ELMIRYN________________________

Springtime chased dreams into her solemn march–and cerulean eyes followed a butterfly over the glades. The carriage shuddered over the bumpy road, eliciting grumbles from the silk-coat passenger who looked as though he had shit up his nose. He pulled the window of his curtain shut, and she heard the nobleman sneeze. Her lips curled up at the corners, and she wanted to crack a joke, but Saelin looked at her sideways and gave her a tense shake of the head.

Sir…please don’t!” He hissed out of the corner of his mouth. His mint green eyes were wide like a spooked deer’s.

Elmiryn glanced at him with a mild expression. They were marching side-by-side, two others following in similar fashion behind. Four more soldiers would be on the other side of the wagon, with two at the front and rear. Excessive–but it was part of the show. All of this was just part of a show.

“Private!” she cried softly. “Are you frightened of a round-assed noble?” But she said this low.

Her companion looked at her with horror. “Lieutenant, I’d very much like to be promoted, if it’s all the same to you! Your last comment turned Tiedby’s face purple. My ascension is dependent on him being safe and happy, so please–!”

“How dull,” she interjected with a click of her tongue.

“You know you could have a chance to be promoted too? Aren’t you even the least bit concerned?”

Elmiryn reached a dainty hand up to tap her chin, her brow dipping low and her lower lip pushing up as she gazed thoughtfully at the blue sky. Her companion let out a long-suffering sigh.

Nevermind, sir!” he said with a wave of his hand, but as she glanced over at him, the woman saw the corner of his lips twitch.

Elmiryn grinned and looked forward. Leading this team of glorified bodyguards was Duncan, Major to the famous Olimer, and one of Lord Westley’s most prized soldiers. He wore polished plate armor, with horned shoulder guards that came up over his ears–to protect from projectiles and high strikes from the side. He lacked a helmet, as the one issued to him was an impractical creation, closed with a grate in the front to allow for breathing and small cuts for the eyes, the dome fitted with curved horns taken from a ram and gilded with gold. If he was to aid in keeping a lookout, he couldn’t even bother with such a thing, which was something their superiors didn’t seem to understand. The chest plate was specially molded to his form, yet his hands wore heavy gauntlets that the woman imagined to be stiff and inarticulate. The shiny metal was decorated with strips of gold alloy that were made to resemble Fiamman flames–an artistic motif that Elmiryn thought simplistic yet brilliant all the same.

She and the other men, however, wore less interesting armor–actually being the body of the escort, after all. They wore a combination of things. Chainmail tunics that came down to their wrists. Over this they wore thick quilted tunics of cotton and wool that fanned out over their thighs with a triangle cut in the front to make running easy. However, this made marching a pain in the ass due to the heat, but the white and gold tunics were meant to show their loyalty to the Fiamman kingdom. They all wore standard issue leather boots, dragon hide, with brass buckles around the ankles and calfs.

The men had chainmail coifs, too, but Elmiryn, being of a higher rank under Duncan, was made to wear a coppergate helmet instead. The helmet had two cheek plates that came down to brush against her collar bone, a chainmail curtain over the base of her neck in the back, and a long nose-guard. The helmet was decorated with warm brass, which lined the edges and fanned around the sides in the usual flame design, similar to Duncan’s armor. It was a small benefit as her long hair disagreed with the coifs, and often times the metal would pinch her if she turned her head too fast.

Their mission was a simple one. Guard the noble Tiedby during his journey to Tiesmire and his property. Following behind the carriage were two canvas-covered wagons with great wheels reinforced by steel. Prized minerals, southern spices, and eastern cloths were the cargo. It was a gesture of goodwill to the King of Tiesmire (a title used with a note of derision in Fiamma–the city-state’s leader was an opportunistic businessman, not a true noble or politician.) Elmiryn had never seen King Brice, but she’d heard of his ten concubines; of his mansion that he dared to call a castle; of his personal guard, orphans taken and trained since a young age, who were notorious and feared throughout the East.

The warrior eyed the forest as they passed, knowing that their emerald treachery would soon be rid of the moment the trail rounded the bend. With time, they’d be in view of the Hellas ocean. She’d never seen it before. The company had made its way along the southern seaboard to avoid crossing through the Torreth Mountains and Ailuran lands. The southeastern tip of the Sibesonan continent was controlled by a large and powerful clan of Lycans, but the Fiamman kingdom had made a deal with the therians to allow for safe passage.

Two nights ago, the woman thought she had seen a pair of glowing eyes watching their camp from the dark of the woods, but when she went to investigate she found nothing. Each night, they heard howls in the distance. Tiedby hated it.

“These horrid flowers all in bloom, spreading their awful pollen to make me sneeze! This bumpy road and these horrid cushions that do nothing for my delicate rear. And those horrid savage monsters out there, making such a racket at night! I’ll be glad when this is over!” He’d complained.

“Sir,” Elmiryn had said with a mild tone. “The Lycans have a trade agreement with our kingdom. They will not harm us. But in that same agreement, there are rules we must abide by, which include not tampering with their forests, and staying no longer than two days in any given acre. Their howls serve the dual purpose of communicating with each other, and also, to remind us of their vigilance.” She disliked the stuffy tone she spoke in, but it was something her mother had taught her. Nobles refused to listen to you unless you sounded like a scholar or a delicate ninny. With time, Elmiryn had practiced her speech to fit somewhere between the two. Her woman’s voice permitted little else.

“I’ve no idea why we don’t just stomp the bloody beasts out…” Tiedby muttered. They were in luck, for it seemed no Lycan scouts had heard him. That didn’t mean such talk wasn’t dangerous. Duncan, being the only man of standing allowed to do so, advised Tiedby to watch his fool mouth. (Not in those literal words, but if Elmiryn could have, she would have said worse.)

Today, finally, they would be on the Eastern side of the Sibesona.

Elmiryn bumped Saelin with her elbow. “Hey. Once we arrive at Tiesmire, we’ll be floating around for atleast three days waiting for Duncan and Tiedby to handle their affairs. Why don’t we have some fun?”

Saelin looked at her, his cool mint green eyes shining with trepidation. “But…But sir, we have to check in with the local authority for a debriefing!”

“And how long do you think that will take?”

“Then after that, we’re supposed to work with the city guards! It’s a gesture of goodwill on behalf of our kingdom!”

Elmiryn threw her hands up into the air. “Oh for fuck’s sake! This whole thing is a ‘gesture of goodwill’. They won’t miss you. No offense, but you’re just a Private.”

Saelin scowled at her. “And you’re a First Lieutenant!! They’ll care if you’re gone!”

“Oh, please. You think that Duncan, our illustrious leader, is going to waste his time patrolling streets that bear no meaning to him? You think any of the others here will? Look, we’re going to do the debriefing, but as far as I know, the whole ‘make nice with the Tiesmirian government’ was strictly on the shoulders of Tiedby, who isn’t even that important in our royal courts. This whole thing is bullshit, and I’m not playing along. So are you coming or not?”

The blonde pressed his mouth with lips rolled inward so that she couldn’t see them anymore. Then he let out a rush of air that he’d been holding. “Okay…fine! But I’m not getting drunk with you again, not after last time!”

Elmiryn pouted. “Why not?”

The man’s face turned a shade of pink and he glared at her. “Because I don’t feel like fishing my underthings from the tavern cauldron again!”

The woman smiled.

“Oh fine…”
————————————————

She would never admit to anyone how much she enjoyed the night. It was cool and crisp with a lingering scintillation that harkened from the receding day. Dusk buried limitations in warm confidence, which allowed the breezy expanse of thought and feeling. Elmiryn refused to let on, even to herself, how much the starry sky filled her with wonder and fear–a delightful mix that tasted of mystery. She asserted that the heavens themselves were conquerable, and if she were patient enough, her arrows would soon pierce the veil that kept the gods hidden. These were blasphemous thoughts, and she trembled, aroused by her audacity to trail so far from society’s clearly marked paths.

Reflection turned on the nature of her life and gradual ascension she saw as a soldier. It was thanks to her father that her superiors ever gave her a try, but it was thanks to her peers that she fought so hard. Not to protect them, but herself. Sometimes Elmiryn wondered if she resented this. Her cerulean eyes blinked skyward, and she scowled at how the sky suddenly seemed to bend to her gaze–like a curved plate. If Halward wished, could he crush her? If He pushed down, could she push up?

…No, she decided, she didn’t resent her situation at all.

The combat, the oppression, the danger–it was what made her life, both in content and in substance. The woman adored fighting, adored overcoming obstacles, adored the chance and gamble that cut and hardened her, for it spoke of value. Namely that she had it. Elmiryn had something to lose, or else Life wouldn’t struggle to take away from her so. This viewpoint, though lonely in nature, was what drove her onward.

It was what made her free.

Her sword perhaps served to the benefit of the Fiamman kingdom, but Elmiryn knew its highest master rested in her heart. She saw with eyes unclouded, and while the path of honor and strength was difficult, it was hers to blaze.

Toward the main campfire, the woman saw Saelin sitting with the other men. They were eating rabbit stew, laughing about something or other. The Major stood as he responded to a question called out by one of the men.

“You want the real story? How Tiesmire got started?” He said, looking around. The men made affirmative noises, nodding their heads. Duncan shrugged. “Well I’ll give it to you then. The city, originally, was just a plot of land where thousands started to gather for international trade, throwing up tents and digging holes and shitting in bushes. Then some just started building there. It was Brice’s family, all merchant class dwarves, who strong-armed the different groups into harmony,”

Major Duncan’s deep-set muddy eyes flickered with shadows as he gazed around at the shadowy forms of his men. His gaze lingered on Elmiryn, sitting on the border into pitch black night, before he continued. “They knew nothing about large scale development or security. It hasn’t crumbled yet, partly out of luck. Brice had satyrs come in, sniffing out gold, and they told him how to bring Tiesmire out of the organized chaos it writhed in. But how much could they do? You’ll all see soon enough. You’ll see dwarves next to elves, and humans next to therians. The main roads lead toward the heart of Tiesmire, and there, at the center of it all, is the Brice mansion, which is heavily fortified. All other roads in Tiesmire are as confusing as a rat’s maze, and if you stray from the main roads, you will get lost. So my advice? Travel smart, and explore at your peril.”

At the city gates.

Elmiryn tilted her head back far as her cerulean eyes took in the thick walls–as wide as small buildings–and the heavy steel gates that loomed over them as they passed down below. The suns seared around the stone as the sky opened, and the woman turned her gaze with a squint.

“That’s where the Tiesmirian guards stay,” Saelin said to her as they passed the second arch.

“Where?”

The man pointed at the thick walls. Elmiryn stared at him. “They live in the walls?”

The blond nodded. “Yes sir. All around the perimeter.”

The woman clicked her tongue. “I wonder what it’s like to live like a rat? I guess they aren’t worried about outside forces attacking them. Sure it does good for handling internal problems, but you get an army with catapults and cannons and they’ll kiss half of their men goodbye!”

“You’re ignoring the landscape, sir. Open fields all around, and the city sits on elevated terrain. They’d see a threat coming even at night, I bet.”

“Whatever…I still say they’re like rats in the walls.”

The ground shifted beneath their feet as they walked–little more than pebbles in dirt. Elmiryn’s left the chatter alone as she became much more aware of the potential threat such a crowded street presented to their charge. The other soldiers seemed to see this too, and so closed rank and kept their hands near their weapons. Some commoners didn’t move out of the way fast enough, and the woman had to shove some of the rabble out of the way.

The city was just as Duncan had warned. A great salad bowl of cultures tossed together but no more blended than oil in water. She saw architecture she couldn’t readily name, and people so odd-looking that it even set her on edge–and how queer this was, considering she always thought of herself as open minded. Large eyes, dark skin, furry faces, long fangs, pointed ears, and hooved feet. Food that didn’t look quite right–like the critters were still alive but bleeding out all over the grill–or odd plants being dipped in hot batter–or a brightly colored dust being sprinkled over uncooked meat and served as it was. People in silken clothes, people wearing great big furs, people barely wearing anything at all it seemed. Streamers crissed and crossed her face with thin shadows overhead, while flags and banners of different clans and nations flapped in the coastal wind.

Ah, and the noise!

Elmiryn was no stranger to din and chaos, but how disorienting it all seemed! It rivaled a Fiamman festival, the way so many languages contended with each other in her ear. And it wasn’t so much the noise, or the sounds, or the smells that put her on edge…but the rudeness of it all–as though people were fighting to be heard, not caring who they tread upon, not caring…just not caring. She could ignore this selfishness on a smaller scale, like in a tavern or at a military campsite, but for it to be everywhere all at once with no reprieve?

They arrived at the gates of King Brice’s mansion and the woman was glad.

The gates were high and gilded in gold, winged muses sitting at the top; one side displayed a robed muse bearing a cornucopia of food, and the other bore a scythe. Without the aid of anyone she could see, the doors creaked open, inward, and the caravan rolled in. Elmiryn and Saelin had to press close to the carriage as the entryway seemed narrow–like it wasn’t meant for so many and so much to come in at once.

Over the tall brick walls the sounds of the city rolled in like dull waves, but it wasn’t as overwhelming now, and the woman felt the knot between her shoulders ease knowing much of the threat to Tiedby was gone.

The noble stepped out of the carriage, his jowls jiggling as he fixed his silk hat and his gray eyes glared out beneath bald eyebrows.

Elmiryn grinned as she eyed the man’s plum robes. She turned to Saelin and lifted her hand, letting it go limp at the wrist and crossing her eyes as she did so. The man knocked her side hard, but his lips pressed together hard and his eyes held mirth. A soldier behind them snickered. When the noble looked their way, the woman snapped to, her grin vanishing as she gazed back at the man with as serious an expression as she could manage. Tiedby eyed her suspiciously before he allowed himself to be distracted by the welcoming committee.

The noble swished away with them, his round backside bouncing as it went. Elmiryn was back to grinning.

Major Duncan approached them, his short, dark tan hair mussed from his helmet, which he kept balanced on his side. With him was a man dressed in dark studded leather. He didn’t look native to any part of the Sibesona, instead, more likely from the Santos kingdom. Elmiryn straightened, her grin lessening as she took in this tall newcomer. She got the sense he wasn’t to be trifled with.

“Men!” Duncan barked. “Lars, captain of King Brice’s men, will debrief us personally.”

All the soldiers gathered, forming two neat lines next to the caravan. Behind them, Elmiryn could hear servants taking the wagons to storage. Lars jerked with his head. “Follow me,” he said, lacking the accent the woman expected. His expression seemed bored as he led them, with Duncan at front, to an off-shoot of the mansion.

Inside the cottage-like building, the man were cramped, and all were forced to pull out their scabbards from their belts so that they could be gripped in hand and not knock anyone’s legs or chairs. Elmiryn sat near the back, and with a rough tug of suggestion, so did Saelin.

The room fell quiet relatively quickly as Lars took his place before them. He cleared his throat. “First I want to thank you all for being here. You have the respect and appreciation of the Tiesmirian government and the personal gratitude of King Brice,” But even as he said all this there was a knowing look in his eyes, as though he didn’t care nor expect any one of them to remain long once the debriefing was done. As such, the man didn’t bother taking much time. They were instructed not to admit to anything beyond Tiedby’s presence, or their Fiamman origin. They were prohibited from making comment on the Fiamman-Ailuran war, or whether Tiesmire was in any way going to become involved. They could not make comment regarding Tiedby’s noble standing, nor could they comment on Tiesmirian politics.

In short, they couldn’t say a damn thing.

Lars dismissed them with hands behind his back, Duncan coming out of his glazed stare to stand at his side. The Major instructed them to report back to him at “the earliest convenience” to help with local patrols.

As they shuffled out of the building, Saelin looked at Elmiryn in confusion. “At the earliest convenience? That isn’t very specific!”

The woman threw an arm around his shoulders. “That’s the point.” The men were lead by guards of the estate to the servant gate back to the city. She gestured at them with a curled lip. “They don’t want us around, really. We cramp their style, and they can’t match ours. So tonight, we have some fun! We’ve done our share of the work!”

————————————————

It became a race to find a decent place to hole up in. There were taverns featuring tits, and taverns filled with tits. There were belly dancers, and men singing songs, and women with blades. There were Satyrs who smoked sitting on barrels, and Elves playing mandolins and panpipes. There were card games and dice games with money and sex as prizes. There were hundreds of drinks–mixed or pure. There were places that were run down, and places that were expensive. The shifting road seemed to bare them all these possibilities.

But Elmiryn stopped only for The Howling Goblin.

It was a tavern located in the northwestern part of the city, far from the mass of noise and bodies that streamed along the main roads. It was a sturdy brick building with a thatched roof, with large low windows and no visible guards to impede on the fun. When they entered, the smell that hit the woman’s senses was warm and heady–sweat and ale and seasoned steak. She breathed this in deeply and felt at ease.

From the outside, the woman judged there to be three floors. The first floor had a high ceiling and there were long heavy tables that stretched across the room, like a lodge. The bar was average enough, save for the collection of liquor that decorated the entire wall behind it. A large torch wheel hung from the ceiling, lighting the room, with small candles giving a more personal glow. The crowd was diverse, yet the tavern wasn’t cramped–a good sign as this meant they likely had rooms available for the night.

Elmiryn turned to Saelin with a satisfied grin. She gestured in front of them with the hand that held her helmet. “This looks like a great place. And just in time too! I think the curfew is about to set in.”

The man nodded, but his expression was reserved. His coif was pulled off and hung over the back of his tunic limp, leaving his sun bleached hair matted down and sticking up at the back. “It seems fine, sir.”

There was no one to check their weapons, and none came forward to show them to their seats–a notable difference from the other taverns that Elmiryn liked just fine. She and Saelin crossed the main floor, eyes following their unhurried walk to the end of the table opposite of the bar. Drunken conversations floated to them, smelling of ale. The woman saw a dwarf eyeing her and returned the stare without pause. He turned away, mumbling to his friends.

Given their armor, Elmiryn figured attention wouldn’t be hard to find. Sure enough, once they took their seat on the bench, a dark-haired man with a dusty lined face came to sit across from them.

“Fiammans, eh?” He said brushing his chin.

“No,” Elmiryn said with a shake of her head. She smiled at the man and held up her helmet. “We’re soulless golems, clearly!”

The man blinked at him, then turned to look down the table, where the dwarf that had been staring and atleast two other men stared back. Then he turned to the woman and chuckled.

He held out his hand. “Meh name’s Soot. I work the smithy down the road.” He jerked his head to the others. “Them’s meh friends. Oster’s the dwarf, Galic is the one with the buck teeth, and Willy is the darkie.” Soot leaned forward and whispered confidentially behind a gnarled, dirty hand, “His name ain’t really Willy. He’s from Fanaea, but none here kin pronounce his name fer shit, Halward help the boy–so we’s given him a proper name.”

Elmiryn looked at the man, his companions, then at Saelin. The Private looked at her with raised eyebrows. The woman grinned and placed a hand over her heart. “I’m Elmiryn. This is Saelin.” She turned and bellowed toward the bar, where the tavern master looked up with a start. “And I want a round for us and our new friends!!”

The men cheered.

The night went well enough. The tavern hall cleared as patrons either retired for the night or left to return home before curfew. Elmiryn, Saelin, and their new drinking buddies, however, went on conversing.

The conversation topics were kept light, mostly by the Private’s efforts. They didn’t discuss politics, nor the Fiamman-Ailuran war, which was no small feat because Oster was quite pushy about it. Instead, the conversation fell on Tiesmire’s diversity and how it started.

“It’s fine, I suppose,” Elmiryn said with a shrug. “But fuck me, it’s a zoo out there! I like how this place seems so much more together.” She took a deep drink of her mead, then slammed the goblet down onto the table. She swiped at her mouth with a satisfied sigh, then gestured toward the street with a jerk of her chin. “I see barbarism out there–dirt and slime rutting on streets that are of dwarven make. Humans sit in towers, apart from the fuckin’ noise, and it’s a good thing too–I’d hate to be patrolling this place! It’d be so easy to miss something, and it’s so easy to get bowled over. Omatts trying to jump on your back, therians nipping your ankles, ogres shaking you down for coin, and goblins trying to rip off whatever you’ve got left–I’d rather wrestle with a shaggip then deal with that every day.” She held up a goblet. “Here’s to the poor bastards who do!”

The men mirrored her action, and they each took a drink. Oster, a forgettable man with dark eyes and ashy hair, frowned at Elmiryn. “What’s a shaggip, though?”

“A wild ogre from the Indabe. They’ve got sticky hair that move like limbs to grab and trap you.” Saelin clarified, at the men’s confused looks. “She’s never seen one, but she likes to pretend she has.”

“I did see one!” the woman argued, turning to the man with a furrowed brow. “Don’t you remember the adventuring troupe that came to Engus? They brought a shaggip for the arena last year!”

“I don’t remember that at all,” Saelin sighed as though he weren’t very concerned about the matter. He looked sadly at his empty goblet.

Elmiryn rolled her eyes with crooked smile. “At any rate, I’d rather fight one of those then be forced into the company of so many assholes for so long. Don’t get me wrong. Tiesmire has it’s good points–but I’ll be glad when we’re marching home.”

“Sir, it isn’t that bad,” Saelin said, his fist planted in his cheek, which was sliding up. “You speak as though you’ve lived here long. At any rate, I saw you eyeing the halflings in the brothel we saw on the way here. What was the name of it?”

“Madame Eros House of Heaven!” Galic burped, sloshing his drink as he lifted up his goblet. Willy knocked him hard in the ribs, glaring at his now-wet sleeve then back at his buck-toothed companion.

Soot laughed at the man. “Ha! You could walk there in your sleep, you dog.”

Elmiryn shrugged again, but this time only one shoulder. The movement made her slump to the side and she bumped against Saelin, who started to chuckle for no reason. Her body felt heavy, and her skin was warm. It was a shame there wasn’t any there to share the night with–all the beautiful women had gone. But it was fine enough, she supposed, just being able to rest her swollen feet.

“They’re half human. That doesn’t count,” she half-mumbled through a smile.

The Private burped loudly in reply, and the woman set to giggling.

The hour turned and the others retired to their beds. Elmiryn stayed in the hall, even after the tavern master extinguished all the candles and torches, leaving her with the moonlight from the windows. He didn’t have the gall to force her to her room, but he had just enough to strongly suggest the idea. It didn’t matter, really. She had her key for her room that night. The woman stared at it, turning it in her fingers as she sucked down the last of her mead. When tilting her head back as far as it could go produced no more drink, the Lieutenant decided that perhaps it was time for sleep.

Elmiryn stood and swayed, both hands planted on the table for support. She stepped over the bench, the tip of her boot catching and making her lose her balance for a moment. She caught herself, giggling. Then, with slow, swerving steps, the woman made her way to the stairs. Once at the second floor, she tried to move as quietly as possible with moderate success. She was nearly at the second flight of stairs (her room was on the third floor) but stopped when she heard a familiar laugh come from the door on her left.

The woman stopped and frowned. She stepped closer and pressed her ear to the door, hands on the frame to keep from face planting into the wood.

She heard Saelin’s voice.

Down on your knees.

Elmiryn’s eyes fluttered. Slowly she kneeled down because her legs were unsteady and she felt tired, but the parallel wasn’t lost on her. She held her breath as Saelin spoke again.

Slower…Slower, I said! I want to feel the back of your throat.

At this the woman’s eyebrows went high. What came next was a mixture of unintelligible moans and whispers. She hadn’t realized the Private had found a wench to spend the night with, but gods! The redhead snickered, a surprised smile on her face as she listened to the lovemaking through the door. How assertive Saelin was in bed! She turned and leaned against the wall next to the door, her eyes turning lidded at the sounds of a squeaking bed frame and loud gasping.

Then before she knew it, Elmiryn fell asleep.

————————————————

Usually, when the redhead woke, it was with a gradual consciousness. Information would trickle in, bit by bit, and the woman was reminded of reality and her place in it. But there was nothing gradual with how she was awoken this time.

She felt pain at her legs, and her eyes snapped open, bleary at first, but it only took a second to realize where she was. Her hands had come up, curled as fists, and the woman sucked in breath as she sat up. She was still in the hallway, still next to Saelin’s door, only now–

–Now there was a black man draped over her legs.

Elmiryn stared at him, sleepy confusion falling away as she put together the pieces. Willy, Soot’s friend, stared at her in horror, his dark face taking on a warm shade as he blushed. He was bare-chested, with his shirt and shoes bundled in his arms. The woman blinked at him, then turned her head to look toward the door. Saelin stared down at her, pale as a sheet, his jaw loose.

“First Lieutenant…” He said weakly.

Willy gathered himself up, bowing and muttering apologies that were flavored in his Fanaean accent, then he turned and bolted up the stairs. Elmiryn rubbed at her eyes roughly. Judging by the sting of her eyelids, it was still fairly early. She dropped her hands and stared up at Saelin with a frown. The Private ran a hand through his light blonde hair, his green eyes wide and misty. “…Sir, if you’ll let me explain–!”

The woman held up a hand and stood to her feet. She gestured towards the man’s room. “In there,” she said tersely.

They entered his room, and the man shut the door behind them. It was a simple room, small and furnished only with a bed and a small dresser. The window looking out onto the street was covered with a curtain. Elmiryn’s nose flared at the smell of sex in the air.

She turned to her companion. “You son of a bitch,” she said in a low voice. Her fists curled at her sides.

Saelin started to tremble, he held his hands in front of him. “Wait!”

“You fucking bastard!” Elmiryn launched toward him.

The Private flinched and stumbled backward, as though meaning to fall to the floor in a fetal position. His arms flew around his head and he turned away.

The woman hugged him and squeezed tightly. “Why didn’t you tell me!?”

Saelin continued to tremble, but after a moment, his arms came away from his head, and he blinked at her with eyelashes clumped by tears. “Wha–ah–that is to say…p-pardon!?”

Elmiryn shook him with a large smile. “I said why didn’t you tell me before?”

The man shrugged weakly. “I…” he straightened, and the woman let go of him. “Sir…I just thought–I mean–you come from such a powerful family–”

“And in all the time you’ve known me this meant what, exactly?”

“And, well, you’re a redhead.” Saelin finished lamely. He gestured at her hair. “I always thought…I mean it’s different for you.”

Elmiryn raised an eyebrow at him.  She paced a few steps in front of him, her eyes narrowing a degree as she let her initial annoyance pass.  She hated when people brought this up.  “I know Fiammans believe in the story of Diokles and his horny redheaded descendants, but do you think this makes people any less uncomfortable around me?”  She stopped and glared at her companion.  “I had to fight to become a First Lieutenant, and I imagine I’ll have to fight even more if I ever hope to advance in rank. The only real reason people seem to accept me is that they believe I’ll someday get married. To a man. I’d just as soon fall on my own sword!”

Saelin looked down at the floor at his bare feet, pink around the toes. He scratched at his cheek and looked at Elmiryn shyly. “So…you don’t like men…at all?”

“No. Not at all,” the woman said. The woman let a mischievous smile play across her face. “Why? Were you thinking of laying with me?”

The Private went cherry red and shook his head emphatically.

Her smile turned into a hook.  “Oh? I’m not good enough for you, Private?”

Saelin ran his hands through his hair. His eyes were watery and he tried to force his mouth to speak. “I–Sir, that isn’t what I meant–!”

Elmiryn took the man by the shoulders, chuckling. “Relax!  I was teasing you. In fact, I think you’re feelings are exactly why I…” her voice trailed away.  Her hands flexed on the man’s shoulders and she frowned.

The man gazed at her apprehensively.

The redhead cleared her throat and stepped back.  Her fingers trailed Saelin’s skin and they tingled a little.  She squeezed her hands to fists to make the sensation go away.  “Anyway, you have to learn to trust me, Private. You should’ve known I wouldn’t have had a problem with your preferences. Heaven knows, mine are hardly accepted, even given my preferential treatment.”

“I’m…sorry, Sir. But…we haven’t discussed anything quite so personal before. I had no way of knowing.”

The woman sucked at her teeth. Then she shrugged and looked down at the floor. “I’spose not.” Elmiryn looked at the man again, without lifting her head. “…You really think this is weird?”

Saelin shook his head, his mint green eyes holding incredulity. “How else am I supposed to feel? My closest superior just found out my deepest secret. There aren’t words for such a thing!”

The woman placed her hands on her hips and grinned. “Then I’ll give it words. For the both of us. This is really fucking bizarre! …Yet we’re fine.”  Her grin started to slip and the woman forced it to stay, giving it a fixed look.  “We’re fine,” she asserted.

Saelin didn’t reciprocate her attitude.  He just moved to his bed and sat down heavily, wiping at his eyes and sniffing now and again.

The woman turned somber. She gestured between them. “Saelin, we’ve guarded each others backs since our first training day together. You’ve been an excellent comrade. This means you can eat off my plate without my killing you. You don’t have to call me ‘sir’ when other soldiers aren’t around. You can even tell me you’re a homo! Rank be damned, you’re the one I can trust. Do you not trust me, Private?”

The man stiffened and scowled, as though offended at the idea of the contrary. “Of course I do!” he snapped.

“So then relax, and know that your secret is safe with me.  I know what would happen to you if our superiors found out–hell, if our peers found out–so I won’t let that happen.  Alright?”

“Alright…” he looked up at her and smiled weakly.  “Thank you, sir.”

“Saelin, we aren’t in the company of the other soldiers.  Call me by my name.”

The man faltered.  “Um…”

Elmiryn smirked. “Well?”

Saelin blinked and rubbed his neck. “But calling you by your name wouldn’t feel right!”

“Go on, try it.”

He bit his lip and squinted his eyes, as though contemplating it. Then he opened his mouth. “…El…mi…miryn.”

Elmiryn rubbed her brow, and shook her head. She spoke in a slow humoring voice, like a nanny to a child. “Goo-od…now say it like you aren’t a simpleton!”

He gave her a dry look. “Elmiryn.”

The woman clapped her hands together slow as she nodded in approval. “Fantastic!”

“Sir, if it’s all the same to you, I think I’ll stick to the honorifics.”

“Fine, if it pleases you. Oh…I’m sorry, I’d have to get on my knees for that, right?”

The man closed his eyes, a suffering expression on his face. He pointed toward the door. “Out, sir!”

————————————————

Morning.

Elmiryn woke with a jerk, her mouth like cotton and her back sore. She rolled over and felt her head throb just a bit from the light. Hangovers weren’t a frequent occurrence in her life, but she loathed them just the same. Eyes still swollen from sleep, the redhead gazed about her small empty room. There was a draft coming from the window. She grit her teeth as she shifted from it, and she eyed the light coming from the crack beneath her door. Shadows passed it, voices floating through the walls, and the woman felt…

Spread apart. Picked apart. Far apart from…

Everything.

Elmiryn grudgingly admitted she was jealous of Saelin’s ability to find company for the night. She thought of the light-haired soldier, gazing at her with fear. Why did he think she’d shun him. Why didn’t he trust her? The woman, her mind still storming, rose from the bed wearing only her tunic, and pulled on her pants. She tied her hair back with a bit of string, so that it hung in a low ponytail. She left the metal armor in the room, but took her sword, and locked the door.

Downstairs, she saw Willy, and the man stood, his eyes on her like she were a predator on the hunt. He was guant-looking, with a pronounced brow bone and a wide nose. His skin was a deep, deep brown–almost ruddy in nature. His black hair was kinked and short, his limbs wiry but his chest broad and showing small black curly hairs on the sternum. She didn’t find this very attractive, and she was baffled as to how Saelin would find this even remotely desirable, but Elmiryn went to him anyway.

“Have you seen Private Saelin?” She asked.

Willy shook his head, his brow bunched and his dark skin shiny with sweat. When he spoke, it was with a thick accent. “N-no, miss. I don’t know where he is.”

Elmiryn nodded and turned to leave, but paused to look back at the man.

“What’s your real name, anyway?” she asked.

Willy blinked at her. Then pointed at himself. “Onye-Ka-Chukwu.”

Elmiryn stared at him, waiting for him to tell her what that meant. The man remained silent, staring apprehensively back at her. Then she realized she didn’t care enough to hear about it, and resumed walking.

“I think I like Willy better,” she said without looking back.

————————————————

The woman stepped through roads, her dragon hide boots clicking along tiles before poverty tore at her surroundings and made her path to dirt and pebbles again. Slowly, she went–the morning suns heating her flushed skin. Fire was eating her from within. She pressed the heel of her palm into her eye and paused to vomit at the side of the road.

At first, she thought she were searching for Saelin. But this lie was discarded quickly, and she felt cross with herself for even bothering with it. The suns rose high overhead, signifying noon. Elmiryn squinted her eyes as she gazed up at them.

When her feet stopped, she realized she had stopped in front of Madame Eros House of Heaven. The redhead stared up at the sign. The building was a two-story, the facade painted blue, and the windows were small and all were closed with curtains. She could smell pumpkin spice and roses drifting from the open doorway. Elmiryn quirked her eyebrow, but turned as though she meant to leave.

“How easily dissuaded you are! I haven’t even delivered my pitch yet!”

The redhead paused and turned her head.

A petite girl with sharp yellow eyes and long braided black hair smiled at her. She wore a thin cotton dress with piece of jute twin around her waist where the fabric bunched then fanned out. She was barefoot, with dark flowery designs painted onto her skin. These designs were also on her hands, which she used to beckon Elmiryn closer.

Smirking, the redhead came near, a hand on her hip. “You’re going to proposition me?”

The girl mirrored her smirk. “Do you want me to?”

Elmiryn’s eyebrows rose high and she rubbed the back of her neck. Her eyes flickered to the girl’s ears and noted the bump at the tips. “You’re a halfling,” she said, crossing her arms over her chest.

The girl laughed. “Yes, I am! Very astute of you.”

The dark-haired beauty leaned on the door frame as two of her peers exited from the building, flowers in their hair. They batted their eyes at Elmiryn as they passed, and the woman followed them with her eyes. She looked back to the youth before her.

She tilted her head to the side. “So if you’re not going to proposition me, then why should I pay you any mind? Isn’t this the point of your job?”

The girl shrugged, playing with the ends of her hair. “If you see only that, then your view is limited isn’t it? I don’t offer just bodily pleasure, though that is one thing I can offer. Only…you aren’t really looking for that, are you?”

Elmiryn blinked at the girl. “I don’t understand.”

“Come in. Let’s have tea. Speak your mind.” The girl didn’t pause as she took the woman’s hand and pulled her in. And the woman didn’t fight her either.

They entered a warmly lit room where a few sofa chairs were arranged against the walls. There was a man sitting with a human girl on his lap, and they were both giggling about something. There was a guard standing near the door that lead to the back rooms, and he eyed Elmiryn with surprise and possible disgust. Behind the high counter, a child looking no older than twelve handed the halfling a key. The youth took it without a word, and with a look over her shoulder, led the woman past the guard and through the door.

The back hallway was an L-shape, and was wide, allowing for wooden chairs outside of each room. They took a left down the hallway, and as they passed the doors, the redhead could hear dubious sounds coming from inside the rooms.

Elmiryn tugged on the halflings hand. “How much will this adventure cost me, little thing?”

The youth stopped at a door in the middle of the hallway. She unlocked it and pushed in without answering the woman’s question. Inside, the woman noted the four glass lamps in each corner of the room. They ascended in height so that one was near her waist, whilst the tallest was nearer to the ceiling. The flames flickered behind curved glass, the bottoms being curved reflective bowls that carried the light upward…

“These are Fiamman lamps.” The woman noted with surprise.

The halfling girl smiled as she let go of the woman and sat at the foot of the bed. The bed itself was large enough to fit two people, but a tad short length-wise. Then again, this wasn’t a place where people were expected to stay long.

“Sit here, next to me,” the youth said, patting the spot next to her.

Elmiryn crossed her arms again. “You didn’t tell me what this would cost. I owe nothing as I haven’t agreed to anything.”

The girl sighed and played with the hem of her skirt, her pretty hawk eyes flashing in the warm light. “Fifteen silver for fifteen minutes. Three gold for thirty minutes. Five gold for an hour.” She droned this, as though she’d said it a thousand times.

The woman nodded. She uncrossed her arms and sat next to the halfling, her long hair brushing the back of her arm. “You haven’t told me your name yet.”

“Eris,” the girl said, eyes still turned toward her lap.

“My name’s Elmiryn.” She took the girl’s chin and turned it toward her. “How old are you, Eris?”

Eris stared unblinkingly into the woman’s eyes, and the fire illuminated sharp highlights and muddy parallels in her complex gaze. “Old enough to understand a woman’s need to talk.”

“I thought you wanted to talk to me about something?”

“What have I got to talk about? ‘I laid on my back all day yesterday and counted the cracks in the ceiling. Oh, and I did the exact same thing the day before!’ Awfully boring.”

“Do you normally speak this way?”

Here the girl let loose a dazzling smile. “Never.”

Elmiryn sat back onto her hands and laughed. She covered her mouth as it occurred to her that making too much noise may be bad, so she took deep breaths to calm herself. Then she gestured around the room. “So this was your master plan? Get me into this place to remind me of home, then act charming and hope I’ll just relax and not notice?”

Eris shrugged and sat back onto her hands as well. She kicked her feet and her smile turned into a hook. “Is it working?’

The woman mirrored the expression. “Possibly.” Her eyes flickered to the girl’s feet. She pointed at them, then at her hands. “Those markings you have. What are they for?”

“Oh. These?” Eris paused and held up one foot so that they could look at the top of it. The dancing light made the designs seem like they were moving. “They’re for customers.”

“What do they tell them?”

Eris smile faded. “It lets them know if we’ve been taken that day. Some customers are so particular, they want to be the first to have lain with a girl. It has nothing to do with virginity just–”

“It makes them feel valued. Like they could keep up the illusion that a girl was waiting just for them.”

“Yes, exactly. They purposefully smear the paint. It’s the only opportunity they have to leave any sort of mark on us. They aren’t allowed to bite.”

“Ah. And what of the girl out front? She looks far too young to be here.”

“That’s a daughter of one of the women here. Madame Eros let her stay. I think she’s meaning to groom the girl to be one of her prize companions–possibly to be offered up to King Brice.”

Elmiryn pursed her lips. “And you? How did you end up here, if I might ask?”

Eris frowned. “I’m certain you have your ideas. How do you think I ended up here?”

The woman leaned forward again and rubbed her chin. “Your parents were compelled by a debt, to forfeit you.”

The halfling giggled. “Aha! I knew it!”

Elmiryn looked at her, confused. “What?”

“You Fiammans think so alike! I behave out of the ordinary, and your first thought is that it was beyond my power to refuse this life!” Eris shook her head and fell back onto the bed, and the low neck of her dress shifted to show the soft flesh of her breast. The woman turned her head and smirked at the girl, her eyes not missing this detail.

“Did I offend you?” the woman asked.

The youth looked at her, then grinned. “No. That’s fine. You just didn’t know. Everyone on this planet needs a way to react to something new and mysterious if they want to keep from getting overwhelmed. I imagine you’ve been doing that since you’ve arrived here. What do you think of Tiesmire?”

The woman’s smirk wiped from her face, and she turned her head away. “Your walls are too high, and your gates are too small…that’s what I think.”

She heard and felt Eris shift on the bed–a sigh on the quilted blanket, and the woman closed her eyes at the feel of the girl running her fingers down her back. “I’m afraid I don’t understand what you mean,” the youth said.

Elmiryn clenched her jaw and tried to sort her thoughts out. When she spoke, it was through tight lips. “There’s too much,” she sighed and rubbed at her face. “Too many different things, different people. And none of them care or respect who or what you are. They’re just…rushing by to do their errands or gods know what. All pushing, all shouting, all running.” The woman turned and stared at a lamp in the corner. Her eyes teared from the bright light. “Everyone’s out for themselves. I understand that much of life. I do it all the time. Only…”

“It’s as though the world doesn’t acknowledge you as anything more than something to brush by,” Eris breathed, her fingers pausing on the woman’s back.

The woman nodded, closing her eyes. “And because you aren’t acknowledged, you cannot contend. And if you cannot contend, you’re just a spectator. But why should I want the respect and attention of the rabble outside? Those people are so different from me, so apart from anything I’ve ever known. I should trust in the things that are mine and familiar, right?” Elmiryn rubbed her brow as her mind flickered with images of Saelin. “But…what if those things turn out to be more distant than close? Foreign and unattainable?”

The youth said and sat up. She scooted behind the redhead and took hold of her shoulders, gently kneading the muscles. The woman relaxed somewhat, but her frown deepened. “Well?” she pressed, turning her head to look at the girl from the corner of her eye.

Eris shrugged, her expression mild. “I told you before. It’s fine to have your initial ideas, some way to cope with things unknown. But if the shield is too heavy and blocks your sight, why keep using it?” She took hold of a lock of Elmiryn’s hair. “Can I braid it?” she asked. “I haven’t got a comb, but your hair doesn’t seem to need it. It’s very easy to part.”

The woman nodded once, and the girl undid the tie. Eris worked very gently behind her, and Elmiryn mulled over the girl’s words. At the time, she had been positive and supportive of Saelin, despite a quiet feeling deep down that bothered her. She knew, in a way, that what she was feeling was silly, and could easily be done away with…if only she wished to. But did she? Could she accept that not all the world wanted to play the audience, but rather, be the spectacle themselves? Could she accept that not all roads were open for her boots to tread?

Before she knew it, Eris patted Elmiryn’s shoulders. “Done!” she chirped.

The woman stood and pulled the braid over her shoulder. It wasn’t perfect, but considering what the girl had to work with, it was impressive. She ran her fingers over the work and quirked her eyebrow. The style required more effort from the woman, but it meant her hair would stay out of her way in battle and wouldn’t snag as much on her armor. She made a note to learn how to do the braid herself in the future.

Elmiryn looked at Eris and smiled. “Thank you.” She reached for the coin pouch looped onto her belt, and the girl placed a hand on her arm.

“You don’t give it to me. You give it to the girl at the front,” she said.

The redhead looked at her, then gently pulled the girl’s hand away. “Okay.” She resumed untying the pouch and pulled out a gold coin. Eris blinked up at her, her brow furrowed. Elmiryn took the girl’s hand and placed the coin in her palm. She curled her hand over it and leaned down to plant a kiss at the girl’s forehead. “Goodbye,” she murmured.

The woman walked to the door, her hand on the doorknob. She didn’t turn it. She felt annoyed with herself. Conflicted even. She disliked this. Heat and desire was a demon coiled within her, and Elmiryn would’ve been more than willing to pay the extra coin just to lay with Eris a while. But after their short conversation…it no longer seemed right.

…And this really annoyed her, because she was horny.

Grumbling, the woman left the room and proceeded back out to the front, where she paid a gold coin and three silver (apparently a minute cost a silver each). She left, rejecting the idea of finding a new wench to pass the time with. Elmiryn wondered if meeting Eris had been a good idea, as now she felt so emotionally keyed. Sentimentality prevented her to even consider the possibility of finding fun elsewhere, so the woman decided to return to the Howling Goblin.

There, she found Saelin at last.

“There you are!” They both cried in unison.

Elmiryn went to sit next to the man at the middle table, near to the entrance. She clapped him on the back and eyed his plate of lamb’s leg and sourdough hungrily.

“Sir, I was worried! I’d thought you’d gotten lost in the city!” he said around a mouth full of food.

The woman snatched up his bread and took a large bite of it. After a moment of chewing, Elmiryn spoke around her food too. “You think I’d go wandering around until I got lost?”

The man smirked at her, and the woman hit his arm hard.

Saelin took a drink from his goblet and frowned at her. “But really, where were you, if I may ask?”

The woman shrugged. “Madame Eros House of Heaven. Doing the last thing I thought I’d ever do.”

The Private stared at her, not following. Then his eyes grew big and his face went slack. “…You were with a man!?”

Elmiryn punched him again. “Smart ass. I was talking. With this really young halfling girl.”

“…She wasn’t pretty?”

The woman had taken to staring ahead, and looked at the man with a start. “Huh?”

“I asked if she wasn’t pretty.”

“What? Yes. Gods, yes! She was gorgeous. Exotic even.”

Saelin blinked and looked at his goblet as though checking how much he’d had. Then he looked at Elmiryn with squinted eyes. “And…you just talked to her?”

The redhead’s smile was not far from a grit. “Saelin. If you thought the last two punches hurt, just wait for this third one!”

The man held his hands up. “I’m sorry sir!” For a moment the woman thought he was serious, but then the man grinned. “…Only, you have to admit, it sounds like you’ve been drinking enchanted potions. Have you, sir? You know you can tell me anything.”

Elmiryn smiled and took another bite of the man’s bread. “Wow, you really are a smart ass.”

They spent the day, speaking with the locals, drinking, and eating. Elmiryn still felt odd, as though she were fighting off a head cold, but she ignored it in favor of doing a jig to a dwarf’s fiddle. As the suns crawled across the sky, she and Saelin met a Talmorian sailor named Piccolo who’d lost his arm fighting mermen off the Kilemare coast. They also met an Indaban dancer named Gati, who did a special dance at Elmiryn’s request. The woman tried to persuade the dancer to stay the night, but the Indaban was strong-willed as much as flirty. Later they met three Satyrs by the names of Vick, Joel, and Ian, who were “traveling west in search of Lekeid.”

“Good gold there!” They chorused.

Elmiryn liked the Satyrs best. They bought her and Saelin drinks, and by the time evening came, the woman was quite giggly.

It was after her fourth drink that a shadow loomed over she and Saelin, and the woman looked up to find a broad man, average height, staring down at them. He had long, warm brown hair and tanned ruddy skin. His face was round and his nose pronounced, giving him an animalistic look. A therian. Judging by the light color of his eyes…what was the word again?  Something starting with an “A”….an…Avian. Yes…yes, yes. What else could he be with a nose like that?  It was hooked…wasn’t it?

“S’cuse me,” He rumbled, pointing at their seats.

Elmiryn turned and exchanged a look with her companion. The man’s mint green eyes were wide and his eyebrows high. “Sir…?”

The woman looked back at the man. “Yes?” she said sweetly.

“You’re in my spot,” the man said, leaning down, his body bunching.

Your spot?” the woman looked at where she sat, then looked up again. “What do you mean your spot?”

The man came closer, leaning on the table so that he was practically hovering over the woman.  His eyes narrowed.  “I’ve been comin’ here ten years.  This here’s my spot.

Saelin bumped Elmiryn in the ribs. “Sir? Can we not–?” The woman shushed him.

The woman stood, swaying a bit. She touched a hand to her chest. “Tell you what…Let’s have a drinking match. If I can drink you under the table, you cover me and my friend’s tab. If you win, I move, and pay for your expenses tonight.”

The man stared at her, stony face. Then grinned. “Okay, human.”

The woman nodded and shouted toward the bar. “Two drinks here!”

Saelin stood and whispered harshly in her ear, “Sir, you’ve already had four drinks!  This isn’t some watery swill, these drinks are strong.  That, and he’s a gods damned therian. I think he’s an–”

“An Avian, right? They’re bird-men. They can’t drink much at all.”

“But–”

“Not now, Saelin! Just be a good partner and back me up, would you? We could get away with a free stay here tonight!”

The man groaned and pressed a hand to his head. Elmiryn sat down again, and the newcomer sat across from them. Their goblets were placed before them, and a small crowd gathered, laughing and cheering. The woman took her goblet and the man mirrored her.

“I’m Elmiryn,” she said.

“And I’m your biggest mistake,” the man said, smiling fiercely. Then he threw his head back and sucked down his drink in less than a minute.

Elmiryn blinked, shrugged, and did the same.

Next round.

“Okay, really. What’s your name?”

“Sol. My name’s Sol. Shut up and drink.”

Third round.

“Sol…Sol, like sun?”

“Yes. Like sun.”

“Oh.”

Fourth round.

“Y’know, I don’t know what my name stands for. ‘Elmiryn’. What does that mean. What do I mean?  Ailurans pay attention to that shit, why can’t Fiammans!?”

“…You’re still talking?”

Fifth round.

Her face against the table. Faces swimming around her. She managed to recognize Soot, Willy, Ian, Piccolo, Oster, and Galic. She grinned stupidly at them, waving a hand. “It’s fine! I’m fine.” She felt hands at her back trying to force her upright. She knocked them away. “Saelin, ger’rof, ah’said m’fine!”

Sol just chuckled before he drained his goblet.

Sixth round.

Elmiryn saw the cup placed before her before she fell backward onto the floor. Everything went black.

——————–

The woman opened her eyes and moaned. Her head was pounding, and her stomach felt swollen and sore. She tried to roll over and winced at how much her body protested the movement, how the shaft of light from the window lanced her eyes, and how the smell of the bed made her feel ill. The intimate brush of the blankets told her she was naked. Elmiryn covered her head, then peeked through the cracks between her arms. She was back in her room. And sitting next to her was…

“Saelin…?” she croaked.

The man looked up, his eyes tired and bloodshot. He was wearing his tunic–now a bit wrinkled and sporting a grease stain on the breast. He smiled weakly at her. “Morning.”

The woman closed her eyes, trying to will the pain away. “Wha…happened?” even speaking made her feel nauseous, so she didn’t bother speaking above a mumble.

Saelin reached over and patted her shoulder. “You lost, is what happened. I had to give Sol all your coin. You didn’t have enough so I made up the difference. We’re broke sir.”

Elmiryn sighed and turned her face into the pillow. She made an unintelligible groan and the Private patted her again.

“The waitress is doing you a favor and washing your clothes. You vomited all over them.”

“Did you undress me?”  The woman gave him a sharp look.

The man frowned at her.  “Sir, my…‘preferences’ aside, I’m still a gentleman!”

The woman grinned softly.  “Eh.  It’d like being touched by a eunuch I suppose.”

“I’m fully equipped, thanks,” he said in a dry tone.

Elmiryn would’ve loved to have continued teasing if only her head would stop hurting her, and that horrible feeling in her stomach wasn’t so strong.  She closed her eyes and waited out a sudden wave of nausea and dizziness before she looked at her partner again, frowning. “How many did I have?” she asked, words still a mumble.

Saelin grimaced. “Including what you had before Sol showed up? You had atleast ten drinks that I know of.”

“Wow. I didn’t know I could have so much.”

“Neither did I. I’m surprised you aren’t dead.”

“I’m kind of wishing I were!”

“By the way,” the man added, grinning sarcastically. “Sol wasn’t an Avian.”

Elmiryn blinked at him. “He wasn’t?”

The Private shook his head. “No, sir. He was an Arktan. A bear-man. Which makes him capable of atleast three kegs of liquor, once you factor in the regenerative ability. He told me so himself.”

The redhead looked at him, dumbfounded. Then laughed. Then she immediately stopped because that hurt.

Saelin paused and scratched at his cheek. He ran a hand through his hair, then winced as he spoke. “And…Um…We march this afternoon, sir.”

“…What?” Elmiryn lifted her head just enough to fix the man with a vicious stare. “What do you mean, ‘we march this afternoon’?”

The man quailed and held up his hands. “How else can I put it? We march at the crack of noon! I just heard from one of King Brice’s men.”

The woman sighed. “Halward help me…”

Though it took a few hours, the woman was sitting upright again and even managed a small light meal before she and Saelin reported back at Brice’s mansion. As they stood in formation before the gates with their fellows, the woman took a moment to glance back at the King’s private estate. In all their stay, she had not seen nor heard the man they had traveled so far because of. She found herself resenting this.

The march brought back her headache with a vengeance, but the woman pressed on, even energetically–for every step they took brought her closer to home. Now and again, she had to take a moment to spit out bile, but she couldn’t stop to do so. Duncan would notice, and she would be disciplined for breaking formation. Tiedby was back to bitching as usual, but it took all the woman had not to just collapse on the road, so he was spared any of the usual ridicule. When the city was a smoldering dot in the distance, the woman stood apart from camp and watched it. Howls echoed from the South. Elmiryn thought of Eris, and her gut twisted.

She wanted to believe that the heavens themselves were conquerable, and if she were patient enough, her arrows could soon pierce the veil that kept the gods hidden.

…But until the time in which high walls and small gates no longer kept her barred, the woman would have to wait.

Saelin appeared next to her, a fellow shadow in the dark night, warmth a flicker at his back as he smiled at her. “Lieutenant, are you okay?”

Elmiryn blinked at him, noting the gentle slope of his jaw, his fine-shaped lips, his light green eyes. There was something unattainable in him, as a friend. He was a man who preferred men, and the woman felt silly she hadn’t noticed it before. But the difference between them didn’t seem as vast anymore. Smiling, the woman took him by the shoulder and steered him back toward camp.

“Yes, Private. I’m fine. Actually, I wanted to talk to you about our upcoming promotions–”

“Sir, they haven’t guaranteed those yet.”

She smiled, showing all teeth.  “…Not yet.


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