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“Again, she heard the sound, scraping at the carriage roof. Srrrkt. Srrrkt. Srrrkt.”

Hoshido was uncommonly hot during the first summer festival following the war’s end, but, despite the ill climate, the spirit of celebration abounded. Children of Hoshido and Nohr frolicked together through mazes of festival stalls and paper streamers, partaking in games of chance and skill, sharing festive treats both savory and sweet. Some of the bolder Nohrians even had a go at donning the traditional festival yukatas.

Indeed, armistice is a time for reconciliation. Thus, with this noble endeavor in mind, far above the festival proper, in a secluded copse of trees near castle Hoshido, Camilla, the eldest princess of Nohr, had decided to show her new Hoshidan allies how Nohr once celebrated their solstice.

Camilla’s deep voice cut the humid air with ominous intent as she continued her story. “The words of her love resounded in her head, ‘wait here, I’ll be back soon’ and left her paralyzed. And always, from the carriage roof. Srrrkt. Srrrkt. Srrkt. Was it a branch, she wondered?”

Ophelia clasped both hands over her agape mouth, scooting a bit closer to Soleil on their shared log.

“Or a squirrel, she thought, scratching at the carriage fixtures for bedding to steal away for its nest. Surely nothing more than that...”

Ignatius gripped Forrest’s hand a little tighter.

“Yet still, as the hours passed, the sound became her only companion in the darkness. With every billow of the wind, it returned. Srrrkt... Srrrkt... Srrrkt…” Camilla twined a curl of lavender hair around her finger, looking skyward. The lapping flames of the bonfire lent a menacing cast to her scarlet eyes. “She began to fear that her lady love might…”

The swaying branches of the trees encroached upon the gathering like a shroud of grasping claws. An audible gulp came from Siegbert and Shiro’s corner of the fire.

 “Of course not! It couldn’t be!” Camilla dismissed the possibility before she offered it. She leaned forward, tenting her gloved fingers before her. “But curiosity battled with fear in her quavering stomach, and still her lady love had yet to return. Perhaps she was lost upon the road, or hurt and in a terrible need. Thus, she summoned all the bravery of her small form, threw open the carriage door, and strode boldly out into the dawn. With that, the clank of metal…”

Selkie squatted atop her log like a rapacious gargoyle, the rapt flicking of her ears devouring every foreboding word.

“It was a crude metal hook, shaken loose from the door handle. But our pitiable princess took no notice of this fearsome instrument, barbed and bloodied though it was…”

Velouria seemed more interested in stripping fistfuls of grass from the patch of ground between her boots, until an instructive elbow from Nina beside her refocused her attention.

“Throwing her gaze to the tree above, a truly shocking sight consumed her. Dawn was breaking, the culmination of this long, terrible night, and so, with the sun cresting the horizon, she absorbed, in bold detail, a face, bloodied and mangled. It wasn’t so. It couldn’t be. And yet, faced with that a terrible visage, she—”

A sudden shriek rang out so loud it shook the trees.

“Let out a sound rather like that, I suppose.” A canny smile tented Camilla’s lips. “Hinoka, darling, if you wanted to play a role, you only had to ask.”

The elder princess of Hoshido ducked her head, potently aware that a dozen sets of eyes were now focused on her. “I-I didn’t…”

“Are you quite all right?” Camilla asked, voice honeyed with exacerbated with hyperbolic concern. “Why, you’re pale as a ghost!”

Hinoka bridled her burgeoning embarrassment with a stern pinch of her lips. “My color is i-is none of your concern.”

“Regardless, I’m not sure young Setsuna appreciates you digging your claws into her flesh.”

At that, Hinoka abruptly abated her vice-like grip from her retainer’s arm.

“Oh, I don’t mind…” Setsuna unconsciously shook her now-free arm, paying no mind to the purpled welts Hinoka’s fearful clench had scored into her pale skin. Her lethargic eyes were more focused than they had been in months. “Lady Camilla, what did she see in the tree?”

“Ah yes, as I was saying.” Camilla’s voice sunk an octave. “It was a truly shocking sight. A terrible visage, that awful, grisly affair. For, looking up into the skeletal tree than loomed above her carriage, she saw none other than the gristly, mutilated face of—“

“Yes!” Hinoka sat bolt upright. “What was that, Corrin? I’ll be right there!”

Teetering at the edge of Camilla’s cliffhanger, the assemblage of army brats hardly noticed as Hinoka sprinted off into the trees as fast as the strict ties of her yukata would allow.

The air was cooler in the darkened castle halls. Standing on the garden terrace outside her bed chambers, Hinoka allowed herself a few minutes to recompose herself, swiping sweat from her brow and syncing her tremulous breathing to the calming clack of the garden’s bamboo fountain. There now, she was fine. Why, she hardly thought at all about what might be lurking around the worrying bend of the hallway off towards her sibling’s chambers, where a sconce had long-since guttered out, and trickling darkness spread gloom along the thin, paper walls.

Where were those servants, anyway? Festival or no, all these lamps should’ve been lit and stayed lit!

“Hinoka, dear! Where have you gotten off to?”

With the echo of Camilla’s voice down the terrace, Hinoka shrunk against the wall, gaining a new appreciation for those sinister shadows, now that she so direly wished to vanish into them.

“There you are!” Camilla let out a petulant huff. “Did you plan on whiling the night away in some darkened garden? You’ll miss the fireworks.”

“Oh, damn the fireworks. I’m not a child, to be wowed by…“ Hinoka balled her fists at her side, presenting a staunch offense—though in truth, it was more to stop their damnable shaking. “It’s just… it’s just too oppressively hot for such foolishness. Fireworks, honestly! And a bonfire, in the middle of summer? And you… you…”

“My, my.” Camilla closed the distance between them with casual grace, her sandals drawing not even a creak from the floorboards. “Did my story scare you? I had no idea my dashing Hoshidan princess was so… sensitive.”

“Of course not.” Hinoka furrowed her nose. The lilac of Camilla’s sweet perfume was dizzying. Camilla was dangerous in her proximity. Hinoka floundered, struggling for her bearings, and applied a straightening jerk to her rumpled yukata. “As if such a thing…”

Camilla cupped Hinoka’s cheek. “I’m sorry, darling.”

With a soft hmph, Hinoka looked away. “I’ve spent too much of my life seeing such things already.”

A knowing nod from Camilla. “We all have.”

Hinoka swallowed, and in the time that bought her, she steeled herself to say.

“But… it was kind of exciting.” She coughed. “Being scared I mean.”

“Oh ho, she does have a curious side.” Capricious smile. Bold with frightful delights. “Do you want to hear how it ends, then?”

“No.” Her face burned like a thousand suns. The reverberations of Camilla’s story, the vulnerability, the testing, languid, drawn-out nature of the fear… Hinoka shivered down to her toes. “I’m… quite all right, being left in suspense…”

Camilla’s fingernails raked along Hinoka’s arms, flirting over sensitive skin through the sheer, summery cotton of her yukata. “I quite agree. Sometimes, letting those feelings build up and up and up, anticipating the moment they overwhelm you in full… that’s half the fun, isn’t it?”

“Stop.” Hinoka giggled at the ticklish scrape of Camilla’s fingers, her hips shifting this way and that, her hands atop Camilla’s only ostensibly dissuading these curious touches. “Besides, someone might see.”

“Who might? Your family? Your servants? They’re all out watching the fireworks…” A pause for thought. “Unless…”

Hinoka’s jaw went slack, as her gaze drowned in the performative purse of Camilla’s full lips. The gears of her mind cranked slowly. Someone could come, someone could see! Takumi, bored of the festivities, cloistering himself off in a remote patio to train. Fastidious servants, sneaking away from the fireworks to clear away dishes from the feast, or to take a well-earned nip from the sake stashes in the cool basement, or, possibly, to relight these damned lamps. She could imagine such a slew of mental possibilities! Camilla’s toying touch along the curve of her stomach was making such mental auditing… somewhat difficult.

“Unless?” Hinoka throat bobbed, a querulous swallow.

“Srrrkt, srrrkt.” Camilla’s finger roved tauntingly up and down Hinoka’s sides, applying a curious scrape in time with each threatening sound. “Srrrkt, srrrkt.” The bite of her nails. “It’s coming to get you, dear.”

Hinoka struggled to restrain the nervous energy threatening to boil over within her. The sound locked her spine. Skin went clammy, and her heart staggered into a staccato beat with the memory of fireside fear. Hinoka’s toes curled against the rough grain of her sandals.

“What are you talking about?” Even this silly game forced her heart to pounding, and swelled her head with nervous energy. Every inch of her skin was alive, alight. Camilla’s searching fingers swept over her small breasts with the tickle of her yukata’s soft cotton, and Hinoka realized the abject sensitivity of her nipples. Tension somehow both diminished and engorged inside her with the same, tremulous shudder. She struggled to play along. “Who is?”

“The monsters, of course.”

Ugh, this woman! Hinoka tilted her head away, blushing. She centered herself, biting down on the inside of her cheek. “What monsters?”

“Me.” Camilla said, darting in for a kiss.

Hinoka groaned against the kiss as much as she did Camilla’s inane little tease. The anxiety tickled the seams of her stomach to bursting like a legion of fretful butterflies. She wasn’t some foolish country girl or love-struck adolescent. She was a princess of Hoshido! And she knew that Camilla wouldn’t tease half as much if she didn’t respond as she did…

Yet, there was such thrill in Camilla’s touch, and, far different from the menacing campfire stories that terrified Hinoka all the way back to her bedcovers in her youth, there was always a sear of power in Camilla’s words. How long had she craved someone like Camilla? Someone who knew how to act, how to pose, how to move and how to move others. Camilla was taller than her, bolder than her, and knowing exactly how long to let a moment linger. Didn’t she want to bury herself within in that strength? Didn’t she want to drown in those scarlet eyes—filled with knowing, with precision, with confident zeal and easy affection. Camilla spoke so freely, acted as if on whims. So casual, so calculated.

She accepted the kiss. Moreover, she met it boldly.

Camilla’s fingers trailed over Hinoka’s ear, to tangle in her short hair. “But you do forgive me for giving you a fright, don’t you, darling?”

Hinoka’s eyes went half-lidded and glassy at Camilla’s touch. Her heart surged in her chest—not too different, she thought, than her scare at the bonfire. “Depends.”

“On?”

“On…” Her tongue slipped between her lips, moistening them. She felt like an utter fool, a fake, a farce, making a show of it. She did it anyway. She deepened her voice—resenting its natural, high-pitched creak—straining to descend to Camilla’s octave. “What you do to make it up to me.”

Camilla’s eyelids fluttered with the sudden, claiming advance of Hinoka’s sweet tongue. A shared moan volleyed between their clasping lips. Camilla’s deft hands moved with sensual measure, working loose the sash of Hinoka’s yukata.

A rush of cool night air swept over the light patina of sweat coating Hinoka’s skin. The hum of the cicadas filled the air in the garden. Her body awoke in the darkness.

“Camilla.” Hinoka gasped. flinched, twisting her head to the side, her neck locking. Her cheek pressed against the wall. The sweat of her skin stained the paper wall of her bedchamber. “Someone really could come.”

Their embrace deepened. Camilla’s breasts were heavy atop her shape, as if they alone could pin her. The twist of Hinoka’s neck left her dangerously exposed. A thump, as Camilla’s palm impacted the wall beside her shirking head. “Oh, I very much suspect someone will.”

Hinoka hated how she’d say those things; wordplay and puns and subtly unsubtle innuendo. Rove of hands over her bared flesh. Teeth found her earlobe, striking down sharply, and Hinoka cried out with fatuous need.

Camilla’s fingers stroked against the hard resistance of bone between her breasts. They descended in exacting waltz over her bare stomach, shuddering with uneven breath. Weighty tears of worry and excitement shuddered in the corners of Hinoka’s eyes. Camilla’s touch journeyed over the hard lines of her hips. She struggled to blink away the wetness, to see her love more clearly, head thrashing to the side, cheek meeting Camilla’s bracing arm with a meaty thwack of skin. Camilla sighed, thrilling at the suspense of her finger’s careful dance.  through the thatch of her pubic hair, toying and teasing and tugging at the wiry red curls. Hinoka groaned, gripping a hand around Camilla’s neck, mutely pleading for support, as her legs shook like fresh festival mochi.

A volley of fireworks broke the sky, lighting the terrace with fire bursts of dazzling indigo and vermillion radiance, deepening the shadows around them.

Hinoka’s seizing fingers reined Camilla’s hair with a death grip. She cared not for the exposure. She cared not for anything but this moment. Swept up in this tizzied fervor, wet tears of raw emotion spilled down her cheeks. She sniffled until it pained her, clogged her sinuses and blotted out her thoughts until nothing remained but the purity of animal instinct. The stoke of flesh and ardor. The humid air that clung like sodden weight inside her lungs, forcing struggled breaths. Her body was over-hot, blistering, searing, scorching, with nowhere to vent but into the one before her.

Camilla bore it with precision. As her fingers pressed into her lover, so too did her hips, trapping her arm between their shaking bodies. The impact of Camilla’s form slammed Hinoka back against the wooden ceiling beam. Camilla’s tongue flirted and flitted along the curve of Hinoka’s ear, slickening it with their shared passion. Her free hand groped around Hinoka’s buttocks, nails dug deep, drawing her forward, guiding her path, making obvious this route for Hinoka steaming lust to escape.

Hinoka’s croaking breaths of uncorked passion shook the walls in time as carefully-timed combinations of fireworks—violet, azure, crimson—reverberated against one of another, shattering the dark and starry sky, soaring towards crescendo.

Her hips ground, groping with her body, scraping her mound against the willing resistance of Camilla’s palm. Her eyes narrowed to slits and her breath had no escape but in pinched, bleated whistle through her flaring nose. Her jaw trembled, jigged. She yelped like a startled animal, when Camilla drove another finger into her roiling sex.

Her body clenched with ready want. Her legs buckled. A bestial groan escaped her. Her hands were feeble, useless, pawing at any bit of Camilla they could touch, they could claim, gripping around cheeks, around elbow, around shoulder, into hair. Begging with her eyes, and with the wordless quiver of her parted laps. Please. Please. Please.

“Like that, darling.” The fireworks kept the confidence of Camilla’s whispered words, meant to be shared with one, and one alone. “Just like that.”

Camilla’s eyes claimed hers, the penultimate moment of this impromptu dance, as she drove her fingers to the apex, curled them outward within her love, and squeezed.

Eruption overcame Hinoka like a sudden shock. Her hair bristled. She consigned her worries, her wants, her recalcitrance and her desires to blissful, orgasmic oblivion. Unburdened by shame or fear, she cried out, nails furrowing into Camilla’s scalp, the concussive barrage of the fireworks at full climax masking the hoarse cries of her pleasure.

…to all but the woman before her, of course…

But even as the cannon fire helpfully concealed the screams of Hinoka’s release, the prismatic bursts of color that lit the hallway blistering as broad daylight on the battlefield, exposing them to any who’d care to look.

Fortunately, both those of Hoshido and Nohr had more a mind for fireworks, and less for the spying on impromptu lovers’ trysts.

The final shrieking whistles filtered through the leaves of the shaking tries, and the muggy air of castle grounds was silent once more, but for Hinoka’s wheezing.

Pants of effort spilled from Camilla as she collapsed into her love. Hinoka’s quaking arms drew her into a feeble embrace, and Camilla drowsily watched the final few smoky fronds of the fireworks dissapate into nothing, enjoying the fuzzy, auric emanations of Hinoka’s release that lapped like lazy waves over her senses. Soon, only the great, overwhelming blackness of the night sky remained. “Ah poo,” she said. “We missed all the fireworks.”

Hinoka flushed, the gentle fry of her voice all the worse due to her pounding heart, and painful worry over this public exposure. Drawing herself from out of the blissful abyss of her orgasm, she at least developed enough presence of mind to release her death grip on Camilla’s hair. “N-not all the fireworks.”

“Darling!” It wasn’t much of a wordplay, but Camilla knew that no flower grew without encouragement. “We’ll make a proper flirt of you yet!”  With a nuzzle of her nose through Hinoka’s hair, and a rather chaste kiss atop her head, Camilla sealed the act of her contrition, and spoke in sotto voce. “Am I forgiven, truly?”

“Hush. I’ve said so twice already.” Though Hinoka yearned for nothing more than shirk all social obligations and drag her betrothed into bed and fall into a deadened oblivion of sleep, pillowed against her ample, generous body. But, though the aftershocks of her ad hoc climax still wracked her, Hinoka thought it prudent to at least suggest the option… “S-should we rejoin the festivities, then?”

A bit of a purr swept through Camilla, as Hinoka’s trembling fingers brushed along her scalp, straightening her hopelessly mussed hair. “I’d recommend against it. Believe me, dear, they’d smell you coming a league away.”

Hinoka glanced down the corridor. Her heart was still, and she was invincible—come what ghosts, what monsters, what murderers of ladies fair might lurk in the flickering shadows cast by lamplight. “Hush, I said.”

Camilla lightly brushed her clothing back into place. At her full height, she fairly loomed over Hinoka, placing a hand at the wall beside Hinoka’s head, and taking Hinoka’s hand with her other. She spoke tenderly, granting permission as only a princess can, and speaking the words Hinoka kept locked inside her head, for fear of disappointing Camilla, and her social proclivities. “Let’s have a bath and slip beneath the covers.” A playful, cat-like cruelty filtered through her doting gaze. “I’ve intentions to draw at least one more burst of “fireworks” from you before the night is through…”

And once more, for good measure:

“Hush, I said…”

Washed clean and smelling of almond and soap, Hinoka stared at the ceiling as Camilla ruffled her hair dry with a soft towel. She cleaved to the droning hum of the cicadas. The bawdy, brazen fireworks had passed, and now, albeit cautiously, the insects reclaimed their ownership of the night. The festivities showed no signs of stopping. Here and there were the sounds of revelry, as the younger family members chased each other up and down the halls, ebullient, shrieking and giggling, bounding after one another and hurling together, collapsing into uncoordinated heaps, overcome by the thrill of the evening and feigning drunkenness off of the small, ceremonial sips of rice wine they were allowed—it was a special occasion, after all.

Camilla’s bare skin was as satin against Hinoka’s back. The scars upon her fingers were gentle and smooth as she offered her tender ministrations to her lover, tracing her touch along Hinoka’s hips and flowing atop the slow rise and fall of her stomach with her breathing.

A crash of an overturned vase out in the hall. “Soleil, pick that up!” Ophelia ordered. “Make me!” came the retort, cut short by a cavalier giggle.

A sigh escaped Hinoka. “I can’t remember a time when I was ever like that.”

“Like what?”

Hinoka rolled over, pillowing her head in her arms. “Carefree? Unencumbered? Unafraid?”

Camilla melded to her. Hinoka shivered at the too-warm mingle of their bodies in the oppressive heat of this long night. “We weren’t so they could be.”

Despite sticky discomfort of their cooling bodies, Hinoka stroked her finger along the arm Camilla settled around her stomach, just above a ragged scar, a memory of battle recent enough that it still ached—in her heart, if not to the touch. “I suppose that means something.”

The stampeding of bare feet, and the boisterous shrieks of young love, receded into the distance as the Soleil and Ophelia enacted a raucous get away from the scene of their crime.

Camilla drew her closer, their bodies slotted together like puzzle pieces scored and shaped. Her blissfully soft hair danced against Hinoka’s face, and each word came with the brush of lips over Hinoka’s shoulder. “Is my sweet little princess envious of their unfettered youth?”

“Absolutely not.” Craning her neck, Hinoka took in Camilla’s features. The clever scarlet of eyes, the capricious smile encumbered at its corners by the exhaustion of a long, event-filled day. “If an easier youth meant a void of you, I’d shun that risk in a heartbeat.”

“The feeling, my dear, is mutual.”

Hinoka tucked her arm over her eyes, shielding herself from flicker of the bedside lamp. “Besides, I’m too tired for envy. Let the young have their fun, they’ve earned it.”

“Rightly said.” Camilla dipped finger and thumb between her lips. With the rustle of covers, and the slip of skin over skin, she leaned for the night stand and snuffed out the light. “Let’s have a rest, we’ve more than our share of obligations in the morning.”

Camilla was atop her, leg hooked around knee, breasts folding over hers, sharing warmth,  and kindness, and all the things Hinoka never thought to need, until this woman, not so long ago, had granted them to her as easily as one shares a spare loaf of bread.

“Let’s,” she said.

“Let’s,” Camilla replied.

Hinoka marveled at this saintly woman above her, touching fingers to her soft cheeks as if in reverence, and taking the loose coils of her hair to set them right behind her ears, as if these meager efforts could improve a face already perfect. When Camilla smiled at her in that deep, quiet dark, she felt she could sink eternally into the welcome softness bedding, be swallowed up by it, consumed by the security, sanctity, and love of this woman.

“Oh, and darling?” Camilla said. Her eyes shone with innocent, guileless affection in the dark as she took one of Hinoka’s rough hands in both of hers. “Could you do your lady love one small favor before we both collapse?”

Hinoka’s eyes adjusted slowly to the dim moonlight. Perhaps that was why, drinking deep of Camilla’s winsome features, she missed the ulterior intent of the cat-like smile spreading across in her lips. “Anything.”

“Do check to make sure there’s no hook-handed fiends lurking under our bed.”

In that deep, dark, and fearsome night, Hinoka’s groan of abject worry shook the foundations of Castle Hoshido itself.