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In the infinite world of possibilities, Denya can only think of three potential outcomes for what she is planning to do: she takes the spoon and no one notices, she takes the spoon and someone sees, or she does not take the spoon at all.

If there are more futures to be had while she stares down at the spoon on the table, nestled primly beside an eggshell-white plate, then she is simply not imaginative enough to grasp them.

She is, however, clever enough to grasp a spoon. Or she thinks she might be. It was easier to be certain when she and Amaya were alone, and Amaya said oh but it is simple! No one is ever looking at us anyway. This, Denya feels, is wrong on at least two fronts: people, especially men, are always looking at Amaya, and it does not seem simple in the least to slide her fingers around the spoon and pull it towards her, then underneath the table and tucked into her skirts.

It is a very nice spoon. That is the problem. It is a very nice party too, the sort of party that warrants the use of nice spoons to a likeness of the one resting beneath Denya’s faintly trembling right hand. The spoon is polished silver while on the handle birds in turquoise filigree are taking flight. Plumed summer birds, no feather like the other. It is part of a Saro-wrought silverware set that belongs to General Arno’s Saro-Urok wife, who had it passed down from her mother, who had received it from her mother.

Ordinarily Denya would not have the opportunity even to sit at this table that bends at the legs laden with spicy oyster soup and herbed grain salads, and contemplate stealing the fine spoon. Ordinarily Denya would be sent to a lesser table with the rest of the children, never mind that she is old enough to marry; until she finds a husband she is not a person worth considering, a person worth being seated with General Arno, her father, and the rest of the guests.

But earlier in the evening, Captain Nicanor, a short man with scarred red cheeks flushed from too much wine, had looked at her and exclaimed, But she must join us! She must sit beside me and tell me some tales as pretty as she is! And her father had smiled and acquiesced, and her mother had fixed up her hair and whispered in her ear, Be good.

It’s funny, Denya thinks, how once she was a good girl, proper and demure and always obeying of her parents’ wishes, as well as the attentions of men too powerful to ignore -- but then Amaya burst into her life and now she is stealing cutlery off General Arno’s table, her heartbeat jolting in the very tips of her fingers, her breath sticky against the roof of her mouth.

Did anyone see? she thinks frantically. Is Captain Nicanor looking at her? No, he has turned his head to notice some other girl sitting two seats down and is getting his elbow wet in a bowl of soup as he leans to seize her attention. He no longer finds Denya fascinating. Her looks, courtesy, and well-bred demeanor do not tax his imagination. She may never be invited to this table again.

She thinks about that for a moment. She looks around one more time, swallows hard against the lump in her throat. She takes the fork as well.

 


 

“Clever Denya! Quick-fingered Denya! Bad bad Denya!” Amaya says and then collapses into giggles.

“Hush, someone will hear,” Denya says for they are in the open courtyard, but no one at Amaya’s domicile ever does. Her father is absent, her mother is dreamy-eyed, and her sisters and servants never seem to care at all about Denya or the reason behind Denya’s visits. We’re talking about boys, Amaya would say cheerfully on those rare occasions when someone did ask, and that seems like a plausible enough truth to the rest of Captain Esladas’ household that no one ever inquires further.

Denya shows her the spoon and fork, and Amaya takes them from her, folds them into her skirt. “Good that you took both,” she says. “They are a matching pair, see?”

Amaya seems pleased, which makes the bottom of Denya’s belly feel warm. This was Amaya’s fancy to begin with, and while Denya sees the wisdom in Amaya’s plan, she would not do this if it were not for Amaya’s coaxing; she is not brave enough to have thought of stealing from the lords and ladies of Sarayenia. Only small things, mind. Trinkets and tableware and leather-bound books from libraries. Nothing that might be missed with outrage. And only from those who would not feel the loss.

What is the one thing, Amaya had said when this first began, that women do not have much of? It is coin. We only ever have as much coin as our fathers and husbands allow us.

They both well understand the predicament of slippery finances. How could they not, living beneath the fishnet of Clan Ottonor’s debts? Any moment and the strands of their safe comfortable lives could come untangled piece by piece; who knows how much longer Lord Ottonor will live? He is not a young man. In a way she understands this better than Amaya, who is happily ignorant of the patronage structures above them. Although they are both captains’ daughters, Denya moves in more rarified circles and hears more, for she has the privilege of being Patron-born through and through, without taint of ignominy.

“You look so tense!” Amaya says, peering at her face. “What is the matter, Denya? Next week I will take these to our man in Ribbon Market and he will give us proper payment for them, and then we will have nearly enough to buy us passage to Saro-Urok if need be.” She sounds satisfied with this turn of events. “Can you even imagine it? You could pretend to be a Saro widow returning to her homeland and I could pass for your Efean servant, though of course it would be suspicious because I’m much prettier than you.”

Denya scoffs, but she bites the inside of her cheek to keep from smiling. Amaya is so vain, all the lights of the world must shine upon her.

“Your hair is almost as nice as mine, though,” Amaya says. She reaches out and untucks a strand of Denya’s hair from where it is tied up in ribboned clubs. She smirks and undoes another. Denya is faintly annoyed but cannot bring herself to say no, not when Amaya’s fingers are so nimble and sweet. Soon she has taken down all of Denya’s hair, and Denya holds her breath as Amaya rakes her fingers through the thick fall of it, gently smoothing out tangles.

“Tell me what Lieutenant Phokas said to you at the theatre yesterday,” Amaya murmurs, mischief in her eyes. Everybody knows Amaya has only two loves: men and theatre. “Is he not handsome? What did he think of The Firebird’s Revenge?”

“I don’t even remember,” Denya says truthfully. “We only talked of small, stupid things. He told me about his dogs. I told him about my embroidery.”

“Oh yes! Your embroidery!” Amaya jumps up and wanders away to fetch something. She brings back a cloth pouch with strings on either side meant to be tied around the waist underneath their skirts. Denya made her this pouch years ago; it is where they transport small goods after they have stolen them. “Mine has a hole in it,” Amaya says, sticking her finger inside and wriggling it to demonstrate.

“Here, give it to me,” Denya says. Like any young Patron woman her embroidery kit is never far away. She opens it and selects a sparrowy brown thread. She begins work on Amaya’s pouch while Amaya combs her hair and goes back to pursuing her original thought.

“Your conversation with Lieutenant Phokas sounds tremendously boring,” she says, singsong. “But he is so very handsome and Father says he may rise to be Captain any day now. Do you think he might not make a good husband?”

“For you or me?” Denya asks.

“Well, I think he is quite dull so you may have him if you want,” Amaya says.

“Dull is fine,” Denya says, leaning back slightly as Amaya’s fingers scratch her scalp. “If I could have a kind, dull husband who does not care much what I do, then I would never ask for more.”

“Even better if he is away at war most of the time!”

“Then perhaps I should encourage Lieutenant Phokas. Only,” she says with a rush of uncertainty, “I am not nearly as good with men as you are. What do I do? What should I say? He spoke with Captain Timo’s daughter nearly as often as he spoke to me last night.”

Amaya gives her hair a mean tug. “Ah!” Denya cries.

“What have we been practicing love letters all this time for?” Amaya demands. “Use some of those words on him!”

Denya’s cheeks redden. “That’s different! Those letters are supposed to be for our future husbands! They’re too brazen for an unmarried girl!”

“Soldiers don’t mind a bit of brazen,” Amaya says knowledgeably. She sees the look on Denya’s face and bursts into laughter. “Oh my dear!” she says, throwing her arms around Denya. “Oh my shy trembling leaf! Don’t worry, I will show you how to do it. We will catch all the boring men you desire, and one day when we are both married, we shall do whatever we like and no one can say anything about it!”

 


 

It is a rare day that Denya does not think about marriage. She wonders who will offer for her, when it will happen, and if it will be as she hopes, a benevolent husband who will allow her and Amaya to continue on as they are, or if it will be another type of transaction entirely. Her sister is married and sometimes there are bruises on her wrist.

Although she and Amaya rarely say it so plainly, for Amaya especially does not like to think of dark unpleasant things, that is what the coin buried in the garden is for. If they are not fortunate, if they are not charming enough to attract the right man, if they choose wrongly. If Denya thinks, there is a choice at all, for while Amaya may have her pick of men, the way they flutter around her eager for attention, Denya is not so luminescent. She may be forced to consider her Captain Nicanors of the world.

She thinks of it, the way Captain Nicanor’s body would feel lying on top of hers, the weight of his wine-soaked mouth and the bite of his teeth. She thinks of the children they might have. It upsets her so greatly she excuses herself from breakfast, appetite gone, and her mother is worried as she watches her go.

“It is only the heat, Mother,” Denya says, which is acceptable enough: high summer in Efea and the sweat coats all their skins slick like fish. She dashes a pinch of root powder into each of her armpits and washes her face with cold water.

There is another party that night, this time at the villa of General Zenais. It says much for how high Denya’s father has risen that so many generals include him among their guests. Captain Esladas is present as well, the hero of many battles, though without the shockingly native-born concubine that he calls his wife and his four curiously headstrong daughters. Denya feels the loss. How much happier she would have been if Amaya were here!

Instead she is alone, and attempting to make conversation with Lieutenant Phokas, though her palms sweat even harder as she stumbles over her words and tries to feign interest in his dogs. Good Goat, how hard this is. She wishes for Amaya to magically appear and give her guidance. She wishes for Amaya to write gushing love letters for the good lieutenant, sign them with Denya’s name, and win this man for her.

Though how can they be sure, Denya wonders anxiously, if this is a good man, a gentle man? He seems such now but men change when their flirtations become their wives.

It is the same time she notices Lady Ligeia, General Zenais’ wife and Doma of the house, excuse herself from the party with a headache. Denya waits for another half hour, trying with increasing desperation to keep Lieutenant Phokas’ attention before he excuses himself to talk to a superior in his regiment. She is embarrassed when he leaves, but then wipes her palms against her skirts and summons up her courage. She slips out of the parlour and winds her way up the stairs to where the family’s quarters must be. Although a general’s villa is far more elaborate than anything her own family could aspire to, the architecture seems comprehensible enough to her, and she knows that she has it right when a servant blocks her way through a closed door.

“Doma is not well,” informs the servant, a dark-skinned Efean who even despite her mask bears resemblance to one of Amaya’s sisters.

Denya lowers her eyes. “General Zenais asked me to check on his wife.”

The servant looks her up and down. “Why you?”

“None of the other women offered,” Denya says. “They have just started to play cards and no one wanted to miss the game.”

The servant lets her through. Denya cannot pose much of a threat, after all. She goes through the door and into a room where Lady Ligeia is sleeping on a chaise.

“Meadow, is that you?” the lady murmurs.

“Yes, it is me, Doma,” Denya whispers.

“Open the windows,” Lady Ligeia says without opening her eyes. “It is unbearably hot in here.”

Denya considers retreating. The lady, while drifting off into sleep, is still awake enough to be able to recognize that she is not Meadow should she choose to look. But Denya thinks of the swell of Amaya’s smile and she makes herself open the windows, struggling slightly with one of the latches and praying to all the gods in the old world and the new that Lady Ligeia does not notice. She is fortunate; the good lady falls asleep quickly thereafter. Denya creeps over to the chaise and counts Lady Ligeia’s breaths. She waits, slightly off-centre and out of the line of sight, while surveying the room.

She could be bold, or she could be careful. In the end she is both. There are five pins in Lady Ligeia’s hair, each of them lacquered red with a spray of sapphires. Denya slides one of the pins out as slowly as she can. As the pin comes loose from Lady Ligeia’s hair, and the woman herself snorts and snores on the chaise, Denya thinks of the lost opportunities with Lieutenant Phokas in the parlour and then, without meaning to, of a line of poetry Amaya had once written, pretending that Denya was her husband-to-be: our bed where we breathe into each other’s mouths like sailors sinking into the sea.

She thinks of how Amaya’s weight would feel on hers, soft and perfumed, Amaya’s black hair sliding loose over one shoulder, Amaya’s cunning eyes. If either one of them had been born a man, oh how Denya would throw herself into that seduction with all the clumsy effort she was capable of.

Even with the windows open it is much too warm in the room. She knows her desires are dark and unholy; it is as if she must sweat them out too.

 


 

When they next see each other, it is at the City Fives Court. Amaya kisses Denya on both cheeks and Denya blushes dark red like moon’s blood.

“What is the matter with you?” Amaya exclaims, but Denya shakes her head and refuses to reply. “Oh I don’t care,” Amaya then says. “I’m just here to make fun of Jessamy for wanting to run the Fives so very badly.”

Denya knows that one of Amaya’s sisters is secretly training on local Fives courts; Amaya has never been one to keep secrets from her. Amaya’s opinion on the matter is that it is a waste of time and why anyone would bother scrambling over the court huffing, puffing, and possibly getting killed, is beyond her. Denya pretends to agree but thinks, privately, that Jessamy must be very brave.

Captain Nicanor has rented a second-tier box for his family while inviting Amaya and Denya’s fathers and their families to join him. Even though it is second-tier, the box hangs over the rows where all the Commoners sit, crammed knee-to-knee. In their rented box, the three families erect a banner bearing the sigil of Lord Ottonor’s three-horned bull, a constant reminder of the man who sponsors them and whose own private box sits high above theirs.

A servant comes through with a tray of candied almonds. Amaya grabs a handful greedily. Meanwhile her father speaks in low tones to Denya’s father. Of the rest of Captain Esladas’ family only Jessamy and Bettany are present, Jessamy hungry and eager for the games to begin, Bettany bored and distant. As for the others, Maraya rarely attends public events on account of her deformity, their mother on account of propriety.

Captain Nicanor has the seat of honour in the box and sits it pox-faced and smiling. Amaya excuses herself from Denya and goes to talk to him; Denya can hear her lift her voice high and low, making it kittenish when it seems to please the captain the best. He laughs at this pretty young thing with the carmine-rouge mouth and pats her on the head. Amaya seems to preen.

“Look at her, selling herself to the highest bidder,” Bettany hisses out loud. Denya hears and turns around in her seat to give Bettany the coldest glare she can summon. It does not affect Bettany at all.

Denya feels sorry for Bettany. Although she is more beautiful than Amaya, her beauty is wrought of coldness and silence, and is too Efean of nature to give her a future as anything more than a Patron’s concubine. Denya knows that Bettany and Amaya fight about this constantly; Bettany thinks Amaya a slut, Amaya thinks Bettany a shrew who will never gain any position in society and therefore not advance their family’s station at all. Neither Bettany nor Amaya are particularly forgiving people.

Jessamy overhears. “It is just her way,” she says. “He being an unmarried man.”

Bettany opens her mouth to respond but Denya does not want to hear them argue, not today. When Amaya returns from Captain Nicanor’s side, eyes slanted bright with mirth, Denya pulls her to her left, seated as far away from Bettany as possible. Amaya goes with a plop, sighing with pleasure as the horns sound and the adversaries in the Fives begin to run their course.

It is difficult to exercise their habit of hunting for expensive trinkets at the City Fives Court; the spectator boxes are too open, everyone is too close together, there are eyes everywhere. Amaya has sometimes managed it, choosing a moment when an adversary does something daring and no one would be looking at her, but Denya does not like to see her take such risks. Denya prefers to use the reprieves between rounds, as the Novices give way to the Challengers, to wander the tiers beneath the Patron boxes on the pretense of looking for a friend or a cold refreshment. In the excitement of the games, many people are prone to dropping valuables, and Denya watches out for them.

It is what she and Amaya decide to do today. They wander hand in hand, two girls in high spirits, Denya giggling at whatever ridiculous thing Amaya has chosen to whisper in her ear. Amaya is telling her about a new play she is dying to see though it is in the Lantern Market and hardly respectable even with a chaperone, and Denya thinks she spies something gleaming on the ground ahead, when of a sudden, Lord Gargaron appears.

“What are you doing here?” he demands.

Denya gasps. Lord Gargaron frightens her; he is powerful, well-connected, and disdainful. She is surprised that he even seems to recognize her as their paths have only crossed on a handful of occasions. Or perhaps he does not; perhaps he looks at her and sees only a Patron girl who needs rebuking. He does not appear to recognize Amaya at all. Then she realizes what he is thinking with his next words.

“Why is your servant unmasked?” he barks. “Why are the two of you trawling beneath the tiers, and you so far from your father’s side?”

“E-excuse us, we were lost,” Denya stammers. Amaya is clutching her hand too tightly, face drawn stiff and furious. “We will find our way back to our families.”

“See that you do,” Lord Gargaron says, “and find a mask first.”

When he leaves, Denya cannot stop shaking. She takes breath after deep breath to steady her nerves. What if he had seen her reach for the gleaming thing on the ground? What would he have said then? She thinks of the stories she has concocted if she were ever caught stealing; how she would claim to be doing it to please a potential suitor; how she didn’t think it would hurt anyone; how sorry she was for losing her head like that. She turns to Amaya who has not let go of her hand this entire time, and is shocked when Amaya bursts into tears.

 


 

As with anything with Amaya, her frustration is an operatic production. Denya tells the others the tears are because of a bee sting, and while Captain Esladas is not amused by his daughter’s histrionics and Bettany is scornful, Captain Nicanor is sympathetic and there is a carriage arranged for Amaya and Denya to leave the Fives early. Taberta, Amaya’s ill-wisher and the family chaperone, sees them to Amaya’s home where Denya guides her weeping friend to the garden and orders a servant to bring them a pitcher of iced tea.

“It hardly matters, does it?” Amaya says, her face streaked with kohl and carmine. “No matter how beautiful and delightful I am, no matter how much I powder my skin, all they ever see when they look at me is -- is a Commoner.”

Denya drops a kiss onto her hair.

“It’s not fair!” Amaya wheedles. “I do everything well! I dance and I sew and I sing. I smile when they tell me to smile, I cry when they tell me to cry; but I will never make a good match. Father will have to give me to a foot soldier and be done with it!” More fat tears squeeze out of the corner of her eyes.

“It is not so awful,” Denya says awkwardly, rubbing Amaya’s back. A servant comes into the courtyard bearing the iced tea; she nods and indicates it should be placed on the table with the hyacinths. “One of us at least will make a good match and we shall look out for each other as we always do. Is that not what you always tell me?”

“But what are our chances, truly?” Amaya cries. “I look like a servant and you are too ordinary; who will ever stoop so low as to marry us?”

“Don’t be ridiculous,” Denya says. She takes Amaya’s hand and leads her over to a corner of the garden where the aloe plants grow, and where three large rocks sit atop a pile of dirt that is slightly different in colour from the rest of the plot. She looks around quickly to make sure no one has entered the courtyard, and she points. “Remember what we have buried underneath.”

Coins; as many coins as they have managed to earn from the fencing of their stolen goods over the years. If Denya closes her eyes she can picture their cool rough shapes beneath the dirt, silver and gold and brass coins growing patiently beneath the soil. Enough coins to buy two women passage to Saro-Urok, and other ventures too. Enough coins perhaps to rent a house in the lower parts of the city, to pay off a servant, to bribe a guard.

“It was your idea,” Denya says somewhat crossly. “We have always been prepared for failure.”

Amaya sniffs and wipes her nose on the back of her hand. Strings of mucus cling to her skin like spindly-legged insects. It is disgusting, is what it is, and Denya falls a bit more in love with her for it, her bratty spoilt dreaming Amaya. “Yes, yes, you are right,” Amaya finally says. “Only, I would not leave unless I had no other choice. You may have the luxury of starting another life, but I have three sisters and a pregnant mother whose futures are all riding on my marriage.”

“You have a father,” Denya reminds her.

“For what good that is,” Amaya says. She stares moodily at the soil, and then seems to make a decision. Her lips bend in a smile. “But it’s nice to think otherwise, is it not? Imagine if I had no sisters and loved no one but you! We could go anywhere. Why stop at Saro-Urok? We could sail to lands neither of us have ever heard of before and tell everyone we are sisters.” She looks at Denya from beneath her wet eyelashes. “We could be more than sisters, if we wished it.”

Denya stops breathing. Her blood feels as heavy in her veins as anchors. Amaya is smiling at her in a way she has never seen before, small and secretive and shy, if that is even possible, if it is ever at all conceivable that Amaya Tonor could be shy. Denya opens her dry mouth to speak -- you fool, she thinks, surely she cannot mean it! But then they hear Bettany’s voice coming through the door to the garden.

“We are back! Oh, and Father is angry at you, Amaya, as usual you’ve ruined everything!”

 


 

At the Royal Garon Theatre, they are performing The Hide of the Ox, and Denya’s father has bought his family tickets and allowed her to bring Amaya along. Amaya loves her for it and tells her so repeatedly. But never with the same smile she had reserved for Denya in the garden. The smile she uses now is the public smile, needling and melodramatic, manufactured to make men laugh at her absurd monologues, and Denya finds she can hardly bear to look at it.

She is jealous. This much is obvious to her. She is jealous that Amaya makes light of Denya’s love for her, and she is jealous that Amaya seems to have collected an army of beaux, each one of them eager to find an excuse to pay her court. “It is a fine evening this is proving to be!” Amaya had whispered to her early on, “and so many lovesick pockets to pick.”

Well and good, but need Amaya laugh quite so beautifully at some poor sop’s lines of poetry? He is clearly not wealthy enough to have pockets worth picking in the first place. Denya’s mother is casting Amaya concerned glances, possibly worried about Amaya gaining a reputation as a tart, and Denya is clenching her teeth, barely able to pay attention to the play, though it is one of her and Amaya’s favourites.

It is nonsense to feel like this. Amaya’s ability to make light with men is the very thing that will promise her an excellent future. When Amaya laughs, every male head in the box turns to look at her, and even Denya’s father, who does not otherwise think much of Captain Esladas’ half-Efean daughters, smiles with pleasure. It is a talent, a weapon, and surely Denya should study Amaya’s tactics so she can make use of them herself.

Instead during the intermission she snaps at the servants, is brusque with her younger brother, and scowls at a lieutenant of her father’s regiment who steps on her foot in his attempts to get to Amaya’s side. “Must you be so clumsy!” she says, and Amaya shoots her a startled look.

“He is handsome, Denya, you need not be such an ogre,” she teases.

“He is not that handsome,” Denya mutters, “and not nearly handsome enough for you.”

Amaya smiles at that, which serves to make Denya even more irritable. How could Amaya have been so despondent over her prospects earlier when every single young man in the theatre is finding a reason to speak to her? Even if not all men are good men, even if most men are not good men, there must be at least one fellow here who will be suitable to Amaya’s purposes.

“My head feels too hot,” she announces, standing from her seat. “I will take a walk.”

Her mother, thank the oracles, does not insist she take a chaperone. “Be back soon,” her mother says. “The play shall resume shortly.”

“I will,” Denya promises. She pointedly does not look at Amaya, is not sure she is able to without feeling small and ugly. She steps outside of the box and is glad for the cleaner, quieter air in the halls, where servants pass by and murmur Doma to acknowledge her presence but do not ask her questions. She watches them thoughtfully, seeing parts of Amaya in their skin, their eyes, and it makes her feel wearier than she has been in a long time, wearier than a girl her age ought to be.

“You are so stupid,” she tells herself. “So very stupid, it is hard to even fathom how stupid you are.”

“Oh hello,” says someone at her side when she is least expecting it, and Denya jumps and yelps in time to see Lieutenant Phokas dressed in his military coat, his shoes buffed to high shine.

“Ah, hello,” Denya says. “I did not know you were in attendance tonight, lieutenant.”

“Nor I, until I received an invitation at the last moment,” he says amiably, and Denya remembers enough to ask about his dogs, which pleases him. He tells her about his latest breeding project and is describing his venture to sell some of the puppies to his fellow soldiers when Amaya steps out into the hallway and sees them.

Denya knows what will happen even before it actually does. The knowledge does not allow her to stop it, however. Amaya’s eyes widen, and then she smiles and walks in a way that shows off her hips as she calls out, “Lieutenant Phokas! Lieutenant Phokas! I have been hoping that you would be here!”

Denya wants to drag Amaya down the hallway by her hair. Lieutenant Phokas is her most promising prospect for matrimony. Can Amaya not leave him be and go pander to one of her many fawning men? Denya needs this match to succeed, and has told Amaya multiple times only for Amaya to mock her for it; so it comes as an unpleasant surprise to see Amaya put her hand on Lieutenant Phokas’ shoulder and watch him stammer.

Fortunately he is called away soon enough by his sponsor, but even in that small while Denya’s anger has had enough time to curdle. “What are you doing?” she hisses. “Leave him alone!”

“Are we fighting about men now?” Amaya asks lightly, though her eyes are cold cold cold. “How amusing. I thought we had agreed long ago to never fight about men. I wonder what is different now. Is it that you are in love with him?”

“You know exactly what the matter is, and stop pretending,” Denya says. It is a foolish idea to have a fight in the hallway, so she pulls Amaya into the next box over, which is empty. She knows this because she overheard her father comment on Captain Nicanor’s absence earlier. Out on the stage the play is about to resume, and anyone looking up or across the theatre can see directly into this empty box, but Denya finds she does not care. They have moderate privacy, people are watching the stage instead, and she is furious at Amaya’s behaviour, which she has seen directed to other girls when Amaya is especially bored or mean, but never to her.

“I do know what the matter is,” Amaya says. Denya flushes. “You have been jealous all night, and it is not very attractive of you. If you want to find a man to flirt with, then go ahead and flirt with him instead of gawping at me just because I happen to be more successful.”

The hypocrisy of it is enraging. “That is exactly what I was trying to do!” Denya says. “When you so rudely tried to steal Lieutenant Phokas from under my nose.”

Amaya tosses her head. “I was only trying to show you how it is done.”

“You were deliberately trying to stop me!” Denya says. “Why would you do that? Is it not enough that I am not as pretty or as good at sweet-talking men as you? Must you take away my only chance at a decent marriage?”

Amaya’s eyes flash. Her tongue sparks. “You will have many more chances for marriage, and if I could, I would take them all away!” The moment she says it, the expression on her face tells Denya that she wishes she had not.

“Why would you do such a thing?”

“Is it not obvious?” Amaya cries.

“No! I don’t understand you at all sometimes!”

“You see?” Amaya sneers. “This is why you cannot carry on a conversation with a man. You cannot tell when someone is stumbling to their knees before you.”

“You are not -- this is not --” Denya finds that she is unable to complete the sentence. None of this makes sense. Amaya is staring at her angrily with two spots of colour high on her cheeks, her arms crossed over her chest, and Denya can see her pulse beating quickly at her throat. Something softens inside Denya, lets go of pretense. She could not have hid this forever, she thinks; there was always a time when Amaya must know, and at least this way she can be the one who tells her. “You must know,” she insists, “why I am -- jealous. Why I act the way I do.”

“Well, if you were not such a boor about it,” Amaya says, “I would tell you there is no reason for you be jealous. Ever.” She crosses her arms even more tightly over her chest and looks very young. “Why would you be jealous of what is already yours?”

Denya forgets to breathe. It does not seem important. What is more important is that her feet move, one step at a time, until she is standing in front of Amaya. Amaya does not look her in the eyes. Her chin is angled stubbornly downwards. Denya kisses her on top of her head, hesitates, and waits. When Amaya does not move, she kisses her on the cheek, on the tip of her nose. Amaya’s breath comes out as a shuddering sigh.

“If only you were a man,” she opines.

“You do not really mean that,” Denya says.

“No,” Amaya admits, and then her eyes fly upwards to meet Denya’s at last, and she is grabbing Denya by the shoulders and pulling her in for a kiss, their first kiss, hard and clumsy, and oh but Denya is so dizzy. She cannot think as she puts her hands on Amaya’s hips and searches for her mouth with her tongue, tasting the ginger candies and finger-cakes Amaya must have been eating earlier. Amaya whimpers softly as she clutches Denya even closer, and Denya moans. No, she cannot come up with any reason why thinking might be important at all.

 


 

Denya has never known sweeter seasons than those that pass with her and Amaya together. The world swims on around them. Their fathers are sent to the front lines for a time, win battles, and return. She hardly notices when she is so preoccupied thinking of what the seasons have taught her, how by turn the human body can feel languid and predatory and fierce and submissive. She and Amaya make every excuse they can to spend time together, and for the most part no one thinks twice about it. It is not so different from how they were before, only now Denya makes sure to press her lips against the soft skin of Amaya’s wrist when no one is looking, and Amaya delights in burying her hands in Denya’s hair and groaning.

The night before Lord Ottonor dies, Denya finds an excuse to have Amaya spend the night at her family’s domicile. They sit on the roof and gaze at the stars. There are no servants around, Denya’s chaperone has gone to bed, and Amaya has her head in Denya’s lap. She is humming an Efean work song she learned from her mother.

“Do you ever hate me,” Denya asks, “for being born a Patron?”

Amaya stops humming. She seems honestly astonished.

Denya continues. “What if we had both been born Commoner? Natural-born daughters of Efea. What if we were two girls who sold fish at the dockside, and that is how we met instead?”

“I suppose I would kiss you anyway,” Amaya says, “even though you would stink of fish. Such is my devotion.” She lifts herself up on one elbow. Her hair falls around her face. Denya thinks of how wasted lovely lacquer hairpins are on the likes of Lady Ligeia and wishes she could give them all to Amaya instead. “What does it matter though?” Amaya asks. “We aren’t fisherwomen and thinking so will not help us.”

“But we could be,” Denya says. “If we took the money and went across the sea.” She kisses Amaya’s hair. “But I remember what you said about your family. What if we took them with us?”

“Ha, can you imagine Bettany scrubbing pots and cleaning pans?” Amaya snorts. “We wouldn’t have enough money to be anything but paupers, and I cannot imagine subjecting my sisters to that sort of life just because I happen to like the way you look in your stockings.”

“It is hard not to be selfish,” Denya confesses.

“Very hard,” Amaya agrees. “Why do you mention this now? I can tell something is troubling you; you have that wrinkle between your eyes.” She presses her fingers to the wrinkle and smirks. “It makes you look old.”

Denya swats her hand away. “Don’t be a brat,” she says. Then she adds, haltingly, “It is only that Lord Gargaron made some remarks to my father.”

“What?” Amaya sits up straight. “Lord Gargaron? But he is so cruel and they say his last wife died suspiciously.”

“I know.” Denya looks down.

“How dare he?” Amaya rages. “How dare he even consider approaching someone as good and kind as you?”

“Shhhh,” Denya says, “shhhh, it was only a minor remark. I am not certain he meant anything by it more than idle curiosity. I doubt anything will come of it.”

“It better not,” Amaya sputters, but she rests her head on Denya's thigh once more. “I will gut him and string him out on a clothesline if he even so much as speaks to you again.”

Denya has to admit that she enjoys the mental image, but she suspects she enjoys any image that features Amaya in it. She is profoundly biased in that respect. Instead of responding she wraps her arms tighter around Amaya and pulls them down so that they are lying side by side. The stars over their heads look like drops of jewels in black water. She knows all of them by their Saroese names, but she does not know them in Efean, so Amaya tells her. Amaya names the stars until her eyelids droop and she is snoring with her mouth agape in Denya’s lap.

The night before Lord Ottonor dies, this is how they spend it: the two of them asleep on the rooftop together, entangled in each other’s arms and the warm southerly wind; and Denya dreams of ships in the harbour, sails tall and white, moored there, waiting for a sign.