Return to Hellebore Chapter Forty-Nine


Author: Chris Cook
Rating: R
Copyright: Based on characters from Buffy The Vampire Slayer, created by Joss Whedon and his talented minionators, and Diablo II by Blizzard Entertainment. All original material is copyright 2004 Chris Cook.

Tara stood in front of the mirror, staring critically at her reflection. She experimented a little with the bunching of the skirt at her hips, essayed a twirl, and smiled as the folds of fabric spun and fell perfectly into place. She pretended to bow to her mirror image, then got a mischievous smile, undid the topmost cross of laces over her chest, bowed again, and raised an eyebrow in anticipation.

'Uh-huh,' she thought to herself, 'she's going to love this.'

Tara had seen the dress in the shop window of the boutique Lissa had taken her to, a small, modest store not far from the Parliament house, and had been so entranced that she had without thinking walked right out from underneath their umbrella to get a better look. Luckily the night's storm had waned into a light drizzle, so she only got slightly damp before Lissa caught up with her. She had been overjoyed, and even Lissa had seemed pleased, when the woman who ran the store said she had such a dress already cut very close to Tara's proportions. She had taken Tara's measurements, asked a fairly reasonable price for such a stylish garment, and promised that the minor alterations she needed to make would be done well in time for the evening.

The rest of the afternoon was spent at the barracks of the Duke's army, a small fortified compound near the bridge across the Marien off-shoot that flowed behind the palace. Tara spoke at length to General Murine, a stocky man with close-cut white hair and a short white beard. Tryptin had included a couple of pages of notes with his letter, including some details of the campaign being waged in the north against the bandits, and the procedures and idiosyncrasies of the Duncraig military - Tara had been impressed with his ability to absorb information, considering he had never before set foot in the city, and Murine in turn seemed pleased that Tara understood his position and how best she could help him meet his needs. When she first arrived in his office overlooking the small parade ground he seemed very businesslike, speaking in short sentences, always to the point, but after the first few minutes, in which Tara had laid out the basics of the situation as she had seen it in the demon-infested lands to the south, he had evidently decided she was a serious warrior and perhaps a source of valuable information, and thus to be treated with more than common courtesy. They spent the next couple of hours retracing Tara and Willow's journey in detail, with the aid of one of the General's excellent maps which seemed to show every possible detail - even the stream at which they had paused to bathe after finding Amalee, and the little lake in the forest just over the ridge west of Kotram where Tara had lain on the sun-warmed stone and very physically reassured Willow of her wellbeing. Tara omitted the more personal details from her account, but left out nothing concerning demons - where they had been seen, what they had done, where they had found tracks or signs of them. The map even included a sketch of tunnels from the monastery to the villages, which Tara elaborated on. The General made careful note of everything she said in a small book, of which there were dozens lined up on a bookshelf. From the glimpses Tara had of his writing he used some sort of shorthand, with abbreviations and symbols, and wrote in a careful, small script such that all the information she gave him was compacted down into three pages.

With some time left before she intended to return to the Palace - she was sure Willow would be in the mage's tower all afternoon - the General gave her a brief tour of the compound, which as she had thought was quite new, built only seven years previously, to replace the old army quarters which had been within the Palace itself. Tara had mentioned some similarities between the compound's training grounds and her own, in Tran Athulua, and after a short discussion on training techniques for bows and javelins, Murine had invited Tara to demonstrate her talents. The compound's armoury was modern and well-stocked, and Tara quickly found a bow she liked the feel of, with which she put several arrows in a cluster at the centre of her target.

She wondered, thinking back on it, whether Tryptin might have already dropped a word in someone's ear about taking her on as an instructor, for the General had quite obviously been sizing her up as an archer, and on seeing her performance had offered her a contract on the spot. She looked forward to telling Willow the good news - ten crowns a day, four days a week, was enough to get by on in itself, but given that food and accommodation was provided for her as long as she stayed in the Palace, it meant that when she and Willow eventually headed towards Khanduras, she would have enough to see them comfortably through until the next large settlement when archery training might be in need.

'With enough for the occasional luxury as well,' she thought, taking another look at herself in the mirror. The dress was waiting, laid out on the bed, when she got back to the Palace, and Lissa gave her a thumbs-up as she passed the servants' quarters on the stairs. It was certainly worth every crown Tara had paid for it, and imagining Willow seeing her, she found herself growing quite excitedly impatient for her lover's return.

The dress was slate grey, with hints of blue as it caught the light, a luxurious hue that, quite aside from being stylish and elegant in itself, drew attention to the healthy glow of Tara's skin, and the gold of her hair which she wore loose around her circlet. The skirt was carefully pleated, gathered on either side her waist and flowing the floor, where it trailed just a fraction, enough to look stately without tripping anyone over. The bodice was simple yet eye-catching - slit down the front from waist to chest, held with double rows of crossed laces up to just below the middle of her chest, where it had just enough strength in it to hold itself up and open gently into a wide neckline, with lapels on either side of her exposed cleavage showing the pearl-white inner lining of the garment. Beneath it, a flat-topped black satin bustier was just high enough to be glimpsed as the bodice opened out, and was surprisingly comfortable - Tara had wondered whether it might be somewhat restraining, given the look of it, reminiscent of the tightly-corseted style of fashion, but in fact it was merely supportive. From the wide neck, which exposed almost the full width of her shoulders, the sleeves ran loosely down to cuffs held with tiny silver buttons, and Tara had found, as she had guessed in the shop, that her lightest pair of boots, dark grey, soft leather with pointed toes, matched the dress quite well, not that they were visible as anything but the occasional toe poking out from beneath the skirt as she walked. The whole effect was reminiscent of a very elaborate, baroque style, and might not have looked terribly out of place among bustles and hoop skirts, yet the dressmaker had taken the idea and applied to it a liberated style, creating a dress that was at the same time formal and downright sexy. Tara made a mental note to return to the shop and thank the proprietor for her work.

She smiled and crossed the room to stand near the breakfast table as she heard Willow's footsteps - fast, eager, and with the occasional sound of the base of her staff on the stairs - approaching from beyond the main door. The doorknob turned a fraction, then all the way.

"Hey, you back already?" Willow began asking before she had even come through the door, "next time you're free there's something you've just got to see, Myrreon's built a-"

She stopped in her tracks as she turned and saw Tara, the excitement on her face flooded away by a look of amazement.

"You like?" Tara smiled, twirling around once.

"Uh-huh," Willow said, as if dazed. "I-I mean yes... yes! Goddess, you're beautiful!" She dropped her staff in the corner, where it fell to lean against the mantelpiece, and took a few hesitant steps forward to stand in front of Tara, gazing into her eyes.

"More than beautiful," she whispered, leaning in to kiss her. Tara eagerly accepted her kiss, opening her mouth to give Willow free rein, to feel her as she pressed her lips against her, tentatively teased her with her tongue. Willow seemed entranced, slightly overwhelmed - Tara found it reminiscent of the lazy kisses they shared after climax, when they lay in each other's arms with all their strength gone.

"Mmmm... love you," she purred as Willow released her lips.

"I love you," Willow grinned, looking her up and down, "oh goddess, where did you get this?"

"Lissa showed me a shop on my way out to the barracks," Tara said, "they had it in just my size."

"So, you own this now?" Willow asked, as if not believing her luck. "It's not borrowed, or... you can put it on whenever you want?" Tara nodded.

"You can take it off whenever you want," she replied with a cheeky smile.

"Oh gods, don't tempt me," Willow said vehemently, "not that this afternoon was boring, no way, but I did kind of keep thinking about you, and this... this is just exquisite." She walked slowly around Tara, her hands trailing over her waist, absorbing every detail of the dress.

"What was it I had to see?" Tara asked, looking over her shoulder.

"Huh? Oh, just some thing..." Willow said vaguely.

"You mean I've actually made magic seem uninteresting?" Tara joked.

"Baby, you could make the whole world seem uninteresting," Willow said, still wide-eyed as she returned to stand in front of Tara. "It's this thing Myrreon's built, it's not working just yet but I've never seen anything like it. It's a sort of... kind of a clockwork engine for doing calculations. I spent an hour this afternoon looking over the plans for it and the parts he and Zan have put together already, after we went over the demon stuff, and I had a couple of ideas about it, so we're going to see if we can get a segment of the gearing working, to see how it goes with a few simple tests."

"What would you use it for?"

"Oh, who knows? There could be all sorts of applications, if it works, and if it turns out to be practical - at the moment only the motive elements are finished, and Zan says it throws a gear every five minutes or so. It's just a, an idea that got built. Myrreon does that a lot, just thinks of something, and off he goes and sees where the idea goes."

"He sounds like just the kind of tutor you'd go for," Tara observed.

"This definitely makes up for those mages in Kingsport who just gave me a bunch of books and shuffled me out of their rooms as quick as they could," Willow went on, "there's no way I'm going to get bored here. Two months in the Palace, then some more time at the university, and maybe a couple of weeks each with a few independent mages in the magical quarter - this is going to be great!" She jumped lightly and clapped her hands, which was so adorable that Tara couldn't resist gathering her in her arms and kissing her again.

"Ah... of course," Willow murmured, resting contently in Tara's arms, "I know one area of my life where I'm never bored, or unsatisfied." She smiled alluringly into Tara's gaze. "Or anything less than great."

"Darn right," Tara said, doing a passable imitation of Willow's voice. Willow giggled, then hugged Tara and rested her head on her shoulder, brushing her cheek lightly against her.

"Is it always going to be like this?" she asked. "Are you always going to make the simplest things, like wearing a fancy dress, or talking, or just holding you... so special I almost want to cry because I'm so happy?" Tara leaned to kiss her forehead, then began stroking her hair.

"That's the plan," she whispered.

"Yay," Willow murmured, tickling Tara's neck with her lips. She gave Tara a final squeeze, then loosened her hug enough to stand back a little way and look at her.

"So, would you like to come see the amazing breaking-down thinking engine?" she smiled.

"I'd like that," Tara replied, "it sounds fascinating. If Myrreon doesn't mind having me around his workshop?"

"Oh, of course not!" Willow grinned. "When we were talking about the demon I explained most of what happened to us, and all the stuff about you and your magic fascinated him. Not just the lightning-blast kind, the sensing as well. I think he'd like the chance to talk to you again."

"That's nice of him," Tara said, "I liked talking to him. He seemed very smart."

"He certainly is," Willow said, reluctantly disengaging herself from Tara's arms to snatch a bite to eat from the bowl of fruit on the table. "A bit forgetful sometimes, but wow he's smart. Some of the times he got going about the work he's done on astrology, or magical energy flow theory, I had trouble keeping up sometimes. Not for long," she added, smiling sidelong at Tara.

"I know," Tara said, pulling around the other chair to sit beside her, "I bet by the time you're finished studying with him you'll have absorbed every last bit of knowledge in that workshop." She picked an apple and took a bite. "How did things go about Shadai? Promising?"

"Definitely promising," Willow nodded, "Myrreon himself is more into natural mechanics, stuff on this plane, but he knows the theory behind the ethereal planes easily as well as I do, probably better in parts. He was a bit surprised at the idea of a demon existing within an ethereal plane - fair enough, it's not what you'd expect - but the more we went over what we know and what's been going on, the more he saw it was the most likely explanation. Mostly he took as many notes as I could give him, added in all the theory he knew, and that's going to go to the university for their mages to have a look at and see what they can come up with." She leaned back in her chair and took a thoughtful bite from the peach she had chosen.

"The danger aside, it's an interesting problem," she said, "the nature of the ethereal plane makes it more a matter of brainwork than power. I mean, normally with a demon the best thing to do - unless you're a very good banisher, and I'm not looking to make that mistake again - is to just hit it with as much power as you can muster. The only need for subtlety is to see that as much power as possible goes into attacking the demon's physical form itself, rather than blasting apart half the building it's in, or blowing a great big crater out of the ground. In this case it's all different. Myrreon thinks the solution will probably be some sort of dimensional warping spell, to sort of slide the demon, which in the ethereal plane is basically an energy form, out of the plane and into interplanar meta-space, where the natural bond between Shadai and her home in the deepest darkest pit of hell will take effect and zip her back there like releasing the catch on a crossbow." She paused and glanced at Tara. "You're following this, right?"

"I think so," Tara smiled, "after all, I've been around you for a while, and you're so overflowing with magical learning that I guess it's been rubbing off on me."

"Rubbing off on you, huh?" Willow smirked. Tara laughed, and Willow went on: "Anyway, instead of a matter of battle magic, it's all to do with some of the most rarefied theoretical magics that exist, real academia stuff. Sort of whoever has the biggest brains wins. Luckily demons aren't known for their smarts. Cunning, some of the powerful ones, but not that kind of intellect. Whereas we have a university on our side. Did you know," she added, grinning, "they've got a Professor of Applied Ethereality?" She shook her head. "This city has everything."

She paused in her enthusiasm, Tara watching fondly, as the bell outside the door rang.

"From the laundry, Miss Willow," Tara heard Lissa say when Willow opened the door.

"Ooh! Thanks. Tara, turn around," Willow said.

"Hmm?" Tara asked, turning away from the door nonetheless.

"My dress," Willow said, "thanks Lissa. The one you haven't seen yet," she went on, closing the door, "it'd spoil the surprise if you saw me putting it on, and I definitely owe you a pleasant surprise considering how gorgeous you look tonight. Okay, you can look."

Tara turned around again, seeing Willow by the bed, where her dress was presumably laid out beneath the sheet she had pulled back.

"Um," Willow said, "this'll take a moment... we could kind of do with another room here..."

"You want me to wait in the bathroom?" Tara offered. Willow looked slightly pained at the idea.

"If there was a comfy chair in there, yeah, but - how about I change in the bathroom, and you wait out here?"

"There's no full-length mirror in there," Tara pointed out, "how about this, there's probably going to be food going around at the performance, but just snacks and stuff. If you want, I could go with Lissa and get a light dinner from the kitchen, and that'll give you time to change."

"Okay," Willow smiled, "good thinking. If they've got any, I'm in the mood for a pastry?"

"Sounds good," Tara agreed, walking towards Willow, "but before I go..." She reached out to trail her fingertips over Willow's hip.

"Hmm?" Willow shivered lightly.

"Well," Tara murmured, "I may not be able to see you get dressed, but that doesn't mean I can't help you undress, does it?"

"Oh," Willow said, a smile of comprehension dawning over her face, "yeah, you're quite right, it doesn't... well then," she grinned, "shall I place myself in your capable hands?"

"Sounds good," Tara said again, this time in a seductive purr. Standing behind Willow she undid the thin sash around her waist and slipped her Zann Esu robe from her shoulders, catching it as it fell and laying it on the bedside table. She hugged Willow from behind, looking over her shoulder at the mirror, lazily taking in Willow's reflection from head to toe in her loose buttoned tunic, silky skirt and soft boots.

"You know," she murmured in Willow's ear, reaching around her to start to undo her buttons, "I think you get sexier every time I look at you."

"I do?" Willow asked, slightly incredulous but not particularly inclined to argue while Tara's hands brushed against her nipples through the thin fabric of her top.

"You do," Tara confirmed, "I think because whenever I look at you every detail is locked into my memory, clear and brilliant as sunlight... then when I look again, every little sexy smile you've ever given me, every sway of your hips, every wiggle of that delightful bottom," she grinned and gave Willow a light swat with one hand, as the other finished undoing her top, "is all still with me. So every time I look at you, there's more sexiness just..." She paused and kissed the back of Willow's neck through her hair. "...just filling me up."

"Is that right...?" Willow breathed. Her shirt had fallen open, leaving a wide gap between the halves of its front all the way up from her waist, which Tara's hand idly followed. Tara grinned and stroked her finger up and down Willow's cleavage, playing with the catch on her bra.

"Uh-huh," she whispered, "and you know I can never get enough Willow." Willow nodded silently, a delighted shiver running up her spine.

"Mmm-mmm," Willow purred contentedly, as if savouring a pleasant taste. "You know what this reminds me of? Remember the first night we slept together - I mean, slept in the same bed - back at the Baron's castle? The morning after, after we'd teased each other a bit-"

"I remember," Tara said, one hand on the waist of Willow's skirt, the other sneaking in beneath her tunic to cup her right breast through the fabric of her bra, "you told me... you went back to your room, looked in the mirror..."

"...imagined you were there with me," Willow picked up as Tara pressed a kiss to her shoulder, slipping her tunic down her arm, "gods, remember me telling you?"

"It's not the kind of moment I could ever forget," Tara smiled, "but you know, you didn't go into much detail when you were whispering to me and feeling me get wetter and wetter against your thigh. How, exactly, was I holding you?"

"I'd taken off my skirt as well," Willow said as Tara slipped off her tunic and tossed it lightly on top of her robe. She put both arms around Willow and quickly undid the cord in her skirt, crouching as she slid it down her legs, resting her cheek against Willow's thigh as she stepped out of the pool of material on the ground.

"And you weren't wearing any panties that morning, were you?" Tara asked, staring up the length of Willow's body as Willow looked down at her.

"No," Willow grinned, "they were in your laundry basket, and all my other clothes were back in my room, so I couldn't. No-one knew, with the long skirt. Except you, of course." Tara kissed her thigh.

"Naughty girl," she murmured. With Willow eagerly watching, she reached up and took hold of the waist of her underwear, pulling the thin covering very slowly down her thighs, her calves, and carefully pulling the loops over her boots. She glanced up at Willow, then delicately held the fabric close and inhaled.

"Mmm," she purred, "Willow-scent." A grin spread across her face, and she bunched up the underwear and, holding the low neck of her dress out with her other hand, tucked it into her cleavage beneath the bustier.

"Who's the naughty girl now?" Willow challenged with a grin. Tara gave her a shameless smile in reply, then stood up slowly, circling around Willow as she did so, letting her eyes pass very deliberately over her body as she rose. Standing behind Willow, she again leant over her shoulder.

"Like this?" she whispered, gazing at their reflections in the mirror. "Breathing deep, watching your chest rise and fall... watching the moistness glisten between your legs..."

"All I wanted was for you to touch me," Willow answered, closing her eyes, "just to feel your hands on me... for you to enjoy me..."

"Touch you like this?" Tara asked, resting one arm around Willow's waist while the other returned to her breast. "Is this how it was?" She gently tugged down the cup of her bra, revealing her breast before covering it with her hand.

"That's it," Willow breathed, her hands covering Tara's, guiding them, "teasing my nipple... oh yes, like that... and this hand," she guided Tara's other hand to cup her mound, "oooh... holding me... ready to take me..."

"You weren't wasting much time, were you?" Tara chuckled, pressing lightly, rhythmically, with her palm, massaging Willow's mound.

"After the teasing you gave me that morning?" Willow asked gleefully. "Uh-uh, I was just lucky I made it to my room!" Tara laughed, and lightly stroked a single finger along the length of Willow's folds, drawing a sigh from her. She stepped around Willow, standing in front of her, and in full view of her lifted her finger and delicately licked every trace of moisture from it.

"Divine," she smiled.

"There's more where that came from," Willow said with an innocent grin. Tara laughed again, then kissed her, slow and carefree.

"Later," she said, "we've got a show to see. We don't want to be late." She raised an eyebrow at Willow's wide-eyed stare.

"You are evil," Willow accused, breaking into a grin as she put her hands on her hips and, in spite of the grin, mustering her best glare.

"We've already established you're naughty; wouldn't you say we make a good pair? I promise I'll make it up to you," Tara smiled. Willow laughed and skipped around Tara to swat her bottom.

"Ooh! Is that how the Zann Esu deal with evil when they find it?" Tara purred.

"Nope," Willow quipped, "just something I came up with myself." Tara gave her another quick kiss.

"You're not mad?" she asked tenderly.

"Aw, even when you're evil you're so sweet," Willow replied, gazing fondly at Tara and cupping her face in her palms. "I'm not mad, I promise."

"Okay," Tara said, relieved, and smiling again. "You know I don't want to frustrate you..."

"I know," Willow said, kicking off her boots and undoing her bra, "you just love to tease me! Don't worry, I can wait, my sexy temptress. Now, dress time, off you go." She playfully shooed Tara towards the door.

"Yes ma'am," Tara grinned in reply, "pastries, right?"

"If they've got any."

"Back soon. Love you," Tara said, blowing Willow a kiss as she opened the door.

"Love you too," Willow replied, miming catching it and placing it next to her heart.

Tara still felt slightly guilty for so mercilessly teasing Willow - though not enough to upset her, thanks to Willow's reassurances - but she found she too was in a state of anxious anticipation as she climbed the stairs, a jug in one hand and a tray in the other, with a pair of pastries hot from the oven than she and Lissa had liberated from the kitchen. She tried, and failed, to stop herself guessing what Willow might be wearing - aside from her Zann Esu battlegear, the only formal attire she had seen Willow in was the green dress she had worn at Kingsport castle. But the secrecy Willow had employed in preparing her dress for the night's outing told Tara that it was going to be something different.

'Probably something that'll knock me off my feet,' Tara thought with a grin. She reached the landing, set the tray and jug aside, and knocked on the door.

"Your dinner is here, Miss Willow," she called in a playful voice. She heard a stifled giggle from inside, then footsteps, and the doorknob turned.

The door swung open, and Willow stood before her, striking a casually sexy pose, one foot in front of the other, her hand resting high on the doorframe. Tara felt her jaw drop, and was glad their dinner was safely on the landing table, not in her hands where she probably would have dropped everything in delighted surprise. From her neck to the floor Willow was clad in a deep, rich scarlet, matching her hair, velvet and soft, practically demanding to be touched, stroked, worshipped. The neck of the dress was high, and it widened over her chest, covering everything quite modestly, though as Willow half-turned and grinned Tara caught a glimpse of the hem plunging low on her back, where she was bare almost to the waist. But aside from that, and her bare arms, she was completely covered - not that it made any difference, for the dress clung to her as tightly as Tara wanted to, cupping her breasts, curving in around her waist, clinging to her hips, outlining her shapely thighs, finally loosening beneath her knees to flow elegantly to the ground. She wore a slim sash, scarlet to match her dress, with thin strands of silver threaded through it, loose around her waist, looped at the front and trailing down to her ankles. She had foregone any other decoration, and Tara couldn't imagine how any amount of jewellery, trim or woven patterns could make her any more beautiful and downright desirable than she already was.

"So," Willow said in a soft murmur, "do I look good enough to escort you tonight?" Tara couldn't help but laugh at the question.

"You look good enough to escort me even if I was visiting the houses of the gods themselves," she smiled. "Better, in fact. You'd make the other goddesses jealous."

"Thank you," Willow said shyly, leaning forward to gently kiss her. Tara caught her around the waist, and for a long moment they stayed there in the doorway, sharing a long, promising kiss.

"Is that pastry I smell?" Willow grinned when she eventually leant back.

"It seems they're popular in the Palace kitchens," Tara said, picking up the tray and handing it to Willow, "Lissa said they've usually got some in the oven just in case someone wants a snack."

"Yum," Willow said taking a bite from hers, "ooh, nice and hot... remind me to thank her later. You know," she went on as Tara followed her into the room and moved to pour a glass of juice, "that look you had just now, when you saw me-"

"Complete delight?" Tara said over her shoulder.

"...seeing you light up like that, at seeing me - thank you," she interrupted herself, taking the glass Tara offered her, "that was so lovely. I felt- I feel, wonderful. Thank you my love."

"You're welcome," Tara smiled, giving her a lingering kiss before pouring herself a glass. "You really do look absolutely beautiful."

"So do you," Willow replied. She sidled up next to Tara and leant against her, allowing both of them to share the simple physical contact as they ate.

"It's funny to think back," Tara mused, "last time I was at home, I was apprehensive about making this journey."

"That's fair enough," Willow noted, "your first time away from home and all. I mean, I've had a nice head-start on travelling all over the place, but still, I'd never been to Westmarch before, and it's a long way from anywhere I've known."

"If I'd known I'd find you," Tara went on, "I wouldn't even have waited for the ship, I'd just have swum the whole way." Willow laughed out loud, and hugged her with one arm as she finished off her pastry.

"Hmm," she murmured to herself.

"What?" Tara asked.

"Huh? Oh," Willow grinned, "just imagining you swimming. Well, not swimming as such, more lazily floating around in crystal clear waters. Somewhere safe, but nicely remote... no-one else to see us."

"Ah," Tara nodded, "no need to wear anything, then. Are you standing on the bank watching me?"

"You think you can entice me into the water?"

"I think I could," Tara said lightly, "if I come over to the shore, wading through the shallows towards you, all glistening wet, sunlight shining off my naked body, water dripping from me, flowing down my legs..."

"Okay, you got me," Willow said with a chuckle.

"Next time we're travelling, keep an eye out for safe, remote lakes," Tara murmured.

"I certainly will," Willow promised. "Eat up, we should head downstairs soon. It'll take a few minutes for us to even get to the entrance hall."

"And we wouldn't want to be late," Tara agreed.

The rain had started up again, light but constant, so that the assembled guests of the Duke were in the hall, rather then out on the steps, when Willow and Tara reached them. They exchanged polite greetings and nods with a few noblemen and other influential guests, none of whom they knew and none of whom seemed to know who they were, not that that stopped them making their most courteous greetings to the two women. Lissa, who had accompanied them in an elegant, if subdued, dress, drifted over to where the various servants and attendant were assembled.

"Wow, you got his attention," Willow said quietly, after they exchanged a few words with a man in an extravagantly expensive jacket. His gaze was still fixed on Tara as they walked away.

"Well, that military man before him nearly hit the floor with his jaw when he saw you," Tara replied with a grin.

"No way," Willow protested, "he was looking at you!"

"You," Tara said, "he saw me first, but then his eyes never left you. I think the woman on his arm might have given me more than a casual glance, though," she admitted, bashfully but with just a hint of satisfaction.

"Just so long as it's just looks," Willow warned with a smile. "Hey, we could play a game, see who gets the most stares tonight. You'd win," she added.

"You'd win," Tara countered.

"I think we'll just have to agree to disagree on this one," Willow admitted with a rueful shake of her head.

"Guess so," Tara agreed, "oh, hey, look! Come on." She steered Willow to one side of the hall and pointed out Tryptin, just arriving from the Palace's diplomatic wing. He smiled and waved when he spotted them nearing.

"Tara, Miss Willow," he greeted them, "you both look lovely. Where did you get that?" he asked Tara, "it's not from home, is it?"

"Our attendant found a shop for me this afternoon," Tara said.

"Let me know where?" Tryptin asked. "I'd like to take something back for Melora, she'd love a dress like that."

"Your wife?" Willow asked.

"Soon to be," Tryptin said with a fond smile, "not long after we get home, actually. That's the one drawback to being on this mission - it's exciting to travel, but I can't wait to get home." He smiled to himself. "Well, and I don't have her here to take to the performance. But rather than let the seat go to waste, Galt here is my guest," he nodded to another Amazon, a broad-shouldered man with a surprisingly gentle face for his solid frame, standing a few metres away, who noticed his nod and wandered over, "one of our up-and-coming traders, and quite a musician, so this should be an interesting experience. Have you met Willow?"

"Speaking of home," Tara said quietly, as Willow and Galt exchanged greetings, "you should know, I... I'm, ah, staying. I mean, not forever, of course," she went on, slightly flustered, "but, well, Willow's going to be staying here for some time, and then travelling more, and I want to stay with her... what?" Tara paused in the face of Tryptin's knowing smile. Willow, who had come back to Tara's side, took her hand and held it warmly.

"It's not really a surprise," Tryptin said, allowing Tara a sigh of relief. "I can't imagine you two parting. Actually I thought you'd stay together even when we were travelling, and since you got back from your adventure in the wild... well, the bond between you is obvious." He smiled at Willow, then at Tara. "You'll be missed, both of you. But I'd be a fool to suggest you should be anywhere but with each other."

"Thank you," Tara said joyfully.

"I'll let Eponin know when I write to her that you're in good hands," Tryptin said. He turned to glance at a group of new arrivals in the hall, missing Willow and Tara glancing at each other and blushing.

"I'll write to her as well, of course," Tara added when he turned back. "The letter I sent from Kingsport, I," she glanced at Willow, "I was pretty sure. I told her I wanted to stay."

"But we'll come home," Willow put in, "to Tara's home, I mean, once I've finished studying and we're done travelling. So long as you don't mind having a sorceress among the Amazons," she added with a grin.

"Look for me in the party greeting you when you step off the ship," Tryptin smiled. He looked at Tara, leaving Willow to grin gleefully and hold Tara's hand in both of hers, idly stroking her thumbs back and forth.

"So," he said, "your meeting with the General went well?"

"Yes," Tara replied, "he offered me a contract as an instructor." She turned, smiling, to Willow, who had started at hearing her. "Sorry I didn't tell you," she said sheepishly, "I guess it kind of slipped my mind, what with the dress and... all that," she finished with a slight blush, glancing at Tryptin.

"It's okay," Willow said, waving a hand dismissively, "so you're an instructor? That's so cool! It is, isn't it? You'll enjoy it?"

"I expect I will," Tara said, "I had a quick tour of the barracks and training grounds today, it looked quite up to date, and the soldiers looked very professional, I think it'll go well."

"A contract is a good position to have," Tryptin offered, "rather than a temporary commission. It means you'll have a formal rank, a standing within the army, but you won't be required to do active service. A commissioned instructor might be required to accompany a unit into battle, in an emergency."

"No thanks," Tara smiled.

"The contract system is becoming fairly common," Tryptin went on, "a lot of mercenaries sign on as instructors between campaigns, but don't want to be tied to a regiment in case it's suddenly activated, and resigning a commission with good standing can be tricky sometimes."

"Did you have something to do with this?" Tara asked slyly.

"Well, nothing so obvious as telling the General you were looking for a job," he said, "but a word here and there, in the right ear, it's surprising what you can do. Don't worry, I didn't exaggerate anything," he added, "if the General gave you a contract, he did it based on what he saw, not what people told him about you. Amazon archers have a good reputation generally, of course, but I know you won't have any trouble upholding that."

A trumpet sounded from the courtyard outside, and the crowd of guests began to shuffle towards the main doors, with servants quickly catching up, ready to raise umbrellas as they reached the steps. Tryptin drifted off with Galt, leaving Willow and Tara to walk together towards the doors.

"My lady?" Tara said, offering her arm to Willow.

"My warrior," Willow smiled in reply, looping her arm through Tara's, and together they made their way towards their carriage.

Continue to Hellebore Chapter Fifty-One

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