by Hinotori (火鳥)
“If I didn’t know better,” said Ari, holding her arms out straight as Kesha poked at her with pins, “I’d think you were enjoying this.”
Kesha pulled some pins out from between her lips before replying. “I don’t get the opportunity to dress up like this enough,” she said, eyes shining.
Ari groaned. “I always thought that was a good thing.”
The only positive thing Ari could say about the voluminous robes the ladies in attendance were expected to wear for wedding ceremonies was that it was easy to conceal weapons inside them. Kesha had managed to conceal three knives and a shortsword between the layers of her outfit, and had practiced pulling them out and fighting with them for half an hour straight before she’d declared the job done.
Kesha had then removed all but the base layer – which had almost taken half an hour on its own – in order to fit Ari for her own robes. They were on layer three, with two more to go.
“I won’t be able to move at all in this,” muttered Ari, swinging her arms from side to side experimentally. “What good is a mage who can’t move?”
Kesha pursed her lips. “I may be able to cut some slits to improve the movement at the shoulder. Let me see…”
Three iterations later, Ari had something she felt confident enough with to attempt one of the basic kata.
“It’ll do,” she admitted, then she caught a glimpse of her reflection in the mirror. “I look ridiculous.” The robes were fine pieces of work, but with her in them it just looked… incongruous. Her hair was still in its messy high ponytail, and her face was plain and unadorned.
“Because we haven’t done your hair yet,” said Kesha. “Or painted your eyes.”
Ari closed her eyes in despair. “Do noble ladies have to go through this every day?” she asked.
“Noble ladies probably have an entire retinue to look after them,” said Kesha. “Even Laila is probably getting her sisters to help her dress. Sit down and I’ll do your hair.”
Kesha’s hands were more gentle than you would expect from a swordswoman. They pulled tightly on Ari’s hair, but not hard enough to hurt. Ari felt her heartbeat quicken and closed her eyes while she attempted to centre herself again.
An eternity later, they were both dressed and made up. Kesha looked a lot more natural in her robes to Ari’s eye, although she made faces looking at herself in the mirror.
The length of the sleeves and sheer number of layers made it easy to disguise the unusual amount of muscle Kesha sported for a lady purportedly childhood friends with a sheltered merchant’s daughter.
Kesha had pinned her own hair – with Ari’s nervous assistance – in simple loops. “It’s too short to be fashionable,” she admitted. “But I’m hoping nobody will call me on it.” She twirled a little, her robes flowing out with the movement.
“I still think I look like I don’t belong,” said Ari, gently feeling the braid Kesha had made of Ari’s hair. A few tendrils had been left loose to brush her cheeks, and her eyes were made up in the traditional style. Her eyes had been lined in gold, curling in loops and swirls down her cheek and up to her brow. She felt alien.
“You look perfect,” said Kesha, looking into Ari’s eyes with a gaze so intense that Ari wondered what was going through her mind.
“I wonder if I’ll ever get to do this for real,” mused Ari.
“How do you mean?”
“Attend someone at her wedding – somebody I’m actually close to rather than pretending.” Ari hesitated. “Have you ever thought of getting married?”
Kesha froze for the tiniest moment, then averted her gaze to the floor. “No. I don’t think I’ll ever get married.”
Ari couldn’t quite help the little flutter of excitement at that. “Do you–”
Somebody knocked at the door. A little annoyed, Ari flicked her hand in its direction and read the life signature on the other side. “Laila,” she said. “It must be time to start.”
Laila smiled at them both. “You look lovely,” she said in approval.
“Not so lovely as yourself,” said Kesha.
Laila blushed prettily. “I do hope so. Mother tells me the guests are all seated,” she said. “Our cue is when we hear the guitar start to play.”
Laila’s sisters joined them in front of the doors, just in time for the music begin. The flute led the melody, the bass coming in to join after a moment, followed by the reed wind.
As the guitar twined itself into the piece, Laila’s eldest sister flung open the doors. The five of them made their way serenely towards the podium, where Laila’s husband-to-be waited with his own retinue.
Ari resolutely didn’t look out into the crowd of guests, concentrating on not stepping on her own skirts – or on Kesha’s.
Laila came to a halt at the podium, and they arranged themselves in a half-circle behind her. Ari let her hands drop to her sides so that her fingers were hidden in her sleeves.
The officiant gave some words of greeting, then launched into the ceremony. Ari schooled her face to appear patient, maybe a little bored, whilst paying attention to every single word. She’d spent the last two days memorising this ceremony and any deviation was suspect.
The officiant held her hands over the fire on the podium, making intricate gestures as she spoke the words of the ceremony. As written, the ceremony was powerless, and the gestures nothing more than decoration.
It would only take a few changes to work powerful magic, however – especially at a ceremony so revered as a wedding.
The first change was to the clause about the raising of children. The word order changed; a single substitution; a circular motion when it should have been straight. Ari moved her hands behind her back so she could work the neutralising spell without drawing attention to herself.
Barbaric, she thought to herself. Trying to ensure fertility and the birth of a son. It had been forbidden for centuries.
The officiant didn’t appear to notice Ari’s intervention, which might be to her favour – perhaps she didn’t even realise what she was doing.
The second attempted change was similarly small and petty: an attempt to ensure fidelity. It was easily circumvented.
At last, the priest started the final stage of the ceremony. She threw her arms open and the flames grew higher, spilling out of the bowl and turning blue.
Then the roof caved in.
Ari felt, rather than saw, Kesha spring into action, drawing her sword and pushing herself in front of Laila. Ari was closest to the officiant, whose expression was just as astonished as the rest of the party, so she pulled her back behind her. Ari weaved spells for strength into Kesha’s sword arm quickly, then she readied an immobilization spell, taking care, even with her limited time, to ensure her hand movements were accurate.
The assassins – for in their black masks they could be nothing else – had not been prepared for a trained sword-mage pair. She hitched her robes up with the cord Kesha had sewn into them before launching into the final kicks and punches that completed the immobilisation spell. Two of the assassins dropped to the floor and Ari tore strips off her robe in order to bind their hands and feet, lest the spell wear off early. Then she risked a glance to check on how Kesha was handling the remaining assassin.
Kesha was a blur of motion, fighting to keep the assassin’s undoubtedly-poisoned knives away from herself and Laila. The assassin slashed very close to Kesha’s face, Kesha’s blade blocking the blow in the nick of time. Kesha was the better fighter, that much was obvious, but she was hampered by trying to prevent the assassin from getting past her without harming it. To spill blood would be a terrible omen at a wedding.
Ari bit her lip and waited until she’d mastered the rhythm of the fight, then lashed out with a spellkick that knocked the assassin’s feet out from under it. Without blinking, Kesha knocked out the assassin with the butt of her sword.
They waited a moment, the screams from the remaining guests gradually quieting down.
In defiance of all protocol, Laila’s chosen husband dashed to her side. “Laila! Are you injured?”
“I’m fine, Raol,” she said, ducking her head. “Thanks to my friends.”
“I cannot thank you enough,” he said, turning to face Kesha and Ari. “If you hadn’t been here…”
Kesha sheathed her weapon and affected a sheepish look that was completely out of character. “I know we’re not supposed to bring weapons,” she said. “But I was so worried after Laila received all those threats…” She dropped her hands to her sides.
“I’m sure the officiant will forgive it,” he gushed. “Won’t you?”
The officiant, sitting half-slumped up against the wall, managed to pull herself to her feet. “Under the circumstances,” she said, brushing down her robes, “I will have to. I doubt the lady Laila was the only target of those assassins.”
Killing the officiant and the bride would be a way to doubly ensure the wedding never took place. It would take months to arrange a new officiant for the couple even if the bride survived.
The guard arrived, obviously summoned by the fleeing guests. They took statements from everybody in the room and took the assassins into custody, reassuring Raol and Laila that they would be kept well secured.
“Do we think we can continue with the ceremony?” asked Raol nervously. “I worry about other interruptions.”
Ari looked out at the half-empty hall. “Most of the guests have run away,” she said.
“Then it is their loss for abandoning us in our time of need,” said Laila softly. “Please, let’s just do it.”
“Very well,” said the officiant. “Now, where was I…”
Ari knelt down and helped her reassemble the ritual fire. The bowl was hidden under the wood and tile that had formerly made up the roof and ceiling and it took some searching to reassemble the ritual table. She followed the officiant’s lead in calling the fires to return.
“Thank you,” said the officiant. “You do this very well. Where were you trained?”
Ari shrugged. “I picked it up here and there.”
The rest of the ceremony went entirely as scripted. Ari didn’t even need to neutralise any more spells – which was fortunate, as she was feeling the effects of using so much magic. Her limbs felt heavy as lead, but she could feel excess power teasing at her gown. It would take a while for it to dissipate.
At last, the ceremony was over and Laila and Raol were officially married. Laila’s happiness was infectious, and Ari found herself smiling as she and Kesha returned to their dressing room to change for the wedding feast.
“I cannot believe you tore up your gown,” said Kesha, holding up the ruined fabric woefully.
“Can’t you?” asked Ari innocently.
Kesha giggled. “Point taken.” She put the fabric aside and helped Ari out of the rest of her layers. Once Ari was reduced only to her simple shift, she returned the favour.
Off came the outer robe of brilliant blue and silver, decorated embroidered dragons and lilies. Off came the inner robe of muted grey and light blue, sewn with gemstones into the hems. Off came the ruffled petticoat of fine silk.
Ari hesitated as she undid the lacing that ran down Kesha’s chest and revealed bare skin, suddenly realising the intimacy of their position. She felt heat rush into her cheeks.
Kesha met her embarrassed gaze evenly. “Ari?”
“Sorry,” she said. “I just…”
Kesha kissed her, and it was nothing like she’d ever imagined. Soft and warm, Kesha’s lips were dry until she opened her mouth some more and oh…
The remainder of Ari’s stored power crackled around them, unwinding Ari’s hair from its braid and making it tickle her shoulders.
Ari pulled back. “Just one thing,” she said. “This isn’t… because of the clothes, is it? Because that’s not me, I don’t look like that. You know what I look like. That isn’t going to change.”
Kesha blinked at her slowly, then laughed. “Yes, I know what you look like. I know you when you’ve just woken up, when you’ve won a battle, when you’ve lost a battle, when you’re going to sleep… All that’s new is that now I know you when you’re completely uncomfortable dressed up in traditional gowns.” She bopped Ari on the nose. “Yes, you were beautiful, but that’s not why I kissed you.”
“I’d like you to kiss me again,” said Ari quickly.
Kesha cocked her head with another of those sweet, shy smiles that turned Ari’s insides around. “I think that can be arranged. But you should finish undoing my gown first.”
Ari returned to the laces, slower this time – thinking that she was allowed to touch now; she was allowed to look. Kesha watched her through hooded eyes.
She pushed the straps of the gown over Kesha’s shoulders and it slithered to the floor with barely a whisper of sound.
They stood in front of each other, dressed only in their shifts. Ari felt goosebumps rise on her skin, and turned away to coax the fireplace into life with a few quick gestures.
There was a plush rug laid out in front of the fire and they sunk down onto it gracefully, although Ari couldn’t have said how they managed when they were so caught up in each other. Kesha slid her hands under Ari’s shift and gently cupped her breasts, brushing a thumb over her nipple and breaking into a smile when Ari gasped. The windows in the room rattled and Ari felt heat on the side of her face as the fire flared up wildly.
“You’re beautiful like this, too,” Kesha said, her eyes shining in the firelight.
Ari pushed Kesha down until she was lying on the rug, her hair in disarray as Ari’s power teased it out of its pins, one by one. Ari kissed her, feeling those soft lips give way to the warmth of her mouth.
Ari slid a finger under Kesha’s shift and into her panties, working her way through the wiry curls there until she could feel the soft folds of flesh, already a little damp with want.
“Oh, post-battle tension,” breathed Kesha. “Usually I just take a long, hot bath.”
“And is this better?” Ari murmured.
Kesha nuzzled her face into Ari’s neck. “Definitely. Don’t stop.”
Ari kissed her again. It was too risky for Ari in this state, but that didn’t mean she couldn’t take care of her partner.
She dove a little deeper into Kesha’s folds, slicking her fingers with what she found there, then stroked gently while her thumb searched for that certain spot… She knew she’d found it when Kesha gasped.
Kesha’s pupils were blown out of proportion, her cheeks flushed and her breathing heavy. Ari nuzzled at her neck and kept her hand moving, drawing circles with her thumb and drawing gasps with every stroke.
Ari felt like she could keep doing this forever, feeling Kesha’s heat around her and seeing her drenched in pleasure, but soon enough Kesha squeezed her eyes tightly and she drew in a deep breath, quivering around Ari’s hands as she reached her completion.
She gently stroked Kesha’s hair as she settled, breathing slowly returning to normal. Kesha opened her eyes. “You…?”
“Not now,” she said, kissing Kesha’s nose. “Later.”
Kesha broke into a wide smile. “It’s a promise.”
The bucket they’d been provided for washing had gone cold, but Ari still had enough rogue power floating around the room to be able to channel it into heating the water.
They dressed each other again, slower as they kept being distracted with kisses.
At least they were allowed to wear more sensible clothing to the wedding feast. It wasn’t quite the fighting leathers Ari was most comfortable in, but the gown was sleeveless and the skirt had slits on each side tall enough that she would have a decent range of motion in it.
“I think one of the guards may have recognised me,” said Kesha, concentrating on the mirror as she pinned her hair back up, brushing off Ari’s apologies easily. “I don’t think she’ll say anything, but she knows we’re probably not actually Laila’s childhood friends.”
Ari made a face. “We’ll have to include it in our report. It shouldn’t cause any trouble. I hope.” She hated having to make non-routine reports.
“From the questions she was asking, I think she wants to join up,” said Kesha, grinning. “I’m not sure, but I think she might have met me during the Janos case. ”
That was before Ari had met her. “Well, that should appease the Guild, anyway. They’re always happy to poach from the Guard.” Ari should know – that’s how she’d been recruited.
Kesha brushed the wrinkles out of her dress in front of the mirror critically, flexing her arms a few times. “Oh well. They already know I’m a swordswoman.”
“You look fine,” said Ari.
Kesha gave her an indulgent look. “You’re hardly an authority, but I’ll take your word for it.” She held out her hand. “Shall we?”
“Always,” said Ari.