She leaned over Jules to shake his shoulder, careful not to drip water from her still-soaked peplos onto his face. The fire had not been enough to dry her, and her power levels were low. After giving the horses that extra boost she’d only have enough strength left to get her back to Atherton and to do what she had to do there. She didn’t dare waste it on getting her peplos dry. She’d have to go back out into the rain again, anyway.
Gently she shook Jules’ shoulder again, but he still didn’t wake up. She tried again, a bit harder, and his eyes opened briefly. He looked up at her, mumbled, “I must be dreaming,” and turned over to go back to sleep.
She shook him again. “No dream,” she said, and he sat bolt upright, making their heads crack together. “Ow!” she said, falling backwards and clutching her skull. “You have a hard head.”
“So do you,” he growled, and she knew he was referring to more than her skull bone.
There was a snort of laughter across the fire and both medic and healer directed twin glares at the ex-bellica.
Yarrow held up her hands in surrender. “I’ll walk the perimeter of the camp, alright?” she said, getting up and moving away. “A good, thorough check,” Ghia heard Yarrow mutter as she disappeared into the dark.
A blush heated her face and she felt suddenly nervous, alone with her betrothed. There were two possible ways this evening could go now, and honestly — she wasn’t sure which one she wanted.
Jules stopped rubbing his forehead then and directed his glare on her. “What are you doing here? I told you to stay safe in Atherton.” His voice was stern, but not angry. He sounded relieved, if conflicted.
“And I told you I’d find a way to get you a ring,” she said pertly, crossing her arms in front of her chest to hide a shiver. She was farther away from the fire now and her damp peplos was clinging to her skin unpleasantly.
The glare dropped from his features, replaced by incredulity. “You went back, got me a ring, and came all the way out here just to give it to me? Knowing you couldn’t stay?”
In response she reached into her pocket and pulled out the small wooden box that contained said ring. She’d chosen gold, studded with jet and emerald stones to match his hair and eyes. On the inside was an engraving of the words Sariayanedo Ey demro para siempre y siempre, a sentence that was in a combination of Ereneden and Atheē. It had cost a lot, but was worth it. She could see no further use for her savings now, anyway. She wanted to spend them on something that would matter.
Watching Jules’ face when he opened the box told her that she’d chosen right. “Dear Goddess,” he breathed, taking the ring out and slipping it onto his left hand, where he examined it further. “Ghia, there’s no way you could afford this,” he said, and then looked at her ring. “And it’s much better than the one I got you.”
She smiled and laughed a bit at that, grabbing his left hand with her right so their rings clinked together. “Your ring was made today. Mine has sentimental value.” He frowned at her, because he hadn’t told her its history — that it had belonged to his mother. “You didn’t need to,” she said, smiling again, but another shiver ran down her spine and this time she couldn’t hide it from him.
“Juno, Ghia, you’re soaked,” he said, getting out of his bedroll and helping her to her feet. “Your clothing needs to hang up to dry,” and before she could protest he was behind her, unlacing her bodice.
At the feel of his fingers against her back a rush of heat went through her; but, still nervous, she made a few mild protestations, a tremor in her voice.
Jules’ hands left her half-done bodice and moved to her shoulders in a reassuring gesture and she almost asked him to go back to what he’d been doing before. “Ghia, I’m only removing your peplos so it can dry and you can warm up under the blankets,” he said, his breath tickling her ear. “I promise not to do anything you’re uncomfortable with, ok? I won’t even look if you don’t want.”
She nodded shakily, unable to speak, and wanted to die of embarrassment. She had to be the only person in Athering who was this nervous about sex! And Jules is my betrothed, she thought angrily at herself. It’s not as if he’s some stranger off the street.
Her bodice unlaced in the back, she unbuttoned it in the front and slipped it off, handing it to him to hang up. He turned to the bars and stopped, frowning. They were very high up. Certainly too high for Ghia, and she could see it would be hard for Jules to get up there.
“Where’s Yarrow when you need her?” she asked, trying to make a joke, and he laughed.
“Yeah.” Finding a rung on one of the support poles for the shelter, he started to climb up. “Her height would definitely be useful right now.” His eyes flickered back down to the healer briefly and his mouth quirked. “But I’m not sure you’d appreciate her presence, dressed as you are.”
Hastily Ghia looked down and realised her peplos was completely see-through when it was this damp. She folded her arms across her chest and looked away. “You promised you wouldn’t look,” she said, slightly miffed — but not really.
“No, I said that I wouldn’t look if you said you didn’t want me to do so,” he said, making it up to one of the bars. He hung her bodice and then started the climb down. “Which you didn’t.”
She had nothing to say in response, so stared at him instead as he climbed down. She noticed — not for the first time tonight, but now she really looked — that his chest was bare. He wore only his leather breeches, and she found herself staring at his muscular back. The firelight that fell orange on his skin made shadows from his scars dance across his flesh, and she stood entranced by the beauty of it.
He turned then, and she didn’t look away quickly enough. He smiled at her looking and she felt her face heat. She fidgeted self-consciously, scuffing her booted feet against the dirt ground. He stepped closer to her, slowly, and she made herself stand her ground and look him in the eye. His smile grew, and then he bent down and kissed her.
It was a soft kiss, meant no doubt to calm her down. It did. His hands cupped her face and he stroked her cheeks gently with his thumbs. Ghia felt her entire body relax under the slight pressure of his lips on hers, and soon she didn’t feel self-conscious or nervous at all. Her arms dropped from her chest and she took a step, closing the remaining gap between their bodies. Pressed up against him now, her arms slipped up to rest around his neck.
He broke off the kiss then and placed tiny butterfly kisses on her cheeks and closed eyelids. “So,” he said, his voice husky, “what were you staring at a moment ago?”
Her eyes fluttered open and she shrugged a little. “Your scars. So many. More than I’ve seen on other soldiers.”
He rolled a shoulder and the muscles rippled underneath her arm. “Twenty years in the service is a long time. Especially with no medics quite so good at their craft as Atherton’s healers.” She blushed at the implied compliment. “Are we too close to the fire? Because your face keeps turning this very fetching shade of pink.” His lips quirked in a small grin and she smacked him good-naturedly. He responded by kissing her again, more passionately this time. His hands slid to her shoulders and began to undo the knots on her peplos.
She pulled back enough to speak. “You tricked me.” In truth she didn’t care.
“No,” he breathed against her lips. “Your peplos is making me cold.”
She huffed in laughter and dove into the kiss again as he worked on sliding her peplos off her body. Soon they were both naked to the waist, and Ghia shivered again — though it was no longer with cold. He stopped then and pulled back a bit; before she could ask what he was doing he’d gathered up her skirt and pulled it over her head. “Didn’t want you to get mud on it,” he said by way of explanation, and turned to hang up the peplos on the posts.
“Least of my worries,” she muttered, folding her arms over her chest, and not sure if she was happy or not that he hadn’t looked at her as he’d stepped away. She stepped closer to the support pole he’d climbed up and waited for him to climb back down again. It was cold, and he generated a lot of heat for someone wearing so little. When he reached the ground again she wrapped her arms around his chest before he could even turn around. She was just tall enough to place a kiss between his shoulder blades, which she did tenderly. Her hands fluttered nervously for a moment before she made them rest on his abdomen. It was hard and flat, muscular as she’d expected, with a light dusting of coarse hair. She spread her fingers through the small forest of hairs and let her hands sink a bit lower, to where his breeches were tied.
Jules had gone still when she’d first surprise-embraced him from behind, arms still up, hands on the rungs he’d last held. Now his body went rigid. “Are you sure you want to do that?” he asked, his voice a strained whisper.
She paused in her exploration. She wasn’t sure. She was sure about him, but not the time. As if he read her mind he reached down and grabbed her hands, linking his fingers with hers and moving them to a safer area on his torso.
“Now, as difficult as it is for me to not know you’re half-naked behind me, I won’t look if you don’t want me to. I’ll wait until you’re in the bedroll to turn around.”
Ghia bit her lip, considering. “You’re allowed to look, Jules,” she said after a minute.
“Because I’m your fiancé or because you want me to?”
“Both. But it’s cold, so hurry up.”
This elicited a small laugh from him, and he drew her hands up to his mouth to kiss each palm before dropping them and turning around slowly. Ghia forced her arms to stay at her sides, though her instincts wanted her to cover the flesh now exposed to cold air.
Jules didn’t say anything for a long while as he stared at her, and she began to feel self-conscious again.
When he didn’t speak, just continued to stare with this funny look on his face, she started to fidget nervously. “Is something wrong?” she asked finally.
Jules looked up as if waking from a dream. “Wrong? Sweet Amora, no. I’m in just in awe; that’s all.”
Ghia wrinkled her nose and looked down at her partially naked body. “You’ve seen lots of naked bodies, Jules. What’s so special about mine?”
He laughed again, a breathier sound than before. “It’s yours,” he said pointedly, and suddenly she got what he meant, realised that funny look on his face was desire.
“Oh.” Her face heated again and she wished he didn’t have such an easy time making her blush. No one else did.
Suddenly needing to feel in charge again, she placed her hands pertly on her hips. “Well, do I get to see you in your underwear? Seems only fair.”
The movement was so quick she didn’t catch it, but the next thing she knew his hands were on hers and she was pressed flat against him. Well, as flat as possible with the curves she was blessed with. His lips brushed against her ear and when he spoke, his tongue grazed the lobe. “You already have, Healer,” he whispered, and a shudder of pleasure went through her. “Or did you forget Midwinter?”
“No,” she said, desperately trying to retain her composure. “I just wanted to see them again.”
“Too bad. I’m not wearing any.”
“Oh,” was all she could say, feeling very flushed. The leather of his breeches was pressed against her abdomen and rubbed slightly with the breaths they drew; the smoothness of the material was incredibly sensual. Sensual? Since when do I use that word? What would it be like to pull his pants off with her teeth?
Jules pinned her with his intense gaze. “Are you alright, Healer? You seem…flustered.”
“Maybe a little,” she said, voice catching with her laboured breathing.
He kissed her and nibbled her lower lip. “We should get you into that bedroll. It’s cold out.”
“Well,” he said after a pause in conversation that was filled with more kisses, “what are you waiting for?”
“You to let me go?” she asked impishly, a bit of her old composure back.
He laughed a bit. “Wench,” he said, and then he’d picked her up and was carrying her to the bedroll. She yelped and protested, pointing to her feet, still heavy with her boots. Jules frowned with confusion. “How did you get military grade boots?”
“Yarrow,” she explained as she worked on kicking them off. It was harder than she’d hoped and she wished she hadn’t tied them so tight. “Set me down so I can take them off.”
“How about I take them off for you?” he said, voice husky again. How could he make such a mundane sentence so sexy?
Kicking back the cover, he set her down gently and knelt by her feet, untying the laces of her boots and setting them near the fire when they were off. He then joined her, pulling the cover back up. “There,” he said, wrapping his arms around her. “Nice and warm.”
Ghia nestled closer to him. “Frankly you’re warmer than the blankets,” she said against his chest.
“Well, I haven’t been walking about in the rain.”
“Flying,” she absently corrected him.
He leaned back to look at her. “Flying.”
“You heard me.”
“You don’t have wings.”
She looked up and glared at him. “Just because you can’t see them,” she said.
“My mistake,” he said, and kissed her lightly on the forehead. “Now go to sleep.”
“I can’t. I’ll have to fly back soon.”
He was silent a moment before responding. “It’s a long time before dawn yet.”
“I know.” She went quiet, not wanting to tell him why she had to get back. He’d try to stop her, and that couldn’t happen. “I want to visit Molly before the castle wakes up,” she said, settling for a half-truth. “We’ve built up a friendship during her incarceration. I want to say goodbye.” Goodbye to her cell, that is.
“Ah.” His voice was quiet as he no doubt remembered the fate decreed for the rebel leader of Aeril. “Sleep then. Your clothing needs to dry anyway. I’ll wake you.”
“I didn’t come all the way out here to sleep, Jules,” she said, a bit frustrated. Take the initiative, man. I never will.
His hand reached up to brush stray tendrils of hair behind her ear. “Really. What did you come out here for?”
“To give you your ring, for one, and, for another, to spend as much time with my betrothed before he leaves me forever.”
She hadn’t meant to be that harsh, and regretted speaking when she saw the look on his face. “I’m coming back, Ghia.”
“I know,” she said, a look of chagrin on her face and a sigh on her lips. “But it may as well be para siempre. Even if we both survive to see each other again, it will feel like it. I know it will for me.” Impulsively she moved her head up and pressed her lips to his, using all she’d learned in her short introduction to kissing. “Let’s just take this moment for what it is, Jules, and pray They’ll let us have many more,” she whispered, pulling away a bit. And then frowned. “Did I just make a move on you?”
He laughed a little and held her tighter. “Yes. But don’t worry — I’ll do the rest of the work tonight.”
She smiled up at him, and then he was kissing her deeply again, and the rest of the night was lost in a haze of pleasure.
The rain had stopped and the first pink glow had appeared on the eastern horizon when Jules finally fell asleep in her arms.
Talking and lovemaking. Lovemaking and talking. She could have thought of worse ways to spend what could be her last night on earth. Especially when she had such a considerate lover. She smiled at her sleeping spouse-to-be. During the first time and the rather lengthy time before the actual deed, he’d concentrated almost exclusively on her pleasure. The next few times she’d been bold enough to try some things out on him — and apparently the ease with which she read him, whether Magi-power-inspired or not, helped her be a natural at it, because he had a permanent smile on his face. The best part about the night was how it hadn’t even hurt her, in spite of the many reports that promised it would.
She’d asked him as much after collapsing beside him, exhausted with pleasure.
“You sound disappointed it didn’t,” he said with a small, breathless laugh, perspiration glowing on his face in the firelight.
“No,” she said, laughing with him. “Just confused.”
He shrugged and wrapped her tightly in his arms. “It doesn’t always. Depends on the person and some certain factors.”
“Did it for you?”
“Yes. A bit. But I got over it,” he added, a roguish grin on his face.
“I can tell, oddly enough,” she said, and snuggled up to him. They stayed locked in that embrace until mutual need stirred them both, and limbs and fingers entwined, rings clicking together in shared passion.
Lips curving upwards in memory, Ghia slipped from her lover’s arms and the bedrolls, tiptoeing around to get her clothing. Her smile turned to a grimace as she tried to reach her peplos and bodice above the fire. It may not have hurt at first, but damn, if she wasn’t sore now.
Frowning at her shortness that placed her clothes out of reach and not yet wanting to brave the dangerous looking makeshift ladder that Jules had used, she took to trying to find her underwear first — which ended up being tangled up in the bottom of the bedroll. Quite a task to remove it without waking Jules.
Finally getting them free, she started to fall backwards and hopped around desperately, trying to regain her lost balance. Before she could right herself her back collided with something solid as a tree.
A flush creeping up her neck as she realised not what, but whom she’d run into, Ghia looked up behind her into the face of her incredibly tall cousin, who held the healer’s peplos in hand.
“Good morning,” the bellica said in a low voice, placing Ghia’s peplos into her mortified hand. “Have a nice night?” Ghia heard Yarrow ask through the fabric already over her head.
She pulled her peplos down and pulled on her underwear underneath before starting the process of knotting the shoulders of the piece of fabric. “Yes,” she said, managing to keep her voice steady. “Sorry we took up all your rest time.” Guilt flooded her as she realised that Yarrow must have been up since morning the previous day — and looked it, too.
The ex-bellica just shrugged and deftly did up the last of the peplos’ knots before grabbing the healer’s bodice for her. “As if I could sleep,” she said, tightening the laces of this last piece of clothing for her cousin before putting a few more sticks on the dying embers of the fire. “Feel as if I’ve had near a damned gallon of demitasse. Don’t know when I’ll drop. Besides. Had my last night with Caelum already, though I didn’t know it was such. Couldn’t deny you yours with Jules.” Yarrow glanced up from her squatting position by the fire and focused a look on Ghia that made the healer fidget uncomfortably.
“Were you eavesdropping?” She didn’t need to ask how Yarrow had figured out what Jules had missed from her cryptic answers to him.
“Walked too close on my patrol. Don’t throw your life away, Ghia.”
Ghia kicked her boots back on and stamped her feet down, not feeling like tying them. “Unlike you, I haven’t given up hope yet, Yarrow. And I won’t stand by and let them kill Molly.” She went and grabbed her cloak from where she’d rested it on Suki’s flank to keep the horse warm and said goodbye to the two animals. Stepping away from the camp and into the waiting morning, she turned to speak to Yarrow again. “You’ll get to Atton by nightfall, but don’t push your horses any further.” She worked on gathering her strength for one last flight. “Who knows. If we escape, maybe Molly and I can start another rebellion. One that will win.”
“You won’t escape,” Yarrow said, and Ghia turned away from her cousin.
“I know,” she said, and then she was gone, flying away to Atherton.