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Though my soul may set in darkness
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It had been difficult to recover her composure, in the week since Tristan’s visit.

Alethea did try. She fell back into her usual routine as best she could, despite the feeling of eyes pressing on her from every side, despite the constant fear that Mordred would call her in to talk about her “friend” and Loholt’s subsequent, brief disappearance…despite the confusion and hurt that Tristan had not taken her with him. There were more questions than answers, and everything had become even more tangled and confusing than before. She didn’t know what she should do.

So she spent long hours alone. In the library, in the garden. Riding the perimeter of these grounds, like a wolf circling its cage, frenetic and lethargic in turns. Drawing, when she could clear her mind enough to try.

A clear head was not forthcoming, today.

Midnight was glistening in the afternoon sun as they walked back toward the castle on a long rein, his neck stretched forward so that he might snatch any high grass for a snack. Thea leaned back in the saddle, her head tilted up to the sky. With her relaxed posture, and her eyes mostly closed, she appeared almost to be sleeping – careless. It was a misleading picture: the noble woman on her noble steed, out to enjoy an uncomplicated ride around the castle grounds. Leto loped along beside them, occasionally disappearing in the cover.

The wolf was chagrined that a dumb horse spotted the stranger, first. But in her defense, the horse was taller.

“Girl up ahead,” Midnight mumbled with his mouth full, ears pricking. Alethea’s head lolled forward with a groan, eyes squinting against the sun. In a few paces the tall grass would give way to clover and meadowsweet, and beyond that stood two young women, of identical height and build and nakedness.

Nakedness?

Alethea’s mouth opened slightly. Closed. Was she having an island flashback? She asked Midnight for a trot and he gave her a canter instead, curling his neck like some destrier loping into battle. She sighed. Show off. They pulled up near the women and Alethea immediately dismounted, sliding from the saddle before Midnight had come to a stop. Her fingers flew to the buttons of her long riding coat.

“Hello,” she greeted shyly, making a point to look only at the stranger’s faces. And they were strangers, she saw immediately – she had never seen them at the castle before, or anywhere on the grounds, which made their appearance here in this state of undress all the more perplexing, especially since they appeared to be around the same age. They were immaculately clean, suggesting that this was not some fit of madness, and were in possession of two strange satchels and a mechanical device. One of the women seemed more distraught than the other (they were in every other way identical, like twins), so Thea passed the coat to her after shrugging it off, hoping it didn’t smell too strongly of horse. “I’m Alethea. Are you lost? Can I help you?” Her voice, as always, was diplomatic, as if she had barely noticed their nudity and felt no judgment whatsoever. Any astonishment she felt would have been invisible to all but her closest friends.

With the coat handed off, she took a brief inventory of the rest of her clothing. Her riding boots and breeches would be highly inconvenient, and she’d gone without an undershirt, which made sharing impossible. She could only imagine the looks she would receive if she were to flounce through the garden with her ample breasts exposed. These women’s bodies were, frankly, less indecent than hers.

“I’m so sorry, I only have the one layer to spare. But I can sneak you in through the kitchens, where fewer people are likely to see us. I’m sure I have something that will fit passably until we can find your clothes.” Alethea tapped her chin, looking between them, then gestured for the more passive twin to stand closer to the horse. “Here, you stand next to Midnight – he won’t hurt you, I promise,” she gave the stallion a stern glance as she said it, though she knew he could not understand her when she wasn’t speaking horse, “And we’ll stand around you, and nobody will notice a thing.” Her smile was cheerful and encouraging, as if this was a foolproof plan she had executed many times before.

Which, in a way, she had.


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