Believing she would take a bad fall, Tressa managed to suppress her cry of outrage as two men pushed her roughly into the room. She even managed not to flail too inelegantly before stumbling to stay on her feet and to turn on them a look of fury before they slammed the door in her face. Tressa snarled in defiance while rubbing at her wrists. The gesture was one of annoyance more than to ease the slight soreness caused by the ropes they had used to bind her. How dare Jarnis…? Why the…woman! She… Gagggh! They’d been friends for so many years and now… Tressa wanted to punch something.
“Some friend.” A quiet, patient-sounding voice issued out of the darkness.
Tressa blinked, turned, let her eyes grow accustomed to the gloom, and then, allowing herself the privilege of a small cry, she hurried over and crouched down. Meira lay on her back, ropes securely fastened around her.
“Are you hurt?” Meira asked.
Tressa swallowed the lump that formed in her throat. Here Meira lay trussed, and her first thought was to ask if Tressa was hurt. Well, her second thought. She had sneered over Jarnis’s betrayal first, but Tressa could forgive her for that. “I am fine. Are you injured?”
“Just my pride.” Meira made that sound worse than any physical wound. “You’re sure they’ve not hurt you?”
“No. Jarnis just… Never mind that now.” Tressa shook her head, reiterating the fact that she was fine as she struggled to untie the ropes.
“Feel at the back of my neck, under my hair.”
Confused, Tressa obeyed. The warm, soft skin of Meira’s nape made Tressa aware of how cold her fingertips were. “Sorry. My hands are cold.”
“I don’t mind,” Meira said lightly enough, but something existed in her tone that caused the chill of Tressa’s fingertips to scurry up her arms and then down her torso. Beneath the dress, her nipples hardened as the icy shiver sped down.
“I do not… Oh!” At last, Tressa felt the peculiar object to which Meira must have been referring. Carefully, she drew it out of the other woman’s dress. Removing the tiny scabbard, Tressa held up a small, slender, and sharp dagger with a five-inch blade. Tressa imagined the weapon piercing someone’s heart. She even felt tempted to ask if Meira had ever used it, but decided that she didn’t truly want to know. Meira was hard on the outside, but Tressa believed in the woman’s soft core. If nothing else, Meira liked her chosen profession as that of a healer, and healers seldom desired to kill unless they absolutely needed to or out of compassion. The healer also possessed a sense of fair play. What people didn’t often get from Meira was mercy. For a healer, she had a lousy bedside manner come to that, but one could forgive her perfunctory and no-nonsense attitude if she kept you alive and healthy.
Tressa hesitated as she began to slice the ropes. She had decided she wanted this woman as a lover, but did she truly want someone capable of killing without a pang of regret? Between conversations with Markis and Meira, she had pieced together a good picture of Meira’s background, and Tressa knew that Meira had shown no mercy to a man who had once treated her ill. Having suffered such things as this woman had, perhaps she would view the world as harshly as Meira did, but even understanding the woman, did that make everything she did all right? Did the end truly justify the means, and was revenge ever a good thing?
“What’s taking you so long?”
“Nothing.” Tressa went back to slicing the ropes and refused to move away when Meira sat up, rolling her shoulders, evidently easing the tightness caused by being tethered and rendered helpless by drugs. They’d done the same things to Tressa, and then Jarnis had spent two hours talking to her once she came around. No, not talking; lecturing
her. Surely, Meira’s head was as clear by now, but it annoyed Tressa that they had left Meira tied up for so long.
“May I have my knife back?”
“What? Oh.” Tressa sheathed the dagger and handed it over, but she couldn’t seem to rise from her kneeling position on the ground. Only when she felt Meira’s gentle fingers against her face did she realise that she shed tears.
“Tell me what they did to you?”
Although there was no mistaking the underlying tenderness, something in Meira’s voice suggested that if it was bad their captors would regret it, but Tressa felt too tired to feel any anger over what Jarnis had done. Besides, as Tressa had said to her maid, even her father had never killed the messenger, and Jarnis was surely that.
“Jarnis was delivering a message. My mother does not wish to see me. She does not want me stirring up trouble.” Tressa managed to put at least some sarcasm into her voice, was even grateful to hear that she could still manage to sound annoyed even if all she felt was defeated. She had hoped for a private conference with her mother so that they could discuss long-term implications of the truce Markis had enforced between the Swithin and Azulite nations and how they could eventually use the alliance to change things for Azulite women. She had brought things with her for that purpose, proposals and gifts that she had hoped her mother would pass around.
“Jarnis means to turn us away from the city and make certain I never see the queen. The only way I can do so then will be an open audience, and Jarnis will continue to thwart any attempt I make to speak to my mother privately.” If she could not speak to her in private, there was no way Tressa could hand over the things she had brought. Tressa fisted her hands and shook her head in frustration. “I have no head for this.”
“You have to be joking. That’s not what Markis says or what I have witnessed.” Incredibly, Meira’s voice contained some laughter, a most unusual thing indeed.
“I do fine when it comes to day-to-day problems. I can handle the petitions from the people and even those grouchy old men.” She meant the Swithin council. “But changing the views of an entire nation, that is a little beyond me. I had hoped to enlist my mother’s hand in this.”
“What you seek for your people will happen in time.”
“I want it to happen now.”
“You’re sounding like a petulant child.”
Tressa started, gasping in anger.
“And you’re forgetting a very important thing.”
Tressa shook her head, not understanding.
Meira’s gaze wandered as though to take in the sight of Tressa’s face in what little light was available through cracks in the wooden walls even as her hands smoothed back Tressa’s dark hair. Tressa tried to ignore the little shivers of delight the other woman’s touch caused. “Tressa, my love,” Meira said, “your mother is scared.”
Tressa frowned in confusion, then realising that Meira might not be able fully to see her expression, she asked, “Scared?” Meira leaned forward and kissed her on the forehead, right over her frown, so maybe she could see well enough in the dim light, after all.
“You know of my background?” Meira asked. Tressa nodded. “Then you must realise that in many ways you and I have much in common. Kita train their women to serve men for two main purposes, for sex and breeding.”
Thankfully, the race was almost extinct, although Tressa felt a little twinge of guilt for feeling thankful. Somehow, she was certain that Meira felt the same way minus the guilt.
“The Azulites are a little more advanced. At least their women can talk to each other and of topics that do not solely include new ways to sexually stimulate a man.”
Tressa winced. “True. They still dictate who we should wed, when we should have sex, what we should learn.” This meant that Azulite women, for the most part, had a poor education. Tressa had overseen her own education, even stealing books or paying for them with little trinkets of jewellery that her father gave her and he would never miss. Azulite men thought that the way to an obedient woman was through threats, bribes, or a combination of the two. Throughout her life, her father had given her many gifts of frivolous things.
“I know all this,” Meira said, “and although I escaped what would have been a demoralising and abusive upbringing, I have made certain that I learned the ways of my father’s people and of why he would turn to a Swithin woman for love. It is a miracle that he broke his training, and I am proud to be my parents’ daughter and to carry their strength. I also spent time in a Kita man’s unwanted company. I understand how you feel, and I can understand how scared your mother must feel having known only one way of life.”
Tressa forced herself not to flinch. If the woman ever wanted to discuss the actual events regarding her capture by a Kita hunter, then Tressa would listen, but she would not force the issue. One thing about it bothered her, though.
“Are you interested in a relationship with a woman because of what a man did to you?”
Tressa blinked, taken by surprise. “I…do not know. I suppose that has something to do with it. However, I am used to spending time with women more than I am with men, and I confess I miss that. I do not feel that is the sole reason for my feelings.”
“Nor is it mine.”
She was pleased to hear that but wanted Meira to understand. “I was…curious, but when we met…” Her words trailed off as Meira took her hand.
“Tressa, I have had both male and female lovers. I have lived the Swithin way, and while I find a cock interesting, I take pleasure from my own touch just as well. A person’s anatomy will not dictate who I fa…” Meira’s words trailed off, and she finished by saying, “Who I eventually settle with.”
Even in the dim light, Tressa could see that a smile played about the other woman’s mouth. Despite her hesitancy, Tressa knew that the woman had been about to say a person’s anatomy would not dictate with whom she fell in love. That didn’t mean that Meira loved her, but it gave her hope, and clearly, Meira wanted an intimate relationship.
“Why, Tressa, are you blushing?”
“Of course not! You are in error due to the poor lighting in here. As to what you say about my mother, I see some sense in it now.” Tressa did, now that she thought about it, though that wasn’t why she dragged the conversation back to the topic. Some Azulite women held power. Royalty of either sex could condemn someone for treason, but what Tressa wanted to propose to her mother, the king could -- no, would
-- view as treason by the queen. She couldn’t believe she had been so shortsighted, and yet they had to start somewhere. Perhaps her mother believed that Tressa expected her to stand up and denounce men openly. She would never have done that, but she could understand if her mother believed so and… “What are you doing?”
Meira had stood up and was calmly inching her way out of her clothes. Tressa whipped her head around wildly, her gaze just as crazed as the movement, feeling ridiculous even as she checked for anyone watching. There was no one around to see Meira strip but her. Tressa couldn’t help but wonder over the sudden rush of embarrassment and trepidation that overcame her. A rustle of clothing drew her attention. When she looked back, Meira stood before her naked. Even in the dim light, she could see the paler and darker tones of Meira’s form. The effect highlighted her natural curves, formed a triangle of her throat and her sex. The darkness painted an arc of her breasts, light made a pronouncement of her nipples, leading down to the pear shape of her hard, tight stomach. For some reason, Tressa couldn’t tear her gaze away from the woman’s navel. To do so meant she would have to pay more attention to her luscious shape. Tressa admired Meira’s long legs. When younger, she had once wished for such long, sleek limbs. Now Tressa liked herself well enough not to waste time wishing for attributes that were not hers to have, for nature had been more than kind in any case. Tressa knew others desired her, but she wanted someone to desire her for more than what she saw in the mirror. Neither Markis nor Meira were people capable of finding pleasure in beauty alone.
“We cannot. Not…here.”
Meira knelt on one knee before her, then leaned closer, because even on one knee the position gave her height over Tressa’s crouched form. “I would love to carry you to a silken bed, and if destiny permits, I will do so one day soon, but we have blankets, which indicates they do not intend to disturb us for a few hours yet, and I have need of you, Tressa.”
Tressa opened her mouth to say she knew not what, but only managed to utter a small cry before Meira gathered her up in her arms.
Sharon Maria Bidwell