The first time the Serra Alina di'Lamberto met Princess Mirialyn ACormaris, she knelt to her, assuming the full submissive posture of a Serra in the presence of a Tyr. It was not strictly necessary; whatever her title, the Princess of the Blood was merely a woman. A lesser gesture would have sufficed.
One who knew the Serra Alina merely by reputation might have been surprised. She was, by all accounts, a difficult and proud woman, one who abased herself as required, but who did not enjoy it. Not a woman one might expect to kneel thus, knees and forehead pressed to a stone floor, not even softened by the mats so ubiquitous in the South, when it was unnecessary. But any who knew her better would understand. She did not bow before the ACormaris because she respected her. No, it was an insult, a deliberate gibe. She did it because she knew it would make this Northern Princess, child of a land that disdained serafs and had few such customs, uncomfortable.
It was petty. She knew that. Knew it even as she obeyed the command to rise, sitting back on her heels and tilting her head up very correctly, the lines of her movements graceful and perfect. Alina was not bard-born, but she heard, mixed with the discomfort she'd sought, both understanding of what she'd done and disapproval of it. She judged, yes, and she judged the Princess weak for her discomfort, but she'd been judged in return.
It was a bad beginning, as such things went. An event that should perhaps make her feel shame, yet her lips curved in a faint smile as she remembered. Strange, how time could soften edges and make the heart grow fond of things that had once caused pain.
Yet such feelings were not ones she could afford, even when she was alone. The windows were covered; not even the Lady's moon illuminated her chambers. She was going South and there, she would need every edge she had ever had and more besides. Nostalgia was a weakness, an indulgence, and she would not allow herself to feel it much longer.
But tonight, as she waited for Miri in her rooms, perhaps it would not do so much harm. It would be the final time, for when Alina left, she would not return. She was going South for good and, while neither of them had spoken of what that meant, they both knew it well.
Alina was kneeling once more as she waited, accustoming herself to the life to which she would return in every way that she could. One indulgence was more than she could afford; another would be intolerable. But though she knelt, she was still smiling, an expression almost none would recognize – none but the woman whose arrival she expected.
She had envied the ACormaris so much in those early days! She did not know her well, but she did not need to – she saw the sword the other woman wore, knew that she was said to be skilled in its use. More, even before she saw the woman, she had heard the Princess spoken of with respect, her wisdom both acknowledged and sought after. That, more than any of the skills that brought one acclaim in the sight of the Lord, Alina craved, desired so much that she could not help but want to despise the woman who received such acclaim.
True, an occasional Serra was known for her wisdom. It was not unheard of. But none received such universal respect. However wise they were, they were still but a Serra. What could they know of the things of import, the things of men?
It was months before she had begun to see past her own resentment, to see a woman not only nearly of an age with herself, but not so different in other ways as well. They were both women born of powerful fathers, both women who did not quite fit into the societies they called home and yet, because of their rank, because of that which most would believe gave them privilege, could not escape them. They bore, if not the same wounds, then very similar ones.
Alina reached for the pitcher, poured herself water, frowning as she saw her hands shake. Soon, she would not have to do this for herself. Soon she would have serafs again, to perform all the little tasks that made life graceful. It was not the consolation she would have once thought it.
Here in the North, even the quarters granted to the Annagarians lacked the screens that permitted the sounds of another's approach to penetrate well in advance of their arrival. Even so, Alina was not surprised to hear the door open. Miri had always had a certain gift for timing. Perhaps it had something to do with her grandfather, or perhaps it was merely the woman herself. She could not say, but she'd grown used to it.
For a moment, she was tempted to make obeisance to her again, to evoke that earlier meeting in this final one. But it was merely a whim and she set it aside, merely glancing up and offering the Princess the polite smile of a hostess. "Would you care for water, or perhaps wine?"
Without waiting for a reply, she poured, leaving Miri to seat herself. For a minute or two, they sipped water in silence, the silence of two people who know there is little point in addressing the matter on both of their minds, but unable to easily confine themselves to other, less important topics. Anything there was to say had already been said. Alina wouldn't change her mind and, in truth, Mirialyn knew that she could make no other choice.
Alina was a Serra, trained all her life to speak only when asked. But she had never been the best student of those particular lessons and here, in this privacy that was not quite a harem, they were unnecessary. There were no men present to be offended by the speech of women and she did not hesitate to speak first. "I was just thinking about the first time we met."
Brown eyes flecked with gold met hers and they both smiled, nearly simultaneously. "I remember."
Alina looked away first, uncomfortable with the intimacy of eye contact. There were times when she was grateful for the customs that discouraged it. It was so much easier to maintain one's mask, hide all one's vulnerabilities and weaknesses, when one's eyes were kept submissively on the ground. "I envied you then." She envied her now, if she were honest. She had never intended to leave the North, had made herself a home here as she never had in the South, and it was hard to give it up, to return to a life that felt more like captivity than being a hostage ever had.
But that was a lie and she rarely lied to herself. When she'd learned of the death of the Northern hostages, she'd realized that any freedom she'd felt here had been a lie. And the one who had changed that was the boy she was following South – Valedan kai di'Leonne. Ah, even now she could not escape her choices.
"Will you stay?" The words were quiet, directed at her neatly folded hands rather than the other woman. Were she with anyone else, they would never have been voiced, for they revealed far too much of her heart for safety.
"Of course." Alina did not move, but she heard the rustle of cloth, the sound of another body sinking to the cushions nearby. When arms that had at first seemed too strong for a woman encircled her, she did not resist.
She stayed there, neither of them moving, just one woman in the arms of another. At last, Miri spoke. "Were circumstances otherwise, I would promise to write." But they both knew why she wouldn't. The Princess had an active correspondence; one more would not be such a chore. But Alina rode to war. And after, even if the war were won, it would merely be a return to an uneasy state of co-existence, one unlikely to encourage the easy passage of letters.
"And I." The silence returned, as it so often did between these two. Alina, who had heard so many silences in her life, did not mind these – they were not the silences of discomfort, of things hidden. No, they were the silences of two people who understood each other so well that words were often unneeded. Why speak, exposing oneself to any who might overhear, when the one spoken to already knew?
She turned her head, interrupting this particular silence with a kiss rather than words. The time for them was long past; any that might have been necessary had already been said. Now was a time for comfort, for enjoyment of each other this one final time.
Alina remembered when this began as well, this one secret few knew, nor would either woman speak of it. It was she who had begun it, but Mirialyn had not been so far behind. If she had waited, she had done so for Alina, because she was ACormaris and knew that she would have to come to her on her own.
They were not wives; they would not ever be. Even had a man of sufficient stature been willing to offer for either and somehow found approval, the North lacked the custom. And in the South, ah, in the South, Miri would be a different woman. And if she were not, it would still be impossible – both of them were of sufficient rank that they would be the Serra or remain unmarried, not be married off as mere concubines.
But here in Averalaan, she had thought it did not matter. Who, after all, were they betraying? Mareo? He had sent her away; it was nothing to him what she did. And Mirialyn was ACormaris. Alina had found that she had been tainted enough by Northern beliefs to think that, of all fathers, hers would be the least likely to be outraged if he knew. For was it not wise to remember that most desired love and would seek it where they could?
Still, they kept the secret. And now that she served the kai Leonne, discretion was even more necessary. She could not allow her behavior to reflect on him any more than was unavoidable. As they slid to the floor together, bodies pressed together and sari slowly unwinding, this time was both no different than any other and entirely so. By morning, the Princess would be back in her own chambers and Alina would be here, alone, as though she had always been so.
But this time, she would be truly alone, with nothing but her memories. As they traveled South, she would hold them close, but she wouldn't look back.