Rules of Engagement

by Haitoku no Honou (背徳の炎)


Amahlia guides the horse down a narrow lane as fast as she dares, walls to either side rushing past in a blur of motion as she strains to make out the passage ahead. The Princess Kestrel sits behind her on the saddle, clinging with both arms tight around her.

“Where are we going?” she asks, words nearly ripped away completely by the wind of their passing. “Who are you?”

Amahlia shifts her legs and reins the horse sharply around the next corner.

“My name is Lia,” she says, “and we are going somewhere safe.”

“Safe?” Kestrel says, her chin digging into Amahlia’s shoulder as she fights to be heard. “I was safe in my room, before you killed my guards and kidnapped me.”

Amahlia’s fingers slacken on the reins for a moment before she catches herself, tightening her grip and turning the horse again. “Those ‘guards’ were assassins,” she says.

“Nonsense,” Kestrel says, but Amahlia can hear the quaver in her tone. “I recognised at least one of them – he travelled with my father’s retinue.”

“The assassins were from Sahn?” Amahlia says. “Why would your father want to kill you?”

Kestrel’s fingers tighten against her. “My father loves me,” she says, in a tone of voice that implies anything but.

Amahlia lets her silence speak for her, reining the horse around the final corner. It’s a good horse, trained for the Royal Guard, and she’ll be sorry to see it go.

“He does,” Kestrel insists, voice almost breaking, and then something softer that Amahlia doesn’t catch, snatched away by the wind.

She twists the reins sharply, the horse clattering into the courtyard of an inn, a single lantern still burning outside the door. It’s not the fanciest inn in this section of the city, but it’s in good enough standing that a noble of Kestrel’s bearing won’t be too noticeable amongst the crowd. She pulls up in the centre of the yard, a boy running from the stables, hand outstretched for the reins.

“Take your horse, sir?”

Amahlia gently disentangles Kestrel’s hands and slides down from the horse. One hand still on the reins, she turns towards her, the first glance she’s had since they began their flight. The princess is pale and obviously distressed, but still managing to hold her composure. Which is good, because they still have to run some more. They’re not safe yet.

She holds her free hand out to her. “My lady?”

Kestrel’s hand shakes as she grasps it, but she slides down from the saddle without too much trouble. The splits in her skirt, hastily cut with Amahlia’s sword in the palace stables, are thankfully covered by her cloak.

“See to my horse, boy,” Amahlia says, handing the reins over, and flicks him a silver piece.

The boy snatches it out of the air with a “thank you sir!” and leads the horse, still blowing from its run, towards the stables.

Amahlia turns back to Kestrel. It’s time she can’t afford, but at the same time something she can’t avoid. She needs Kestrel working with her, not against her. “I promise you,” she says, low, “I am not lying. And I will protect you, I swear it.”

Kestrel looks at her, dim light sending shadows dancing across their faces, and then disbelief flickers over her delicate face. “You’re telling the truth,” she says. “He did – oh, Gods-”

“Kestrel,” Amahlia says, because now they have to run. “Princess, please-”

Kestrel swallows sharply, and takes a deep breath, then another, hands gripping Amahlia’s until her knuckles are white. “Okay,” she says,” okay, Lia. Take me somewhere safe.”

* * * * *

Amahlia strides into the inn, Kestrel on her arm and attempting to look as little like she was just rousted from bed by assassins and then raced through the city streets on horseback as possible. “Innkeeper!” she calls as the door swings shut behind them. “A room, if you please, for my lady and I.”

The common room is not busy, but it’s certainly far from empty. A few heads turn; none seem to recognise her, just another faceless Guard from the palace, but Kestrel gets a few looks. Amahlia isn’t sure if they’re recognising her or just the fact that she’s clearly highborn, but either way, she’s made an impression.

The innkeeper comes bustling over, a portly gentleman in a stained apron. “Good sir, a room?”

“Yes,” Amahlia says, and passes over a handful of silver, more than necessary. “Without delay if you please, my lady is tired from the ride.”

The innkeeper pockets the coin and leads them upstairs immediately, showing them into the room. Amahlia closes and locks the door as soon as he leaves, moving over to the window and throwing the shutters open.

“Can you climb in that?” she asks.

Kestrel looks back at her, wide-eyed. “Climb?” she says. “I’m a princess, Lia. I don’t climb, or, or ride more than around the gardens, or-”

“It’s okay,” Amahlia says. “I hear Sahn’s like that.”

“It’s different in Tria?” Kestrel says. “I’ve heard stories about their princess.”

Amahlia goes down on one knee, bracing. “I’ll carry you, climb on,” she says and then, as Kestrel wraps a hesitant arm across her shoulders, knees against her hips, “what stories?”

Kestrel is warm against her, pressed soft against her back, and Amahlia rises, staggering slightly as she adjusts to the weight. She moves the two steps to the window and puts a leg over the sill.

“My sister used to tell me stories,” Kestrel says as Amahlia starts climbing down the wall of the inn to the alley below. “Before she – anyway. She said that in Tria, the princess could do anything she wanted. That she learnt to ride – properly I mean – and fight, and didn’t have to bother with needlework or dancing or music or any of those things.”

“That must be nice,” Amahlia says, shifting her grip as brick crumbles under her fingers. “I take it you don’t like needlework?”

“Not really,” Kestrel says. “My father always-” she shakes her head, ringlets brushing Amahlia’s neck. “Anyway, I heard other things too, from – other people. That she was raised as a man, that if she marries she’ll take a wife, that she’s a demon in female disguise, that she-” she breaks off. “I’m sure most of it is lies. You probably know the princess, being in the Guard.”

“You could say that,” Amahlia says, carefully putting first one boot, then the other on solid ground, “and I’m pretty sure she’s not a demon.”

“Good,” Kestrel says, and she’s laughing a little now, but Amahlia can hear the hysterical edge to it. “Because my father was saying that with their prince just passed, Gods rest his soul, he was considering offering me as a marriage alliance to her instead.”

Amahlia freezes for a split second. “He was,” she says, mind working. As far as she knows, the Sahnish King hates the ‘perversions’ of the Trian court. That he would consider offering his daughter for marriage

“I’m not sure he was serious,” Kestrel confides, “he hates putting on a polite face here, and I honestly think he would rather I die than ma-” She stops, fingers tightening. “No,” she says. “He wouldn’t.”

“He insulted the Trian King to his face today,” Amahlia says, pauses to eye off the soft indoor half-boots that Kestrel is wearing, and starts jogging down the alley with her still on her back, trying to avoid the puddles. “Or did you miss that? You looked pretty terrified, so I don’t know if you were paying attention.”

“You were there?” Kestrel says. “I thought the Trian King only had male guards there today, so my father wouldn’t be offended.” She pauses. “You – you are a woman, aren’t you?”

“I was there,” Amahlia says, sidestepping the issue of exactly where she’d been in the throne room, “and I am a woman. But the insult-?”

“Where he pretended he didn’t know the Trian Prince had died?” Kestrel says. “I heard.”

Amahlia reaches an intersection in the alley, glances both ways, and turns left. “Given that Prince Toren, Gods keep him, died in battle against Sahn, he could hardly profess not to know,” she says, keeping her voice even with an effort. “Perhaps he finds it more profitable to be at war with Tria, rather than make peace.”

“It’s possible,” Kestrel says. “I – Lia, if I were, were killed, in the Trian capital-”

“It would be a perfect excuse,” Amahlia says. She’s always known the Sahnish King was a ruthless son-of-a-bitch, and not just because of the stories she’s heard from the Guard. She’d led the detachment that had ridden out to escort Toren home.

She can hear Kestrel’s breathing start to become ragged, and she gives the legs under her hands a supportive squeeze. “The first step is to get you safe,” she says. “We can worry about the rest later. Can you hold it together for a few more minutes?”

Kestrel takes an unsteady breath, leaning her forehead against Amahlia’s neck. “Yes,” she says. “I can.”

“Good,” Amahlia says, and ducks around another corner in the alley. The walls here are taller, the road somewhat cleaner, although no wider than the others. She stops at a gate, solid wood reinforced and locked tight, and releases one hand to fish out a key.

“Almost there,” she says, and unlocks the gate, swinging it open. She steps through and relocks it, dropping the bar across the slots. There aren’t any lights in the small courtyard here, but Amahlia knows where she’s going; a narrow door unlocks easily with the same key as the gate, and once through she locks and bars that at their backs as well.

“Okay,” she says, going down on one knee. “You should be able to walk from here.”

Kestrel slides down and although it’s a relief, Amahlia immediately feels colder. The princess takes her hand as she rises, though, holding on tight. “Where are we going?” she asks.

“Just up the stairs,” Amahlia says. “We should have lost anyone on our trail.”

She leads Kestrel up the narrow stairs, one hand on the stone wall for balance. Kestrel sticks close to her side, only stumbling once as she walks. At the top of the stairs, Amahlia unlocks another door, and they pass through into darkness. She relocks the door by touch, Kestrel’s hand tight in hers, and then turns toward her.

“Don’t be alarmed,” she says, and then, “Liastra.”

The room lightens slowly, a soft glow coming from sconces set around the walls. It’s not the flickering yellow of candleflame, but a steady light, whiter. Kestrel’s face, as the light grows brighter, is still pale, but not scared. Her eyes, now that Amahlia can see them, are a clear blue, and they quickly narrow as Kestrel herself gets her first good look at her rescuer.

You,” she says, and pulls her hand away, clutching it to her chest as though burned. “Lia? I should have known when you said you were in the throne room, Princess Amahlia.”

Amahlia lifts both her hands, empty and unthreatening, and then sketches a deep bow. “Princess Kestrel, there was no time. Please forgive me for the deception, and believe me when I say I meant no offence.”

“You, you let me talk without – those things I said! I didn’t-”

Amahlia slowly straightens. “If you would feel safer or more comfortable with me gone, I can arrange-”

“No,” Kestrel says immediately. Her cheeks are flushed, but her back is still straight, her voice steady. She stretches out the hand she’d snatched away, and Amahlia pretends not to notice that it trembles a little. “Please, take my hand.”

Amahlia reaches out and takes it. “Princess?”

“Apologise again,” Kestrel says, her face still flaming. “Please.”

“Please forgive me,” Amahlia says, a little confused. “I meant no offence, then or now. I just want to keep you safe.”

“You’re telling the truth,” Kestrel says, and then “I, too, apologise for my actions earlier. I was, you just startled me, and I reacted without thinking.”

Amahlia looks at their bare hands, still clasped, and then back at Kestrel’s face. “You can see truth,” she says slowly. “That’s why you believed me so quickly, back at the inn.”

Kestrel nods. “And you can cast light,” she says. “In Sahn, that would get you either conscripted or burned.”

“If I were in Sahn,” Amahlia says. “Your father would have me killed without ceremony.”

Kestrel drops her head. “I am ashamed to admit it,” she says softly, “but that, also, is true.”

“Do you-” Amahlia pauses. “While you are still seeing truth,” she says, “hear this, and be at ease. I am no demon, and I will stand by your side until we are secure once again.”

Kestrel’s head comes up sharply, tears in the corners of her eyes. “Thank you-” she whispers, and then her breathing breaks off into ragged gasps, and Amahlia steps close, drawing her into an embrace. Kestrel shudders against her, muffling broken sobs into her shoulder, Amahlia running a soothing hand up and down her back.

“It’s okay,” she whispers, pressing her cheek to Kestrel’s soft curls. “You’re safe here, it’s okay.”

* * * * *

When Kestrel’s breathing has eased into deeper breaths, Amahlia presses a gentle kiss to the top of her head, slowing her hand. “All right?” she asks.

“I must confess I feel better,” Kestrel murmurs against Amahlia’s shoulder. “Although I still have no idea what we’re going to do.”

“Worry about that later,” Amahlia says. “Right now your father can’t claim that you’ve been kidnapped and put the blame on Tria, because I’m missing as well. So we have a bit of time to rest.”

Kestrel nods against her and lifts her head. “So where are we?” she asks.

“In a safe-house in the city,” Amahlia says. “It’s Guard-owned and patrolled, so we’re completely secure.”

“Because you’re in the Guard,” Kestrel says, and Amahlia gives her a little smile.

“I’m not just in the Guard,” Amahlia says. “I’m the Captain of the Guard.”

“You really were raised as a man,” Kestrel says wonderingly, and then claps a hand over her own mouth, blushing.

“It’s okay,” Amahlia says, “and not exactly. I was raised the same as Toren, Gods rest him, only he didn’t have to do needlepoint and I didn’t have to do blacksmithing.”

“And you, chose to be in the Guard?” Kestrel says, dropping her hand to rest it on Amahlia’s shoulder instead.

“Toren was the Crown Prince,” Amahlia says, lifting her head and staring blindly at the wall in front of her. “He was to be King, and I was to be his Captain. He was the only man I will ever love, and I would have died for him.”

“You, and the Prince-” Kestrel says, and Amahlia shakes her head.

“He never knew,” Amahlia says. “I never told him, and then he died.”

A shaking hand touches her cheek, gently wiping away tears, and Amahlia blinks and looks down.

“I’m sorry,” Kestrel says, looking near to tears herself. “I shouldn’t have asked.”

“It’s okay,” Amahlia says, and roughly wipes the back of her hand across her face. “Let’s just get some sleep.”

Kestrel looks around, cataloguing the sparseness of the chamber that Amahlia already knows – one bed, small bureau for clothes, washbasin and pitcher, chest for dry food, and a tap drawn from the well beneath the house.

“I don’t have any clothes,” she says, and Amahlia gently disengages herself and moves the few steps to the bureau.

“You’re not that much smaller than me,” she says. “I’m sure something in here will fit.”

In short order she’s located a shift for Kestrel, and a loose shirt and pants for herself. She turns her back as Kestrel changes, busying herself by setting her weapons by the side of the bed – sword upright against the bedpost with the hilt close to hand and ready to draw, one knife beneath the pillow and the second on the nightstand.

Disarmed, she unbuckles her leather armour, laying it out on the floor in a neat pile, ready to be pulled on at a moments notice, then pulls her shirt over her head, shaking it out. She tosses it to the floor next to the armour, far less important, and tugs the new shirt on. She quickly changes her pants, treating the leather with more care then the shirt, draping them over the armour, and releases her hair from its tight braid, dark locks falling around her face.

When she turns, Kestrel is already seated on the edge of the bed, dressed in the shift with her hair loose about her face and pink in her cheeks, although she’s looking down at her hands.

“Ready?” Amahlia says, lifting the sheets and sliding into the bed.

Kestrel nods, hastily climbing in herself from the other side, and Amahlia places a hand on her shoulder as she shifts to get comfortable.

“Remember,” she says, “you’re safe here.”

“I know,” Kestrel says, lifting her head and meeting her gaze. “I’m with you.”

Amahlia’s stomach clenches in a way not entirely unpleasant, and she swallows, ignoring it. “Good,” she says, and then, “Liastranai.”

The light begins to fade, and Amahlia closes her eyes.

* * * * *

When Amahlia wakes, it’s to the sensation of warmth, a body held tightly against her own. She blinks open her eyes to discover they’ve shifted during the night; Kestrel is lying with her head on Amahlia’s shoulder, arm and leg along across her, and Amahlia herself is holding her close, arms around her.

Amahlia swallows, laying her head back against the pillow but otherwise not moving, stomach tightening again. She knows what this is, but Kestrel is a Sahnish Princess, and she’s the Crown Princess of Tria. She can’t–

And really, in the end, the decision will be Kestrel’s, anyway. She can tell that Kestrel is terrified of her father, but whether that means she would take any chance to get away from him, whether she would be willing, is another question entirely.

Liastrina,” she whispers, and the lights come up to a soft glow.

She looks down again at Kestrel, lying sleeping against her, golden ringlets tumbling across Amahlia’s arm. She is already in this too deep; she feels more than protectiveness for this girl, this foreign princess who had fled across the city without breaking down, not until they were safe. She is in this far too deep.

“Gods help me,” she mutters, thunking her head back against the pillow, and when she looks down again, Kestrel is blinking open her eyes.

“Good morning,” she says, smiling shyly, and Amahlia fights the impulse to draw her up a little further and kiss her.

“Good morning,” she says instead. “I might have a way out of this. But I’m not sure you’re going to like it.”

Kestrel draws away a little, and pushes herself up until she’s sitting. She holds out a hand, and waits until Amahlia sits up and takes it before she speaks. “Tell me,” she says.

Amahlia looks down, fingers interlocked tightly with Kestrel’s. She knows Kestrel has only done it so that she might see the truth in Amahlia’s words, but it’s comforting nonetheless that she’s still willing to reach out and touch.

“We have spent a night in bed together,” Amahlia begins. “Your father, were he to learn of this fact, would insist that your honour had been sullied and this slight to be rectified.”

“But you’re a woman!” Kestrel protests, and Amahlia shakes her head.

“Your father thinks I’m a demon, remember? To him, I am all that is wrong with Tria. You know I speak the truth.”

“Yes,” Kestrel says softly, after a moment. “I know.”

“You also said, last night, that your father had, perhaps jokingly, said that he might offer your hand in marriage to me.”

Kestrel doesn’t say anything, and Amahlia doesn’t dare look up. “I was thinking,” Amahlia says, “that if we were to marry, it would satisfy the slight on your honour and his Sahnish pride. You would of course have to remain in Tria, which means that he can’t threaten you anymore. I saw how terrified you were in the throne room yesterday.”

Kestrel still doesn’t speak, and Amahlia picks at a thread in the sheets with her free hand. “I cannot compel you into anything, of course, and it must be your decision, but I am prepared to-”

“Prepared?” Kestrel says, her voice unsteady. “What about your feelings? I will not be a chore or a burden.”

“No, that is not what I mean,” Amahlia says. “You see my truth. You would not be any such thing. I–” She’s not looking at Kestrel, but she turns her head away anyway. “I find myself liking you a great deal.”

Kestrel draws in a ragged breath, and lets it out slowly. “You say that my father’s pride would be satisfied. If he learns that you had not – touched – me, he might take offence and declare the marriage an insult and a sham.”

“What do you suggest?” Amahlia says, stomach tightening again because Kestrel’s not saying no. She’s saying something that sounds very much like yes.

“I — would you look at me?”

Amahlia turns her head fast, concerned at Kestrel’s tone of distress. “My apologies,” she says.

“Thank you,” Kestrel says. She has pink back in her cheeks, Amahlia hopes from embarrassment rather than from shame. “And I would suggest that the marriage be, be consummated before we return to the palace. Then my father would have no recourse to demand an annulment.”

Amahlia can only stare for a moment, and then she shifts without taking her eyes off Kestrel or letting go of her hand, stepping backwards off the bed and going to one knee on the floor.

“My lady Kestrel,” she says, formal. “Would you do me the honour of becoming my wife, and Princess-Consort of Tria?”

“It would be my honour,” Kestrel says softly. “Yes.”

And now Amahlia can smile, and she rises back up, putting one knee on the bed and sitting down next to Kestrel.

“Did you want to do this now?” Amahlia says softly, her free hand gently touching Kestrel’s chin and tilting her head up. “We can wait until after the ceremony if you want, the priest isn’t far, and I can get a Guard escort-”

She breaks off as Kestrel shakes her head, her eyes fixed on Amahlia’s. “No,” Kestrel says, “I don’t want to wait, I’ve wanted-” She drops her gaze, swallows, and lifts her head, blushing. “Ever since my father said that he might, I’ve been wondering, and, I, I’ve wanted to do this since last night.”

Amahlia strokes her hand down Kestrel’s face. “Okay,” she says, and then leans in, pressing her lips against Kestrel’s. It’s soft, gentle, and she does it again, and again, light kisses against her mouth.

“Oh,” Kestrel says, lips wet. “I like that.”

“I hope so,” Amahlia says, and leans in again, pressing one last kiss to Kestrel’s lips before ducking lower, kissing her neck, her collarbone, the hollow of her throat. She squeezes their interlocked fingers before gently shaking her hand free, and lifts both hands to the collar of Kestrel’s shift. “May I?”

Kestrel lifts her own hands instead, gently undoing the top button. “You have my permission,” she whispers, and then drops her hands into her lap. “Lia, I – I don’t know what to do.”

“It’s okay,” Amahlia says. “Is there anything you would like to do?”

Kestrel blushes. “See you,” she says, dropping her gaze. “I, last night I. I was thinking what you would look like, if you turned around, and I.”

“After the ceremony,” Amahlia says, “you will be mine, and I will be yours.” She holds out her hands. “You may do anything you like.”

Kestrel reaches out, blushing, and takes hold of the bottom of Amahlia’s shirt. She lifts, careful, and Amahlia lifts her arms with her, shirt pulling free and her hair tumbling back down around her face. Bare to the waist, she feels her own face heat with Kestrel’s scrutiny, as the other princess raises a shaking hand to run it gently across one of her breasts.

Amahlia hums out a breath, sensation jolting from her chest to her groin.

“Is that, is it good?” Kestrel asks, hand hovering tentatively in the air, and Amahlia smiles, fingers going back to the buttons on Kestrel’s shift.

“Let me show you,” she says, unfastening the buttons and gently pushing the shift backwards off Kestrel’s shoulders and baring her in turn. Her breasts are small, nipples already starting to peak. She blushes, and Amahlia runs a knuckle down the side of her face before dropping her hands to her collarbones. She drags them down Kestrel’s chest, fingers gentle, and traces little circles around her breasts, finishing with a gentle tweak on both nipples.

Oh,” Kestrel says on a gasp, and Amahlia does it again, Kestrel’s breathing becoming more and more unsteady as her fingers work.

Amahlia leans in to kiss her, flicking both nipples at the same time, and Kestrel opens her mouth on a soft moan, Amahlia gently licking inside her mouth. When their tongues touch it sends sparks shooting through her, and her fingers close a little bit tighter than she intends, Kestrel gasping into her mouth.

Lia,” she whispers. “Lia, let me–”

She runs her fingers across Amahlia’s breasts again, a little surer now that she knows what she’s doing, and the gentle flicks she gives Amahlia’s nipples have her gasping with sensation.

Amahlia will give her this – Kestrel is a fast learner. Her fingers wander across Amahlia’s chest, nails lightly scratching across sensitive skin, and Amahlia just breathes against Kestrel’s mouth, remembering belatedly that she should perhaps be moving her own hands too.

“All right?” she whispers against Kestrel’s lips, pinching gently with her nails, and Kestrel’s whispered “Yes” turns into a hissing moan.

“Lia,” she adds, gasping, “I need, something-”

“It’s okay,” Amahlia says, and catches Kestrel’s hands to still them, but not before they manage to make her catch her breath one last time. “It’s okay, lie down.”

Kestrel falls backwards against the pillows, hair spread about her, and Amahlia has to just look for a second, admiring. “You are so beautiful,” she says quietly, waiting for Kestrel’s blush as she sees her truth before releasing her hands, placing them on Kestrel’s hips and the lower half of her shift.

“Kestrel,” she says, “may I?”

Kestrel nods, breathing still unsteady, and Amahlia gently takes hold of the shift and tugs it down. Kestrel’s stomach shifts as she breathes, and Amahlia casts the shift behind her and gently trails a hand down her abdomen, fingers bushing rough curls before moving onto her thigh.

“Shift over for me?” Amahlia asks, and Kestrel lets her legs fall open, face pink.

Amahlia’s hand drops to Kestrel’s inner thigh, trailing back up, and Kestrel’s breathing hitches as Amahlia’s hand runs over her, fingers coming away wet.

“It’s okay,” she murmurs, and shifts to kneel between Kestrel’s legs, both hands dropping.

Her gentle explorations have Kestrel breathing in short gasps, fingers twisting in the sheets at her side. Her eyes are closed, face still flushed and pressed to the side, mouth slack. Amahlia leans forward over her, running her nose gently up her cheek while her hands continue their caresses.

“Okay?” she whispers, placing a gentle kiss at the corner of Kestrel’s mouth.

“Lia,” Kestrel says, and when her eyes open they’re dark, dilated. “Lia–”

Amahlia drops one hand lower, sliding between slick folds to stroke softly against her. “This might hurt a little,” she says, “but only at first.”

Kestrel blinks slowly. “I trust you,” she says. “I trust you-” and then Amahlia presses in with one finger, and the rest of her sentence turns into a hissing moan, fingers clenching down in the sheets.

“Relax,” Amahlia whispers, feeling Kestrel’s muscles contract around her. “Relax for me.”

Slowly, her breathing evens, muscles loosening, and Amahlia starts moving her finger, gentle motions in and back, her other hand still tracing gentle patterns just above. Kestrel’s breathing starts to hitch again, her hips shifting in time with the slow pace Amahlia has set.

“Lia,” Kestrel gasps, head tipped back, “Lia, I – I–”

Her whole body arches, shoulders pressed hard into the mattress and back lifting off the bed as she shudders, muscles convulsing around Amahlia. She eases her hands slower as Kestrel settles back against the sheets, gasping for air, and leans forward again.

“Was it how you imagined?” Amahlia whispers, pressing a kiss to Kestrel’s mouth, and her eyes flutter open.

“Better,” she says, voice ragged. She comes up on an elbow, glancing down at Amahlia, still kneeling between her legs with her pants on, and frowns. “What about you?”

“I’m next?” Amahlia says, and the corner of Kestrel’s mouth turns up into a smile. She pulls herself a little more upright, Amahlia withdrawing her sticky hands, and reaches for the laces on her pants. As Kestrel eases them down over her hips, Amahlia realises she’s already ready, has been from the moment she pressed inside Kestrel and heard her moan.

“How do I touch you?” Kestrel asks, and Amahlia lowers herself to the bed beside her, grasping one of her hands.

“Like this,” Amahlia says, and draws their hands down, brushing through slick wetness to her centre. “Like this-”

Her breath hitches, and it seems Kestrel is a fast learner in everything she does, fingers stroking her higher and higher, and later, as she shakes herself apart silently, head thrown back, Kestrel reads her truth from the motions of her body, everything she’s crying out but can’t say, and when Amahlia comes back to herself Kestrel is curled around her, gentle hand smoothing away tears.

“What next?” Kestrel asks softly. “The church?”

“The church,” Amahlia confirm, hoarse. “And then the palace, to convince your father.”

“Gods help us,” Kestrel mutters, and hugs Amahlia tight. “Gods help us.”

* * * * *

The church is not the largest or most ornate in the Trian capital, but despite its modest appearance most of the Guard call it home. As she grasps hands with Kestrel, standing in front of the altar with only the priest and her Knight-Captain for witness, Amahlia is reminded of why that is – with every word the priest speaks, words of prayer, of binding, witness to the Gods, she can feel energy singing around them, over her skin. And when he finally pronounces them Crown Princess and wife, every candle in the church bursts into light, solid and golden.

“Did you-?” Kestrel says, but before Amahlia can open her mouth to reply the energy spiralling around them snaps. There’s a split second of disorientation, as though the world has spun on its axis, then all she can see is light, all she can feel Kestrel’s hands on hers.

She doesn’t know how long it lasts, but when it fades, energy now a barely perceivable hum, everything is as it was – her Knight-Captain a pace behind at her side, the priest in front of the altar. And then he falls to his knees, praising the Gods, and Amahlia realises that something has changed.

Kestrel is almost radiant, her dress repaired and bleached the purest white. Her hair is woven with strands of crystal, and held off her face with a silver circlet. Around her neck hangs Amahlia’s pendant of office, a gold medallion stamped with the Trian crest that thirty seconds ago Amahlia could have sworn was still in her bedchamber in the palace.

“What happened?” Kestrel whispers. “You-”

Amahlia glances down at herself, to find she is wearing the formal Guard uniform, full surcoat and epaulets over her armour, gloves tucked into her belt next to her sword hilt.

“You were wearing that crown yesterday, in the throne room,” Kestrel says, and Amahlia frees one hand to touch her hair, where her formal tiara is resting.

“It’s the blessing of the Gods,” Amahlia says softly. “They must like you very much.”

“Let’s hope it’s a good omen,” Kestrel says, voice shaking, and Amahlia squeezes her hand reassuringly. On the one hand, she knows there’s another assassin still out there, who, when their trail was lost last night, almost certainly skulked back to the palace to await their return, and is very likely lying in wait with an ambush. On the other, she has never known the Gods to bless a union like they have just done, and the priest certainly seems to think it a great deal. And she can still feel the energy humming across her skin, which, she’s not quite sure what to make of it, but it came from the Gods, and that can’t be a bad thing.

“I’m sure of it,” she says, and hopes she’s believing enough that Kestrel can read it as true.

* * * * *

They reach the palace without incident, although that might have more to do with the full Guard escort Amahlia’s Knight-Captain had arranged rather than luck. Kestrel takes her arm as they enter the palace, and the Guards fan out around them as they move toward the throne room. As they approach, Amahlia realises one of the doors is ajar, raised voices spilling out into the corridor.

“If my daughter is not found safe and unharmed I will be holding Tria responsible!”

“My daughter is also missing,” her father says, and Amahlia can hear anger and frustration mixed in with concern. The Sahnish King must have been at this all morning.

“Yes but your daughter is-” he pauses, just for a moment, but Amahlia can hear what he leaves out – a man, a demon, an abomination. “-trained in the arts of warfare,” he finishes. “My daughter is not.”

“The Guard is combing the city,” her father says, and Amahlia nods to the Guards outside the throne room to throw open the doors. “They will be foun-”

Everyone turns as Amahlia strides forward, Kestrel matching her steps. The Guards spread out to the walls of the throne room, only the Knight-Captain remaining at their backs. In the back of her consciousness, the hum of energy creeps up a little louder.

“Amahlia!” her father says, starting forward a few steps, but her attention is on the Sahnish King, and his split-second expression of disappointment before his features smooth into relief.

Amahlia gives her father a tiny shake of her head and he pauses, still on the bottom step of the dais, still above the Sahnish King.

“My Lord father,” Amahlia says, “Your Majesty.”

She sweeps into a bow, and out of the corner of her eye she can see Kestrel drop into a perfect curtsey.

“Daughter,” the Sahnish King says as they rise. “Are you unharmed?”

“I am,” Kestrel says.

Amahlia can see the second he spots the medallion around Kestrel’s neck – his shoulders stiffen for a moment and then settle, forced into a pretence at relaxation.

“Explain yourself,” he says, sharp.

Kestrel lifts her chin. “Your Majesty,” she says. “Last night, as we fled assassins, the Princess Amahlia and I had no recourse but to spend the night together unchaperoned.”

There is a sudden buzz of conversation across the room. The Sahnish King pales, but Amahlia is pretty sure it’s from anger rather than anything else.

“To satisfy honour,” Kestrel continues before he can speak, “this morning the Princess and I were married.”

“You dare-” the King hisses. “I demand an annulment to this travesty.”

“Your Majesty,” Amahlia says, “I’m afraid that will be impossible. Not only has our marriage been formalised, but the ceremony was blessed by the Gods.” In the back of her consciousness, the hum of energy grows louder still.

“What the Gods have joined, let none shatter,” Amahlia’s father says into the pause. “My Lord, you did say yesterday you’d been considering the Princess Kestrel for a marriage alliance with my son, Gods rest him.”

The Sahnish King whirls around. “A marriage to your son would have been far preferable,” he snaps. “Your practices are-”

“Your Majesty,” Amahlia says sharply, cutting him off, which has the added effect of quieting the entire room. “Perhaps you would like to consider your words carefully. The assassins that attacked last night were from Sahn.”

“You accuse-”

“I recognised one of them,” Kestrel says over him, and Amahlia has never admired her courage more than at this moment. “He travelled with us from Sahn, in the Lord Rainer’s guard detachment.”

“I’m sure my Lord didn’t realise there were assassins in his retinue,” Amahlia’s father says mildly.

Kestrel squeezes Amahlia’s arm, then lets go, walking the few steps to the Sahnish King. “Your Majesty,” she says, and extends an arm. “Will you take my hand?”

“Kestrel-” Amahlia says, and when Kestrel glances back, Amahlia can see the fear behind her eyes.

“It’s okay,” Kestrel says, and looks back at the Sahnish King. “My Lord Father,” she says, softer, “please.”

Amahlia can see he doesn’t want to, doesn’t like that Kestrel seems to know about cards he has hidden. He reaches out grudgingly, taking hold of her hand, and she nods.

“Your Majesty,” she says, “did you know there were assassins in your retinue?”

“Of course not,” he snaps, and pulls his hand away. “What are you playing at?”

Kestrel turns to Amahlia’s father, still on the dais steps. “I can see truth,” she announces. “My Lord Father, King of Sahn, speaks truth.”

The Sahnish King’s eyes narrow, and Amahlia doesn’t like the look he gives Kestrel then – the same look he’d given Amahlia in the throne room yesterday when he’d arrived, even though she’d been in a dress with her hair pinned up, looking every inch the proper princess. It’s a double-edged sword – not only does he now know that Kestrel can see truth, he also knows that she’s lied to save him. Amahlia can see the King of Sahn is not a man who enjoys being in debt to another, let alone that other being his unimportant daughter.

Amahlia’s father takes the opportunity he’s been handed. “Let us clear this business,” he declares. “My Lord, with your permission, let us summon your retinue. Your daughter can tell us if any assassins among them remain.”

Finally presented with an opportunity to assign blame, the Sahnish King agrees. In short order the remainder of the Sahnish party are filing into the throne room, standing in a ragged line before the throne.

“I am ashamed to learn there were assassins among you,” the Sahnish King says. “My daughter will see whether any remain, and then I expect this business to be done.”

Kestrel moves to one end of the line, reaching out for the servant’s hand. “Are you an assassin?” she asks.

“N-no, your highness-” the boy stammers, and Kestrel nods.

“Truth,” she says, and moves to the next, a seasoned guardsman. “Are you an assassin?”

Amahlia watches her progress along the line. She doesn’t like that Kestrel has to touch to see truth – doesn’t like that Kestrel has to get so close to them. There’d been two assassins in the room that night – only two. From what the soldiers had told her, when she’d gone to the front to return Toren’s body to Tria, she’d understood Sahnish assassins travelled in threes – two for the job, and one for backup. Which means that there should only be one more assassin – but unless there were any missing from the Sahnish retinue, that third assassin was in the line.

The Sahnish King had said he expected his business to be finished.

“Are you an assassin?” Kestrel asks a young-looking guard, and for Amahlia, time slows, the hum of energy rising into a roar.

Even as the assassin tightens his grip on Kestrel’s hand, drawing a long knife and slicing forward, Amahlia is moving. She’s not going to have enough time to close the distance and use her sword; a dagger will have to suffice, and she pulls it from her belt and hurls it end over end as she moves, energy exploding forward with her throw.

It’s a lucky throw – the dagger takes the third assassin right in the throat, although it seems, to Amahlia at least, that he starts staggering backwards almost before the dagger reaches him. Kestrel falls, Amahlia just managing to catch her before she hits the ground, and she ignores the noise as her Knight-Captain and the other Guards surround the remaining Sahnish retinue. It’s all for nothing if Kestrel is hurt. The blade was sure to be poisoned.

“Kestrel?” Amahlia says, on her knees and gently cradling Kestrel with one arm as she quickly checks for blood. “Kestrel, talk to me.”

There’s a shallow slice across one collarbone towards her throat, a line scored in the gold chain of her medallion showing just how close it had come, but as Amahlia watches, heart in her throat, it thins, pink fading to white fading to nothing. Anything that could heal that could take care of poison, surely. “Kestrel,” she whispers, and Kestrel’s eyes flutter open.

“Lia?” she says.

“You’re okay,” Amahlia says, and in the back of her mind, the hum quiets to almost nothing. In the noise of the throne room, she can barely even make it out.

“Did you get him?” Kestrel says, and Amahlia nods.

“Are you feeling all right?” she says. “The blade might have been poisoned, I need to make sure–”

“What the Gods have joined, let none shatter,” Kestrel says, smiling, and then in the middle of the throne room, in front of everyone and the Sahnish King, she pulls Amahlia down and kisses her.

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