I currently have a few Interludes planned between Book II and Book III as filler while I get on track for the next. All extraneous content that might be of interest, but is not critical enough to the plot to make the cut where it belongs.
This scene would have been utterly indulgent to include, no matter how tame, and simply leading it is. Take that as you will. It wasn’t necessary, and another vignette is not something chapter 28 needed. I guess each of the interludes is about relationships, and the complicated places we can find ourselves in them. Particularly if one tries to square their feelings, with their bias. It’s a natural thing to ponder the emotions of being in such a situation, from all sides. Each bringing a different view.
When precisely this occurs is open for debate. Some time before the end of Book II. Likely late 650 or early 651. One needs to keep warm on those cold winter nights after all. A slice of life with some personal impact, but few dramatic consequences.
If the romantic negotiations of complex relationships are not your thing. Take it or leave it as you will.
To Rival All Others
Celia looked up after a knock at the door. She set her book aside, and strode across the chamber unsure who would be calling. She felt a presence as she set her hand to the handle. It was slight, familiar perhaps, but she wasn’t sure. She opened the door, and was greeted by Maeren’s insecure but far from timid eyes. Her arm across her chest, rubbing her left nervously, as each woman adopted hard to read expressions.
They stood there in silence a moment, each trying to find the measure of the other. One more conflicted, the other more hesitant.
“May I come in?” Maeren finally asked.
“Seems I already made such arrangement, didn’t I?” Celia offered somewhat dismissively. She stepped back, when she realized she still stood in the way, and Maeren walked in. Her manner notably sheepish.
Celia closed the door, and the other woman stood there, with her back to her. Clearly struggling to stop fidgeting.
“You do know she loves you? Don’t you?” Maeren asked, not turning around.
“Yes,” Celia answered, though her conviction was lacking.
Maeren turned, a sad smile on her lips. “But you are jealous,” she added.
“We all have our weaknesses,” Celia answered with a measured, almost embarrassed breath.
Maeren stepped closer, and Celia grew more rigid. “She loves me as well. Far more than is at all reasonable. Some silly errant maid. One who insists she share me with others, I just can’t let go of. Just as you insisted she share her boundless heart, if she found the inclination.”
“What,” Celia started, then swallowed, “is your point?”
“I will not steal her away from you. She would never choose, not between us. If either of us were to ask… I have little doubt it would completely break her heart.”
“So do you propose we choose for her?” Celia wagered uncomfortably.
“No.” Maeren laughed. “Quite the opposite.” She stepped closer again, and reached out her hand. Celia winced, but did not pull away, and Maeren set her palm to the other woman’s cheek.
“What do you want?” Celia asked, her eyes falling.
“I love her. Like I love few others,” Maeren said. “I saw that night how much you loved her. I saw,” she said, momentarily overcome, “when you asked me to stay, clearly in spite of your own uncertainty, how very much you love her.”
“That,” Celia started, closed her eyes, and took a breath. “That, with the woman we both love, on death’s door, I asked you to stay, does not mean… I…” She opened them again, and stared defiantly at the other woman.
“Why not?” Maeren pressed.
“You do know I am with someone else, right?” Celia protested a bemused look on her face.
“Hardly an argument against, I would think,” Maeren teased.
Celia glared at her.
“Whose rules are you playing by?” Maeren asked.
“Who said it’s a game?” Celia countered harshly.
“Isn’t it fun?” Maeren teased again. “Don’t you laugh, and giggle, and smile?”
“And cry, and cling, and worry, and worry,” Celia countered, but it felt hollow. However pained she clearly was. She knew why. She knew her argument wouldn’t win, not even in her own head.
“Didn’t we that night?” Maeren pressed, and leaned just a little closer. “Both with our hands on her heart, cling, and worry, and cry.”
Celia found nothing to answer that, and the presence of the other woman was completely disarming. To the point of being suspect. She had felt it before, asked a Red Sister what it felt like. How they could use their gift to nudge another’s desire.
“She’s lent me that book of your faith,” Maeren added. “I have found absolute solace in it. More than the spiteful rules I was raised in. So much more like the ones I follow in through the shadows of this court.” She hesitated. “Do you find me attractive?” she challenged suddenly.
“Even without your help,” Celia said tersely, using the admission to put Maeren off her guard by the coupled accusation. It worked, and Celia felt the change.
“What?” Maeren said surprised by the tone, but not quite understanding.
“You have a presence,” Celia said with clear frustration, but found herself leaning forward. “Presence, implies gift. Gift, that you have learned to use to your advantage in the most…” she let her breath go, and pulled away. “I’d call it clever, if I thought you had any idea you were doing it.”
“Doing, what?” Maeren demanded, as Celia broke free of her gravity, marched around her. She stopped and stewed in the middle of the room. “Has anyone ever told you no?” Celia demanded.
“Yes,” Maeren said almost bewildered by the question.
Celia spun, and stepped back towards her. A profound presence washing over the woman like a warm wonderful blanket. A soft silken sensation that slid over the skin delightfully. “And did even one stick to it?” she asked almost breathlessly.
Maeren bit her lip. “I…” she stammered, and tried to think back, but all she wanted was to kiss the woman in front of her, not think of others. It was slippery. She felt sure, maybe. So many on first brush had found her forward, or repovered her, and then some other day changed their mind. Offered, asked, often so nervously. Who, or which, wasn’t interesting. The moment she was in seemed all consuming. “I don’t know,” she answered nervously.
“It’s not control,” Celia said, her presence letting up, but not fully. “It is so the opposite of control, and it is the easiest of things to learn by instinct.” She stepped back, and turned away. “I shouldn’t have done that,” she muttered irritably.
“Why?” Maeren asked, flustered, and lacking any confidence.
“Because it isn’t one sided. I don’t even think it can be.”
Maeren followed, and put her hand on the other woman’s shoulder. “You said…implied that night,” Maeren started, and hesitated. “That gift…lets one convince the will, of what the body is already willing.” She huffed. “That is how it works, yes? And you have to feel it yourself, to impart it, at least something this complex.”
Celia pulled away. “If you think Katrisha did not tell me, in absolute detail, what you two have already shared, and how, you are very mistaken. I have read the Red Book as well,” Celia said avoiding a direct answer. “Read it, again, and again. It does not define my faith, but to say it does not align…” She turned, and stared with very mixed determination into the other woman’s eyes. “My mind, agrees. My body, agrees. My heart, remains unsettled. I love her. She, I think is closer to such faith than I may ever be. So much more like…” She grimaced a bit at that, tempted to derail the conversation in distraction, and mire it in awkward discomfort. “You, for all I want to be jealous…”
“Yes?” Maeren pressed.
“It’s funny,” she said nervously, turning, and pacing. “How small she makes me feel. Two years ago, she was taller than me, and now I am just a hair taller than her. She still makes me feel small. I love her like I could love no one. I promised her…everything that I am, and I have already broken that promise. Because I love her, and cannot tell her that I fear her, and fear for her. That what you offer appeals to me, and frustrates me. That I cannot own her, do not want to, and would give…almost anything in this world if I thought I could.”
“She,” Maeren hesitated. She caught Celia’s hand, and waited till she relented to look her in the eye. “She told me one morning. Pleaded with me to stay with her that day. Joked that…if a land can have two Queens, then why not three? It was a joke, I think only in what she would not do, to become Queen, with her two consorts. The rest I do not think a jest in the least. She loves us both, far more than I think either of us will ever know what to do with.”
“What do you want?” Celia pressed.
“You’ve said you know what she and I have shared,” Maeren said. “It was fun. It was a game. I want to give her something more than that. To etch myself onto her heart. To sear the memory of me – of us – onto her soul. As she has done to mine. Yet how does one outshine the sun?” Maeren laughed.
“Or a moon so much brighter than any star.” A funny smile crossed Celia’s lips. “Convince me, that I would not regret this. That together we could make her never forget us.”
Maeren pulled her closer, lay her hand on her cheek, and stood there, waiting, until Celia kissed her. It was quite some breathless time, till a door opened, and two sets of eyes turned nervously to an expected intruder. Each filled with hope, and fear.
Katrisha could never have quite answered – not in that moment – if her heart broke, or finally felt pieced back together. She put her hand to her chest. Made sure some effect of the poison had not returned. She found no such excuse, turned, bit her lip, then closed and sealed the door with a spell.
Commentary: It is tempting to go on at length about the mechanisms in play here. Everything from empathic mirroring to, differing social norms. Defense of position, respect, and rivalry. Inverse perspectives of faith, and challenges to that faith. Self aware dogma that to love defiantly of convention, is to offer singular love as defiance against that convention. Further to know those conventions, is to still be impacted by them. To be taught a path, and to be educated in the opposing view to recognize it, is to know that path is there. That it is convention.
I am trying to capture with subtlety that Celia’s upbringing makes her actually guilty that she is not the one pushing for this, let alone resistant. This implied offer aligns with what she feels she should believe. As arbitrary as the guilt of desire in one who has been trained to abstain.
Two points on a spectrum, one who was taught to be open to such ideas, but in her heart longs for a singular importance in her lovers eyes. One who was taught to be a proper Clarion girl, but found her solace in quite the opposite. When in a moment of tenderness she found joy again in her sometimes harsh life.
We only get a glimpse of Katrisha’s reaction, and I think I will leave the description as it stands. Particularly as Book II concludes, and it is revealed time marches on. Each section offering a lens through which to see the other. Things don’t always need to be simple.