Author: Chris Cook
Willow woke to find the sun already streaming in through the cabin's porthole, high in the sky outside. 'Huh... overslept,' she thought with a sly grin. Then her grin widened into a content smile as she remembered the fragments of dreams that she could call to mind - vague images, shapes in shadow... She leaned her head down to Tara's, resting peacefully on her chest, and gave her a soft kiss on her forehead before tilting her head so that her cheek rested against Tara's hair.
'Thank you, love,' she mused silently, 'they would've been nightmares but for you.' She accepted with a rueful grin that, thanks to their journey and the battles they had fought, they were both due some nightmares for a while, until they could put everything behind them. She offered a prayer that Tara had found as much comfort and security during the night in her embrace as she had in Tara's, if her dreams had been troubled.
At the same time though, she realised with a pleasant start that the last couple of nights had been different, in a way that was difficult to describe. For a long time her nightmares had been disturbing, difficult to cope with, such that she had fallen into the habit of doing her best to banish their memory from her mind on waking, rather than simply dismissing them as bad dreams. 'Since Entsteig,' she thought, 'that makes sense...' Disturbed dreams had been no surprise then, for her or for Ember, who most often was the one who had comforted her in the immediate aftermath, when she would wake up in the middle of the night with a hysterical scream. Of course her mind would try to deal with the terror it had seen as best it could... it was only now, with the benefit of hindsight, that Willow realised the dreams hadn't faded as they should have.
'Because she was still in there,' she thought with a mild frown of disgust. Ironically, her most recent bad dreams cheered her - they were just dreams, no more. In time they would fade, and simply be part of her life and memory. She felt as if a weight had lifted from her, just as she had the day before, when Ember had given her assurance that Shadai was gone, that her ordeal was over.
'Good riddance,' she thought, chuckling softly to herself.
Tara stirred, and Willow automatically stroked her hair, soothing her. Despite that, or perhaps because of it, she eventually lifted her head and looked at Willow, blinking slowly in the sunlight.
"Hey," she murmured sleepily.
"Hey yourself," Willow smiled. "Sorry, I didn't mean to wake you."
"S'alright," Tara shrugged, "gotta get up sooner or later." She yawned, and looked around. "We slept in?"
"You're surprised?" Willow asked slyly. "After last night?"
"Well, when you put it that way," Tara grinned, sliding up beside Willow and resting her head on the pillow beside her, nuzzling in her tangled hair. "I feel like I've slept forever," she sighed happily, her words making Willow shiver as her breathing brushed against her ear.
"I don't think we slept quite forever," Willow said, reaching her arms around Tara's waist and squeezing lightly. "I mean, I can hear the crew out on the deck... unless they're descendants of the original crew, or something... even so, we'd only have slept for several generations, not actually forever..."
"You're entirely too coherent for this early in the morning," Tara protested with a gentle laugh.
"I thought we'd established it's late in the morning, sleepyhead?" Willow teased. Tara chuckled, her hands sliding slowly along the length of Willow's body. Willow sighed happily, and was completely unprepared when Tara's fingers began tickling her mercilessly.
"Ah! You... sneaky... Amazon..." she gasped, wriggling in Tara's embrace and doing her best to repay the assault in kind, while at the same time trying to keep her sides shielded from Tara's fingers. Somehow, Tara always seemed to slip by her defences, and her body was always at just the wrong angle to be vulnerable.
"Okay, okay!" she squealed eventually, giggling uncontrollably, "I give up..." Tara lay down atop her, pressing light kisses up and down her neck and over her shoulder as she caught her breath. "You're terrible, you know that?"
"You love it," Tara murmured, licking her way up Willow's neck.
"You got me," Willow admitted, "I do indeed... one day, though," she said warningly.
"One day?" Tara asked, nuzzling her cheek.
"One day," Willow repeated, "I'm going to get the drop on you, and then, my pretty Amazon, I'll have my revenge for every single tickle you've ever given me."
"Oh yeah?" Tara chuckled. "Well, it'll be fun watching you try..."
"Oh, you don't think I can tickle you?" Willow challenged, running a fingertip up Tara's back, drawing a shiver from her.
"Impossible," she replied. "No matter what you do, I'll just-" she undulated her hips invitingly "-wriggle my way free."
"Wriggling won't save you," Willow shot back, stealing a kiss on Tara's lips as she smiled.
"Oh yes it will," she grinned, "you wouldn't believe how I can wriggle... watch this." Pulling back the covers of the cramped bunk she slid off and stood beside it, while Willow sat up and crossed her legs beneath her.
"Warrior training," Tara explained, stretching up on her toes, touching the cabin ceiling above her with outstretched arms, "for fighting in the treetops - flexibility is very important."
She stood right in front of Willow, gave her a wink, then bent gracefully backwards until her palms were flat on the deck, her toned body curved like an arch. She craned her neck back further, so that she could look back at Willow from between her legs.
"Are you paying attention," she asked with a grin, "or just taking the chance to ogle me?"
"There's some rule that I can't do both?" she replied. In truth, Tara's position had immediately brought to mind any number of interesting fantasies, and Willow soaked up the sight of her body arched over, her smooth skin warmed by the sunlight falling across it, the curves of her torso and limbs - and the tempting shine of moisture at the apex of her thighs, showing that Willow wasn't the only one feeling stimulated after their bout of tickling.
Tara laughed and, with a quick push from her toes, sent her legs reaching up above her. Standing on her elbows, with her hands resting casually on the deck before her, there was just enough room to accommodate her in the cabin. She stretched a little, and touched her toes to the ceiling.
"Wow," Willow said earnestly, getting off the bunk and walking around in front of Tara, who looked up at her with a wide smile. "I didn't know you could do that."
"There's all sorts of things I can do," Tara said, with a tilt of her head that, upside-down, Willow couldn't help grinning at.
"I bet," she nodded.
"Just think of all the fun you can have finding out," Tara purred.
"How long can you stay like that?" Willow wondered.
"Oh, a few minutes. More than that and the blood rushes to my head big time, and it feels weird coming back down... but for a few minutes, it's fine..." She let her left leg down until it was stretched out sideways, horizontal, then swung it around to Willow's side and hooked her lower leg around her waist.
"Still think you can out-wriggle me?" she grinned seductively. With a gentle tug from her, Willow knelt down and ran her hands down Tara's inverted back.
"I'm not sure I can think anything right now," she breathed.
"Oh, I think you're thinking one thing very, very strongly," Tara murmured. She craned her head forward, reaching as Willow spread her knees wider, shifting her hips forward, her centre tantalisingly close. Her other leg also lowered, bending around behind Willow's shoulders as she leant forward, entranced by the sight of Tara's glistening folds waiting for her. It was like some strange dream, Willow mused as the scent of Tara's arousal reached her, a blissful escape from reality...
"Oh my gods you're sexy," she whispered, yearning to lean forward the final fraction, yet holding herself in check, drawing out the moment.
"You make me sexy," Tara replied in a hushed voice, "the way you stare at me, what I see in your eyes..." Her legs tightened their embrace just a fraction. "Let me taste you, my lover... my Willow..."
So rapt in Tara was Willow, that she had no idea for a moment what the intruding sound was when it reached her ears. Then she realised someone was knocking at the cabin door.
"Damn!" she whispered, leaning back. Tara's legs released her, and somehow, in the half-metre of floor between herself and the bunk, she managed to roll backwards and end up crouching right way up, tossing her head back to get her hair out of her eyes. Willow licked her lips at the sight of her - 'like a big cat on the prowl,' she thought - before another knock at the door drew her out of her distraction.
"Just a minute!" she called, getting to her feet as Tara quickly ducked back into the bunk and pulled the covers over herself. "Whoever you are, this had better be good," Willow muttered to herself, reaching for the door handle.
"Willow!" Tara whispered insistently. Willow turned.
"Wha? Oh." Grinning sheepishly, she crossed to the closet and pulled on a long, warm robe she found hanging inside. She pulled the front tightly closed and tied the sash firmly, glancing down to confirm that she was very respectably covered, then crossed the cabin again and opened the door.
"Hi," Ember said brightly, "I'm not interrupting, am I?"
"You don't have to be so cheerful about it," Willow complained, though she couldn't keep a grin from tugging at her lips. "Um, come in, or-"
"Ah, no need," Ember replied, glancing over Willow's shoulder, to see Tara peering around the bunk's headboard, with the blankets drawn tightly over her shoulders. "I just thought you'd like these," she offered Willow a cloth-wrapped bundle, "we brought spare outfits, these should fit you... seeing as you've been in the same clothes for a while now, I thought you'd like a change?"
"A change- oh!" Willow exclaimed, unwrapping the bundle to reveal, folded up, Zann Esu travelling clothes. "Thanks," she smiled, "yeah, I guess washing the clothes is in order... don't want my battlegear to get dirty, after all... there's a few spots of ghoul ichor that need to be washed out too."
"Have them sent up to the Palace," Ember said, "they'll take care of it. I'll see you when you're ready?"
"Okay, thanks," Willow smiled again, closing the door and leaning against it. Tara got up again and padded over to her, leaning on the door beside her and snaking an arm around her waist.
"Oh gods, I nearly answered the door naked," Willow murmured, "she'd never have let me live it down..." Tara nodded and laughed to herself.
"I can just imagine the teasing I'd get from Solari if she ever found out what I've been doing with her flexibility conditioning," she offered, at which it was Willow's turn to laugh.
"What've you got there?" Tara asked, poking the bundle still held in Willow's hands.
"Oh, travelling clothes," she replied, "Ember figured we could use a change... send them to the Palace?" she went on to herself. "I guess we must be getting back to the city sometime today."
"It'll be good to stay in our room again," Tara said idly.
"Yeah... big bed," Willow agreed.
"Bath," Tara mused, "shower... hot meals... laundry service..."
"I don't think we're cut out for adventuring," Willow grinned. "Demons we can handle, but a few days without our creature comforts and we go to pieces. I think staying in the Palace is spoiling us."
"Probably," Tara nodded.
"Lucky us," Willow said, nudging Tara in the side.
"Absolutely," she agreed with a smile. A sound from outside caught her attention and she cocked her head, listening to the occasional calls from the deckhands, and the occasional murmur of conversation carried on the wind.
"Is it just me," she frowned, "or are there a lot of people out there for one boat?" Willow listened, frowned in thought, then went to the porthole and undid its latch, standing up on tip-toes to peer down out of it.
"We're back!" she said, turning to Tara. "Duncraig, we're here!"
"Already?" Tara asked, taking a look for herself. Directly beneath them a freight barge was taking on cargo, and beyond that the docks of the city bustled with their morning activity. With the porthole open, they could even hear the cries of the stevedores and cargo-haulers, the raised voices of merchants haggling prices, street vendors hawking their wares-
"You know sooner or later all that hubbub is going to start getting on my nerves and I'll go find somewhere quiet to relax," Willow said, "but right now, that's music to my ears."
Tara felt strangely underdressed somehow, despite the fact that the Zann Esu travelling clothes she and Willow wore covered them from their modest necklines downwards. It was that the material was so thin, she decided - she hadn't really noticed when she had felt the cloth before, when Willow had been the one wearing it, but now that she was walking around clothed in it, it felt like nightwear.
It was strong fabric though, and she did have to admit that, if she got used to the lightness of it, the clothes were remarkably comfortable. They were dark green, a muted version of the colour of Willow's battlegear, with dark edges that caught the light easily, revealing subtle blue and light green hues. The trousers were somewhat loose around her legs, which Willow had explained was the style in Kurast and Aranoch, where tight clothes became stifling in the heat, but tightly secured by the sash at their waist, and tucked into her boots. The tunic was of the same strong, light material - a slightly different cut to the Zann Esu clothing Tara had seen in Willow's wardrobe so far, with a fold-over front buttoned down the left side, and loose sleeves that bunched around her wrists, held there by tiny cords woven into the ends of the sleeves and tied off. Willow wore a matching outfit, though she also wore the long robe, which Tara had decided against for herself.
"Sure you don't want the robe?" Willow asked again when they were making their way down one of the Dauntless's gangplanks towards the dock, bustling with soldiers and army-employed labourers, loading provisions onto a riverboat with a large paddle-wheel at its stern. A quick, chilly breeze was whipping around the exposed dock, and Tara glanced around, over the heads of the crowd from her position half-way down the gangplank, and noted a general tendency towards heavy coats and cloaks among the people going about their business on the roads beyond the dockland warehouses.
"Winter's starting to set in," she said idly. "No, I'll be okay," she gave Willow a quick smile and brushed her hand over her arm, "we won't be outdoors long. And this isn't really any colder than it gets back home, just earlier in the season. Normally this would just be the couple of weeks around the solstice."
"Lucky Amazons," Willow said, drawing her robe a little tighter around herself, "practically a year-long summer... you're sure?"
"I'm fine," Tara smiled. Already, descending to the level of the dock, they were out of the worst of the wind, and Tara found she could easily forget the slight bite in the air.
"Milady?" A man in shining banded steel armour called, turning as they walked past. Willow and Tara both turned back, but Tara was the first to recognise him.
"Sergeant?" she said, a smile forming. "They couldn't keep you on the parade ground for long after all?"
"Aye milady, that they couldn't," Sergeant Sheerson replied, removing his helmet and giving both women a courteous bow, hindered slightly by his armour. "Lady Willow, Lady Tara - Kotram monastery, they tell us, is the place the army's needed, and not four days after you yourself set out there - I tell you milady, and you miss," he nodded to Willow, "it's a relief to see you both back and in good health."
"It's a relief to be back and in good health," Tara said, getting a bark of laughter from the soldier, "and thank you."
"Thank you," Willow echoed.
"If you're at liberty to say, milady," the sergeant went on after acknowledging their thanks with another bow, "there's all sorts of rumours flying about what's awaiting... they say demons and evil magic-workers and all manner of wild things, and there's been sorceresses at the Palace, and the Duke's mage coming in from the north with warnings of danger..."
"So far as I know," Tara said, "it's over and done with... the danger, I mean. It was a demon, a dangerous one... we managed to stop it in time, before it became more powerful. Willow was too strong for it-"
"Hey, don't leave yourself out! She," she added, talking to the sergeant, "stood face to face with this nightmare of a demon, and fought it-"
"And with your magic," Tara pointed out, "we banished it..." She caught Willow's hand and gave her a smile, then turned her attention back to Sheerson.
"Do I understand you right milady?" he asked, frowning in confusion. "You two, on your own, went into the lion's den and destroyed a demon that's had every mage and commander in the city panicking?"
"Um..." Tara hesitated, "well... yes, I guess... don't go telling everyone though," she added.
"My god in the heavens," Sheerson shook his head in disbelief, "are ye both off to the Palace now?"
"Actually, I have to see my superiors - the Zann Esu," Willow explained, "they need to know what happened out there, what we did-"
"I'm going with her," Tara said. Sheerson stared blankly for a moment, then laughed abruptly.
"Ah, isn't that just ripe," he said, with jovial scorn, "you ladies save the city from who knows what evil, and they want you to explain yourselves..." Willow and Tara exchanged a glance, then both shrugged.
"My sympathies go with you both," Sheerson said, grinning sadly, "they that deserve the spoils of battle rarely see them... but I'll offer you this, in addition to all the rounds you can drink should you both care to raise a glass with me when this is over - my old man was a soldier in his young days, and when I joined the army he - apologies, milady, it just occurred to me, when you said a few days ago that Miss Willow and you were 'partners'...?"
"Yes," Tara nodded, "in love..." Willow gave Tara's hand an affectionate squeeze, while Sheerson nodded, smiling.
"Aye," he said, "well then, what my old man told me should give you cheer. He said, 'Don't you ever go looking for fortune and glory on the battlefield, my son, because for every man who's given a medal there's ten who fought just as bravely who never make it back from that battlefield. If they give you a medal that's all and good, but you mark my words,' he said, 'the only reward I ever went fighting for was to come back whole, and find your ma waiting for me, and proud of the job I'd done.'"
"Your father's a wise man," Tara said quietly, drawing Willow a little closer and slipping an arm around her waist.
"Aye, that he is," Sheerson nodded, then added with a conspiratorial smile: "but don't tell him I said so, or he'll never let me hear the end of it." He grinned as both women chuckled. "Now, I can't linger," he went on, "whatever's left around Kotram, we'll be joining the scouting force and sending it back to the pit it calls home soon as the riverboat's ready to set sail... but you both mind what my old man said - life ain't always fair to those who do what has to be done, but all this debriefing nonsense'll be over soon enough. There ain't no reward worth more than what you've got right now in any case."
"Thank you sergeant," Tara said warmly, Willow echoing her.
"You're welcome tenfold, miladies," he replied, "and I'll tell you what - when we're sitting 'round the campfire and the scouts give thanks about how there's no monsters out there worth speaking of, I'll make sure they know to thank Lady Tara and Lady Willow for it." With a wink he hefted his pack onto his shoulder and turned, vanishing into the crowd.
"He's right," Tara said to Willow as they made their way to the street, where Ember had promised a carriage would take them to the university, where the Zann Esu had made their temporary home in the city. "You're worth more to me than anything."
"You too," Willow smiled. Then she grinned as a thought struck her. "You know what we should've done? We didn't ride into the sunset."
"That's all we forgot to do, to get the proper hero treatment, and showered with rewards, and all that - the evil demon's been defeated, the beautiful maiden fell in love with me, but we forgot to ride off into the sunset. Ah well," she gave a quick shrug, "just so long as I've got the beautiful maiden, I'm happy."
"We'll know to ride into the sunset next time," Tara chuckled, "it's no big deal, seeing as I've got a beautiful maiden as well."
"Oh do you?" Willow grinned quirkily, "where is she? Can I see?"
"Look in a mirror, silly," Tara laughed, reaching down to give Willow a discreet pat on the bottom, which just made her giggle.
Willow and Tara delayed their trip for a moment when Willow spotted Anji being led off the Dauntless, and she and Tara spent a moment petting her until her stablehand mounted to ride her back to the barracks. They returned to the carriage, which pulled away from the dock and made its way through the busy streets towards the university. Ember was with them, and thought she seemed a little preoccupied to Tara, she explained what lay ahead.
"The delegation is part of the Council," she said as the carriage rattled along past shops and houses, "three seats of the nine. The Council, as a whole, never leaves our city, but its members do at times, rather than rely on second-hand information. Two of the seats are Council members, fire and ice - those are Sirillia and Cyan," she added to Willow.
"Cyan's on the Council now?" she asked.
"For the past few weeks," Ember nodded, "Nica stood down, her health is starting to fail."
"Oh... I'm sorry," Willow said, crestfallen. Tara sensed there was more attachment to the woman they were speaking of than simply that of sorceresses to one of their superiors. She reached across and held Willow's hand in her lap, stroking its back lightly with her thumb.
"Nica's daughter mentored me," Ember explained, noticing Tara's concern, "and even though she herself was busy with Council matters, she often got involved. She taught me a lot, which I passed on in turn," she gave Willow a smile, "but she's an old woman now, a hundred and fourteen this year... I saw her before I came here, she's happy." Willow nodded in understanding, and Ember then straightened slightly in her seat, her businesslike manner returning.
"The Council is made up of three sets of three," she went on to Tara, "one for each of our three disciplines of magic, and one of each three is an Oracle. They never travel from the city - in place of her, three lightning sorceresses hold a single seat as part of the delegation, representing an Oracle. Their combined powers give them a portion of an Oracle's farsight. Once we reach the university I'll be speaking with them. Lady Tara-"
"Please, just Tara," Tara said with a lop-sided grin.
"Tara," Ember repeated, ducking her head, "if you would, I'd like you to speak with Cyan. She'll ask you about Hellebore, about Willow, possibly anything that's happened since you both met, maybe even about yourself before that. She might ask personal details - you don't have to reveal anything you don't want to, but she'll only ask questions she feels she needs to know the answers to. Anything you tell her will be known only to her, and the Council when she reports, no-one else."
"I understand," Tara nodded, "I'll tell her everything I can."
"You don't have to," Ember prompted gently, "as an Amazon, your word carries almost as much weight with the Zann Esu as one of our own - you've probably never heard of them, but there are ties between your nation and us, at the higher levels. What you and Willow told me yesterday can be presented as a complete report, and no further questions would be asked."
"It's alright," Tara said, giving Willow's hand a reassuring squeeze, "it's best that we do this ourselves."
"I'll report to Sirillia?" Willow asked, keeping hold of Tara's hand.
"Yes," Ember leant back as the carriage turned sharply, entering the university's coach-hall, "you know what to expect. It's possible you'll get Cyan and you," she nodded to Tara, "will get Sirillia, but I think this is how they'll do it - there's a certain predictability to the Council. Once you've reported, though," she paused, and glanced at Tara again before returning her gaze to Willow. "The delegation will discuss amongst themselves what needs to be done now, and then they'll hand down their decision. Until then you'll have to remain in session - we'll have to wait outside," she clarified for Tara.
"I can't be with her?" Tara asked sharply.
"I'm sorry, but no," Ember said, even as Tara saw the same answer in Willow's forlorn expression. "It's not a matter of trust or honour, but this is part of the traditions the Council had followed for hundreds of years. Believe me, if I could argue for you to be present, I would. It'll be alright," she said reassuringly, her gaze covering them both before settling on Willow.
"It'll be alright," she said again, warmly, "what you've done, the choices you've made... I'm very proud of you, Willow." She reached forward and gently took Willow's free hand. "Very proud... I'm sure the delegation will feel likewise for you, as a fellow sorceress."
"Thank you," Willow said in a tiny voice. She cleared her throat. "I'm okay," she went on, "it's just... what they decide, it could-"
"Whatever happens," Ember interrupted, "you and Tara will not be separated." Tara's breath caught, scared for a moment that that could have been a possibility, then eased somewhat by the older sorceress's assurance.
"Are you sure?" Willow asked, tightening her hold on Tara's hand.
"I'm sure," Ember nodded. "The worst that could happen is that they decide you require a sponsor again, to act as a mentor for a while - and if that happens, I promise it'll be me, no matter what the Council wants me to do. They won't force me to choose otherwise. And regardless, the worst won't happen. You've had a very difficult road to travel, but you're exceptional, Willow - you both are," she added, glancing at Tara. "They'll recognise that, I promise you."
The university had no buildings of note entirely separate from the rest of its structure - each laboratory block or seminar hall or dormitory was built up against its neighbour, with the corridors inside simply winding their way through, honeycombing the entire complex. However the building given over to the Zann Esu managed to be more or less isolated, a sturdy old tower and hall reached through a narrow block of modest lecture theatres, all vacant at present.
The heavy double door to the tower hall was guarded by two soldiers, of a kind Tara had never seen before - tall, broad-shouldered dark-skinned men, their faces as impassive and proud as those of a granite statue. They wore plate armour, ornately decorated but by no means purely ceremonial, and beneath that dark crimson robes woven with gold threat at the hems. Each had a huge two-handed broadsword in a scabbard on his back.
"Ashearae," Willow whispered, as the two guards stood aside at a sign from Ember and opened the doors for them to pass. "The 'Iron Wolves', their brotherhood has been the Council's bodyguard whenever a delegation travels outside the city, for the last twenty years. It's said they're incapable of betraying their oaths to the Council."
Tara nodded, feeling their gazes rest briefly on her as she passed them. Used to assessing potential dangers by the smallest of signs, what she saw and felt from the two soldiers told her that, even among powerful sorceresses, their presence as a guard was no token gesture.
The doors were closed behind them, leaving them alone in a high-ceilinged antechamber lit by thick torches in iron brackets on the walls. Tara had only a moment to glance around, seeing rows of dusty old volumes lining wooden bookcases in recesses in the stone wall, before the doorway opposite opened. Two more of the Ashearae emerged, marching in step, followed by five sorceresses. They all wore robes similar to Willow's, though of a different fabric that shone with deeper, richer colours when the torchlights glinted off them. In shadow all seemed the same dark green, but the light brought out their highlights, one crimson, one pale blue, the remaining three - a little less elaborate in their decoration, and whose wearers stood a pace behind the first two - rich magenta. All five wore their hoods up - approaching Ember, Willow and Tara, the two leaders drew theirs back, while the others remained by the door.
"Ember," the taller sorceress, whose robe had the red highlights, said with polite formality. She was perhaps fifty, and had an aristocratic face, with high cheekbones and a long nose - imposing but quite beautiful, particularly for her age. Her hair was red, but so dark it almost seemed black, and something about her gave Tara the impression that she could be utterly deadly, if she chose. Like the Ashearae, there was just something in her gaze.
"Sirillia," Ember replied, ducking her head. Willow did likewise, and Tara quickly followed suit - the tall sorceress glanced at them, but didn't respond to their presence otherwise.
"We have studied the report you had delivered this morning," she said in a haughty voice, "you understand we have questions we wish to pose."
"I do," Ember said. She took a sideways step and indicated Willow and Tara. "You remember my student, Willow?"
"Indeed," Sirillia nodded implacably.
"Her companion is Lady Tara of the Amazons."
"Lady Tara," the sorceress nodded, "in the best interests of the people of this realm, we wish to understand the events you have been involved in fully. Will you assist us?"
"Yes," Tara replied, managing an even voice in spite of the woman's intimidating, level stare. "Yes, I'll answer any questions I can."
"Cyan will speak with you," Sirillia said, stepping aside for the other leading sorceress. "Willow, come with me. Ember, if you would accompany Metea and her assistants?"
Ember nodded and followed the three purple-robed sorceresses back through the door they had come from. Sirillia turned and followed her. Willow started after her, but turned after one step and quickly leant towards Tara, pressing a kiss to her cheek.
"I love you," she whispered, nervous, though by Tara's guess not unduly so given their company. "I'll see you soon. Don't worry."
"I love you," Tara replied, hoping she sounded reassuring. A brief smile flickered across Willow's face, and after a split-second's hesitation she kissed Tara again, on the lips. Then she pulled back and hurried after Sirillia, who had not turned to find the source of the delay, merely waited at the door.
"This way please," the remaining sorceress said to Tara, indicating a second, smaller door, to an office. Her voice was almost unnaturally melodic, which Tara found comforting, though she couldn't quite decide why - there was a soothing quality to it. She took a moment to study the woman as she closed the door behind them and took her seat at the vacant office desk, with Tara seated opposite. Her motions, like her voice, were fluid and seamless, like a dancer - or an assassin, Tara mused silently. Her features were attractive, if perhaps a little plain, and she wore her sandy blond hair short, like a soldier. As she sat a candelabra perched at the side of the desk flickered to life. Tara remembered Willow mentioning that sorceresses, as they became more experienced, developed the ability to control other elements besides their first. She wondered idly, while the other woman opened a notebook and inkwell and set them to one side, where she had gotten the impression that Cyan was an ice sorceress, like Willow - the pale blue, ice-like highlights to her robes? - then recalled the night in Kingsport castle, when Willow had described her first meeting with Shadai. Cyan had been one of the sorceresses who saved her then, and no doubt the freezing magic Willow described her using was her most powerful discipline.
Cyan began with some unremarkable questions regarding Hellebore and Shadai - the structure of the catacombs, the powers the demon has displayed, at what time various events had occurred, and how long they lasted. Aside from minor, inconsequential details, it was all information that she and Willow had told Ember, and no doubt had then been conveyed to the Zann Esu delegation in her reports. Tara guessed that the sorceress was interested not in her answers, but in the way she gave them. After a few minutes, during which Cyan prompted Tara for such information, and made notes now and then, she pushed her notebook aside and leaned forward, elbows on the desk. Suddenly she seemed more intent, and her passive, polite observation gave way to a more focused scrutiny. Tara raised an eyebrow, wondering what the next question would be.
"Why did you go to Hellebore?" she said abruptly.
"We didn't know you were on your way," Tara said. "The Duke's mage was out of contact, and we didn't know of anyone else here who could help."
"Why were you so sure action had to be taken?" Cyan asked levelly. "Why not wait?"
"We thought there was too great a risk. Willow was sure that Shadai was going to attempt to be summoned again, or at least somehow control whatever was in the catacombs. Ocean, Myrreon's apprentice, saw signs of an immanent threat."
"You must have been aware of the danger then - even without knowing about Hellebore's existence, you knew there was a chance you would face a pureblood demon. Were you so sure you could defeat it?" Tara bit back her instinctive answer, and spoke after a pause.
"No," she said, "I wasn't sure."
"You could have failed?"
"You thought it was worth the risk?" Cyan asked. "To secure the prize from the catacombs? To save the city? For-"
"For Willow," Tara interrupted. "I... we did everything we could to understand what was going on, and to prevent anything going wrong. But even then we didn't know enough. Either way, if we'd gone or if we'd stayed here, there was the possibility that the worst could happen."
"As it tuned out," Cyan suggested carefully, "for the worst to happen, it required you to go to Hellebore." Tara swallowed, then nodded.
"Yes," she agreed, "it did. We didn't know." She hesitated. "Do you believe we should have done differently? Your delegation?"
"And if we did," Cyan countered, leaning forward, "what then? You're not one of us, you're an Amazon. How can we pass judgement on you?"
"This is..." Tara paused, choosing her words carefully. "I know only what Willow has told me about the Zann Esu. She believes you're fair, and wise, and I trust her. This situation is... something you understand. I'll accept your judgement."
"You could claim immunity," Cyan pointed out, "as an Amazon, a member of a diplomatic mission, you have that right."
"I could," Tara agreed, "but I knew there could be consequences when I made the choices I did."
"You had little idea what those consequences truly were," Cyan said pointedly.
"I'm not omniscient," Tara said, managing a level stare in the face of Cyan's calm regard, "there's always unforseen consequences. To anything, but... that's just the way the world is."
"Yes, it is," Cyan nodded, leaning back. She reached for her notebook and from between its pages drew a slim grey envelope, which she handed to Tara.
"Open it," she prompted. Tara did so and slid out the page inside, unfolding it. Even before she opened it she felt the unusual weight of gold edging on the parchment - that aside, there was a gold-leaf painted emblem at the head of the page, a circular border formed of three woven strands, which unwound inwards and joined again in the centre. Tara recognised it as the symbol of the Zann Esu, having seen it before on Willow's diadem, and in plain ink on the letters she carried to introduce herself to the various mages she had been sent to study with on her journey.
"...that Tara, warrior of the Amazon Nation," Tara read quickly, "be recognised as a faithful ally of the Zann Esu clan, having proven herself in trial against the enemies of humankind..." she trailed off, reading silently. The document was signed in five hands, and two crimson wax seals were imprinted below - Tara glanced up, and saw a signet ring on Cyan's left hand that matched one of the seals.
"Few outsiders are permitted within our walls," Cyan said, while Tara could only stare mutely, "but you are now one of them. You have the Council's leave to enter our city as a sorceress would, study such manuscripts in our possession as are not kept sealed and so on... and of course, associate as you please with any member of our clan," she added, not quite concealing a smile.
"Th-this..." Tara began, aware she was blushing enormously.
"The leader of your mission should be here soon," Cyan went on, "a message was sent requesting his presence, the Ashearae have been instructed to allow him in. A copy of your letter will be made for him later today, to return to your Queen." She stood up, and gestured for Tara to follow - as she did, the candelabra's tiny flames vanished.
"Our deliberations and discussion with Willow may take some time," she said, opening the door for Tara, "you may wait here for her. This room is at your disposal should you and your diplomat wish to speak privately, and food and drink will be brought here by lunchtime. Ah, this must be him." Tryptin was waiting in the antechamber, and hurried over when he saw Tara emerge from the office, with Cyan behind her.
"Tara? Ma'am," he added courteously, but questioningly, to the sorceress.
"Sir," Cyan acknowledged him. "Please excuse me, I must join my colleague. Lady Tara, our thanks." With a quick but sincere bow she turned and disappeared through the main door, where Ember, Willow and the other sorceresses had gone.
"It's good to see you," Tara said, trying to gather her wits. Tryptin, who had been staring after Cyan, regarded her for a moment, then stepped forward and gave her a gentlemanly hug.
"You too," he said earnestly. He stood back and followed Tara's gesture back into the office she and Cyan had spoken in.
"I got the letter you left for me," he began, "a messenger arrived just in time for me to return as the Duke's mage was riding in from the north, and I spoke to him, his apprentice and assistant, several Deans here, officers from the army... what happened? No, first - are you alright?"
"Yes," Tara quickly assured him.
"Is Miss Willow alright?"
"Yes, she's fine."
"Good." Tryptin sat back and let out a sigh. "Well then... what happened?"
Tara told the tale as best she could, starting from her and Willow's departure from the city and ending with her conversation with Cyan, omitting nothing in between. If Ember the day before had been a reserved audience when Willow had been the one doing the telling, Tryptin was the opposite - the tension in his shoulders was obvious as she described their approach to the entrance to the catacombs and their descent through the tunnels, and he exclaimed frequently, in dismay at the ghouls and their master, relief at her and Willow's defeat of them, shock at the formation of the tower, stunned horror as she described Shadai. By the time Tara was done, Tryptin sat wide-eyed and immobile.
"Gods and goddesses," he murmured after the moment it seemed to take him to find his voice. "The... the creature, was inside Miss Willow? She's alright, you said?"
"Fine," Tara reassured him. "She wasn't hurt, and otherwise... we're dealing with it as best we can. She's coping... she's very strong."
"She's not the only one," Tryptin noted.
"I'm sorry I couldn't speak with you directly before we left," Tara said, changing the subject to avoid the blush creeping back over her cheeks. After the businesslike manner in which they were received the day before, Cyan's letter recognising her as a Zann Esu ally and now Tryptin's awed regard came as a bit of a shock, albeit not an unpleasant one.
"No, you did right," Tryptin said quickly, "if I'd known, I- well, I'd have been concerned for your safety of course, both of you, but I can't say I'd have tried to convince you not to go. Not that I'd have had the authority, in any case."
"How come?" Tara asked. Tryptin gave a short laugh.
"I'm no strategist," he chuckled, "at least, my style of 'battle' wouldn't be any use against the enemies you were facing - we both know, after all this, how much good it does trying to do deals with demons. As a military matter, you can only be responsible to a superior warrior, not a diplomat, so you see you haven't acted outside your authority at all. In lieu of being able to receive orders from Solari in any sort of timely fashion out here, you're your own mistress as a warrior."
"I hadn't realised," Tara said, with a small grin.
"And Miss Willow is being judged by her Council?" Tryptin went on. "They must find in her favour, surely? You've achieved an incredible victory together."
"I-I think they will," Tara offered, smiling bashfully. "But they have to go through the motions... it'll just take a little while."
"I can stay with you while you wait," Tryptin offered. Tara smiled gratefully at him.
"You must be busy though," she pointed out. "And now that you know what happened, it'd be best if you worked with the Duke's people right away, wouldn't it?" Tryptin looked uncomfortable for a moment, then gave a wry smile.
"Yes," he admitted, "that would be the most advantageous course to take... but I can stay here if you want."
Tara shook her head, and again gave him a grateful smile.
"I'll be alright," she insisted, "she'll be through it all soon. After everything else, waiting a little while isn't so difficult."
"Being apart from her doesn't bother you?" Tryptin asked with a raised eyebrow.
"Okay," Tara admitted sheepishly, "it's incredibly difficult." Her grin faded. "I wish I were in there with her. Even if it made no difference..."
"It'd make a difference to you, and to her," Tryptin offered. Tara nodded sadly.
"But you've got work to do," she said, taking a deep breath, "I don't want to keep you from it, and I will be alright, I promise."
"Alright then," Tryptin conceded with a reluctant sigh. He rose from his chair, as did Tara, and they returned to the antechamber. Tryptin hesitated, and turned to Tara, opening his mouth to speak.
"Go," she smiled. He grinned too, and shrugged helplessly.
"When she's finished with the delegation-" he began.
"We'll come straight to the Palace," Tara finished. He nodded, clasped her hand warmly, then hurried off through the double doors. Tara gazed for a moment at the other set of doors, then took a seat on one of the benches at either side of the room, resting her spear up against the wall. She smoothed the loose fabric of her outfit over her legs and leant forward on her elbows, looking around idly.
After a few minutes the doors opened and Tara straightened, but only Ember emerged before they closed again. She saw Tara sitting at the side of the room, and walked over to her.
"May I?" she asked. Tara nodded and stood.
"No need to stand on ceremony," Ember said as she sat down, waving for Tara to do likewise. She leant her staff against the wall, mirroring Tara's spear, and sat with a slim iron-bound wooden case she had carried across her lap. "I'm sorry this has all been so... well, tiring. You and Willow both deserve time to relax." She paused thoughtfully, and added: "you deserve far more, in fact."
"I understand why it had to be this way," Tara said quietly. "What we did was very dangerous-"
"Far less than inaction would have been," Ember said with certainty. "When faced with such threats, sometimes the only way to prevail is to meet them head-on - the most dangerous course of action, to all appearances. Hesitating is sometimes not an option..." She trailed off, then turned to Tara.
"I'm sorry to ask out of the blue," she said apologetically, "but it's been on my mind... your spear..."
"Silverstrike," Tara offered, "it's very old, very powerful."
"How did you come by it?" Ember asked, seeming a little reluctant to broach the subject.
"It belongs to my weapons instructor, Solari," Tara explained, "it's a ceremonial blade, only to be carried by women in battle, and her children are boys. She lent it to me, for this mission."
"Ah," Ember nodded. "She has children now?"
"Adopted," Tara clarified, "orphans, from a battle on the mainland sixteen years or so ago... did you know her?"
"We travelled in company once," Ember said, "for a short while... a memorable time. Long ago, anyway. She's well?"
"Oh yes," Tara nodded, "she's regarded as one of our finest warriors, an excellent instructor..." She glanced at Ember, who seemed absorbed in thought, and grinned slightly. "...still carries on like a teenager now and then..." Ember laughed abruptly.
"That's good to know," she chuckled. "That's a very powerful weapon she's given you, unique in more than just its design. You're very fortunate to have it... and from what I understand of your culture, I think it'd be considered fortunate as well."
Tara ducked her head in acknowledgement of the high compliment - a ceremonial weapon like Silverstrike would be considered 'fortunate' if it was wielded by a warrior who was its equal in prowess and potency. If Ember truly knew the intricacies of Amazon ceremonial weaponry, and the regard Silverstrike was held in - and Tara had a feeling that she knew both better than she was letting on - she could not have spoken more highly of her as a warrior.
"How long do you expect the deliberations to be?" she asked after a moment's silence. Ember leaned back against the wall and shrugged.
"Well, it's up to the delegation of course... I think, not as long as you might expect." She gave Tara a conspiratorial wink. "I've got into the habit of reading the mood of the Council. It makes life much easier when you know what they're going to decide, without having to wait for them to tell you." Tara smiled, then grew serious.
"Do you know... perhaps, what they'll decide for Willow?"
"It's a complicated situation," the sorceress mused, "if the delegation decides to be complicated about it... personally, I think it comes down to a simple question - has Willow behaved in the way that we, as her elders, would have wished her to behave? If that's how the delegation approaches the matter, then I can't see there being any doubt as to the outcome - she is an excellent example of the kind of mage the Zann Esu have been working for centuries to produce." Tara smiled at the praise for Willow, then frowned as a thought occurred to her.
"Will they approach it that way?" she asked.
"They should," Ember replied, leaning forward and talking animatedly, "I've certainly made it plain enough in the report I wrote, and just now to Metea. They wouldn't like me to say this to you - even if you are nearly one of 'us' now," she added, gesturing to the envelope still in Tara's hand, "but frankly, if they don't find in Willow's favour, they're damned fools. And I'll see to it they change their minds."
"You've got some influence with them," Tara guessed. Ember waved a hand vaguely.
"More like they owe me a favour," she said. "I killed a couple of demons that were troubling them once." She winked again, then settled back again. "Tell me, though... I know it probably seems mundane, after all this, but how's Willow been? I don't mean while you were busy fighting pureblood demons, just in general..."
"Learning everything she can," Tara said, picking the first thing that came to mind. "She's made a good start on High Amazonian, and practiced a little archery... she enjoys working with Myrreon, I think she'll be glad to get back to him once this is all settled."
"I can imagine," Ember said, smiling probably more wistfully than she meant to. "He's one of your true inventors. She's always loved learning something new. Has she cooked anything lately?"
"A little," Tara said, "she's very good."
"I'd like to say I taught her that, but I suspect it was the other way around... she takes good care of her staff?"
"As good as I do this," Tara said, reaching over to lay a hand on her spear.
"She misses you," Tara offered gently. Ember looked at her, surprised, then smiled again.
"Not as much as she'd miss you, if our positions were reversed," she said warmly. "I miss her too... it's good to see her now, even if it's a tense situation. That'll be over soon enough, and I won't be leaving for a few days at least."
"So soon?" Tara asked.
"Lots to do," Ember shrugged, "it's the way of things, anyway. Sooner or later, a girl has to stand on her own to discover what sort of woman she'll become. I can't regret that, when I see the woman she has become." She gave Tara a fond look. "Treasure her, won't you."
"I do," Tara said sincerely, "I always will." Ember nodded, and the two of them fell into a comfortable silence, waiting and listening to the vague sounds of the people in the university outside, far away.
"Could I ask something?" Tara said suddenly.
"Shadai said she'd wanted me to suffer for a long time. Why was that? Willow I can understand, being part of frustrating her when she was first summoned, but why me? It seemed more than just anger at an enemy."
"I remember Willow mentioned it yesterday," Ember said, "the demon called you 'bringer of light', didn't she?" Tara nodded. "By their terms, it's an insult, as we'd call someone 'damned' - no, I have no doubt she hated you as much as Willow by the end of it. Remember, she tried to kill you - through Hydris, he hired that assassin in Kingsport. Even though it risked exposing him."
"She was inside Willow," Ember reminded her, "unable to influence her, and in fact being influenced herself - you saw that with your own eyes. I wouldn't be surprised if she was forced to experience everything Willow felt." She regarded Tara with an amused smile. "You've got a fair idea of the kind of emotions you stir in Willow - imagine what those would be like to a being created of disgust and loathing for humanity."
"She had to feel Willow's love for me?" Tara asked.
"For a demon, pure agony." Ember chuckled to herself. "Poetic justice of a sort. It's arguable that no pureblood demon has ever suffered such sustained anguish. I doubt she'll forget that in a hurry."
"Oh, good," Tara said with a frown.
"Don't worry," Ember said kindly, "what I said before hasn't changed. I'd stake my life that you'll never face her again. In fact, after being defeated in such a humiliating fashion, she'll be lucky to find a safe place to hide in hell, let alone start looking for a way back to the mortal plane. If it worries you that demons hold grudges, just bear in mind that practically all the lords of hell, including the four Lesser Evils - who are a sight more powerful than Shadai, each of them - no doubt still hold an enormous grudge against her, for her rebellion against them in the Sin Wars." She offered a comforting smile, which then turned into a mischievous grin. "The next few hundred years will definitely not be profitable for Shadai."
"Well," Tara said, feeling less apprehensive now, "I guess... I know a warrior shouldn't gloat, but serves her right."
"Hah," Ember laughed, "that it does." She looked down at the case on her knees, and ran her hand over it thoughtfully.
"What's that?" Tara asked curiously.
"It's called a Dividing Seal," Ember explained, "it's a tradition started long ago, when the Esu witches began collecting the library that's now the heart of the Zann Esu vaults. Some books were notably powerful and dangerous - to keep them from being misused, a section was removed from them, and placed in a case like this. The books are kept in the vault, and the Seals remain separate from them, each guarded by a sorceress. Only the full Council can authorise the reunification of such a book, and then, it would only be done in the direst of circumstances. Otherwise... if anyone manages to steal the book from the vault, not that that's likely, the Seal would be destroyed, and vice versa."
"That's the Seal of Moac's journal?" Tara asked.
"It is," Ember nodded. "Twenty pages or so, carefully removed from the volume without damaging either. A single section dealing with a single magical discipline - without it, the journal remains of great value, I don't doubt that the scholars back at home will find it a worthwhile study for years to come. But the magic that created Hellebore cannot be reproduced."
"I suppose that's for the best," Tara agreed, "it was too much power."
"This ensures that power won't be misused again," Ember offered. "The tower will never be recreated from this volume. But in the extraordinarily unlikely event of someone, unaided, following in Moac's path and creating their own Hellebore, the book and the Seal can be reunited. Together, they could bring down such a tower, as well as help build it."
They both turned as the main doors opened again. This time Willow was the one to emerge, and to Tara's profound relief, she was smiling.
"Hey!" she managed to say, in an excited tone, before Tara rushed to her and hugged her tightly, burying her face in her hair. Recovering from the first flush of relief she leaned back just enough to face Willow, and kissed her firmly and deeply.
"Mmm," Willow moaned, "mmm... ah... good to see you too!" Tara laughed, and kissed her again.
"What did they- your staff!" she exclaimed, details other than Willow herself finally filtering through to her senses. The staff in Willow's hand was the same one she had always carried, but now, atop the plain wooden shaft, there was a dark bronze headpiece capped with a pair of metal vanes. Held between them was a crystal sphere, pale blue and icy.
"I know! Cool, huh?" Willow grinned widely. She turned the staff this way and that, and to Tara's surprise the crystalline heart of the orb swirled, revealing subtle hints of a great well of energy within.
"What does it mean?" Tara asked.
"The Council awarded me my colours," Willow said, her voice brimming over with glee, "you're now looking at a fully-trained, acknowledged, no-longer-student sorceress!"
"Oh my Goddess!" Tara exclaimed. "That's wonderful! Oh my-" She was cut off as Willow handed the staff to Ember, who was standing to one side patiently, took Tara's face in both hands, and brought their lips together. This kiss was long, passionate, intense and deeply loving - Tara's head spun, and she clung to Willow with her free hand, the other holding her spear, as if she was liable to fall over.
"...wow," she breathed when Willow finally retreated from her lips, with a final playful nip at her bottom lip. Willow stared adoringly at her for a moment, then seemed to notice Ember trying to restrain her smile.
"You knew!" she accused happily. "You knew all this time that this is what they were going to do!"
"Surprise," Ember said weakly, before laughing. "I wasn't sure," she admitted, "I didn't want to get your hopes up... but if they hadn't I'd have gone in there and given them such a piece of my mind..."
"Come here," Willow beckoned, holding out an arm to her mentor. Ember walked into the embrace, she and Tara putting a friendly arm over each other's shoulders, while she and Willow hugged.
"Okay, okay," the older sorceress said with a grin after a moment, "come on, I've got a reputation here... the delegation will think I'm going soft in my old age." With a laugh Willow released her, though her arm remained around her shoulders. Her hand brushed against Tara's there, and held it.
"Oh my Gods," Willow said, "I can't believe it..."
"You deserve it," Ember said earnestly, "you've earned this a hundred times over."
"Thank you," Willow blushed.
"Thank you," Ember countered. "You know, I hesitated about taking a student - I'd been on my own for a long time. I honestly wasn't sure I had what it took to teach, in any case."
"You've been a wonderful teacher," Willow said.
"Well, I muddled along," Ember shrugged, "and now I'm very glad I did." She fixed Willow with a warm gaze. "I know you have family," she added in a soft voice, "but I've come to think of you as my family as well. You make me very proud, Willow."
"My family would thank you," Willow said, her voice thick with emotion, "for giving me the love and care that a mother would..."
"Oh, now I'm getting emotional," Ember complained with a wry smile. She glanced at Tara. "Distract her, would you? Show her what you were given."
"What is it?" Willow asked. Tara fumbled with the envelope she had all but forgotten about, and produced the letter.
"Is that what I think- it is!" Willow exclaimed. "Oh my Goddess that's wonderful!"
"You two are repeating yourselves now," Ember joked, withdrawing from Willow and Tara's embrace. Willow laughed joyously, then drew Tara tighter into her arms, so close their lips brushed together as she spoke.
"I guess we have a lot to celebrate," she murmured.
"I guess we do," Tara agreed.
It was late at night when Willow and Tara finally returned to their room in the Princess Tower. Dinner had been shared with Ember, Tryptin, those of the other Amazons who were still in the Palace, and Lissa, who both Willow and Tara had insisted join them when she appeared just before the meal was served in the guest dining room, to check if they needed anything. The story of their adventure had been told again, mostly by Tryptin, to their relief, with some elaboration from Ember on the specifics of Willow's contributions. The only deviation they made from the truth was to omit Willow's personal involvement with Shadai - Ember had earlier agreed with the delegation that, aside from a select few who could be trusted, it would be reported that the demon had spent the past few months inhabiting the ethereal planes, just as had been at first suspected, and that the ghoul lord Willow had fought had managed to summon her before being itself destroyed.
Willow and Tara, having told the tale often enough themselves in the past couple of days, let their attention drift to each other while Tryptin and Ember were entertaining and amazing their other friends with their dramatic re-enactment. Tara had noticed, and pointed out to Willow, when Tryptin began demonstrating spear combat, using his cutlery - no doubt, knowledge he had picked up from his betrothed, and Willow had giggled quietly at seeing Tara's fighting style replicated in miniature. But other than that, they had allowed the majority of the evening's excitement to occur around them, while they remained in quiet, private contemplation of each other. Their mutual relief and joy, at being safe and well, at being back among friends, at no longer living under the shadow of an uncertain peril - at some point during the evening transmuted into a kind of weary contentment.
Lissa, with a professional attendant's prescience, had scurried off a few minutes before Willow and Tara finally finished their meals and took their leave of the celebration, profusely thanking their friends as they did. By the time they reached their bedroom its candles were lit, a comfortable fire was flickering in the hearth, their travelling bags were neatly arranged beside the bookcase, and the bed was looking very inviting, with fresh sheets and fluffy blankets. Willow leaned her staff in its usual place in the corner, walked across to the bed, and promptly measured her length on it, unmoving save for an enormous sigh.
"Tired, sweetie?" Tara asked, sitting next to her and stroking a hand up and down her spine. She mused privately that another advantage to the light Zann Esu clothing was that it did little to muffle the sensations of touch, even so light as a casual caress.
"Uh-huh," Willow said indistinctly, her face buried in a pillow. "Big day."
"Can I tempt you to a bath?" Tara asked slyly. Willow was silent for a second, then energetically rolled over and sat up, cuddling up to Tara's side.
"Consider me tempted," she replied gleefully. Tara laughed, and hand in hand they got up and headed for the bathroom. Tara ran the bath, hampered slightly by Willow, who began undressing her the moment they were in the room.
"Are you in a hurry for something?" she asked over her shoulder, as Willow reached around her and undid the buttons on her tunic.
"Just don't want you to get your lovely sorceress outfit wet," Willow grinned, "it'd be a shame... what if we wanted to play dress-up?"
"I think you only want to play dress down," Tara replied.
"Maybe I do," Willow said evenly, opening Tara's tunic and pulling it back and half-way down her arms. Pressing forward against her, effectively keeping her arms out of the way, Willow reached around her and drew a leisurely fingertip up over her stomach and through her cleavage.
"See," she murmured as Tara shuddered, "it's a fun game..." She brushed her palms lightly over Tara's nipples, finding them already hard, and as Tara let her head fall back with a gentle moan, leaned forward over her shoulder to kiss and lick her way back and forth along her neck and collarbone. Tara forced her trembling legs to support her as Willow took her breasts in her hands and squeezed, sending bolts of desire through her. Without even thinking she began moving in Willow's grasp, rhythmically arching her back, swaying her hips, offering herself in time to Willow's caresses.
"Hmm," Willow breathed, "eager, aren't you? And so beautiful..." Tara gave a little moan of protest as her hands moved from cupping her breasts, one returning to stroking back and forth in her cleavage, the other flattening against her abdomen, moving in tight circles.
"Oh goddess," Tara sighed, pressing herself forward for Willow's hand.
"Ooh, you like that?"
"I... yes..." Willow left that hand where it was, circling Tara's navel, while the other finally finished the job of freeing her of her tunic. Tara wasted no time loosening her trousers and letting them fall to the floor. Willow's hand descended, rubbing her waist, teasing her curls.
"Bet you thought I hadn't noticed you weren't wearing anything underneath," she murmured happily.
"Loose pants," Tara panted, "no need... a-and I knew you knew..." She slid her boots off with her toes and leant back in Willow's embrace.
"You like teasing me like that," Willow grinned, "oh, you saucy minx... you like it when I watch you, huh? Tell me," she purred, moving her hands to hold Tara by the hips, their bodies dancing slowly, "those Amazon senses of yours... I bet you can tell when my eyes are on you, can't you?" Tara gave a low, throaty chuckle.
"I can tell when some creature I've never even seen before out in the wild is watching me," she growled, "when it's you... oh baby, I can feel your gaze like this." On the last word, she reached back and grabbed Willow tightly by the waist.
"Really?" Willow gasped. "W-well then... I'll have to stare at you more often, if it feels that good."
"You do that," Tara smiled. Leaving one hand on Willow she lean forward and turned off the taps, the bath having filled itself adequately, the water giving off steam.
"Won't you join me?" Tara went on, turning in Willow's grip and giving her a sultry grin as she stepped back into the water. She bit her bottom lip lightly and gave a low murmur in the back of her throat at the heat, which might have been uncomfortable if it wasn't so arousing at the same time. With a parting caress she backed away and lowered herself into the steaming bath, keeping her eyes fixed on Willow's all the while.
Willow shrugged the robe from her shoulders, leaving it in a heap on the floor as she hurried with the buttons on her tunic. Tara watched, her smile a mix of amusement and desire, as Willow disrobed in record time, pulling the tunic open and tossing it aside, undoing her trousers and kicking them away, her boots quickly following. When she finally stood naked her motions ceased, and she simply gazed at Tara, as if trapped by the adoration in her eyes.
Tara stood up, water streaming off her, her wet skin glistening in the candlelight, and held out her arms to Willow. She stepped forward, her feet sliding into the water with barely a ripple, and welcomed Tara's embrace fully as they sank down together.
"I love you," she whispered, as her and Tara's hands both began exploring each other, "I love you like... like my heart had to keep getting bigger just to hold it all." She chuckled shyly at herself, pausing when Tara gently kissed her, a mere brush against her lips.
"And I love you," Tara breathed, "my beautiful Willow... goddess I love you so much..." Willow returned the kiss, parting her lips just a fraction, a promise of more to come. She gave Tara a teasing grin as she settled back.
"So," she murmured, "are we bathing, or can we put this tub to a better use?"
"That depends," Tara smiled languidly, "are you thinking clean thoughts, or naughty thoughts?" Willow chuckled again, and shifted slightly, bringing her lips to Tara's ear.
"Very," she whispered, "very naughty..."