“This trip is nicer than the last time,” noted Cassie, who was sitting beside Andrea on the horse-drawn wagon travelling along the wide, tree-lined path that parallelled the Rhyad River. “At least today we’re accompanying the new Karrea town mayor instead of trying to fight a war.”
Andrea smiled. “It does beat walking. Her Majesty - er, Diana - told me she’s mainly worried about thieves and bandits. Well, also small remnants of the Moores or Harringtons who won’t accept the general amnesty.”
“So, nobody to worry about, not with our very capable Royal Enchanter accompanying the party, right?” Cassie grinned, nudging Andrea slightly with her elbow.
Andrea blushed slightly, then her face returned to its normal color as she spoke. “It’s a precaution. The rebuilding in Karrea is just getting started, and with the new town mayor about to arrive, someone might want to attack to make a statement. But we’ve got fighters and legionnaires with us, too.” She gestured behind them at the armed group trailing the slowly-moving wagon.
“Kinda glad I’m not with them,” Cassie joked.
“A special dispensation granted by me, may I remind you,” called Jacob from across the wagon.
“For which I thank you very much,” Cassie replied with a bow.
Andrea couldn’t help the alarmed look on her face as she wondered if Cassie was mocking the man who was basically the chief of the palace guard and prince all rolled into one. Jacob didn’t seem offended, though, and in any case, the just-audible occasional shout and barked command indicated they were getting close to Karrea. After a few more minutes, they reached the town borders, and with that they piled out of the wagon.
They formed themselves into a procession, Jacob and the new town mayor at the head, with Andrea and Cassie immediately following and the small garrison marching behind them. They moved along the wide pathway leading to the town center, and as they did so, Cassie and Andrea could see the differing stages of rebuilding: some smaller houses had only just been cleared of the charred wood and only one or two tall posts marked the beginnings of reconstruction. On the other hand, as they reached the center of town, they could see the mayor’s official residence and town hall was practically complete.
With that, the ceremonial re-establishment of Karrea was kicked off, and the next half an hour or so (at least, Cassie had to try and judge this by the movement of the sun in the sky. Mechanical watches were just not A Thing yet) was filled with florid speeches by Jacob and the new mayor, after which Jacob made a short final announcement that in order to protect the town while it was being rebuilt, the garrison would patrol the boundary and keep away any troublemakers.
More than a few people looked west, towards the river and beyond to Azgadar. The armistice, Andrea knew, continued to hold, but the revelation that Ithmeera had wanted to steal Gurdinfield’s magic hadn’t sat well with some people. Plus, any renegade Moore faction groups might see the rebuilding as a tempting target.
Magic was back, but… it was still so hard to get used to. Even she, Andrea, had to tamp down momentary panic when she would do casting, reminding herself that she wouldn’t risk exhausting herself and getting magic-sick - and she’d been the cause of the restoration in the first place!
In any case, the ceremonial innings were done and the crowd of people gave short cheers and applause before everybody went to their duties. In Jacob’s case that meant organizing the protective guard, which included Andrea and Cassie.
“Andrea, would you patrol with Cassie at night and be prepared in case there are any enchanters in a band of bandits, or anything of the sort? I admit, it is unlikely they have any enchanters, but best to be prepared, especially on the first night.”
Andrea nodded. “Cassie and I will go set up our tent, and then walk the town for a bit.”
The sounds of construction went on for the remainder of the day as they walked around the small town, Andrea actually finding her barrier-pushing technique could help levitate wood and supplies to people fixing or rebuilding the roofs of houses and buildings.
As dusk fell, the townspeople called a halt, and a small communal dinner was served. Jacob tried politely declining, saying the garrison had rations of their own, but the new mayor insisted. So Andrea and Cassie got to sample a local delicacy, a form of spiced smoked salmon. They took their salmon pieces and went to sit down on a log some distance away from the central bonfire in the town square.
The first bite Cassie had made her eyes go wide, and she gulped down a sizable amount of water from her canteen. “Whoa! They really went heavy on the … whatever spices they used!”
Andrea looked doubtfully at her own piece of smoked salmon. “We never had anything like that at Ata.”
Cassie snorted. “If I have to suffer, you do too, sweetie.” She broke off a piece of her salmon and held it out to Andrea. “C’mon, eat up.”
Andrea reached up, but Cassie held it close to Andrea’s mouth. “Now, now, no backing down. All at once!”
Andrea mock-scowled at Cassie, but obligingly let Cassie feed her. After her first chew, her eyes went wide as well (at which Cassie grinned slightly maniacally), and she frantically chewed as she got her canteen to wash it down with water. When she’d swallowed, she coughed and spluttered, “Who manages to eat that?!”
Cassie grumbled, “The Karreans, apparently.”
Indeed, the townspeople were happily eating and drinking as though the salmon were ordinary bread. Cassie shook her head, then reared back as Andrea’s fingers, holding a small salmon piece, appeared before her. “What the--?”
“If you’re going to make me eat this, it’s only fair that you reciprocate, sweetie,” said Andrea with a too-charming smile on her face.
Cassie grouched, “You’re enjoying this way too much. What happened to my adorable flustered enchanter girlfriend?”
Andrea rolled her eyes. “Eat,” she insisted.
Cassie sighed rather ostentatiously, and with a long-suffering air, said, “Woe is me as I eat the fire-fish!”
But she opened her mouth and let Andrea feed her, and although it was still very hot to the tongue it was a little more manageable, although a lot of water helped.
Soon, it got to be almost a game: the two girls each tried to get the other to eat larger and larger pieces, and Cassie “won” - at least she always claimed this later - as, cheeks bulging, she valiantly chewed the last quarter of Andrea’s fish piece and managed to swallow it before raising her fists in the air. Never mind that her eyes watered and her face was red enough to rival a stop sign back home, or perhaps a bright royal Azgadaran sash.
After they each had the last of their water in their canteens (they weren’t too worried; the river being so close meant they could refill any time), Andrea got up. “We should begin patrolling now.”
Cassie grimaced, but stood as well, checking that her sword and knife were sharp and in good order. “It’s gonna be a long night.”
Andrea reached for Cassie’s hand. “At least we get to patrol together.”
With that, they left for the town borders and began their circulation about the town, Cassie in particular making sure to check behind bushes and trees to make sure no criminal types or spies were lurking about.
The night proved to be uneventful, and before long, Andrea had to shush Cassie when she would make grumpy remarks about how much she would love to be able to sleepwalk. It wouldn’t do for a guardswoman to be complaining within earshot of others, after all. But the need to stay awake overcame other sentiments, and Cassie was mostly silent through the night.
The lightening of the sky to twilight threw enough light to show a groggy Cassie and barely-awake Andrea that aside from the other legionnaire patrollers, nothing of substance had happened. One man said he thought he’d seen a shadow dash off in the distance, but other than that, it looked like night-time patrol was mostly going to be pro forma until the town was completely rebuilt and they had enough of their own people back (who had been coming in dribs and drabs over the last several days) to raise their own town militia.
After being formally relieved by Jacob, Andrea and Cassie went into their tent and dropped off into blessed slumber within just a few moments.
Andrea woke up first. She looked at Cassie, who was sprawled rather ungainly across her blanket, and smiled. She brushed a few stray hairs away from Cassie’s forehead and pressed a gentle kiss to her temple before rising and stepping out of their shared tent. Through the leafy trees overhead, she could see the sun hadn’t quite gone past midday.
Jacob happened to be walking through the encampment and spotted Andrea. He grinned. “Sleep well?”
“I just remember stretching out on my blanket and closing my eyes,” Andrea replied. “Travelling all day yesterday and then patrolling really made me tired.”
Jacob chuckled. “Listen, I think we can probably let you off night patrol and put Cassie on a half-shift tonight. I think if anybody’s out looking to make trouble, they got scared off when they saw us show up.”
Thirty people armed to the teeth wasn’t exactly an overwhelming force, but short of a full-strength Azgadaran regiment bearing down on them, it certainly was a group to be reckoned with.
“Are you sure you want to ease up so quickly?” Andrea frowned; she had been captured by the Moores once, and Cassie had had her life threatened by one of them. It was not an experience she cared to repeat.
Although, she considered, that odious Captain Moore was dead.
Jacob must have remembered as well, because he pursed his lips, then seemed to come to a decision. “I might set up semipermanent sentry posts along all the major roadways instead of having soldiers moving through the forest constantly. Any experienced ranger or hunter would’ve heard the bushes rustling all night - maybe we can flush out a few by seeming to relax our guard, though I’ll post some people to hide behind trees and such.”
Andrea nodded and smiled in slight relief. Cassie’s voice behind her startled her a bit, and she jerked around to see Cassie, dressed appropriately, her hair done up in a bun. “Did I hear you right, Jacob? A half-shift on sentry duty tonight?”
“Better than wandering the forest going ‘round and round, I would think,” noted Jacob.
Cassie came to attention. “Yes, sir. When do I report?”
“At nightfall. You both will have tomorrow free to do as you please.”
Cassie nodded, and the two went to go to the river.
“Aaaaaaah!” Cassie said, punctuating her exclamation of relief with a gusty sigh as she crouched in the shallow waters of the wide, slow-flowing Rhyad River.
Cassie, clad in only her uniform’s underclothes (a shirt and something that passed for shorts), was relishing being in the cool water, tilting her head back a bit as she undid her hair from its bun to let it float freely in the water as well.
Andrea was cautiously stepping into the water. Cassie lifted her head and called, “Is everything okay?”
“I’m just not really used to swimming,” admitted Andrea. She was near Cassie now, the water now up to her waist as she crouched as well. She closed her eyes, quiet bliss crossing her features as she savored the coolness of the river.
“But this is okay?” Cassie wondered. “If it helps I didn’t really do a lot of this either, not back… wherever.”
“Yes, as long as I don’t go any deeper than this, I think.”
It helped, Cassie observed, that the riverbanks sloped gently downwards and were mostly grassy, with only a few rocks here and there.They were also a bit further downstream than absolutely necessary, but this far from the main bridge connecting Karrea to the Azgadaran realm, nobody was likely to interrupt their idyllic washing session.
“I would kill for an actual honest to god shower, you know,” Cassie remarked.
Andrea frowned, then dunked her head momentarily in the water. After she came back up for air, she said, “They have them in Azgadar, I’ve heard? A kind of water tap above your head and water comes out? We always just bathed in Ata.”
Cassie nodded. “Yep. We had them all over in my world, pretty much. Now don’t get me wrong, I love a nice long bath as much as the next girl, but it just takes so long sometimes to fill the tub.”
Andrea shook her head in amusement. “Well, they pretty much don’t exist here in the east. Even in the City of Towers.”
“Don’t I know it,” muttered Cassie. She moodily splashed some water in Andrea’s direction.
“What? At least it’s not mud,” Cassie retorted. “Plus, you’re not gonna get any more wet than you are now.”
“Excuse me,” Andrea replied as she frowned and brushed her wet hair away from her eyes, “but I’d like to not be blinking water out of my eyes when you decide to be moody in the water.”
Cassie splashed some more water in Andrea’s direction, garnering an indignant squeal and a sudden wave of water returned in her direction, drenching her head completely and leaving her gasping as she blinked water out of her eyes. She glared at Andrea and declared, “Oh, this is war!”
And with that, thereupon commenced several minutes of outraged squeals amid peals of laughter as the two girls tried to see who could launch more water at the other.
A laughing, nearly out of breath Cassie finally called, “Okay! Enough, please! I promise, no more splashing!”
Andrea looked at her skeptically for a moment, then relented. “Fine. I’m a little winded, too.” Her lips curved into an impish smile. “Besides, that was actually kind of fun.”
“Yeah, it kinda was,” Cassie agreed with a grin. She took a breath, and announced, “Well, I guess I’ve pretty much cleaned myself as well as I can with no hot water and bathtub, or even soap. I’m outta here.”
So saying, she stood up, entirely heedless of the effect it had on Andrea as she began making her way up the riverbank, muttering about needing to clean her feet.
For Andrea had never seen what happens when a woman wearing a thin white shirt goes into water and then comes back out, until now: Cassie’s shirt practically molded onto every curve of her body, and for a moment, Andrea couldn’t seem to quite breathe as her eyes stayed glued to Cassie - in particular to Cassie’s chest.
And then panic hit her as her brain unstuck itself for a moment. When she got out of the water…!
Andrea didn’t exactly swear a lot, but at that moment every expletive in her language, plus Cassie’s as well, ran through her head as she wondered if she should just play it off and ignore Cassie’s almost-certain interest, or just stay in the water until dark fell, because oh damn, what if someone else sees the two of them…!
She didn’t think she could bear to look Jacob in the eyes again if he accidentally came across the two of them in that state. It was unlikely, but what if?
Cassie’s voice broke in on her thoughts, and she jerked as she turned to look at Cassie, now lying on a blanket on a nearby large smooth, flat stone. “Hey! You coming?”
“Um, yes! Just give me a minute!”
Andrea hurriedly dunked her head under water, running her hands through her hair as she tried to collect herself.
All right. Just… act like it’s a normal thing.
Andrea lifted her head up, then stood up, trying not to let the heat rise to her cheeks as she stepped towards Cassie. Cassie’s eyes widened momentarily, but then she grinned and let out a low whistle. “Giiiiirl, you could beat out some wet T-shirt contests back home!”
Andrea had to stop walking as she dropped her head into her palms, bursting out laughing as she did so. She tried to gather herself, letting her hands fall as she managed to step over to the stone to lay out on the blanket next to Cassie.
Another look at Cassie’s expression of barely-repressed laughter set Andrea off again, laughing as the heat rose fully to her cheeks. “I can’t believe this!” she said between laughs.
Cassie smirked. “What, that you look hot in a wet T-shirt, or that I’ve been to a bar where they had a contest?”
Deciding to go for prim dignity, Andrea tried giving Cassie her steadiest look as she replied, “I’m flattered that you think so, on both counts.”
Cassie brushed some hair away from Andrea’s eyes and said, “Well, if I’m not mistaken, you had the same reaction to me, am I right?”
“Um,” replied Andrea. “I…. well, yes.” Her cheeks grew slightly warm again.
“Well, good, I’d hate to think I couldn’t rock a wet shirt.” Cassie gave her another short smirk, then leaned in for a small kiss.
“Anyway, we need to get dry before we can get our outerwear back on,” Andrea noted.
“‘Kay.” Cassie leaned back on the stone, resting her head on her arm, and Andrea did the same. “And if you’re really worried, there’s a spare blanket in one of our bags, but I honestly doubt anyone’ll come this far south.”
The sun shining down on them, the slight fitful breeze, and the gently rushing sound of the nearby river, all lulled Andrea into a gentle sleep, with the last thought in her mind being that she wouldn’t object to getting a glimpse of Cassie completely shirtless.
Andrea decided to join Cassie on sentry detail that night, even though she didn’t have to. As she noted to Cassie, standing next to her on one side of a trail that went into town, “I didn’t think it was entirely fair to leave you to do this while I slept.”
Cassie’s return nudge and handclasp told Andrea all she needed to know about whether her decision had been correct. The other guard, some feet away from them, paid them no attention as her keen eyes roved this way and that, seeking out any possible intruders.
Andrea sighed mentally as she closed her eyes, momentarily sampling the rich threads of magic that permeated the area. Meredith had been able to sense her magic from far away, but she didn’t even yet have the skill to use the nearby magic to sense other people. Perhaps, she thought, she would look into that when she returned to the City of Towers.
As before, the night passed dully without any sign of unsavory types, and Cassie grew restless, shifting on the balls of her feet. Andrea’s soft touch at the small of Cassie’s back drew a grateful smile, and she could see in the dim night-light that some of the tension was leaving Cassie’s expression.
To keep Cassie distracted from the time passing, she said in a low voice, “Tomorrow we’re completely free. Did you want to go to the lake that’s about two or three hours out from here? It’s Lake Cadar, and while it’s formally in the Azgadaran Empire, I don’t think we’ll have any trouble visiting it. It’s beautiful, like a large oasis in the middle of a desert, although I only saw it passing by with Meredith in our travels.”
Cassie made an indistinct noise in the back of her throat, then said, “Sure? Why not? But do you guys have suntan lotion at all? I swear I think my face got a little burnt earlier today.”
It was only mid-spring, but they’d been lying on that rock for some time, only waking up to turn over, before realizing when they’d woken up the second time, that the sun had shifted noticeably in the sky and they were totally dry at that point.
Andrea brow furrowed as she considered. “Elisa told me once they sold some kind of oil like that in Azgadar. We never really had the money for that in Ata, though, so I don’t know how good it is. I could ask around, if you want.”
Cassie shrugged. “I guess worst case is I’ll try and find shade for a while.”
Not long after that the relief sentries arrived, and with that, Andrea and Cassie plodded off to get some sleep.
The next morning, both Cassie and Andrea were awake within minutes of each other, and so bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, they prepared for their small day trip after clearing it with Jacob. The town rebuilding had picked up its pace with some of the garrison soldiers helping out, and it looked like within several days people would be getting back to their usual routines, and a few more days after that would see a token few legionnaires left behind to help get the town militia back up to snuff while the bulk of the garrison would go elsewhere - likely the fighters and legionnaires would be sent on normal patrol routes within Gurdinfield proper.
There had been talk of border posts along the Rhyad River, but Azgadar might take that the wrong way, so no troops would be visible along the border any time soon. Karrea was a special case, and Azgadar would surely accept the valid explanation of needing to protect it temporarily until the townspeople could do that themselves.
In any case, Andrea busied herself getting together a picnic basket while Cassie checked on their clothes and other provisions they would need if they needed to stop somewhere. It wasn’t an onerous walk, she knew, but the land gave way to sagebrush and grasses as one went into Azgadar, and that also meant more direct sunlight.
As if that thought had called Cassie forth, she walked up to Andrea as she was finishing up her purchases at the new town market. In fact, the wood that made up the rebuilt roof, as well as the new pillars, was still so fresh Andrea swore she could smell the pine needles from time to time. The foods tended to run to the spicier end of things, but Andrea had been able to buy some portions of a smoked salmon that wouldn’t burn the tongue, plus some fruits and bread loaves. At the bottom of the basket were some cold rations as well.
Cassie waved and beamed, holding up the two large canteens she had. “Plenty of water for us, by the way!”
Andrea waved back, then paid the market proprietor and went to join her girlfriend. She muttered to Cassie, “At least here they’re not quite so enthralled at me being the enchanter. Back at the City of Towers that man would’ve been practically genuflecting before me.”
“Uh, whatever that fancy word was, glad they’re not doing it here, then,” Cassie said, a teasing tone in her voice.
“It means bowing excessively,” Andrea replied.
“A-ha! I learned something in this new world.” Cassie made an imaginary mark in the air.
With that, the two wasted no time embarking on their westward travel to Lake Cadar.
The lake on the horizon was huge. Cassie knew what it looked like on a map of Damea, but to actually see the wide expanse of water slowly appearing before them, even larger than Azgadar at a similar distance, was mindboggling.
Cassie shook her head in amazement. “Geesh, the size of that thing. I wonder where the river is that feeds it.”
Andrea frowned. “Possibly a tributary of the Rhyad. I don’t really remember. I think Lake Cadar is big enough to actually be a bit salty, though - or at least, I’ve always heard that. I think I told you Meredith and I went by here once some time ago. Seeing it like this again is just as impressive.”
“Did she take you skinny-dipping in the lake?” joked Cassie.
Andrea frowned. “And what’s… ‘skinny-dipping’? If this is another one of your tired ‘your mentor is your girlfriend’ jokes…”
Cassie coughed. “Busted. Um, subject change?”
“No, Cassie. Answer me!”
Cassie relented, putting her hand on Andrea’s shoulder. “Okay, it was probably not in great taste. So, um, don’t get mad - too much. Skinny-dipping is when you go in a river or a lake or a pool with your clothes off. Like, all of them.” She dropped her hand.
Andrea’s retort was cut off as the mental image of a very attractively naked Cassie leaped from a rock into the lake below, then rising above the water, glistening droplets of water running down her neck--
Andrea shook herself. She let out an incoherent gargle at first, then managed to get out, “You… that? You’ve done… that?!” She was now sure the heat rising to her cheeks could rival the noonday sun shining obliquely overhead onto the arid Azgadaran semidesert around them.
Cassie did a double-take at Andrea’s face and burst out laughing. She pointed, guffawing, “Oh my god, if you could see yourself in the mirror! You look like a tomato!”
Cassie rolled her eyes, her laughter subsiding as she grew serious. “Well, a time or two. Mostly on a dare, though. Like once, a friend of mine and I were at a small pool party and she bet me a pizza I wouldn’t do it. Well, I’m never one to turn down a free Papa John’s, so you bet I stripped off and jumped in!”
Andrea rubbed her hands and bit her lip.
Cassie, noticing Andrea’s discomfort, said “Anyway, we don’t have to at the lake, okay? I’m happy to take it slow.”
Andrea let out a small sigh in relief as her shoulders relaxed. “Thank you. I’m not saying we’re overly modest in Damea - I know in the capital, the Azgadarans have public combined men and women baths - but in Ata we didn’t really have anything like that, just clothes on at all times outside of the bathroom.”
“Huh,” muttered Cassie.
Conversation petered out again as they made the final leg of their journey over the gentle slopes of the otherwise basically-flat semidesert. The trail was packed down with the decades of people traversing the same journey back and forth, and Cassie could see the gentle curve it made against the surrounding … dirt and sand, she guessed.
But finally, they were at the shore of the lake, and a stroke of luck was with them as well! A large rock sat amid the otherwise smooth sand and rock leading down to the lake proper. and it was big enough to cast a shadow and vertical enough on the north side that they could lean against it as they sat down. Andrea smiled. “Great! We can have some lunch now.”
“You can feed me like you did last night,” Cassie joked.
“I got salmon that wasn’t so spicy, by the way,” said Andrea.
“Oh, thank the heavens,” declared Cassie. “I think my eyes watered for a good half an hour or so after that last bigass salmon chunk you stuffed in my face.”
And with that, Cassie divested herself of her travel pack to set it aside, and Andrea helped her get the large red and white checkered blanket to sit on in the shady side of the rock. Soon after, they each had a canteen in hand and a piece of salmon to eat, and after a bite Cassie pronounced, “Great. Awesome. Love the smoky taste and the very kind lack of spices. Ten out of ten would eat again.”
Andrea tilted her head in puzzlement, frowning slightly at another of Cassie’s sometimes odd turns of phrase. She thought about asking, then, bemused, she turned to eating her salmon instead, as well as looking around. This close up, the calm lake stretched off to the left and right of the rock for a considerable distance, and she could see the two small islands in the lake poking up out of it in the northern part of the lake.
The sky was clear and blue, with mere tufts of clouds here and there across it, and a slight breeze was picking up and blowing across her, barely ruffling her hair.
Cassie, to her right, looked around and nodded in appreciation. “This is the kinda thing I could get used to. Have the whole lake to yourself and just chill. I’m only surprised more travellers aren’t coming this way. I’d have expected to be able to spot at least one more person around here.”
“It’s only early spring, for one thing. Plus the civil war in Gurdinfield and the recent Azgadaran incursion has probably kept people from wanting to come to Karrea. I overheard the townspeople saying the Moores burned down the town because they were having trouble making their protection payments, which means trade was iffy in the first place.” Andrea sipped at some water from her canteen.
“As sucky as all that is, it’s to our advantage today.” Cassie grinned and got an apple out of the picnic basket.
When both of them had eaten their fill, Cassie shifted a bit and rested her back against the rock. “That was nice. Very nice.” She smiled lazily at Andrea. “What about you?”
After closing up the picnic basket and setting it at the edge of the blanket to her left, Andrea sat up against the rock and nodded, smiling back. “It was definitely a nice break. I do love the palace research lab I have, but it’s... “ she sighed, and mumbled, “the palace is cold a lot of the time.”
“Hey, I could come warm you up,” said Cassie.
“And you would shirk your duties to do that?” said Andrea with a raised eyebrow.
“Ummmmm, what if it was my job to keep you warm?”
Andrea let out a short chuckle. “Diana - Her Majesty - would never allow that.”
“Rats. Well, honestly though, you should come out and watch the drill exercises we do to keep sharp. The sun’s usually out and all that.” Cassie grinned and flexed her arm, showing her bicep muscle.
“The truth is, I might not. I’ve got an idea for a new line of research and I’m going to be very busy with that when I return.” Andrea bit her lip and looked off into the distance.
Cassie reached out, and Andrea took her hand. “Hey, listen, hon, you know I’m here for you - I mean, that’s what this whole girlfriend thing is, yeah? Come to our bed each night; at least promise me that so I know you’re not overworking yourself.”
“I’ll try,” said Andrea, her voice soft as she spoke.
Cassie squeezed her hand gently and leaned in for a kiss. “That’s all I ask.” She sat back and nodded at the lake. “Swim later? Clothes on, I promise.”
“That would be nice. After the river, I’m definitely getting used to relaxing in water.”
“Well, here, you could actually go all the way to those islands. I wonder how long it’d take, actually.”
The thought of the ground not being under her feet set Andrea’s heart racing. “I’d-I’d rather leave that to someone else.”
“Not a big swimmer?”
Andrea shook her head and glumly eyed the blanket. “Not much of a chance to, not being the spoiled daughter of a Azgadar noble or a Gurdinfieldian warrior who needs to know how to navigate rivers and hide in the forest to sneak up on an enemy. Even Gurithians have more of a chance; they’re next to the ocean.”
“It’s okay. I didn’t do a whole lot either; it’s not like I became an Olympic champion or anything. I can tread water, float safely and all, but me, yeah, I’d as soon have my feet on something solid too,” Cassie said, reassurance in her voice.
Andrea looked up again. The sun had shifted a little more, and she felt like she’d sufficiently digested her meal. “Well, how about now?”
Cassie grinned and bounced to her feet. “Sure thing!”
Andrea chuckled at her girlfriend’s enthusiasm and stood as well. She called,”You just want to see me in a wet shirt again.”
Cassie stared for a moment, then burst out with a short laugh. “Holy! You got some game after all!”
Andrea got to work divesting herself of her enchanter travelling clothes. Cassie, being armored and armed, was a bit slower. Andrea took that moment to close her eyes again: yes, the magic was rich and - Andrea wanted to almost call it smooth. Like a very rare kind of satin she’d heard the Empress of Azgadar wore on formal occasions.
It was probably the calm lake that helped ease the magic, made it feel more malleable. Andrea opened her eyes again, making a mental note for her research. Meantime, however, they had a lake to be in!
As with the river, Andrea took careful steps, letting the not-quite-warm water pool around her ankles, then her calves, then up to her waist and finally, up to about her chest. At that point, she shifted her stance, feeling the sandy lake bottom swirl up a bit around her feet.
Cassie, next to her, said, “This is okay? Safe?”
“Yes. I’d like to stay this far out.”
They weren’t too far from the edge of the lake, and a joker Cassie might be, she wasn’t the kind to insensitively try to get Andrea to go further out for any reason.
Cassie dunked herself under water for a moment, then came up for air. “Yep! Definitely a bit salty. Not as bad as an actual ocean, though.” To Andrea, she said, “Hey, I can try to teach you a few things, if you want. I mean, I mostly picked this up as I went.”
“Sure.” It would help, Andrea thought, if she was more capable in bodies of water. After all, another mission might come up in the course of her researches.
And so Andrea practiced floating on her back in water, as well as other techniques. It didn’t hurt one bit that Cassie had to put her hands on Andrea a lot for the purpose. Or that Cassie wanted to reward her with kisses.
They were laying out in the waning evening sun, letting its rays dry their clothes. It would have been more effective, Andrea knew, to take their clothes off, but she still couldn’t quite bring herself to do that. As with the previous time, Cassie’s wet shirt had left little to the imagination, but she had taken it in stride and simply rolled her eyes at Cassie’s teasing.
Soon, though, they’d need to eat again. Andrea called over to Cassie, “Are you hungry?”
“Hmm, yeah. Little bit. You?”
Andrea nodded, and Cassie got up to bring over the picnic basket and canteens. Luckily, the bread, having been out of the sun, was still fairly soft. Andrea tore off some pieces for her and Cassie, who muttered, “Sliced bread needs to be a thing around these here parts.”
“There are bread knives at the palace,” said Andrea.
“Pffft. As if I can be bothered to do all that myself,” Cassie said, her lips quirking in a grin.
The two set to eating, slowly enjoying their evening meal as the sun continued to fall towards the horizon. It wasn’t quite in their eyes, being off to the left amid some gathering clouds in the southwest, but Andrea would be happy when the evening turned to twilight.
Conversation was muted as they polished off some more of the salmon and fruits, leaving a small morning ration for the trip back if they stayed the night - which, Andrea thought, would probably happen. Jacob had allowed it seemed unlikely that a surprise attack was in the offing, and so released Cassie and Andrea for the day and night, but had asked that they be back in the morning to help with rebuilding. The townspeople were apparently hoping Andrea could be around to help levitate materials for some of the larger buildings now nearing completion.
It certainly beats using magic for war, thought Andrea. And indeed, there was another use for her magic as the sun finally dipped below the horizon, darkness settling down over them as the air began to cool as well.
Andrea set a small flame alight in her hand, then ‘attached’ it to a nearby outcropping from the rock they’d been sitting against. The whitish light flickered and danced as the flame steadied after Andrea withdrew her hand.
Cassie beamed as Andrea sat next to her again. “I knew landing my own enchanter girlfriend was gonna pay off one day.” She nudged Andrea’s shoulder.
“Oh, is that all you want me for? My flame-casting talents? Well, I’ll have you know any old enchanter can do that.” It was true; one of the basic skills taught her by Jheran was how to start and extinguish a flame, since having a personal source of light was very useful.
“But they wouldn’t be you,” Cassie said. “‘Cause you’re kinda hot and all. The next enchanter might be some wrinkly old man who can barely stand up.”
Andrea let out a chuckle as she leaned in to peck Cassie on the cheek. “Well, I’m certainly not wrinkly, nor old.” She looked up at the stars dotting the sky and sighed. “It’s a lovely night - no clouds and no burning fires to block out the sky.”
Cassie looked up for a moment, then looked back at the ground, her face uneasy.
“It’s - never mind. Lemme clean up.”
Andrea reached out, gently clasping Cassie’s forearm. “Please. What is it? You looked… disturbed.”
Cassie growled, then slumped as Andrea let go. “The stars aren’t right, Andrea! You’ll think it’s a stupid thing to get bothered by, but it’s… just…it’s not home.”
“Come here,” urged Andrea.
Cassie shifted so she was sitting shoulder to shoulder with Andrea, who wrapped her arms around Cassie.
“It’s - I mean, I can’t say I understand that, but…” Andrea sighed and kissed Cassie’s temple. “Please, tell me things like that, okay? Meredith and I dragged you here and I know you’re adjusting pretty well, but it’s okay to be homesick. When I ran away from home, I’d get the weirdest pangs for home. Little things would remind me of fun times I’d had with Mother and Father when I was a child, or the smell of some foods reminding me of meals I’d had when I was younger. I’d always kick myself for being stupid to feel like that, but… well, it happens and that’s all there is to it.”
Cassie made a noise that was suspiciously close to a sniffle, but just bowed her head and muttered, “Thanks.” She rested her hand on Andrea’s leg and squeezed gently. “‘Preciate it.”
Andrea rubbed Cassie’s back for a bit, then softly asked, “Did you want to go for a walk along the lakeshore for a bit, explore a bit?”
Cassie turned to look at Andrea and smiled. “That sounds good; it’ll help take my mind off things. Can you carry that flame with you, though?”
Andrea let go of Cassie and made a mocking raspberry sound. “As if that is beyond my masterful capabilities at all.”
Cassie laughed and stood up. “Well, it is a pretty mundane request compared to fighting a war and holding a barrier against invaders.”
Andrea stood as well and with Cassie, did a last-minute check to make sure everything was stored safely in the picnic basket or their travel bags.
After that, the two walked, hand in hand, Andrea having enchanted the flame to follow behind them so it wouldn’t dazzle their eyes, but be high enough to throw light ahead as well. The water lapping at the lakeshore and the gentle, cool night wind mixed with the rare sound of a bird flying high overhead as it zoomed back to the forested parts of Azgadar or Gurdinfield, all combining to soothe Andrea as she walked. Cassie, too, seemed calmer and more placid now as well.
After a few more minutes of walking northward, an impish grin crossed Cassie’s face. “Saaaay, you know what I feel like doing?”
Andrea stepped back, frowning slightly. “Cassie, this had better not be some outlandish idea like trying to swim to that island.”
“Pffft, naw.” Cassie singsonged, “But I feel like skinny-dipping!”
But it was already too late; Cassie had her pants off, her shirt off, and any remaining underthings off and at a pile by her feet, leaving a very wide-eyed Andrea staring at her as she scampered down the gently-sloping bank to the lake proper.
Cassie really does have an amazing--
Andrea shook herself. Right. Um, I’d better make sure Cassie doesn’t drown or anything, she told herself.
She reluctantly walked towards the lake, resolutely keeping her clothes on her person as she let the water lap at her once more that day.
Cassie snorted loudly as she poked her head up from the water. “Live a little, Andrea! C’mon. Skinny dip with me!”
Andrea stopped, the water at mid-thigh and already soaking her shorts. She sighed. “Really, Cassie? I’m not one to just throw off my clothes in--”
“--the middle of freaking nowhere,” Cassie butted in. “Seriously, have you seen anyone around besides us?”
Andrea crossed her arms, unsure. Yes, nobody was about, but one just didn’t … do that kind of thing. But if she was going to join Cassie in the water, she would rather not have to dry a shirt out overnight.
Cassie beckoned. “Hey, c’mon, shirt or no shirt, come here, okay? Please? The water’s still kind of warm and it feels nice.” At Andrea’s still-uncertain expression, she reassured, “Hey. I’m standing on solid sand here. I swear.”
The blood pounded in Andrea’s head as she thought, what if, just this once…?
Oh, just.. just fuck it, as Cassie likes to say!
Andrea turned around, pulled off her shirt, balled it up, and threw it past the lake waterline. It landed somewhere in the general vicinity of Cassie’s clothes.
A loud gasp broke into Andrea’s thoughts. “Holy shit, I didn’t think you were gonna do it!”
Andrea turned around again, very aware that unlike Cassie, who also had been wearing a functional bra before she took it off, she wasn’t wearing hers - after all, she wasn’t going to be potentially running to and fro like a guard would.
Andrea, in the indirect light of the flame now hovering near the lakeshore, could see Cassie licking her lips as she breathed sharply. Andrea promptly waded forward, the water rising up to her neck as she did so. As she got close to Cassie, the other girl let out a chuckle that actually sounded… flustered?
“Wow, Andrea, that was… that was pretty daring!”
“I did leave my pants on, though,” she noted.
“Well, that’s not as much of a show as the one you gave me of your boobs just now. Not,” Cassie hastened to add, “that I am complaining in any way, shape or form about them.”
Andrea ducked her head. “You looked pretty good naked, too,” she mumbled.
Cassie reached forward, tugging at the waistband of Andrea’s shorts. Her voice dropped and grew husky as she glided forward. “How ‘bout maybe we lose the shorts, too?”
Andrea, surrounded by water all around, nonetheless found her mouth had gone dryer than the North Azgadar Desert. She tried swallowing, then licked her lips and rasped, “O-Okay. Sure. They’re, uh, wet anyway.”
Her hands shook as she reached down, tugging them off as she lifted one foot, then the next, then letting the shorts float free nearby.
Cassie cupped Andrea’s face gently. “You mind if we kiss? I really, really, want to--”
Any further conversation was cut off as Andrea leaned her head forwards, capturing Cassie’s lips in a fervent kiss.
Andrea reached out, gently holding Cassie’s hips as Cassie’s hands held her shoulders. Then, after a few moments, Andrea reached up and tugged at Cassie’s hand, guiding it down along her chest.
Their hands began roaming rather freely after that, and it was only when the moon was high enough in the sky that the two quite happy girls finished ‘making out’, as Cassie put it, and reluctantly grabbed up their clothes to head back to the large rock, Andrea extinguishing the flame to leave them walking under the just the moon and the late-night stars for company.