A warm breeze blew, teasing at the work in Kama's hands. Spiderweave and hair-thin embroidery floss fluttered. She brushed an errant strand of floss away from the main design and took another two stitches, then set the work down for a moment, unable to concentrate. She arched her back, stretching kinks out of arms and neck, feeling the sun's warmth ease cramped muscles. Then she made herself pick up the work again.
She held the front right panel of a bodice, this time, for Lady May Dunnigan. Kama enjoyed doing work for Lady May, who always paid well above the asking price. Not to mention the Lady came in person, unlike some of the other local nobility, who would send lower servants to do their bargaining.
The current fashion for spiderweave created a high demand for Kama's skills. It took a delicate touch to work the fragile, yet tough material, and few could match Kama's ability. She worked for Mistress Banchek, a clothier specializing in exotic fabrics and designs, who kept a shop in one of the better districts of the great city of Caissa.
An open parkland spread out in front of the shop, and Mistress Banchek encouraged her workers to take advantage of the brighter light out in front of the shop on a fine summer day like this one.
So Kama set up her stool and her basket outside, where grey stone buildings leaned over her back and grassy knolls spread in front, until they ran into more city. Trees rustled in the breeze, birds sang, and the sun burned bright overhead. Kama spared a brief moment of pity for those folk who never got out on a day like this one, then resumed her work.
But only for about a dozen stitches. Then a shadow, a human-shaped shadow, obscured the flower taking shape in her hands. Irritated, Kama looked up, ready to chase away whoever dared block her light so deliberately, then felt an electric shock run through her, stealing her breath, her wits, her ability to move…
"Lorrine," she breathed, drinking in the sight of the tall, lanky woman standing over her. She noticed the change immediately: Lorrine was a woman now, not just a wild young girl. A new maturity showed in her eyes, in the steady, level gaze resting on Kama. Her long black hair hung straight and heavy down past her waist, as before, and her dusky skin even darker now from exposure to the sun. She looked like she'd lost a little weight, in some ways, and yet she looked stronger, more muscular…
"Are you done staring yet?"
The low voice sounded the same, sending secret shivers through Kama when she heard it. She closed her eyes and pulled herself together.
"Forgive my staring. I never expected to see you again."
Lorrine smiled, just a tiny lift of the corner of her mouth, but Kama knew her well enough to see how much amusement it contained. "You should have known better. Put that down."
"I have to finish this," Kama said. But her hands already obeyed, although she trembled a bit and managed to stick herself with her needle.
"Now come here," Lorrine held out her hands. Mystified, hoping Lorrine wouldn't notice her tremors, Kama took the extended hands and allowed herself to be drawn up, into a close, warm embrace.
"Kama, Kama," Lorrine murmured into her hair. "Oh, how I've missed you. I made such a mistake, leaving you behind, but I was scared, so scared…"
"What?" Kama wanted to get a look at Lorrine's face, but not enough to break this wonderful embrace. Instead, she sighed and rested her head on the wiry shoulder, reveling in the closeness, the tactile proof that Lorrine really stood here with her. "You're never scared."
"But I was. I was scared of you. I was scared of me. And I went away, and regretted every moment I was gone. Can you ever forgive me?"
"Lorrine," Kama forced herself to pull away, looking into the dark eyes. Were those tears glimmering there? No. Not possible. But some strong emotion shone in those beautiful dark eyes. "I don't understand you. Why do I need to forgive you? And what happened to you when you were gone? And why did you choose now to return, when I'm working on a piece that must be done by week's end?"
She sat down on her padded stool with a thump and pulled the next piece of the work, the back of the bodice, out of her basket, thrusting it at Lorrine. "Here. Work and talk. Where have you been these last two annums?"
Lorrine laughed at that, accepting the work and sitting cross-legged at Kama's side, a feat made easy by her masculine-style garb. Baggy sand-colored trousers tucked into knee-high soft boots. Her upper body was concealed by what looked like two baggy tunics, a light one over a darker one, both made from a strange loose-woven material Kama had never seen before. The full sleeves gathered into—were those bracers, like a swordsman wore? But no, these things were made of leather, and bracers were metal.
"And while you're at it, tell me where you got those weird clothes."
"These?" Lorrine slapped her thigh, then reached for a needle to thread. The chalk markings on the spiderweave told her what color and stitch to use. "Good thing we somehow came up with such a similar system. Otherwise I'd never be able to help out. The clothing came from my mother's folk. Had to buy it, they turned out to be a bunch of slimetoads, but the way they dress is far more practical than anything you can find around here for traveling on the road. Nice fabric, too. They call it gauze. I'll show you more, later."
Lorrine bent her head to the work, needle threaded with the appropriate color and ready to go.
"As for where I've been, now," she sighed, shooting Kama an apologetic look through her curtain of black hair. "The first bit was fun, other than the dreams. More about those later. Derfek and I traveled here, there, and everywhere, just like he promised. And look."
Lorrine set the work down and extended her hand, her small smile dancing with mischief and pride, lit by a small ball of light in her hand shining brighter than the sun.
"He taught me magic."
Kama stuck herself with the needle again, harder, staring at the little ball of light. "Lorrine—"
"Kama? What's going on here?"
Instantly, Lorrine snuffed out the light, and both young women looked up at Mistress Banchek, who stood watching with hands on hips. Her face crinkled into a frown when she recognized Lorrine.
"You," she said, distaste oozing from her voice. "You've got a lot of nerve coming back here, after the stunt you pulled."
"I'm sorry, Mistress Banchek, but I had to—"
"I've no interest in what you feel you had or have to do, Lorrine," Mistress Banchek cut her off. "I want you out of my sight. You forfeited your right to be here two annums ago when you disappeared in the night. Now go."
"But," Lorrine protested. She stopped when Mistress Banchek's frown deepened and her foot started tapping. She turned eyes full of regret on Kama. "Meet me tonight. I've got a room at the trade hostel by the Forest Gate. If you don't see me in the common room, ask the innkeep which room is mine. Promise you'll come?"
"Lorrine, Lorra, my—" darling, my love, my— "friend. Of course I'll come."
Then Lorrine left Kama again, followed by Mistress Banchek to make sure she really left.
Mistress Banchek returned, dusting her hands off with an air of satisfaction. "There. That's done. Now mind you, missy, I'm just looking after your best interests. I don't want to see you in the state you were in last time."
"Yes, Mistress," Kama said, and bowed her head to her work. She willed her hands to stop trembling, and they did, under the inquisitive gaze of her Mistress. But nothing could still the quivering she felt inside.
Somehow, she kept working. Somehow, she even kept up the quality of her work, and kept the trembling out of her hands. But she didn't even try to still her tumbling, incoherent thoughts, all centering on two phenomena: Lorrine's return, and Lorrine holding her without fear or revulsion.
The last time they'd been together, roughly two annums ago, Lorrine had held her then, too. They'd held each other, and it had felt so good, so right… but then they'd kissed. That had felt so good and right too, up until the point when Lorrine stiffened and pulled away.
What are you doing? This is filthy, this is wrong …
Then she'd run from the room, fearful of something she didn't understand. She'd returned to work the next day, and many days after that, but refused to have anything to do with Kama. And when Derfek, the flamboyant wandering mage, became interested in her, she made certain to flaunt the relationship in front of Kama.
And then she disappeared.
Kama blinked away the tears that threatened, remembering all that old pain. She'd never meant to chase away her Lorra. She'd just forgotten the girl's half Dargasi blood, and all her mother's people's opinions of being flit.
And besides, she hadn't started the kissing thing anyway. Just because Lorra wanted to kiss her, then couldn't deal with it—
Never mind. Lorrine was back. She'd grown up a lot, if the look in her eyes gave anything to judge by, and Kama felt more than happy to give her a chance to explain herself.
At last, the sun reached the horizon and the light dimmed. Kama tucked her work away in the basket and stretched, then picked up her stool and put everything away inside Mistress Banchek's shop. She snuck out of the shop without attracting Mistress Banchek's attention, certain a stern warning lecture awaited her. Mistress Banchek supplied her with endless support and a much-needed shoulder to cry on two annums ago, and held firmly to the belief that Kama should just forget the past and move on with living. But Kama wanted to hear Lorrine's story.
A healthy distance separated the merchant's hostel from the fine garment district. Only a tiny, lingering bit of sunset remained on the horizon by the time Kama reached it. She stepped inside, feeling a jolt of disappointment as sharp as pain when she couldn't spot Lorrine in the common room. But she did as instructed, despite her fear she'd been played for a fool, and sought out the innkeeper.
"Tall girl, long black hair? Yes, she's here. Third story, second door on the right."
Reassured by the ease of the man's recognition, for surely that meant Lorrine really did wait in the specified room, Kama made her way upstairs.
She paused outside the second door on the right, eyes closed, pounding heart in throat. Her hesitant hand raised and touched the door. What waited within? Joy, or more pain? Or even the satisfying, yet frustrating, balance of before, friendship mingled with longing, and the lure of the unattainable…
The door opened. Kama gasped and snatched her hand back. Lorrine laughed at her, smiling easily here in a private location.
"I thought I felt you out here hesitating," she said. "'Should I knock? Or should I just go?' Right?"
Kama smiled tremulous acknowledgment. "Right. May I come in?"
Lorrine reached for her hand, still smiling, and drew her into the room. Kama's heart twisted when she got a good look at her old friend, wearing a rich red robe that set off her dark complexion to perfection. Then she blushed.
"That's an… interesting garment," she said. The open weave of the red fabric showed fascinating hints of what it should have concealed.
Remarkably, Lorrine blushed, too. "I—yes. It's once again something from the Dargasi lands. My mother's people know how to dress for the heat."
"Yes, I suppose they'd have to." Kama looked away, desperate to find something to take her mind off her friend's body. She spotted a meal laid out on a table set for two. "Is that dinner for me, or are you expecting someone else?"
"No, it's for you. Eat, please, and I'll tell you the rest of my story."
So Kama settled down at the table and helped herself to a portion of black rasper pie. Rather than look at Lorrine, she concentrated instead on her food, but her stomach was in such knots that she wound up pushing it around her plate instead of eating it.
Lorrine helped herself as well, then took a deep breath. "I was stupid," she said to her portion of black rasper pie. Startled, Kama looked up and stared at Lorrine's dark, bowed head. "I was so angry with you at first, because you'd gone and made me fall in love with you, so angry that I tried everything I could think of to forget you. But somehow Derfek wasn't enough. Being with him was… well, disgusting. All I wanted was you. And I couldn't stand that about myself. So I kept trying to think of other things. I learned some magic, I learned how to ride a horse, I learned how to run a con game, because that's what Derfek turned out to be. Nothing but a common, lowlife con man.
"Then I stole something from him." She raised her head, meeting Kama's gaze. "I stole his wand. He chased after me for a long time, because without his wand he's nothing. But I ran to my mother's people and they helped me dispose of the thing, and of him. But they weren't very welcoming."
Lorrine looked away again, toying with her eating knife. "Along the way I met a woman. She… found out about you. By then, I wasn't angry anymore, I was just aching. By holies, I hurt day in and day out, because I'd been so damned stupid. I hurt you, and I hurt me, and I learned from this woman that it was all unnecessary. She made me see… see…" Lorrine sighed. "There's more than one way in the world, and just because some are different doesn't mean they're necessarily evil. I spent a night with this woman and she showed me how it works with two women together. And the whole time I was wanting you."
Now Lorrine looked back at Kama, and tears, actual tears, sparkled in her eyes. "So here I am, back in your life again, if you want me. I've been educated quite thoroughly and made to see the error of my ways. I've grown up a lot over the last two annums, I think, and I know things now I never dreamed of before. Can you forgive me?"
Kama closed her eyes against the naked hope and longing in her friend's face. "Lorra," she whispered. "Lorra. I don't know what to say. I want to believe you, I really do, because I love you till it hurts. But Lorra," she opened her own teary eyes, "you ran away from me. How am I to know you won't just do the same again?"
"Because I came back," Lorrine responded, eyes intense, no longer hiding. "You know me. When I'm done with something, I'm done; I move on. I never look back. But here I am. Doesn't that tell you something?"
Kama smiled through her desire to weep. "It tells me you're letting your hormones think for you again."
Lorrine chuckled. "Maybe. But it wasn't hormones alone tormenting me for the last two annums. Give me a chance?"
"A chance," Kama agreed, despite her wariness. She couldn't bring herself to say no. "Because even after what you did, I still love you."
"And I love you." Lorrine smiled, a real smile, wide and joyous. Then she stood and extended her hand towards Kama, who stood as well and moved into her loving embrace with the feeling of coming home.