Sterlings: Word Gets Out
Rhiane finished dictating her third revision of the speech Tempany was going to give before the llerkin Parliament (which served as the de facto government of the Corridor, as far as anyone could tell). She hummed to herself gently as she filed it in Tempany's in-box for consideration when a yellow summons box rose from the bottom of the video screen on her laptop. She glanced around her office, closed the laptop, checked her arm to make sure the security bracelet was still there, put the laptop into its bag and then walked away from it, knowing full well than when she stepped through the door the laptop would lock completely and be unusable until she returned.
She found the office indicated. The secretary said, "The Captain is expecting you. Please," and gestured toward the inner door.
Rhiane took a moment to register that the secretary had said "The Captain," and not "The Reverend Mother," and tried to discern what the distinction might mean. She couldn't remember what the secretary had called Chaplain Butler the first time she had been in the Chaplain's office. She stood to attention. "Oh, relax, Miss Rho. In fact, sit down."
When she had done so, she looked up. Chaplain Butler was sitting in her chair. Butler was both aged and portly, but both looked comfortable upon her, as if the goddess had been meant for her to be perfect in her age and heft. Her hands were knitted together, concern in the way her fingers flexed against the backs of the opposite hands. "Of all the people on this ship, you're probably wondering why I'm talking to you. Oh, don't worry, it's not some nefarious attempt on my part to boost the number of people showing up at Sunday Service beyond the ten or fifteen who come.
"I'm talking to you, Rhiane, for two reasons: Ambassador Tempany believes that of all the people on this crew you get along better with the Pendorians than anyone else and that your command of their language and their culture gives you a better feel for what we have gone through in the past two months or so and what we face in the next two.
"We have been on this ship for eleven weeks now, and have permitted our civilian population and, as much as is feasible within the limits of their duties, our military personnel to freely pass in and out of the Free Worlds Autonomous Zone and associate with our allies. Commander San Txema has grown increasingly alarmed at the results, and I cannot say that I blame her. On the other hand, I cannot say that I agree with her either. Rhiane, how old do you think I am?"
Rhiane was still trying to figure out where Chaplain Butler had been going with her speech when the non-sequitor halted her thought processes. "I don't know, Ma'am. Fifty? Fifty-five?"
"You're very kind. I'm seventy-two years old." She reached suddenly for the pitcher of water that had been on her desk, poured herself a glass, and sipped from it. "Two weeks ago I could not have poured that water myself. Your friend, San Tarvo, told me that my arthritis had reached to the point where there was little to be done. Not every gerontological disease had been conquered by 2198, and not every one has received the attention it deserves since the Founding. I have asked for and received permission from Commander San Txema to have the Pendorians look at my hands.
"The physician there was a nice masc-- mel. One of those blue-furred creatures, ah..."
"Tindal, Ma'am?" Rhiane said
"Yes, that was it. He looked at my hands and told me that he wasn't a specialist in geriatrics. He said 'The pathology of aging is a matter of medical history, like smallpox or HIV.' He said he dealt mostly with trauma: accident, assault, exposure to toxins and radiological hazards, but that he would look something up in his database and try to do something for me if I came back the next day."
Chaplain Butler took a deep breath and let it out. "So, so I did. And he told me that there were two treatments he had that he was allowed to give me, and when I said 'allowed?' he said that until we had signed a treaty with the Corridor he was not allowed to give me something he had called Terran Retrofit Therapy. Have you heard of Terran Retrofit Therapy, Rhiane?"
Rhiane had, and she nodded. "It's... it's when they give you immortality, Ma'am."
"No, Rhiane. It's when they reverse the aging process and make you unaging. Immortality, Rhiane, is something else entirely." Butler drank from her glass again. "Rhiane, I need your advice. I need the eyes of a young person." Chaplain Butler gestured about the cabin. She had several displays mounted to the walls, the kind that used only reflective light to show their contents, and on them were photographs from Chaplain Butler's career. She had been a beautiful but severe woman in her youth, Rhiane saw, with a high forehead, narrow eyes, a perfectly symmetrical nose and full, sensuous mouth. A smart-looking, strong woman.
"I'm a Y," Chaplain Butler said, startling Rhiane back to the conversation. Revealing your true sex was generally regarded as a breach of etiquette, although that etiquette was always in flux and often ignored. But Butler was an older woman of high rank and regard, not to mention a Chaplain, and revealing her sex to an underling like Rhiane was momentous. "I'm also a Chaplain in the Prophet's Church. I know my belief is young and untried. Yet worship of the Goddess remains the predominant religion of the Free Worlds, if we don't call unbelief a belief." She leaned forward on the desk, her bulk and age seeming to come toward Rhiane like a massive wave. "I need to know, Rhiane. The Pendorians have brought that trial. They have brought to us a way of life so completely different from our own that we have no choice but to adapt to it or die. And I need you to assure me, Rhiane: do we have a place in their society? Will Jehanne Sterling's work end on the trash-heap of history next to Zeus and Odin? Will there still be Y women ten centuries from now, trying to bridge the differences between men and women, trying to give us all the understanding we need?"
Rhiane had been thinking these very questions since she had met Hagan. "Yes," she said.
"Yes? To which?"
"To both, I think." Rhiane cringed as she realized what she had just done: she had delivered bad news to a superior officer. Ilonca was still trying to help her understand how to talk to an officer, but Rhiane was not naturally inclined to hold back her honest assessment. She just hoped that Butler really wanted her to be honest. "I don't know that worship of the Goddess will persist out in the Pendorian civilization, Ma'am: it doesn't offer anything they haven't heard before. Some may latch onto it as a fashion, and there's always the possibility that it might strike a chord deep inside the odd individual somewhere, but I don't believe it's ever going to be more than a minority cult." Butler smiled at that. "But Ys will survive. They'll thrive. The Pendorians love the whole idea of our civilization and the way its structured. Ys breed true with standard Terran femHumans, and as long as there are Ys there will be more Ys."
"Do you really believe that?"
Rhiane felt her conviction grow strong. She needed to talk to Tempany soon. And she wanted to talk to Ilonca, too: Butler's desperation had shaken her. "Yes, Ma'am, I do. The Free Worlds will become a tourist destination for the Pendorians, and if-- when-- our people start to take the TRT, there will be massive changes in our society. It can't be helped. Issues like child birth, population growth, child rearing, family life! They'll all have to adapt to people living a hundred, four hundred, a thousand years or more. But if we retain our autonomy and independence then our way of life, our viewpoint, and our contributions will stand."
Butler closed her eyes. "I needed my hands, Rhiane. I could not pour the wine without them, I could not stroke the faces of my flock, all fifteen of them now on this mission, without my hands." She opened them again to look at Rhiane. "After the injections were done, she-- he-- told me that I should start to feel better in an hour or so. And then he patted my hand and said to me, 'Don't worry. We won't let you die before you have a chance to choose.' Choose." She sighed once more. "I won't make my usual pitch to you, Rhiane. There's not much point. But I wanted to thank you for coming down and telling a senior officer what you felt."
Rhiane nodded. "I'm sorry I couldn't bring you better news, Ma'am."
"You did what you were supposed to do, Lieutenant. Dismissed, if you would."
Rhiane rose and left, not daring to look back, not daring to see the distraught woman she left behind her. She needed comfort, and she needed it now. She pulled out her phone, dialed, connected. "Ilonca, are you home?"
"I can be," Ilonca said. "Is something wrong, Rhiane?"
"I... I don't know. Can I come over?"
Rhiane walked into Ilonca's cabin, a one-woman studio Ilonca had reserved early in the cabin assignment process and so very close to the border with the rest of the Einstein's Canvas. "Rhiane? What is it?"
Rhiane fell into Ilonca's arms, holding onto the other woman and needing her embrace, needing the warm feeling of Ilonca's love against her body. She had come to depend upon this feeling even as she and Ilonca told one another that it wasn't necessarily permanent, wasn't a commitment. "I just had a talk with Chaplain Butler." She related in quiet breaths the whole of her conversation. She said, "And when it was over, I saw her, Ilonca. I saw how old she was, how desperate. I want to live forever, Ilonca. I want what the Pendorians are offering. But... if I was fifty years older would I still feel the same way?"
"How old is Saul? Or Ash and Arwen?"
Rhiane paused, remembering the identical twins she had been briefly introduced to one afternoon recently.. "I... I don't know."
"The twins are over a century old."
"No way." Rhiane pushed back. "They're kids. Teenagers. They're both so skinny and so small, even for a Pendorian. They're our size. Smaller!"
"They may be small, and they may act immature, but they're both Pendorians so they make their brains however they like. They choose to be what they are today. Saul is nearly five hundred years old. Think about that, Rhiane: Saul was born before Minerva was settled."
"He doesn't act like it."
"No, he doesn't. Hrlee doesn't seem old, but she's nearly a hundred. And Yesyka is nearly a thousand."
"A thousand years old?" Rhiane knew the tall, beautiful Han fem from the Pendorian emissarial team, had seen her numerous times since they'd left orbit. She couldn't imagine that vibrant creature being a thousand years old.
"Those are just the people we know, Rhiane. There are thousands of people of this ship, imagine the range of ages there must be here. This is more your line of thinking than mine, Rhiane, but I've had to think about it. So have you. When the TRT becomes available, I'm taking it. I want to live a long life, a productive life." Ilonca gathered Rhiane close. "I like you, Rhiane. But I love life, too. Will you hate me if I take the TRT?"
"No," Rhiane said. "No, of course not. I'll take it too. I just... don't know what it will do to people like Chaplain Butler."
"That's for her to decide." Her padd beeped, and she grinned. "It's time. Come on, we're having dinner with Polly and Zia."
The weirdest pairing Rhiane could have ever possibly imagined among San Txema's staff brought her back to the here and now and away from the sudden intractable philosophical problem she knew she could not resolve, only live through.
Ilonca pushed her glasses up over her nose. "I'm glad you decided not to get the surgery, Rhiane."
Ilonca grinned wide. "Can you imagine it? We go out to dinner and of the four of us, you're the only one not wearing glasses?"
Rhiane tried to picture it, then laughed. "I guess that would be a little strange."
"More than a little," Ilonca replied. She pulled her uniform jacket on, reached out and took Rhiane's hand, and both of them headed out for the Pendorian sector.
Polly and Zia were already waiting at the noodle shop when Rhiane and Ilonca arrived. Polly was dressed in uniform, but Zia had changed into a suggestively short pleated skirt and a white blouse with red trim on the collar, as well as a beret. There was someone with them Rhiane did not recognize. "Hi," Polly said. "I hope you don't mind, but Zia's roommate wanted to come along."
The woman with long blond hair wore it loose and messy with what looked like a bandanna holding some of it out of her eyes. She was small, even for a Sterling. She could see eye-to-eye with some of the taller Mustels. "Uh, hi. Dove. Dove San Cioni." Like everyone else, she wore glasses, although they had the same generic look as Polly's and not the stylish viewscreen proportions of Ilonca's or Zia Tau's, or the hourglass black-and-white design of Rhiane's. Dove seemed very nervous. "This is my first time out in the Pendorian areas."
"Really?" Rhiane said. "Why haven't you gone out before?"
"Dove is quite conservative in her own way," Zia said. Rhiane found Zia Tau maddening in her own way: her voice calm and even and without a trace of emotion. She wasn't-- quite-- robotic, but she had a reserve of emotion that made her seem cold. How she and Polly had ever ended up "dating"-- it didn't even seem to be the right word for what they were doing. There was something going on between them for which the Free Worlds had no working vocabulary. She wondered if the Pendorians had a term for it.
Dove took a deep breath. "One of my mothers is an Opra of the Church of the Goddess on Sparta. The other is the the Senator San Cioni, Lady First Parliamentarian of Sparta."
Polly turned to look at Dove, and Rhiane could see the surprise on her face. "You're from those San Cionis? You didn't tell me that!"
"You didn't ask," Dove said.
Their waiter came and took their orders. Rhiane used her flawless Quen, surprising the waiter. Polly, Zia, and Ilonca made the poor mel wait until he caught up with whatever was dubbing their Francaise into Quen before he nodded. And then Dove ordered, her Quen almost as good as Rhiane's.
Rhiane turned to her. "Memet hanyan Quen?"
"Nuevon dolye puello."
"Quenen!" Rhiane's eyes were alight. "Your accent's better than Ambassador Tempany's. Have you been doing one of the courses they put on the local library?"
Dove nodded, blushing gently. "I wanted to know how to find the bathroom before I came out here." She tapped at her padd. "I didn't want to have to rely on these. I'm too good at losing things."
Ilonca laughed. "Whatever you do, Rhiane, don't introduce her to the twins."
"Who are?" Dove asked.
Rhiane blushed suddenly, hard. "Ash and Arwen. They're two... boys, I guess. Ilonca says they're a lot older, but they're so small and young-looking. They're completely obsessed with the Free Worlds, want to know everything about it. They show up to the contact meetings and get-togethers wearing Free World fashions, they speak really good Francaise, but they seem to have developed a certain fascination with Rhiane because she speaks Quen so well."
"They're annoying. I wish they'd leave me alone," Rhiane said. "And they're strange. They're always finishing each other's sentences, talking over one another, like they're almost the same person or something, but they say they're not a gestalt. And they're so..."
Ilonca laughed. "They're so boy."
"Maybe. But they wear our clothes so well!"
There was silence for a moment. "Your mom is a prelate?" Polly asked Dove.
"One of them," Dove said. "The other's a minister."
"That explains a lot. About how you came to have an MP as your watchdog."
"I haven't needed her," Dove said. "And that's probably for the best. She has been distracted lately." Dove stared at Polly.
Polly blushed, but Zia said nothing. At first it seemed that she wouldn't even register Dove's provocation, but finally she turned and said, "Maybe you need some distraction, Dove."
"Not the kind you have," Dove said harshly.
Ilonca cleared her throat. "Ladies, we are in public," she said softly. "It would seem that one of my duties as a steward is to be the adult at the table."
Their dinner came, and the conversation turned back to more mundane subjects. When the plates had been cleared away, Ilonca leaned over and put an arm around Rhiane. Rhiane leaned back, letting Ilonca envelope her. Polly said, "Y'know, for two people who swore they weren't going to go all sunny-eyed, you two sure are comfortable with one another."
"When you've been dating for four months instead of three weeks, let us know how sunny-eyed you are," Rhiane said gently, appreciating Ilonca's hands on her.
Zia looked odd for a second, her mouth forming words but making no sound. She stared off then said, "Actually, Polly and I have been dating for nine weeks now."
"Nine?" Rhiane, Ilonca and Dove all spoke at the same time. Dove said, "Five at the most."
"Nine," Zia said. "It's in my journal."
"You two kept it a secret for a long time," Ilonca said. "Why?"
Polly said, "We were doing other things."
"That explains why you were so weird that month," Rhiane said. "You were keeping it a secret."
"We were just trying to figure out if we fit," Polly said.
Rhiane said, "Did you?"
Zia gave the smallest of smiles. "We do very well."
Rhiane was happy to see Polly and Zia doing "well," even if she didn't understand what "well" meant in this case. She thought about asking Saul: he had become something of a contact with the Pendorian world outside of Tempany's duties (she had Yesyka for that), and he had come to her as a friend of Polly's and asked her for advice on dealing with Khrystyne. It seemed that he liked Khrystyne, but... she was difficult.
Polly had confirmed that a long time ago. Rhiane wished she understood what it was about Khrystyne that made her "difficult." She didn't know Khrystyne well enough. She knew Khrystyne was a medical technician like Polly, but that was about it.
And right now she didn't care all that much. Her best friend held her, and that was all she needed. The wine was helping, but not too much. She didn't want more alcohol, she wanted more of Ilonca. She shifted in the bench seat, rubbing up against Ilonca. Ilonca leaned down and whispered, "Ready to go?"
Rhiane nodded. She was more than happy right now. When she had first come onto the Bones, months and months ago, she had wanted to be a simple sensor technician and to be left alone. Then she had wanted to get out of being an intergovernmental liaison and get back to being a tech. She hadn't known she wanted to fall in love. She hadn't know she'd be good at this job. But she was, and she received praise for it, and warmth from Ilonca.
She felt Rhiane's mouth brush the top of her hair, and Rhiane whispered in her ear, "Wanna go to the drift chambers after this?"
Rhiane looked up at her. "Yes!"
Ilonca bent down to give her a brief kiss, and then the two of them straightened up to spend more attention to their friends. Dove seemed to have gotten more uncomfortable with the public display of affection they showed. Rhiane said, "Dove?"
She nodded, then looked around. "There are so many different kinds of people out here. How do you keep them all in order?"
"Do you have to keep them in order? What do you do, anyway?"
"I'm a securities analyst support staffer," Dove said. "I work for HonorAthena Funds. They sent me as part of a team to analyze the llerkin stock market and try to figure out if there were any places where we could make investments and what kind of time it would take to recover them, if at all." She put her elbows on the table. "The problem is, the more we analyze the market as described in their own paperwork, the less sense it makes."
"That's because it's run by AIs," Rhiane said. "They think differently. I've been trying to understand some of what they do with math, and it's... bizarre. People don't do math anymore; they do hermeneutics. That's where, instead of trying to create new mathematics, they're simply trying to wrap their head around what the AIs say they think they've discovered."
"That sounds sad," Polly said. "Is there anything human being can do better than them?"
"In the sciences, probably not," Rhiane said. "It's frustrating, but... I've learned to find alternatives." She smiled at Ilonca, who covered Rhiane's hand with her own. She sighed. "I guess I was just not born into a time that needed even talented amateur mathematicians."
"I'm sorry," Polly said. "I know that was important to you."
"Yeah," Rhiane said. She looked down at her dessert. "I'm done. Anyone else?"
There were nods all around, and they stood. Rhiane stretched, and Polly admired her appreciatively. Rhiane smiled at her, said, "Don't make Zia jealous."
Zia said, "I don't get jealous."
Rhiane said, "I bet I could make you jealous."
"Don't try," Zia said. Rhiane grinned at the serious tone of Zia's directive, but she nodded afterward. "Where are you two going?"
"Uh... " Rhiane paused. "Ilonca and I found something on board called the drift chambers. They're... nice. We'll see you later. It was good to see you, Polly. I'm glad you're getting along."
Polly nodded. Zia didn't seem like the kind of woman who'd want a hug, nor Dove. Ilonca and Rhiane instead made their goodbyes, took hands, and walked this time to the drift chambers. "I remember the first time we did this," Ilonca said.
"You were so positive then."
"I'm not now?"
"No, but I'm not so frightened now. I don't need you to be positive."
The hallway of Drift Chambers had deep red carpeting, oak panelling on the walls and brass rails at waist and head heights. One wall bulged at regular intervals and at the apex of each bulge was a single, simple door. Ilonca found one door with a green indicator above the knob and pulled it open. The air inside was clean. "Remember, there's no gravity." She stepped through the door and seemed to float there, just a meter away from the wall. "I forgot how the switch makes all the blood rush to my head." Ilonca grinned at Rhiane, who instead launched herself into the room at Ilonca. "Ooof! Rhiane! We have to take our clothes off!"
"We can do that," Rhiane said. "Thia will make sure that our clothes get to the nook, won't they?"
"Rhiane, what's into you?"
"You," Rhiane said. "I'm into you. You're into me. Isn't that enough?"
Ilonca laughed and kissed Rhiane gently. Even as they kissed, Ilonca shrugged her way out of her jacket and sent it hurtling through the large cylindrical room on a cometary trajectory, sure that the AI would take it and put it away where it belonged. The two women began to undress almost frantically, the space about them becoming a haze of blouses, skirts, socks, panties, bras, and eyeglasses. They bounced off one of the walls gently, then hovered in the middle of the null-gravity chamber. Somehow, their clothes all seemed to drift away.
Naked, Rhiane nuzzled Ilonca's throat, her mouth licking the smooth, soft skin of the other woman's neck, up her chin, to her ear. Ilonca shivered. "You've become so forward, Rhiane."
"Only with you. And... for some reason, I tried to imagine Zia and Polly doing it. I know what Polly looks like, making love, and I just couldn't imagine her with Zia."
Ilonca's hand strayed up Rhiane's flat belly to her breasts, cupped one in hand and held it the way one holds a kitten. "And what did you imagine?"
"Weird geometries," Rhiane said. "The kind that can only be understood with mathematics."
Ilonca laughed. "Ah, my mathematician." She pulled Rhiane face-to-face and kissed her, holding her by her shoulders so they wouldn't drift away. "You're so beautiful. Fortunately for us we don't need nearly as much physics as they probably do."
Rhiane giggled. Ilonca's free hand slid back down Rhiane's belly, touching the dark tangle of pubic hair, and Rhiane's giggle slipped into a sigh. The press of Ilonca's body against hers, both bodies held together only by their own will, made her feel warmer than the darkened, quiet room. She looked up into Ilonca's face, saw the happiness and the self-assurance there, and she pulled herself up and kissed Ilonca.
They hovered, legs entwined. Ilonca was an opened-mouth kisser, and Rhiane had learned to kiss just the way she liked. Rhiane had also learned to like kissing, a lot. The two of them spent a long time, holding each other, mouths pressed up, desire and friendship and love building. It was quite a while before they broke with a satisfied "Ahh..."
Rhiane held onto Ilonca, her head against Ilonca's shoulder. When her other hand "encountered" Ilonca's own tangle of golden pubic hair she felt the shudder that ran through Ilonca's body as if the taller woman fluttered like a wing. "You've become much more confident, Rhiane," she murmured.
"I had to. Between you and the responsibilities of my office, I've had no choice."
"Mmm. But I'm still confident too." Ilonca's hand slid between Rhiane's thighs and found warmth and moisture. Rhiane's hunger for her beautiful girlfriend reach a high pitch, one that grew even higher as Ilonca slid down the length of her body and positioned herself above Rhiane's mound. For Rhiane, Ilonca's mouth was a place of worship, a core reason to exist. When Ilonca's mouth touched down on her vulva, it was as if Rhiane had somehow found herself plugged into the pleasure center of the universe. Ilonca breathed on her pubic hair and she swooned. And when Ilonca licked at her vulva she moaned loudly. She held onto her lover's hair, trying hard not to hold her there, silently singing Ilonca's praises as that sweet, blissful tongue, that mouth, that woman held onto her and maybe symbols on her soul in the shapes of delight. When she came, it was as wonderful, as complete as any ecstasy she had ever felt before.
Ilonca pulled herself up along the length of Rhiane's body. Rhiane sighed once more. "Goddess, you are so good to me. We smell like sex."
"As you are to me, Rhiane. Believe me," Ilonca said. "And believe me when I say smelling like sex is good around you."
Rhiane giggled. "If that's so, then..." She held on carefully as she turned around, until her head was between Ilonca's thighs and her own legs dangled close. She did not want more of Ilonca's tongue on her, not immediately, but she wanted Ilonca's senses doused in her scent and aroused by the sight even as she provided the sound and touch of her own mouth. Ilonca's vulva had become familiar territory: Rhiane knew where to touch, where to lick, how hard to tug on the sweet, surprisingly thick inner lips, and where she should avoid, that ticklish spot right above her clitoris, and where her mind had written on its own cartography of Ilonca's body "beyond this point there be dragons." But within that range of sweetness and assurance she dove in with the thirst of the redeemed, her mouth suckling at Ilonca's labia, her tongue flickering at the underside of that clit, right above Ilonca's urethra (she thought there were other words for it but she didn't know any), and she inhaled deeply the sweet, heavy smell of Ilonca's love, a smell so enveloping no computer generated reality could present a more total rapture.
"Yes, Rhiane, Goddess, yes," Ilonca sighed. "Yes, I need you to... yes..." Ilonca's moans reached her as if from far away, important messages from a desperate voice, and Rhiane's tongue flittered in response to that desperation, pressed, and became a strong, repetitive lapping at Ilonca's cunt. Rhiane's tongue began to ache with the pressure, and she could feel her teeth cutting slightly into the thin film of flesh that connected her tongue to the roof of her mouth, but she ignored both as Ilonca's body heaved and tightened and she cried out, "Yes, oh, Rhiane, oh, oh, yes, oh..." And then she relaxed, her body limp and exhausted.
It was Rhiane's turn to climb back to face Ilonca without losing contact and drifting away. They both giggled. Ilonca said, "Yesyka told me that when they do this, they usually wear something, a net belt that makes gripping easier without pinching the fur."
"Maybe we should try that," Rhiane said, and then kissed her gently.
When she again let the other woman speak, Ilonca said, "But we'd have to ask the Pendorians how we get one and I'm not sure I'd want anything that kinky in my inventory. What if someone should find it?"
"Ilonca, you live alone. You're way too upper for inspection. Besides, is it kinky if you own it out of love?" Rhiane murmured softly. Her mind was still afloat, her hands still tingled from love and sex.
"Probably," Ilonca said after a few seconds of thought. "But I'll get one if you want one."
"I'd be too scaredycat to go find one. Where do you get one?"
"I could ask Yesyka."
"I bet Polly would know," Rhiane said.
"Mmm," Ilonca said. "I don't have my watch on. I can't tell what time it is, and I do have duty tomorrow."
Rhiane sighed. "I don't want to let you go."
"Then stay in my room tonight," Ilonca said. "That's why I got the bigger bed in the first place."
Rhiane was about to push away when she remembered where they were. She paused long enough to look into Ilonca's eyes and say, "Do you mean that?" Their one and only morning together, after their very first night, had surprised them with its awkwardness. They had chosen to sleep separately since. "Do you really mean that?"
"I asked you once if you wanted to fall in love with me. I thought it was part of the plan. I want to fall in love with you, Rhiane. I want to fall in love with you so badly I may have done it already and just not know it. But I have to find out. This is one of those steps."
"Yes, Ilonca. I want you. I want to wake up next to you."
"Then let's go see what happens." Ilonca took her hand. "Thia? Door, please."