting hand was still in hers. "Lie still, you fool," Bel said with brusque fondness, and Rowan smiled through the fever and pain. That voice had saved her so many times in the demon lands, though usually it told her to get up. If only she could see Bel's beloved face, she would know what to do. But it was so dark.

An arm around her shoulders, water at her lips. "Drink."

Rowan drank, spluttered. "Bel, the people," she tried to say again. Her head ached. The rest of her was on fire.

"Here, lift your arms." Work-rough hands at her shoulders and sides, easing off her soaked shirt and replacing it with something dry that didn't smell of sick. Her vision was still hazy, but she knew Bel's form and Bel's hands, would know them anywhere.

"The sand and the blood, he killed them all--and Tan tried to save us--"

"I know," Bel said.

Rowan relaxed so suddenly that she sagged in Bel's arms. That was all right, then. If Bel knew. She would fix it, she would tell everyone. Wonderful Bel. Competent, glorious Bel. "Glorious Bel," Rowan murmured.

Cool lips met her forehead. Rowan thought muzzily that she liked that. Bel ought to kiss her more. She told her so, but Bel only squeezed her hand and brushed her fever-damp hair off her brow.

"I missed you so much," she told Bel earnestly. And, "You know I love you, don't you? I don't know why I never said so. It must have seemed obvious at the time."

In retrospect it had been very negligent of them, on the journey to the Outlands, not to make love when they had the chance. Why hadn't Rowan thought of that before? It made so much sense. It seemed as though Bel had been walking by her side for her whole life. Like a Guidestar, leading Rowan home.

"But in those days I didn't know how to court you properly," she murmured.

She squeezed Bel's hand more tightly, then frowned. Obviously she was missing something. If only she could explain it to Bel the right way around. "If I were Tan I could make the perfect words," she said, but she wasn't quite sure Bel understood. "I would make the word for Bel, and you would give me back my silver ring."

Possibilities were...were...as a steerswoman she ought to be able to figure them out. But her eyes were so tired, and the humming had returned.

She slept.

*****

"I like that song," Rowan said some days later. She'd been more or less awake for four days now, and was starting to feel hemmed in by the small ship's cabin where Bel and Zenna and Steffie had laid her. Her vision had cleared when the fever left her, and it no longer seemed as dark, but it was still rather stuffy.

When she tried to get up, though, one or the other of them stopped her, and she wasn't quite steady enough yet to manage it on her own. But at least she could sit propped on pillows and argue with people, and call up the companionway to whoever was on deck.

"It's a new one," said Bel. She sat cross-legged on the deck beside Rowan's mattress, whittling at something with a knife. She brushed her dark hair out of her eyes. It had grown a little longer than she liked to keep it, and the shaggy ragged ends made Rowan think of their last weeks in the Outskirts. She remembered the feeling of Bel's hair in her hands when Bel had finally grabbed a camp stool and a knife and asked Rowan to cut it.

Rowan turned the cup of water in her hands and watched Bel's clever sun-browned fingers as they worked. "About the demon lands?" The tune was familiar somehow--probably Bel had been humming it while Rowan slept--but she didn't know the words.

"The great Dolphin Stair, the Face on the far side of the world, the duplicitous steersman, the foolhardy steerswoman." Bel shifted position. Grinned. "I didn't put that in the song. In the song you're infinitely brave, which is only the truth from another point of view."

Rowan coloured. Remembered some of the things she'd said in the grip of the fever. Not quite meeting Bel's eyes, she said, "Can I hear it?"

Bel shook her head. "When it's done."

The barest hint of fresh sea air made its way down from the deck to tickle Rowan's nose. She was filled with a sudden longing for open skies and the sparkle of sun on water. She dropped her head back against the wall of the cabin with a thunk. "How far are we from Alemeth?"

An answering thump, and footsteps on the companionway ladder. Steffie appeared, balancing two bowls of steaming fish stew. He handed one to Bel, who set to with surprising industriousness for someone raised on redgrass and goat. But a warrior ate when she could, even on foreign seas. To Rowan he said, "We're making good speed. Zenna says we should be in Alemeth by the day after tomorrow."

Rowan reached for her bowl of stew and found she could move from sitting to kneeling without overbalancing--though the strain it put on her left thigh, still healing from its wound, made her wince. Definitely an improvement on yesterday. She waved her spoon at Steffie. "Then I should be up on deck."

Bel gave a harrumph.

"Zenna says," said Steffie somewhat diffidently, "maybe tomorrow?"

Rowan groaned. "I'd come over and thump you with something if I didn't think I'd spill my stew."

Bel swallowed the last of her stew and handed the bowl back to Steffie. "Tomorrow," she said firmly.

Half an hour later Rowan began to yawn. She tried to stay awake, rehearsing with Bel what they planned to do on their return to the Inner Lands, but the warmth of the afternoon and a full belly soon lulled her to sleep.

When she awoke at dusk, she opened her eyes to see a tiny, perfectly-formed model of Janus's ship, sailing across her pillow.

*****

"Up you go--yes! All right!" Steffie's cheerful voice filled the air, as if his ongoing commentary could help Rowan keep her footing.

Rowan gave a last heave up the final step of the ladder, and looked up into Bel's grinning face. Bel hauled her forward with both arms, sun-warmed and strong, feet braced wide for balance. Rowan took one wobbling step onto the deck, grabbed the rail for support, found herself grinning as well.

Zenna waved from her perch at the tiller. "About time!" she called. The wind was in her hair and her smile was almost as big as Bel's.

Steffie stuck his head up from the lower deck, where he'd waited to catch Rowan if she fell. He handed up a pile of blankets to Bel, who took them with a flourish and set about staking them out to air in the brisk breeze.

Rowan made her way slowly along the planking of Janus's ship. Her leg ached from her exertions, and she would most certainly pay for it tomorrow, but she didn't care. The sun on her face and the wide, open horizon filled her heart with a sudden, intense joy. They were running near enough to the shoreline that Rowan could recognize landmarks from their outward journey. They must be on the homeward side of the little snails by now, she thought. It seemed like a lifetime since she had scrambled all over this ship, helping to tear out anything unneeded in hopes of lightening the load.

"Ho!" Zenna called out. Motion in Rowan's peripheral vision. Rowan turned, saw Zenna's outflung arm and the length of rope flying through the air, and reached for it on sheer instinct.

She over-reached, tripped, and the world pitched sideways. The deck came up to meet her, far too fast. Bel, at her side, made a lightning-quick grab for her, catching her arm and waist so that when she landed with a bone-rattling thump, she landed half on top of Bel rather than face-first on the hard boards.

The rope sailed over their heads. She heard Steffie scramble across the deck, shouting, then call out that he'd caught the rope and made it fast. But Rowan had only the smallest amount of attention to spare for such things, or for feeling foolish that she'd reached for a rope meant for Steffie in the first place. Bel was warm and solid beneath her, Bel's hands were around her waist, her great dark eyes wide pools of concern. Rowan's heart banged painfully in her chest.

"I'm all right," Rowan gasped. Thanks to Bel's quick thinking she had landed on her right side; after the first horrible moment her injured leg was only throbbing rather than searingly painful. She pushed herself up on her hands, then gave it up as too much effort. Bel's arms tightened around her. "I--"

Those huge eyes regarded her solemnly, but an eyebrow lifted and the corners of her eyes hinted at the beginning of a smile. Questioning without words, studying Rowan's face as Rowan gazed back.

"I should have done this a long time ago," Rowan said, low-voiced and only for Bel's ears. And then she kissed her.

Possibilities were two: that Bel felt the same, was interested, had meant the little ship as a courting gift--or not. For a moment they hung suspended in time, Rowan's knee digging into the hard wooden deck and the sun beating down on her neck. She had the strangest feeling that she was meeting Bel again for the first time. A wild Outskirter, like a dangerous cat who might strike her down or might bat her gently with its great paw, purring.

Then Bel laughed, the sharp sound full of pure delight. "Hah!" And Rowan realized that in the back of her mind all this time--ever since Bel's friendly farm hand in Five Corners--she had wondered how Bel would kiss. The discovery was entirely pleasant and entirely repeatable.

"Oh, Bel," she said after a while, and then decided that further words were superfluous.

This happy state of mind was interrupted by a cough from above them. Bel sat up, grinning, and Rowan scooted sideways in time to see Steffie's face flush an impressive pink.

"You've never seen a steerswoman in love, then, Steffie?" Zenna leaned on the tiller, looking down at their little tableau.

"I, well. I hadn't thought about it. It's like seeing your mother in love," said Steffie, but he held out his hand for Rowan to take. Bel he left to scramble to her feet on her own, which suited her exactly.

Rowan made her way to the forward rail and leaned on it, getting her breath back and smiling like a fool. Shortly Bel appeared beside her and nudged her with her shoulder.

"I'll sing you the song," Bel said, "but steerswoman, you're not so bad with words, truly. Though next time you might take fewer months to say them."

To which Rowan found no good response but an Outskirter's "Hah!" and another kiss.