42nd of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E, Morning
Kingdom of Lubon, Province of Palladi — Arsia Wood
Soft-pink skies high along the forest horizon preceded the dawning of the sun over the Arsia. As the morning light started to climb the weathered walls of the Agnelli Estate, its doors quietly opened onto the vastness of the forest. Under the gloom of the ancient trees a pair of stout horses soon set out through the underbrush and dirt, ferrying a pair of young women. They crossed a low wooden gate and immersed themselves in the wood.
Within the forest the breezing air was crisp and cool, and it blew the rider’s hair gently as they marched deeper in. The Arsia was a feast for the senses. Light played through the gaps in the canopy, across the dew-strewn bush and over the puddles on the forest floor, illuminating flowers and fruit and leaves with brilliant color. There were smells sensuously sweet from every corner. And as the riders navigated the brush they heard the peaceful sounds of the forest between each strike of the hooves and rattling of their packs. Chirping insects, singing birds, dripping dew and whistling winds sang for the sun.
Passing paths of stones stamped into the earth, and through natural gardens of berries and mushrooms, beneath trees filled with wild fruit, the riders entered a clearing.
Golden sunlight shone across a field of short green grasses slashed across by extravagant streaks of blood-red poppies. On all sides the field was enclosed by thick-trunked and tall trees. As the horses strode into the clearing swarms of insects peeled off the underbrush and paraded skyward. There were butterflies and bees and green katydids, brilliantly colored beetles, and gaudy purple dragonflies. It was as if a living rainbow rose out of the ground to herald their every step. Birds joined the procession, and beneath them ermines and foxes fled into the wood or into holes in the earth. At once the clearing quieted.
Byanca Geta took a deep breath of the fresh morning air and sighed contentedly.
“Shall we put the blankets down here?”
Behind her, Rosalia gracefully dismounted her horse without waiting for an answer. Byanca smiled. Her lover was clad in a wonderful silk sundress, sleeveless, soft yellow with thin straps and baring an exquisite bit of skin around the shoulders and upper chest. She had her hair up in a braided bun with a stag-horn ornament. Dressed in such a way, Byanca could see the lines along her skin hinting at wiry muscle on her slim arms and shoulders.
She was a stunningly elegant and a rugged woman all at once, a natural beauty.
For her part, Byanca was dressed in a traditional long shepherd’s woolen shirt and dark pants with long suspenders. Rosalia’s clothes did not fit her build too well, which was a little wider and denser in key places. Her departed brother’s clothing on the other hand fit better, albeit still a little tight in places due to the differences in a woman’s figure. Rosalia seemed to enjoy the sight. Her eyes lingered mischievously on Byanca as the centurion dismounted her own horse and took charge of unpacking their intricate picnic assortment.
“My, my,” she said, covering her mouth to stifle bouts of giggling.
“Judging by your reaction, at least I know I’m not too plain in these.” Byanca said.
“Your arse looks amazing in those trousers.” Rosalia finally said, giggling some more.
“Well then. In that case, let me flex my muscles for your viewing pleasure.”
Rosalia stepped aside. Byanca lifted a few rolls of blankets off the horses, followed by baskets of food, and a parasol large enough for two. She unfurled and then set the blankets over the grass, overlapping at their edges to give them ample room to lay their spread. From the baskets she withdrew bread and preserves, fresh fruits and honey, slices of meat wrapped in paper, containers of cheese and vegetables suspended in dressing and a bottle of wine with two rustic old cups. Byanca laid out all of the food, bending down to her knees.
She then felt a light slap on her rear and heard laughing from Rosalia behind her.
After the kind of night they had, it was a wonder that she settled for such tame flirting.
Certainly she had become very well acquainted with Byanca’s arse already.
She felt like she would carry the whip-marks on there for a week at least.
Rosalia pushed open the parasol by its handle and set it down on a wooden stand. Beneath the shade, they prepared the food, spreading preserves and honey on bread and cheese and smoky slices of prosciutto, mixing salads of fruit, cheese and veggies with the dressing in which they had been canned, and pouring wine into their glasses.
“A toast, to more than friendship!” Rosalia said.
They tapped their glasses together and took a sip. Byanca’s sip drained her glass.
“That was good. More please,” she said.
“You will have to learn to pace yourself.” Rosalia replied, withholding the bottle.
Byanca smiled innocently and tried to keep that in mind as she ate.
Everything was fresh and delicious. There was such a world of difference from the dry rations she had consumed for years. It was enough to give pause to her habit of eating everything as fast as possible, a habit picked up owing to a need to swallow bland food very quickly to energize herself for training that was only minutes away from lunch. She had to stop to taste the tart, salty cheese and the sharp, tangy dressing on the vegetables, the sweet, deep flavor of the preserves and the dense texture of the bread.
“Is it sour?” Rosalia asked.
“No! It is wonderful.” Byanca replied.
“Your eyes kept closing, and you kept wrinkling your face.”
“I was overwhelmed! I’m not used to strong tastes. Army food is very bland.”
“You should consider retiring to the countryside once all of this is over.”
Byanca blinked with surprise. She thought Rosalia averse to commitment, but this did not feel like a joking invitation. Though, she did have an impish little grin saying it.
“I’ll think about it.” Byanca said, flashing her own little grin.
Once enough of the food had been made to disappear, they set aside the rest, plated and under paper towels to keep the bugs away, and laid down beneath the shade of the parasol together, hand-in-hand. As they watched the clouds pass by over the horizon, their bodies grew closer, until they laid as they had in bed, Rosalia nestled against Byanca’s chest, and Byanca’s strong arms wrapped around her. It was warm; they started to sweat.
Both enjoyed spooning so much that they did not move despite this.
“Are you afraid, Rosalia?” Byanca asked.
“Not especially. Should I be?”
“Nobles are being targeted, you know?”
“I know. But I am not being targeted.”
Byanca held her a little closer in response.
She felt guilty again; she felt like she was using Rosalia to comfort herself. There was somebody else whom she wanted to hold too. She thought her feelings for that person, or even for the idea of being with that person, were much stronger. She had a fantasy. She was treating Rosalia like a proxy, or consolation. It wasn’t fair. And yet she couldn’t stop. Whenever she hurt, she knew this was the only realistic place to come heal.
She knew that Rosalia didn’t mind. In fact she knew Rosalia felt comfortable with this arrangement because she could not agree to any more. That was her nature too.
And yet it was not fair to her, nonetheless. Byanca felt she could have offered her more.
“Whoever chooses to attack me must attack this forest as well.” Rosalia said.
“I suppose so.”
“And besides, the Agnelli family has lived through many regimes without impediment. We do not care whether the guardian of the tree rises or falls. We do not own the Arsia; it cannot be taken from us. It is our real caregiver, our real king and queen.” Rosalia replied.
She shifted her back, perhaps relishing in pressing herself against Byanca’s breasts.
“These anarchists are different. They’re specifically here to attack the aristocracy.”
“Queen Vittoria did plenty of that as well. She overlooked us. They always do.”
“Rosalia, if you need anything, if you feel any kind of discomfort or distress, I want to know that you would put aside your pride and tell me. Can you promise me that?”
Byanca felt Rosalia shifting again, and she opened her eyes, and found herself staring deep into Rosalia’s own contented face. Their hands lay between each other’s chests, the fingers clasped together. Rosalia tipped forward, and laid a kiss on Byanca’s lips.
“Were I ever to commit to someone, it could only be you, Byanca.” She said cryptically.
Byanca blinked. Those were not words she thought she would hear out of Rosalia.
The Lady Agnelli did not allow her time to contemplate. After the kiss she stood up, and returned to her own horse, and from another bag hanging at its side, she withdrew paints, brushes, a hand-held palette, a slender easel, and a slice of canvas stretched on a thin board. She set up her easel outside the parasol, in the sun, and stood behind it.
“Byanca, could you sit down in the sun for a little while? I want to paint you.” She said.
“I’m honored to be your subject!” Byanca replied. She felt her face turning red-hot.
She stood from under the parasol and sat in a patch of poppies. Rosalia instructed her on her posture — she should sit like a princess, with her hands on her lap, her legs together and turned to the side, and her back straight. It was an arduous position, especially under the sun. Rosalia was dissatisfied with Byanca’s ponytail, and she pulled off the woman’s band and redid her dirty-blond hair with the tail starting further up her head.
Finally Rosalia returned to her easel, took up a thick pencil and made a quick drawing. After that she picked up her palette and brushes and laid the pencil aside to paint.
Her painting was the gentlest and most thoughtful series of physical actions Byanca had ever seen a human being perform. Whenever she saw a hand raised Byanca connected this to a strike; but Rosalia’s hands never slashed down or thrust forward, and instead hovered, and fluttered over the canvas, and back to the palette. She looked over her colors, mixed them, and painted. She re-examined Byanca from afar several times. It was as if the painting was a child that she was doting heavily upon; petted, clad and fed by hand.
After what seemed like almost an hour under the sun, a very rosy-cheeked Byanca was finally called to see behind the easel. She was astonished by the quality of the painting. It certainly looked like her, and it was very softly colored. Her contours were gently captured. Thin layers of color gave everything a very soft and subdued texture so that it almost seemed like a colored drawing on paper or a photo more than a painting for a wall.
“It was hasty, and I did not have my best materials.” Rosalia said.
“It is beautiful, Rosalia! And I never thought I would say that about myself!”
“Oh, but you are beautiful, Byanca. This painting captures a fraction of your beauty.”
Byanca smiled and rubbed the back of her own head.
Rosalia turned to the painting with a mildly wistful expression.
“Are you sure you cannot stay another night?”
“I’ve got some pressing business.” Byanca said sadly.
“Will you be back?” Rosalia asked, still staring at the painting as it dried.
“Of course I will! I will visit right after the matter is settled.”
“I don’t mean to sound selfish but– I’d like it if you visited more regularly.”
Byanca smiled at her again. She felt a mixture of hurt and joy in her heart.
“I won’t go to Borelia again or anything like that. I’ll be here if you need me.” She said.
Rosalia nodded her head. “I’m so very relieved to hear that.”
Hand in hand once more, the odd noblewoman of the wood and her failed knight returned to their picnic. They ate the remainder of the food, emptied the bottle of wine, picked flowers, frolicked under the sun, examined the Agnelli dogs, and all the while until the carriage came around those fingers did not separate. Even after she left, Byanca continued to feel her touch. It was an eerie sensation, welcome but hard to place.
For a time, she suppressed the guilt and sadness that she felt for the majestic antler-woman of the wood who simply could not be the princess of her childish dreams.
She wanted to feel happiness, for the unique connection they shared — for their love.
Despite everything, however she could not deny that she felt drawn back to Salvatrice.
No matter what the mind told the heart, she continued to nurture that strange and empowering childhood fantasy of being the knight whom the Princess elevates above all. For a girl who felt little value toward herself, this was the height of comforting fantasy.
Kingdom of Lubon — Pallas Messianic Academy
“Announce yourself before you’re set to arrive, Ms. Geta!”
Canelle screamed and waved a gun at the doorway, nearly in tears.
Salvatrice pressed her hand against her chest, trying to control her breathing.
Though she was almost ready to welcome her Centurion back with open arms, as usual something quickly interrupted to turn Salvatrice’s affection, almost alchemy-like, into disdain for the Blackshirt. Byanca Geta had arrived later than expected and completely unannounced, and so she scared everyone in the apartment witless once more with her brutish knocking on the door. Canelle retreated from the doorway looking quite flustered.
To add insult to this fresh injury, Byanca arrived with some unusual company.
“This is the gift you come bearing?” Salvatrice snapped with indignation.
Salvatrice glared at the doorway, a look of disgust starting to twist her features the instant Byanca passed through, nonchalantly pulling a dog on a red leash and allowing the beast into the apartment. Her princely and princessly heart skipped a beat with every step of the monster’s paws. Though the creature was as comely as a dog could be, clean and cinnamon-smelling and covered in shiny, brushed golden-brown fur; and though it had an elegant, streamlined profile with a slender body, a long snout and small, intelligent eyes; Salvatrice could still not help but withdraw from its presence. It was still, despite all of this, a dog.
“Good to see you too, princess.” Byanca said, a small smile on her face.
Her expression was almost enough to make Salvatrice feel guilty at her own response.
And yet, not quite, owing to the presence of a dog.
Especially as the Centurion closed in to within a meter of her couch.
“What compelled you to bring this thing here?” Salvatrice said.
Salvatrice started shooing the dog away before it could even get a look at the food that was set on the tea table. There was a spread of cheeses and tomatoes, cured ham and baguettes, and a large pitcher of lemonade comprising the ladies’ light lunch. Surely it attracted the monster’s nose and insatiable appetite, even if it had no immediate response.
Byanca raised her hand to her face and sighed deeply into it.
“That is not an adequate response, Centurion! When did I ever permit such a thing?”
Laying lazily down on the carpet, the dog put on an apathetic expression.
Sensing movement from the beast, the Princess grew ever more alert.
“You don’t have to react so bluntly to it.” Byanca said.
“This is my apartment, and I decide how to react to intrusion!” Salvatrice shouted.
Cannelle drew back from the dog herself, drawing out a little gasp. She turned to face the princess with growing concern. “Salvatrice, you’re not allergic to dogs, are you?”
On its face the dog had what seemed an almost dismissive expression now.
“No!” Salvatrice replied. “But a Lady’s domicile is not the place for a dog!”
“Funny, because I got this dog from a Lady. It’s been very well trained.”
Byanca gave an amicable glance at the dog and patted its long, slim head.
An unfriendly, toothy frown warped the creature’s snout. Byanca drew her hand back.
“Well-trained or no! Dogs are too pushy and messy!” Salvatrice replied.
“Maybe some of them, but this one is of good breeding!” Byanca insisted.
“It can be the most quiet and sagacious dog on Aer, and it will still be a dog the way that the most quiet and gentle gun in the world is still a gun that shoots!” Salvatrice shrieked.
She realized it was not a fashionable look for her. After all, dog was “man’s best friend” supposedly, but she could not help it. Dogs mortified her; she found them disgustingly greedy creatures. Everywhere she went the aristocracy harbored these beasts, that pushed and prodded and forced their presences into every particle of the world around them, that slobbered and smelled and soiled the ground wherever they traveled. On more than one occasion she shared a dinner table with a horrid dog! It was madness!
Dogs and dog culture got her hackles up in a visceral way. She couldn’t help it.
“Princess, that is not fair!” Byanca replied. “Look at Terry, she’s not doing anything.”
Terry and the Princess briefly locked eyes and averted their glances almost at once.
Salvatrice petulantly crossed her arms. “I will not suffer such indecent company!”
“Did a dog bite you as a kid?” Byanca asked, looking at her with concern, like Canelle.
“Whether a dog bit me or not is none of your business! I just don’t like them!”
Again Byanca sighed, but not with defeat. She remained rooted in place with the dog.
“Princess, I’m sorry, but the dog is a tactical asset. I need her for security reasons.”
“I can’t believe you! Next you’ll bring a gorilla out of the zoo as a ‘tactical asset’!”
Byanca turned a sad expression on the princess. “You hate gorillas too?”
“Listen to me for one second!” Salvatrice said, feeling a tightness in her head from holding the same indignant expression for so long. “I do not hate these creatures! I do not deign to hate them! There is no value in hating them! But I do not associate with gorillas, or with magpies, or with drakes, or with dogs. I do not want them in my home!”
“Is there an animal you don’t hate?” Byanca asked, crossing her own arms.
She turned a pitying expression on the princess that Salvatrice deeply resented.
Salvatrice was too invested in this childish tussle to see her own petulance anymore.
“I told you I don’t hate them! But fine: cats! Cats are a most noble creature!”
“You know that cats just manipulate you to get food, right?” Byanca said.
Salvatrice’s eyes drew wide. “Take that back! You barbarian! Cats have more than love for us, they have respect! They respect our time and our space and our property!”
Byanca put on a sour expression and seemed to be getting invested in the argument.
“Princess, dogs actually go up to you and show their affection! Cats don’t care at all!”
“I don’t want a filthy dog’s ignorant invasions against my person! Cats know their place!”
“Dogs can track things and hunt and protect you! Cats are just lazy and selfish!”
“Dogs just destroy your furniture! Cats get rid of vermin, and they clean themselves!”
“Name one other animal you like beside cats!” Byanca childishly challenged her.
“Fish! I love Fish! So as you can see I am an animal lover!” Salvatrice shouted back.
“Princess you’re just lazy! You don’t want any animals that take any effort to care for!”.
Behind them a series of sharp little noises diffused the ridiculous tension that had built.
“What’s so funny?” Salvatrice asked, whipping around.
She found Canelle holding her own mouth shut, giggling and snorting in recurring fits.
“Oh, Princess, I’m so sorry! But after all this cat-and-dog fighting, I’ve just imagined miss Geta as a big dopey pooch, and you as a prissy little puss! And it just fits too well!”
Canelle burst out into fresh laughter the second she finished the thought.
Salvatrice made a skeptical, perhaps feline expression that prompted further laughter.
Byanca stifled a laugh herself.
“Alright, Princess, you win.” the Centurion said, a light-hearted smile on her face.
With regal disdain, Salvatrice regarded the dog and turned the other cheek.
Terry seemed to turn almost the exact expression back on her.
Canelle covered her mouth once more, her cheeks puffing up with subdued laughter.
There was an eerie silence in the room for over a minute.
Salvatrice glanced around the corner of her eye at Byanca, who stood pitifully still.
She was waiting for a reaction, perhaps anxiously.
Suddenly the atmosphere in the room made Salva feel a little foolish.
The Princess made a few discontented noises before turning back around.
“Fine. Fine! You can keep the dog, and it can stay, today.” Salvatrice said. “Henceforth, that dog is your responsibility, Byanca, since you love it so much. It lives with you, it eats with you, and it bathes with you, and it stays out of my apartment. I warn you that anything it soils, you will pay for, and everything in this apartment is very expensive!”
Byanca smiled and bowed her head in deference. “Thank you, your highness.”
Salvatrice turned again and hissed. “Hmph! It’s not like I wanted to placate you or anything.”
Soon the episode was forgiven and forgotten by all parties, perhaps except Canelle, who continued to laugh at her imagined adventures of Salva-Cat and Geta-Dog throughout the hour. Salvatrice elegantly partook of her tomatoes and cheese, drank her sweet lemonade and tried to ignore the presence of the dog sitting calmly at Byanca’s side, likely waiting for scraps. However, she was soon drawn again into acknowledging the beast.
“Don’t feed it people food.” Salvatrice preemptively said.
“I won’t. It’d spoil her. Her tongue’s been dyed.” Byanca said.
“What does that mean?” the Princess asked.
“It’s an indelicate tradition.” Byanca turned suddenly nervous.
“Do I look like I have a fainting couch in here? Don’t treat me like a child.”
“Fine. Terry primarily hunts and kills for food and eats in cold blood, and she has tasted human blood in a controlled environment. It’s a traditional way to rear hunting dogs.”
Salvatrice stared at the dog and found it with its mouth open and its tongue lolling.
For a moment she actually did feel rather faint in the little monster’s presence.
Even Canelle was staring at it with incredulous eyes. Her good humor swiftly subsided.
“It won’t hurt you or anyone here!” Byanca quickly said. “I promise! Terry’s a good dog!”
As if prompted, Terry jumped up on the couch, laid down and stared at them all sideways.
“I am going to make an effort to forget all of this.” Salvatrice said, rubbing her forehead.
That night was not to be one made for forgetting.
After tea-time, Byanca withdrew with her new pet back to her room, and Salvatrice went about her day. She read her books on socialism, ate another light meal, took her hormones and helped Canelle fold clothes. Overhead the sun traveled across the sky only to wind back down into the horizon and disappear from view. Everything was soon dark. Canelle turned off all the lamps, served a little booster shot of warm honey-lemon tea to help everyone ward off the seasonal cold, and retreated to her own room after kissing Salva on the cheek.
“Good night, Princess! I will see you on the ‘morrow, whenever that may be.”
She winked her eye.
Salvatrice smiled back at her as the doors to her room shut.
Turning sharply around she set about enacting her plan.
She seized a bundle from under her bed, and pulled off and discarded her night-gown.
In its place, she donned the short pants, button-down shirt and large cap of a newsboy.
Owing to light pollution, Salvatrice could not see stars in the sky when she snuck out.
From her balcony all she could see were the myriad lights of the academy.
And far in the distance, the town of Palladi, where her love was waiting.