Author: Chris Cook
Tara wondered if Willow was aware of how... well, sexy, she looked. 'Oh come on,' she chided herself, 'how could she not know?'
If Tara's eyes were drawn to Willow's body first, she couldn't really blame herself, and judging by the subtle gasps around her, she wasn't the only one. Willow's shoulders, arms and chest were wrapped in a shimmering green fabric, thin overlapping layers of gauzy cloth, like the bindings of an Aranoch mummy but far more elegant and beautiful. The remarkable fabric itself, matching her eyes, would have turned heads alone, but it was the way that it stopped just low enough to decently cover her chest - in fact, Tara noticed as her heart hammered, the high cut of the material revealed just a hint of the swells of her breasts beneath it. Her body was bare down to the belt circling her hips, an expanse of perfectly smooth skin that made Tara gulp as her eyes followed the delicate curve of her waist and hips. From her belt, which was buckled at the centre with an eye-catching white crystal set in silver, more of the diaphanous emerald fabric formed a tight skirt, solidly interwoven at the centre then stretching out to either side, becoming slightly transparent as it hugged her hips and thighs the way Tara was suddenly imagining her hands doing. Her eyes darted over Willow for a moment, taking in the slim boots topped with silver bands, and the silver clasps at each wrist holding the ends of her sleeves tight, before settling on her face, framed by a silver diadem and her fiery, silky hair.
The minor nobility standing in groups around the dining hall practically fell over themselves to welcome her, bowing deeply and introducing themselves one by one in their most genteel manner. Willow smiled warmly at each one, inclining her head at their bows like a princess, allowing the daring souls among them to take her hand briefly in greeting. Tara wondered if it was her imagination, but she thought she saw Willow's eyes moving around the crowded hall in between introductions, searching for a familiar face. She realised she was staring. A moment later she realised she was still staring, and should probably do something about it. She resolved to return her attention to her companions at the table, in just a moment...
As Willow cleared the impromptu welcoming committee, Tara finally became aware of something else, a sudden murmur of surprise among the noblemen and Amazons around her. She glanced up the table to see the Baron rising to his feet, gesturing quickly for his nobles to follow suit. In the space of a few seconds the whole table was standing, falling in behind the Baron as he approached the young sorceress. She drew up short as she saw him, and he stopped a few paces from her.
"Our court is honoured by your presence," the Baron said in a voice that carried to all who were listening. He held out a hand to her.
"The honour is mine," Tara barely heard her say, as she bowed and took his hand briefly. From where Tara stood, she thought the Baron looked slightly surprised - she recalled it was protocol to kiss the lord's hand, but Willow didn't appear to realise - but he recovered, and evidently took no offence, for he smiled widely as he swept an arm out to indicate the fellow diners crowded around him.
"The court, ma'am," he said graciously, as his wife stepped forward, shooting him an annoyed glance before smiling radiantly at Willow. The rest jostled their way into a line, which Willow slowly made her way along, with the Baron at her side making the introductions. Tara's stomach flipped itself over a few times as the pair worked their way down the line, getting nearer. She glanced quickly up and down the line, realising that she had ended up as the first of the Amazons the Baron would reach - Tryptin's doing, certainly, subtly reinforcing her status for the other guests to see. He caught Tara's eye and gave her a reassuring wink.
"Our other guests this evening," the Baron intoned, snapping Tara's attention back to him and Willow, "a party of Amazons, no less, here to maintain the good relations between their nation and our city... oh, you would have travelled with them, of course. Well, perhaps you know some of them already." He glanced at Tara, earning another stern look from his wife as his eyes paused a little obviously on her chest before moving on - not that Tara was paying attention.
"This fearsome beauty," the Baron went on, "is Tara."
"Yes, we've met," said Willow with a warmer smile than those she'd made for the nobility. She took a step forward. 'Say something!' Tara's mind screamed at her, as she vaguely heard Willow's greeting.
"H-h-h-he... h-hello," she managed after an awkward pause, wondering which god had decided it would be fun to render her incapable of movement. Willow's smile faltered slightly, and she began to look confused as Tara desperately tried to make her voice work again. But then the Baron was introducing Tryptin, and Willow was drawn away, leaving Tara cursing her shyness and hoping for another chance to speak to her. When the Baron's table resumed their seats Willow was on the same side, but with half a dozen noblemen between them, so that it was difficult for Tara to get a glimpse of her.
Willow did her best to present an affable exterior to her neighbour at the table, but inwardly she was not happy. Her brief meeting with Tara kept replaying itself in her mind, preventing her from maintaining a conversation with the noblemen, a minor landowner who affected a great interest in magic, but clearly didn't know what he was talking about. She hadn't expected to be able to spend very much time with Tara during the meal - being an official occasion, the seating of the guests had been arranged, and she couldn't just have sat where she liked - but she had looked forward to snatching a brief moment here and there in Tara's presence, feeling the warmth of her smile that she had sorely missed since the previous evening. She hadn't been expecting Tara to look almost dismayed to see her - her friend's normally expressive face had frozen the moment Willow had reached her in the line, and she had barely answered when Willow had said hello. Far from being pleased, Tara had looked as if she had seen a ghost.
Willow found her thoughts turning against her, giving free rein to all her doubts. Had she been too obvious? She suddenly regretted her choice of clothing - it was Zann Esu, of course, but Tara wouldn't necessarily know that. What if she thought Willow had deliberately chosen it to, well, to try to arouse her? Willow had to admit that wasn't far from the truth - she had barely considered wearing her ceremonial robes, or the elaborate meditation dress that would probably have been exactly what the nobles would expect a sorceress to wear, she had merely imagined herself appearing to Tara in her emerald outfit, sparking some hint of desire in Tara, experiencing for real the warm tingling she felt when she imagined Tara's eyes on her, wanting her... Willow cursed herself for getting lost in her fantasies, not thinking things through - she hadn't even stopped to consider the possibility that Tara wasn't interested in her that way. That night over dinner, when she had mentioned that most Amazons married men - Willow remembered how Tara had stuttered out her answer, when she asked whether that was always the case. She had thought, hoped, it might have been nervousness, but... 'Oh gods,' Willow's thoughts moaned, 'what if she- if it wasn't nerves, what if she's not comfortable with even the idea? Just because her people in general are doesn't mean she is, and now I've gone and flashed my half-naked body in front of her, and she knows, and she doesn't even want to talk to me...' Willow's fists clenched as she fought the straining muscles in her face that wanted her to close her eyes and cry. The noblemen at her side was still chattering aimlessly to her; the other chair, reserved for the Baron's mage, was empty - 'Probably doesn't want to waste his time with me,' Willow thought, knowing she was languishing in her hurt feelings and not caring. Willow turned her attention to the boring man, and was probably more interested in his inaccurate observations about magic than he deserved, just in gratitude for the distraction he offered.
Tara was unusually distant through dinner, offering only curt responses to her neighbours' attempts to start a conversation as her thoughts turned inward. While reaching to the platters in the middle of the table she managed to get fleeting glimpses of Willow, though she never caught her eye. Tara could tell she was upset - there was something about the set of her jaw, and the slight manufactured look to her smile as she chatted with the man beside her, that Tara felt she could read like a book. Tara speared a piece of potato with her fork, unnecessarily viciously, and blamed herself entirely. Willow had probably been looking forward to seeing her, assuming she had been cooped up all day with nothing to do, and the best Tara could offer her was a stuttered 'hello', not even taking her hand, as a friend should - gods, the few people at home she had genuinely disliked, she had offered more courtesy to when she happened to meet them. Tara imagined how she must have seemed to Willow: armoured and armed, the image of a warrior, betraying no hint of feeling. She wondered, caught between hope and a dark moodiness, whether she might get a chance to talk to Willow soon, or whether the sorceress would take the hint Tara had unwittingly given, chalk her up as an emotionless warrior, and keep out of her way.
Dinner seemed to pass quickly, and most of the guests had finished their plates by the time the Baron laid down his fork and motioned for them to rise, if they wished. Tara saw Willow get up, and pushed away her own plate, hoping to dodge through the crowd and catch her before she left. But Willow headed directly away from her, not towards the doors, leaving Tara confused - was she leaving, or avoiding her, or what? - and a moment later she found her view blocked by one of the Baron's attendants.
"Ma'am," he said with a bow, "the dancing will commence shortly. Normally women would wait for their partners to choose them, but in your case," he looked uncomfortable, "the Baron would not ask you to submit to such a requirement."
"What?" asked Tara vaguely, trying to look over the man's shoulder to see Willow, among the other diners who had all got to their feet in anticipation of the dance. The sorceress seated herself on one of the long benches at the side of the hall, not far from where the ladies, in a selection of elaborate dresses, were gathering.
"Your diplomat suggested," the attendant continued, "and the Baron has agreed, that you might select your partner? Several of our distinguished nobles have expressed interest, so if you would care to choose your dance partner...?" He gestured to some of the nobles, who were hanging back from the general movement across the hall, where men were bowing and offering their hands to the ladies, the couples taking their place for the dance.
"Yes," said Tara brightly, "present my thanks for the Baron's courtesy, and I will choose a partner." She handed her spear and bow to Melcan, hovering at her side for that purpose, and set off across the hall, heading for Willow.
About half-way the boldness of her sudden idea caught up with her, and she faltered. What if Willow had been too offended by her lack of courtesy earlier? After failing to even greet her properly, as a friend should, did she dare to just walk up to her and ask her to dance? She slowed, noticing as she neared Willow that one or two of the nobles were likewise closing in on her. One, in fact, was turning from her, a disappointed look on his face, and as Tara watched another bowed, spoke to her, and nodded graciously as she gave a brief smile and shook her head. Clearly Willow didn't even want to dance, Tara decided, so she should just turn around and walk away. While she had been debating with herself, though, her feet had been carrying her forwards, and by the time she had resolved not to embarrass herself and upset Willow further, it was too late, and Willow had already noticed her approach.
"Tara?" she said, her expression unreadable - not displeased, not angry, but with too much going on behind her eyes for Tara to guess at her thoughts. She drew to a halt in front of the sitting sorceress, and for want of a better idea, bowed and held out a hand, just as the nobles were doing.
"W-would you c-care to-to... d-dance?" she said, gulping down the nerves that were threatening to make her tongue trip over itself. There was a moment when Willow's expression changed, when she was clearly moving from her unreadable mood to something else, but in that instant Tara couldn't tell what, and she felt pulled in all directions by her emotions, hoping for joy, fearing rejection, worrying about what she might be jeopardising. Then a grin appeared, spread into a wide, brilliant smile, Willow's eyes sparkled, and she took Tara's hand. Tara felt as though everything was right in the world as she walked into the middle of the hall where the couples were gathering, Willow's arm looped around her elbow and her fingers sneaking between Tara's. A murmur went around the hall as the assembled nobles saw the new couple taking the floor, and Tara glanced at Tryptin, wondering belatedly - though not really caring very much - if she was scandalising the court. She was reassured to see him suppressing a grin at the astonished looks on the faces of the nobles near him.
The style of the moment in the Baron's court seemed to be a fairly relaxed sort of dance - Willow had read an account from Ember's notebook of the elaborate, ritual-like dances that had been held in her time, but evidently they had fallen out of favour. With a surreptitious glance at the couples around her, Tara took Willow's left hand in her right, slipped her other hand around Willow's waist, and smiled as Willow's other hand negotiated her shoulder armour for a moment before settling just below it. The court musicians struck up a gentle, cheerful melody, and the dance began.
"I was a bit worried when I saw you," Willow murmured, resting her head against Tara's unarmoured shoulder, "you looked so... serious, before."
"I-I was speechless," Tara said, grinning as Willow leaned into her embrace.
"Why?" she asked. "Because of me?"
"You look s-so..." Tara tried to find the right word, and could only think of: "beautiful."
"I- thank you," Willow said quietly, straightening a little so she could meet Tara's gaze. "I'm sorry I got upset, it's just... well, you know, a boring day doing nothing but reading and not being able to even talk to you. I guess I got a little nervous too." Her smile turned impish. "But seeing as I ended up dancing with the loveliest warrior in the castle, it was worth it."
"W-well, it's only fair," said Tara, her head spinning from the compliment, "seeing as I'm dancing with the loveliest lady." Willow's smile was worth crossing the Great Ocean for.
"Heh," she chuckled quietly, "I don't think a lady would wear an outfit like this."
"I-I bet they w-wish they could," said Tara, surprising herself both with her boldness, and that her shyness didn't keep her from meeting Willow's look and maintaining her most appealing smile. Willow took advantage of a turn in the dance to slip a little further into Tara's embrace.
"So you like it?" Willow asked.
"Oh yes," Tara whispered. "I-is it from Kehjistan?"
"Mmm-hmm," Willow quietly replied, "Zann Esu battlegear." Tara glanced down, and Willow straightened again, seeing her curious expression.
"This is battlegear?" Tara asked, slightly incredulous. Willow grinned.
"I'm a sorceress, remember?" she teased. "We don't get up close and personal with monsters much. And if we do, there're spells to protect us. Besides, this," she said gently drawing Tara's right hand down to her stomach, "is where the magic comes from, the centre of the body. It helps to keep it... unimpeded."
Tara nodded wordlessly. She could feel her fingers trembling as Willow held her hand against her skin - and was it her imagination, or did Willow keep her hand there a little longer than necessary, and press it gently against herself before letting go? Rather than take Tara's hand again, Willow slipped both arms around her waist, as the music changed to something a little slower, more intimate, and the couples around them drew closer. Tara was suddenly even more aware of how close Willow was to her, and that her hands were now wrapped around her bare waist, against her back, holding her in a way that, dance or no dance, was definitely intimate. Until this evening she would have danced with Willow like this, as a friend, and held her like this with nothing more than platonic affection... but now she knew, for sure, that the heat she was feeling was more than the warmth of friendship, it was desire. And, despite the doubts that were nagging at her, she was starting to think that Willow felt it too.
Willow again rested her head on Tara's shoulder, this time tightening her embrace. Tara barely suppressed a visible shudder as she first felt Willow's breasts brush hers through the layers of fabric between them, then press against her as Willow snuggled into her arms. The music had slowed to a soft, gentle pace, as those dancers who participated for show or fun drifted off to converse with other guests, and the remaining couples held each other close, with only the occasional comment murmured into a partner's ear as they moved. Tara was aware, in a distant sort of way, that a number of the spectators were staring at her and Willow, surprised and perhaps amused at the novelty of seeing two women dance together, but she didn't care. All she cared about was in her arms, moving in time with her, her hands radiating warmth through the material of Tara's tunic.
'Perhaps,' Tara thought, 'perhaps she feels it too... if the skin on her back tingles beneath my hands... if she can't help but feel every slight movement of my body... if she feels as blessed holding me as I do holding her...' For Tara, surprised a day ago to have found friendship, it was almost too much to hope for... but she dared hope.
She leaned her head gently down to where Willow's head rested on her shoulder, brushing her cheek against Willow's hair, and felt such contentment as she had never felt before. At last, she knew she was where she was meant to be, doing what she was meant to do, and all the worries in the world had no power as long as she and Willow danced. She closed her eyes, and the warmth she felt seemed to wrap around her, holding her, cradling her in its arms, lifting her...
There were audible gasps from the crowd of spectators, and the musicians faltered, but in Tara's mind there was music, and she didn't even open her eyes when she realised her feet no longer touched the ground.
"Is it magic?" she whispered to Willow, luxuriating in the absence of anything but the woman in her arms.
"It's not sorcery," Willow whispered back, "but it is magic."
It was past midnight when the great hall finally emptied. Willow and Tara found themselves in the south wing of the castle, where the Amazons were quartered, most of whom were still awake and talking in the common room. In the few steps leading up to the door Tara wondered whether it would be too forward to invite Willow in, but Willow's hand on her arm stilled her.
"I should get some sleep," Willow said quietly, reluctantly even.
"Y-you're tired," Tara agreed, noticing her companion suppress a yawn, not the first on their walk back from the hall.
"Yeah, I didn't sleep so well," Willow admitted, "you know, unfamiliar bed and all. But I'll see you tomorrow?" She hesitated, and Tara had a sudden urge to insist she stay, sleep at her side, wake in her arms. But on its heels came an understanding: she wasn't skirting the edge of failure with Willow, and she didn't need to rush to make everything perfect like a fairy tale. She nodded, and quickly, while the feeling of contentment lasted, enveloped Willow in a hug that was pure friendship.
"Thank you," she whispered in Willow's ear, not needing to explain why.
"I should go," Willow repeated, with a little smile. "But," she added, her words coming out in a rush, "just so you know I don't want to-"
She leaned forward, tilting her face up just a fraction so that the last words were breathed onto Tara's lips. The kiss that followed was brief, an instant just long enough for both pairs of lips to part a fraction, then Willow was stepping back with a wide, satisfied smile, and hurrying away down the corridor. Tara just stood there, watching her go with bemused amazement, and it was a good few seconds before she could think of anything but how soft Willow's lips had been.