Chapter Six

Lexie Sheehan stood in the open doorway of the palace and smiled as Princess Ava and Princess Raleigh ran towards her, followed by two little blurs of red fur. She waved in greeting to Arcadia and Rayna as they followed behind their daughters, Lynnea in Rayna's arms. "Good morn, Your Highnesses."

"Good morn, Lexie," Arcadia greeted. "Do I have other business to see to this early?"

The adviser shook her head. "No, Your Highness, though your mother does."

The Royal family had been down to the shore to see off the warriors-in-training and the Queen's mothers, who were off for a long holiday.

"Ahh, I see." Arcadia looked around. "And uhm...where, pray tell, is your assistant? I thought she was supposed to shadow you."

Lexie scowled. "I finally had enough of her attitude and behaviour and told her I no longer needed her assistance. I have a new girl starting later this day."

"Hello, Lexie," Ava greeted, running up to the brunette with Barkley at her heels. "Have you met my puppy?"

Lexie smiled and crouched down to stroke the dog. "I have, Your Highness. You introduced us the day after you brought her home. How is Barkley liking her new home?"

Ava leaned in close to Lexie and said in a none too quiet voice, "She keeps peeing everywhere and making mama mad."

Lexie couldn't bite back a chuckle. "I see. Well, perhaps she will do better after some training."

Ava nodded. "That's where we're going now, out into the gardens to teach them stuff."

"I wish you the best of luck, Your Highness." Lexie stood back up and smiled at Arcadia and Rayna. "I believe you're going to need it," she told them.

"Ahh, Lexie," Athena greeted, as she walked through the palace doors on Dionis' arm. "Are you waiting for me?"

"Yes, Your Highness," the adviser nodded. "Good morn to you, and to you, Your Highness," she directed at Dionis.

"We'll be in the gardens if you need us," Arcadia called back to her parents.

"Good luck with the puppies," Athena called out, as the younger couple walked off. "They are very young and excitable, it will be like trying to train a warrior," she teased, eyes on her wife.

"With that said," Dionis kissed Athena on the lips. "I shall bid you farewell and go and get some work done. See you later, love."

"Bye, sweetheart." Left alone with Lexie, the Queen put an arm around her young adviser. "Now, I have an early meeting with..."

"Savannah Reeder and Cass Masoun first, Your Highness. Both requested time with you early in the day because of their schedules."

"Yes, that's fine, Lexie. Then Hilary Segerstone is coming in?"

"That's right. Oh, and the shaman has requested some time with you, she wouldn't say why."

"Pencil her in, Lexie. The shaman never comes to me unless there's a problem. Right, I shall go up to my office. Bring Savannah and Cass up once they arrive, please."

"Yes, Your Highness." Lexie lowered her head as the Queen moved past her, only moving once the Queen was on her way.

Athena made her way up the winding staircase to the first floor where her office was situated. Her office was warm and inviting, she thought, with light wood panelling covering the bottom half of the walls, with the top half painted a light green. There was a large fireplace against the side wall, which kept the room warm and comfortable, with a cherry wood mantle that matched her beautifully carved desk. Walking into her office, Athena noted that someone had entered to open the shutters, the aromas of blooming flowers scenting the air, while bird calls and monkey chatter shattered the quiet. Feeling instantly at peace, the blonde walked over to the window and looked out on her island, knowing that women all over were up and getting their day started, just as she was.

*  *  *  *  *

Joan Gardiner walked among her vines, carefully studying each to make sure there was no disease and checking that fruit wasn't already ripe and ready to pick. The experienced winegrower nodded as she walked, mostly happy with what she saw. It was looking like another good year, there were many clusters fertilized and the berries were looking plump, which would mean more juice. We are on track, she thought in satisfaction. We should be able to start harvesting in two months, if the weather continues to be fine as usual.

Her stomach rumbling let her know it was almost time to head off for breakfast and the grey-haired woman turned to head for home. She felt a little weary, which was odd given the early hour. She had got up at her usual time and made her way to the small shrine of Dionysus to pray for a healthy crop; then upon returning home, she made a slow trip around her vineyard, checking over the vines as she usually did. So how can I be weary? I have done nothing that I don't usually do.

Maxwelle Gardiner stood on the back step of her home, loving eyes watching her wife of forty years make her way back towards their house. She smiled fondly as she watched Joan. Married for a long time, every year around this time in the season, Joan would rise early and go to the nearby shrine to pray to the Greek God of wine, asking that he look favourably on her and allow her a successful crop and good wine. Maxwelle didn't believe in the Greek Gods herself. Her family had come to Belleza from what was now known as Britannia, and she had been brought up learning of the Celtic Gods and Goddesses. Upon falling in love with Joan, whose family came from Greece, she had learnt to accept her wife's religion, as Joan had learnt to accept hers.

"How are the vines looking, love?" she asked, knowing Joan had no doubt checked them over carefully with a critical eye.

The winegrower smiled as she approached, wrapping her arms around her wife once she was close enough. "Good morn, sweetheart," she greeted, kissing Maxwelle's head. "The vines are looking very healthy, the berries plump. I am very happy with what I saw, it should be another good year for us." She looked up at the pale blue sky, the sun up but not quite at its best yet. "This morn I prayed to Dionysus for continued fine weather, but not too fine! Too much heat will fertilize the clusters too quickly and we'll have to harvest a lot sooner than we are prepared for." She looked at her wife. "As you know after all these years, bad weather would be just as bad for us."

Kissing Joan's lips, Maxwelle smiled. "It will be fine, Joan. When is the last time we had a bad year? So long ago, I cannot recall." She pecked her wife's lips again just because she could. "Now, I take it you will want to go for breakfast with the rest of our community?"

Joan smiled and nodded. "Of course. If it's all right with you?"

"Of course, love," Maxwelle nodded her agreement. "I enjoy spending time with the other women, I enjoy their company, their gossip, their tales. They are like the family we..." she smiled sadly.

Joan felt her heart ache for her wife and kissed her in an attempt to ease the pain. "You are like a grandmother to all the young ones, what with the treats you give them."

"As are you, my love with your stories of far away lands."

"Does it...bother you that we never had children?"

Maxwelle shook her head. "We tried, love. It just wasn't meant to be. But as you said, we are like grandmothers to all the young ones anyway, so we're not really missing out, and the other women are like family." She smiled brightly. "If I really want to be selfish, I rather like having you all to myself." She kissed Joan's forehead, frowning as her lips touched the slightly heated skin. "Are you feeling well, my love? You're a little warm?"

Joan smiled and patted her wife's bottom. "I have been walking around for the past candle mark, perhaps I have worked up a healthy sweat."

"Of course."

"I must get changed before we head out," Joan said, taking Maxwelle's arm. "And get a drink for my parched throat. Lead on, sweetheart."

*  *  *  *  *

"Good morn, ladies," Coralee Atwell greeted Gaylene and Ida Orchard and the Gardiners. "Do you mind if I join you?"

"Not at all, Coralee," Ida smiled. "Alone this morn? Where is Destiny?"

Coralee took a seat and rolled her eyes. "I tell you, ladies, I sometimes despair of my daughter! She stayed out last night. The Gods alone know who with!"

The group of women chuckled, having heard of Destiny's exploits from a frantic Coralee before.

"Why can she not settle down like her other friends?" Coralee asked. "Find herself a nice young girl and start a family? No, she can't do that, she must gallivant around with whoever takes her fancy and bring shame upon me!" She looked at the chuckling Gardiners. "Do you want her? I swear, you can have her and teach her a new trade, I don't mind!"

"She isn't that bad, surely?" Gaylene asked.

"She is twenty-three autumns old and is still not married!" Coralee popped a fig into her mouth. "'Tis all right for you, Gaylene," she said around her mouthful. "Your Bedilia is married. Three seasons now. How would you feel if she weren't? How would you feel if she was running around with every which girl?"

"Oh, mother, calm down," Destiny said, as she took a seat next to her mother. "I am not as bad as you fear." She grinned at the other women. "Good morn, all. Has she been filling your heads with stories of how awful I am because I won't give her a grandchild?"

The women laughed as Coralee scowled and slapped at her daughter's arm.

"Where are Bedilia and Gayle this morn?" the warrior asked. "They usually come along to eat here."

Ida nodded. "After the last couple of weeks being busy with the harvest, they are spending some quality time in bed with each other."

Gaylene sneezed. "Oh, excuse me. Has anyone else had the sneezes? I can't seem to shake them."

"Perhaps 'tis the summer weather," Maxwelle suggested. "Every summer the shaman gets a bunch of women who have running noses and streaming red eyes. A condition that only ever appears in the summer."

"I've never had that before though," Gaylene replied. "Can it just come on?"

"I don't know, you would have to ask the shaman."

They all turned to look across the hall as someone had a terrible coughing fit.

"One of the Farmers," Coralee said. "I think 'tis Sofia."

"Have you noticed that a few women around the island have a cough?" Gaylene asked them. "It all came from the friends and family who came home for Princess Raleigh's birthday."

"Did you hear..." Destiny whispered, leaning on the table so she could talk in a low tone. "The family from Pictland have been getting sick and turning into creatures of the night," she said seriously.

"Creatures of the night?" the older women repeated.

Destiny nodded. "That's right. They grow frightfully pale and have a need for blood to survive."

Coralee scoffed. "Nonsense! Whoever heard of such a thing? Where did you hear that?"

"From Reid Inman. He told me Darin and Opal, I don't think you know them, but they died of this sickness and Cornelius burnt their house down and all their possessions."

"Well, that is odd," Ida said. "Why would he do that? Burn down a perfectly good house?"

"To kill off all the sickness," Joan answered. "Would you want to live in a house where someone had died from some strange sickness? I know I wouldn't."

"Nor I," Gaylene said. "Better to burn it all and build afresh."

They watched Sofia stand and leave the community hall, her wife quickly taking their bowls to the front for washing up, before leaving as well.

"She didn't look well did she?" Maxwelle commented. The women all shook their heads. "You don't suppose it could be...that sickness? I mean they had family return home, surely they could have caught it?"

"We shouldn't speculate, love," Joan spoke up. "Could be nothing at all."

"You're right, sorry." Maxwelle smiled and leaned closer to her wife to kiss her.

"Right, I better get going," Destiny said, standing up. "Have to get to practice. See you soon, ladies. Bye, mother."

"Be safe, love," Coralee called out. She loved her daughter, even if the warrior caused her nothing but frustration. "I suppose I better get home as well, I said I would go and help out the Farmers with their harvesting today. 'Twas nice seeing you all."

"And you, Coralee," Gaylene smiled. As the curly-haired blonde got up and walked away, Gaylene turned her attention to her wife. "What do you think, love? Should we go and see if our daughters are up and out of bed yet?"

Ida smiled. "Or perhaps we should leave them be, hmm? I know for a fact you can't wait for a grandchild to coddle. Perhaps if we give them some space..."

"Oh, very well," Gaylene chuckled. She turned to the Gardiners. "Do you need any help with your vines?"

Joan shook her head. "Not yet, all is looking well. Thank you for the offer though. Perhaps if the need ever arises..."

"Just call on me, I shall be happy to help." Gaylene sighed and stood up. "Oh well, I suppose 'tis home to get started on the dirty washing then. Come on, love, you can give me a hand."

Ida stood up, picking up their empty plates. "That's it, rope me in!" She winked at the Gardiners. "See you for dinner?"

"We'll be here," Maxwelle replied, smiling. "Bye."

"Have a nice," Joan added wickedly, laughing as Ida stuck her tongue out at her. "Shall we leave, love?" she asked her wife. "I could do with a nap."

"A nap! Joan, 'tis just after breakfast!"

"I know, but I feel so weary," Joan protested. "Perhaps I am getting too old for such early starts?"

"You will never be too old in my book, darling. Come, let us get home," Maxwelle said, standing up and offering her wife a hand up. "Perhaps you could even convince me to join you for...a nap?"

Joan grinned and wrapped her arm around Maxwelle's waist. "I think I can do that."

*  *  *  *  *

A knock on the door drew the Queen's attention and Athena turned to see Lexie walk in, followed by Savannah and Cass. "Good morn, ladies. 'Tis another fine day by the looks of it." She saw Lexie take her leave, leaving them to their business.

"Yes, Your Highness," Savannah agreed. "And warm too."

"Sure to get warmer as the day gets later," Cass added, not looking her impeccable best.

Athena walked over to her desk and took a seat, bidding her guests to do the same. She frowned as she looked Cass over, noticing the woman "Is all well, Cassandra? You don't seem your usual self."

"Truthfully, Your Highness, I think I am still feeling the effects of the Princess' birthday celebration. I fear I am getting too old to party so hard!"

The two older women laughed at the blushing building designer. "Cass, if you are old, then I must be ancient!" Savannah laughed.

"Can I get you two ladies a drink?" Athena asked, as her office door opened to admit one of the serving girls.

"Could I have a glass of lemonade, if you have it?" Savannah asked.

"We have plenty of lemonade," Athena smiled. "'Tis a good drink to have in the summer. Our cook stores it in clay storage jars down in the cellar which keeps it cool." She looked to Cass. "And you, Cassandra?"

"Lemonade sounds wonderful. Thank you, Your Highness."

"Yasmin, bring us a jug of lemonade, please, and three mugs. Thank you." As the office door closed, the Queen got down to business. "Now, we are here to discuss the idea of a new hall of learning." She looked at Savannah. "I take it you spoke to the historians?"

Savannah nodded. "I did, Your Highness. They were very excited by the idea, though realised that it could be some time before such a place exists."

"Yes, the hospice is most important," Athena said. "What ideas did they have?"

"They requested a building with little light and wished for tall, sturdy, wooden bookcases that line the walls."

Athena waited for the head of education to continue and blinked when nothing more came. "That's it? I expected...more."

Savannah chuckled. "So did I, in all honesty. But, they surprised me and kept it simple."

"Very simple," the Queen said. She looked at Cass. "What are your thoughts, Cassandra?"

Cass stood and spread a piece of parchment across the top of Athena's desk. "A large square shaped building, with underground vaults for the most precious of books. Outside," she pointed at her rough diagram, "pillars lining the double doors, holding up a stone canopy. A sort of...Roman design. Two large windows standing either side of the doors, flooding the entrance hallway with light. Inside," she moved over to the next diagram. "The entrance hallway; a large space, flooded with light from the two windows I mentioned. A marble floor. Doors leading into the main room." The next picture showed the main room. "A large open space with tall book cases lining the walls, rails for sliding ladders," she met Athena's eyes. "I thought that would be helpful when the historians wanted to grab a book up on a high shelf. Then, this was just an idea on my part, space for tables in the middle of the room, so that visiting women have somewhere to sit and read."

"And what will they do for light? Lanterns, perhaps?" Athena asked.

Cass nodded. "I think so. Torches with an open flame could easily be a cause of disaster, so lanterns would be the better option. Though, they too could cause an accident, so I will create set places for them to be put, perhaps bracketed to the walls?" she muttered to herself, thinking it over. "That's minor details for now though, first we'll need the building constructed."

They paused as the office door opened to admit Yasmin. The serving girl held a silver tray in both hands, which held a copper jug and three mugs. Approaching the desk, she hesitated, seeing the designer's parchment spread out. Cass picked up the parchment and carefully rolled it up, so the girl could set her tray down.

"Thank you, Yasmin," Athena said to the girl, watching her curtsy and back towards the door. "I like it," Athena said, as she returned her attention to Cass, smiling at the young designer. She stood and poured them each a mug of lemonade, handing around the mugs before sitting back down. "I shall have Daralis start on this as soon as the hospice is complete."

"How is that coming along?" Cass asked. "Everything is going well now, I hope?"

"As far as I know. Daralis informed us at the last senate meeting that the work should be complete by the end of the year, if not, then early in the next." Athena looked at Savannah as she took a sip of her drink. "I think we should go ahead with your idea to have a creative career," she said slowly. "Girls who have a real talent have a right to follow that path, rather than be thrown into a career they may grow to hate."

Savannah smiled. "Wonderful news, Your Highness. I shall get things up and running as soon as I can and sort out those with talent from those who don't. I have a fairly good idea already, but 'tis best to be sure."

Athena stood. "Good, keep me informed of how things progress. Cassandra, I hope you feel better."

The two women stood and each shook the Queen's hand. "Thank you, Your Highness. Good day." They made their way to the door and headed out, Lexie entering not soon after. "Hilary Segerstone is here, Your Highness. Should I send her in?"

"Yes, please, Lexie." Athena sat back down and awaited her next appointment. She smiled as Hilary Segerstone was led into her office and stood to shake the big built, woman's hand. "Hello, Hilary. Thank you for coming in."

"'Tis an honour to be asked, Your Highness," the former stone mason replied, looking around in awe.

"Please, take a seat. Would you like a drink?"

"Uhm..." Hilary wasn't sure how to respond, she didn't want to appear rude, but wasn't sure what the proper etiquette was.

"'Tis such fine weather, I find a cool drink can be quite refreshing." Athena smiled, trying to put the woman at ease.

"A...a drink would be nice, thank you, Your Highness."

Athena nodded to the serving girl, Yasmin, who was patiently waiting by the door and watched her leave, before returning her attention to Hilary. "I invited you here today to discuss a new career for you, Hilary. Savannah brought to my attention at the last senate meeting that you enquired about starting a new career."

Hilary nodded. "If that's possible, Your Highness."

"Well, that's what we're here to discuss today." Athena waved in Yasmin as she came back with a fresh mug for Hilary. "Thank you, Yasmin."

Yasmin set the mug on the Queen's desk, curtsied, then took her leave, closing the office door behind her.

"First of all, how have you been since the accident? You're not in any pain, are you?" Athena asked, knowing she had ordered that the injured workers get the best treatment available from the shaman and her assistants.

"The accident has changed my life forever," Hilary confessed. "I can no longer do the work I have done for most of my life, I can no longer do the only thing I know. But I am well, I suffer no pain at all, the shaman treated my wounds and injuries to the best of her knowledge."

"Savannah said you expressed an interest in perhaps writing down your knowledge of your work?"

Hilary nodded. "I have learnt a lot over the years, techniques, good tools and such. I thought by putting my knowledge on paper it will help the younger generations."

Athena nodded. "Sounds like a good idea. Without knowledge from the women who have experience, where will we be in years to come? We lost some good women with that accident, it was a tragedy, but we must go on."

"There...there is just one thing, Your Highness."

"What's that?"

"Well, I...I've never written such a thing before. I worked with stone, not pen and parchment."

Athena smiled. "That's not a problem, Hilary. I can have someone assist you. They won't do the work for you, because this is your new career, but they will be available to answer any questions that arise."

Hilary smiled. "Thank you, Your Highness."

*  *  *  *  *

Bedilia stared up at her wife, her heart bursting with love at the sight that greeted her. Gayle was straddling her hips, her mouth slightly parted, red hair loose and hanging around her shoulders. The green of her eyes had almost disappeared, replaced by the black of her pupils. A little sunlight filtered into their room through the shutters and embraced Gayle's naked form, making her look like an angel.

Gayle slowly slid herself up and down the phallus her wife wore, moaning aloud as callused hands ran up her naked thighs to her hips, Bedilia holding her in place as she moved. She felt enveloped by warmth and love. Both had a sheen of sweat glistening on their bodies, their chests heaving as they fought to get enough air into their lungs. She looked down into grey eyes that had turned almost charcoal in colour from desire and lowered herself to kiss waiting lips. "Bedilia," she murmured, hands curling around broad shoulders. "I feel you. I feel you inside. You feel so good." She kissed the pounding pulse in Bedilia's neck.

As Gayle sat back up, Bedilia reached up to cover both her breasts with her rough but gentle hands, watching as Gayle's back arched, her head dropping back. Her nipples were hard and prominent, standing erect and proud. Teasing her wife's hard, dusty pink nipples, Bedilia heard a deep groan come from Gayle and pinched each nipple hard to hear the groan again. She sat up, her mouth closing around one breast, tongue flicking over the nipple as she continued to pinch and caress the other.

"Oh, Gods above!" Gayle cried aloud, feeling her inner muscles clenching around the hard shaft she rode. She gasped for breath and found herself licking her dry lips sensuously, knowing how much that drove Bedilia crazy.

Bedilia thought her wife incredibly beautiful when she was in the midst of making love. Her usually peaches and cream complexion was infused with a pink hue, her eyes glazed as she raced towards a climatic end.

"Bedilia, I..." She was close to climax. Each swipe of her wife's tongue against her rigid nipple sent a jolt down to her southern regions. Her lower half felt hot, like she was aflame, and she could feel her desire seeping from her. Bedilia's fingers pressed against her throbbing clit and Gayle cried out as her muscles tightened and colours erupted behind her closed eyes. Completely spent, she collapsed on top of her wife, feeling strong arms wrap around her trembling body, and knew she would be safe and protected in Bedilia's embrace.

"Though I am reluctant to do so, we should probably get up," Bedilia murmured, her eyes closed as she savoured the feel of Gayle against her.

"Mmm." The redhead got up, rolling onto her side, next to Bedilia. "I think you offered our help to the Farmers, didn't you?"

"Yes. Wish I hadn't now," she pouted, making her wife laugh.

"They did help us with our fruit, returning the favour is the decent thing to do," Gayle said, kissing the pouting lips. "I think Arcadia will be there, I'm sure she mentioned she would be. You can go and play with the children while we work."

Bedilia grinned and sat up. "Okay, you've convinced me, my love." Getting out of bed, she stretched, feeling her wife's eyes on her body. "Don't look at me like that," she said, as she turned around to face Gayle. "Otherwise we'll go nowhere!"

Chuckling, Gayle climbed out of bed. "Very well. We better have a bath before we go, or else everyone will know what we've been up to this morn!"

*  *  *  *  *

"I don't suppose you will be joining us at the Farmers today?" Arcadia asked Rayna, as they watched their girls attempting to teach their puppies to sit. "I think 'tis the harvesting of their watermelons and figs today."

"Ava, stop treating Barkley before she obeys you," Rayna scolded her daughter. "She has to sit first before receiving her treat." The warrior glanced at her wife. "I'd like to, love, but I have training. I doubt Zamira would be pleased if I took the day off."

Arcadia pouted. "'re my wife, surely she could make allowances for you?"

Rayna chuckled. "To go and play in the dirt? I don't think so, love. 'Tis bad enough I miss training when your mother has a visiting ally arriving. Anyway, I told mother you would go along with her. Just drop by her house to pick her up."

"That's fine, the girls love spending time with their grandmothers. I suppose Sarah will be there?"


"And her boys?"

Rayna gave her complete attention to Arcadia. "Probably. Look, love, I know Benedict junior is a pain in the..." blue eyes darted over to their girls, "you know what, but they are family."

"I know, and I know she always scolds him, but...Gods above, Rayna, sometimes I just feel like smacking him!"

"I know, me too. Just a couple more years and he'll be off to Britannia to live with Bentley. He'll be disciplined then, I'm sure. Sorry, love, I'm going to have to step in, otherwise they're not going to learn anything."

Arcadia chuckled as her wife moved forward to take over the lesson. I knew this would happen, I just knew it. She watched Rayna crouch down between their two girls, the puppies running about not paying any attention.

"You need let them know you have a treat," Rayna said, putting her hand out to the two dogs. "They can smell it, see? Now you command them to sit."

"Sit!" both girls called out; giggling as the puppies didn't listen.

Rayna grabbed Elektra and plopped her down on her rump. "Sit!" she commanded, scratching the dog's ears to let her know she had done well. "Keep doing it until they do as you say, then you stroke them and reward them. Not before, Ava." Rayna stood up and walked back over to her smirking wife. "Not one word, love. Not one word."

"I was merely going to ask what the next lesson would be," Arcadia said seriously.

"You horrible liar," Rayna chuckled, wrapping her arm around her wife.

"You do know you're going to be the one who has to teach them, don't you?" Arcadia said, rubbing her warrior's stomach. "If you want them to be proper guard dogs and companions for the girls, they'll need serious training."

"I know, but they're still young yet. Let the girls have their fun." She kissed Arcadia's head, breathing in the soft scent of lavender. "Perhaps we should end this now? It's going to take a while to convince our girls the puppies can't go with them."

"Ahh, yes, we learnt that the other day!" Arcadia laughed.

"I'm glad you remember, love. You can be the bad guy this time," Rayna said, stepping back from the blonde's side.

"Why you..." Arcadia looked from Rayna to their daughters. "Okay, girls, 'tis time to go and see your grandmothers. Let's get the puppies inside."

"But, mummy, why can't Barkley come?" Ava whined.

"They'll be good," Raleigh promised.

"Well...'tis a long walk to your grandmothers' house, you don't want them running away, do you?" The two little girls shook their heads. "Until they have learnt to respond to your commands 'tis best for them to stay here. Don't worry, I'm sure grandma Dionis will look after them." As the two girls raced for the palace, the two puppies following them, Arcadia turned around to face Rayna. "Nothing to it," she said smugly.

"That's only because they didn't give you the pleading eyes and the pouting lip," Rayna protested.

"'Tis because I am not wrapped around their little fingers." Arcadia kissed her wife's pouting lips. "You shall have to learn to be tough, my love. Perhaps I should teach you?"

"Perhaps you could teach me something else?" Rayna murmured, wrapping her arms around the blonde and lifting her off the ground with ease.

"Rayna!" Arcadia squealed, a moan soon following as the warrior trailed kisses down her neck. "Oh, Rayna, not now! You are cruel!"

Rayna chuckled evilly. "It will surely get you to work harder this afternoon, so that you might...come home earlier?" She nipped her wife's ear lobe.

"Mama, grandma Dino said stop kissing, everyone's getting sick, and no to the puppies. You got them, they're your problem," Ava yelled from the doorway.

Rayna set Arcadia back on her feet. "Better go sort that out, she's your mother," she swotted her wife's behind. "I have to get to training."

"You are cruel, Rayna Banks!"

*  *  *  *  *

Arcadia, her daughters, and their Royal guards, made their way to the farming community, which was bustling with activity as the women tried to harvest their fruit and vegetables before they went out of season.

The Banks' farm was rimmed by fencing the family made and erected themselves. The fence not only ringed the house, but ran down to their fields as well, keeping their cattle in. A small gate opened on to the property, one which Rayna loved to just jump over, much to her mother's chagrin. The house was situated on a bank with their fields down below the house, which was how they came to get their surname.

As the house came into view, Ava and Raleigh raced on ahead and started climbing up over the shut gate, much to the guards' amusement and Arcadia's annoyance.

"Girls!" Arcadia called out to her offspring. "Get down! The gate is there for a reason, use it. You lot, stop laughing," she scolded the guards. "They won't take me seriously if they see you laughing!"

"Princess, with all due respect, your wife used to do the same thing. Can you really scold them?" Lorenza Cartman asked.

"Used to?" Karita mumbled from behind the Princess. "She did it the other week!"

Arcadia scowled over her shoulder at the palace guard. "Is that true? Why didn't anyone tell me?" Reaching the gate, she unlatched it and waved through her daughters and growled at Karita as she walked past, making the guard laugh. Once everyone was on the Banks' property, she shut the gate and looked fondly at her love's childhood home.

The one-story wooden house had originally been built with two bedrooms, a kitchen, and a living area where the family would gather in the evenings around the fireplace. As the family had grown, a couple more bedrooms and a storage room were added, making the house look like it had wings. With Brutus and Benedict leaving at the age of ten, there had been a spare room, which was now Harry and Benedict junior's. Rayna's old room had been given to Sarah and her daughter.

Walking into the house, Arcadia smiled brightly at the scene that greeted her. Nyx and Mariah were both on their feet hugging their granddaughters, attempting to listen to their excited chatter about what they'd been up to. "Hello, all."

"I see you have let Rayna teach your girls bad habits!" Mariah scolded, though her eyes sparkled in amusement.

"I swear to you, Mariah, I have done no such thing," the blonde protested, knowing she wouldn't be believed. "I shall be having stern words with my wife." She smiled at Sarah, who was seated on one of the chairs, and wiggled her fingers at Jasmine who was sitting on Sarah's lap. There was no sign of Sarah's two boys. "I've come to pick you up, Mariah," Arcadia said. "I'm heading to the Farmers."

"Sounds like a plan," Nyx said, scooping Raleigh up into her arms. "We were going to head out and see who needed a hand anyway. Where are your two pets?"

"We left them at home," Raleigh told her grandmother. "So they don't get lost."

Nyx smiled. "What good thinking, you don't want them running away."

"Where are Benedict junior and Harry, Sarah?" Arcadia asked, having looked around and not spotted them.

"I sent them out into the garden, they were driving everyone mad," the strawberry-blonde replied. "Some days I just don't know what to do with them! They drive me up the wall."

The family and the Royal guards left the Banks' property and headed for the Farmers' land. Ava and Sarah's two boys ran ahead, Sarita keeping a close eye on the princess. Nyx and Mariah walked together; Nyx holding Lynnea in her arms, Raleigh holding onto Mariah's hand. Arcadia, Sarah and Jasmine brought up the rear. The Royal guards tried to give the family their privacy whilst doing their duty.

Sarah glanced at Arcadia as they walked. She wanted to talk to the princess, but wasn't sure how to go about bringing up such a sensitive subject. She nibbled on her bottom lip, eyes on the dirt path they walked, not seeing Arcadia glancing her way.

"Is all well, Sarah?" Arcadia finally asked. "You seem...troubled."

"Oh!" Grey eyes lifted to Arcadia. "I'm...I'm fine, thank you, Your Highness."

"Arcadia," the blonde assured. "'Tis not a formal occasion."

Sarah ducked her head in embarrassment. "Yes. Arcadia. Sorry."

Seeing the strawberry-blonde was ill at ease, Arcadia tried to soothe her worry. "You know, we are like sisters, Sarah, or at least I would like to think of us as such. You can tell me anything and it won't go any further."

"Sweetheart, why don't you go ahead and walk with your cousin Raleigh," Sarah said to her daughter, releasing Jasmine's hand. She looked around, making sure the Royal guards weren't close enough to hear what she was about to say. " know I'm sort of...seeing Bentley?"

Arcadia smiled and nodded. "Yes. I'm afraid to tell you this, but we all know that," she gently teased.

Sarah chuckled. "Well, as you may also know, he has been asking me to marry him for these last couple of years, but I...I have no interest in that. I was wondering if you knew the laws of the island?"

Arcadia blinked, not sure what Sarah was getting at. "I know the laws, yes."

"I have heard a story of an ancestor of yours, Agnes? She ended up with child and was forced off the island once she married the father."

"Yes," Arcadia nodded. "Agnes was the only heir to the throne and wanted to marry Eros. Being in love, they wanted to be together and the only way for that to be was for her to leave."

" it all right if Bentley and I marry, only I remain here and he stays in Pictland?"

"Not many a man would be happy to be away from his wife, to not have her at his house, doing his cooking and cleaning, and seeing to his...needs when he wanted; or to only be allowed to visit on certain occasions."

"No," Sarah said sadly. "No, I suppose not." She sighed heavily. "I loved Benedict with all my heart, he was...the other half of my soul. I just don't think I can marry someone else."

"Bentley is unhappy with the ways things are then?"

"I think so, he hasn't really said. He...doesn't like what people say about me. With me carrying on with him, they call me some horrible names. 'Tis not respectable to carry on with a man if you are unwed. But I don't care, I'm happy here."

Arcadia chuckled. "Rayna and I carried on with each other and we were unwed," she admitted. "Though, to be honest, no one knew we were. They merely suspected." Green eyes turned to Sarah. "Surely, if he loves you, he will respect your wishes. You obviously have a relationship, you plan to send your boys to live with him when they are of age, why disrupt that?"

"I would be happy to carry on with the arrangement we have," Sarah said. "But...what if...what if I were to be with child? Would I have to leave then?"

Arcadia blinked, wondering if that was the reason for this conversation. "Do you know Vivianus Rolf? She has an agreement with a gentleman, much like you do with Bentley; they have four children together. She has her life here and he has his elsewhere, when he comes back to the island they are like a family. Both are happy with the situation. Sarah, are you...with child?"

Sarah blushed. "We're usually very careful. But...this time...with the alcohol flowing and the party atmosphere for Raleigh's birthday, everyone was jolly and...he didn't...he wasn't quick enough to...withdraw," she whispered, her cheeks turning a darker shade of red.

"So you could be...?"

"I'm not sure, truly. The next morn I mixed up some tansy and some penny-royal, which is said to get...rid unwanted babe, but..." Sarah swallowed. "I won't know until I don't get my courses, which are due soon. I've just been worried about what will happen if I am expecting. I love my life here, Arcadia, I really don't want to leave."

Arcadia reached out for Sarah's hand. "You have an arrangement that suits you, Sarah, you like your life here, you're happy. There is no law that says you have to leave if you get with child. Like I said, Vivianus Rolf has such an agreement. If Bentley is happy to marry you and have you live here, then do it, or if he wishes to carry on with what you already have, that is fine, too. Belleza is nothing like the world you knew before, Sarah. My ancestors came here to escape that harsh world."

Sarah sighed in relief and smiled at the princess. "Thank you. I have been worrying for the past few weeks on what would happen if I know."

"If you have a problem, do not hesitate to seek me out, Sarah. Like I mentioned before, I would like to think of you as a sister."

Reaching the Farmers' property, Arcadia stopped as she came to a stop next to Nyx's side. A group of women stood at the shut front gate, not going in, nor leaving, all muttering amongst themselves. "Nyx? What is it? What's going on?"

The older woman wrapped an arm around the blonde's shoulders. "I don't know, love." They stood listening to the murmured conversations going on around them, picking up bits and pieces of information.

"Princess Arcadia," Bedilia called out, making her way over to her friend.

"Bedilia," Arcadia greeted. "Have you been here long? What's going on?"

"The Farmers are sick, the shaman was called for and is in with them now," Bedilia informed the princess. "According to the Gardiners, the Farmers rushed out of the community hall earlier this morn after Sofia had a terrible coughing fit."

"Sick? Coughing up blood sick?" Karita asked, looking around worriedly. "Ava, Raleigh, come here." She had been informed by Dionis of a strange sickness infecting Cornelius' people. Dionis had ordered her to get the Princess' back to the palace if she heard any such rumours of the sickness being on Belleza.

Arcadia looked up into worried grey eyes. "The bloodsuckers sickness?" she asked quietly. "The same sickness our friends and family talked of?"

"Sarita, Lorenza. Take the Princesses back to the palace," Karita ordered firmly. "Please, Princess, do as I say for once."

"And you? Are you staying here?" Arcadia questioned. "Karita, I..."

"Think of your girls, Princess," Karita interrupted. "Lorenza, you're in charge," she called out to the guard. "Take the Royal family home. Straight home." She smiled at Arcadia, hoping to ease her worrying. "Tell your mothers what is going on and that I'll be back soon to tell them all I know."

"I'm not happy, Karita, but I'll do as you ask," Arcadia said, taking Lynnea from Nyx then turning to follow the two Royal guards.

Karita watched her charge and the Royal guards leave, before returning her attention to Bedilia. "How sick?" she asked.

"I know not, Karita. Gayle and I only just arrived," Bedilia replied. "We saw the crowd and asked the Gardiners what was going on. Do you...think it could be the sickness?"

"What sickness?" Lacee Waterman asked, overhearing the conversation. "The one that Cornelius' people had? Have they brought it upon us?" Her eyes widened in fear.

"We don't know that," Karita said loudly, knowing the woman had just about started a panic as she heard women mumbling of blood and death. "We should all just wait and see what the shaman has to say."

"But Lacee could be right," Coralee spoke up. "They could have brought their strange sickness to us. Enough of them were coughing and sneezing all over the place!"

"Let us see what the shaman has to say," Mariah said, walking over to the guard's side. "There is no point in getting worked up when it could be nothing at all."

*  *  *  *  *

Dionis approached the Farmers' property and saw the crowd of women hanging around outside. Dark green eyes roamed past the women, seeking out Karita. Spotting her daughter's personal guard, Dionis headed straight for her. "Karita, what's the problem? Arcadia came back to the palace talking of sickness and coughing."

Leading the head of security away from listening ears, the spiky-haired blonde sighed as she tried to work out what to say. "The Farmers are sick. There is talk that they may have the sickness that Cornelius talked of."

Dionis laughed. "The bloodsucking sickness? Come on, Karita, I thought you were more intelligent than that!"

"No not that. The sickness, the coughing and bringing up blood bit."

Green eyes widened. "Do they...have that?"

"I know not," Karita shook her head. "All I've been told is they are sick and the shaman is with them."

"Right then, I better get down there and see what she has to say."

Karita grabbed hold of her friend's arm. "I don't think that is wise, Dionis. If Cornelius' people have passed their sickness on to the women of Belleza, then I cannot let you go into the Farmers' home in case you catch it. The Queen would never forgive me."

As her wife flashed into her head, Dionis slowly nodded. "You're right. We'll wait out here. The shaman will have to come out eventually."

The pair stood back from the crowd of agitated women, listening to their panicked gossip, while their eyes remained on the Farmers' house, waiting for the shaman to make an appearance. Finally the front door opened and the women all fell silent, everyone watching the shaman as she made her way along the path.

Spotting the crowd of women, the shaman blinked and wondered what was going on. As she reached the gate, many started shouting out questions and concerns at her, startling her.

Dionis hurried forward and offered the shaman an arm, leading her away from the crowd. "Everyone is in a panic, Shaman. They've got it into their heads that the sickness Cornelius' people have has been passed on to us and we're going to turn into bloodsuckers."

The shaman laughed, thinking the Queen's consort was joking. She sobered when she saw the look of concern etched on Dionis' face. "You're serious?" She turned to face the crowd. "Listen up," she loudly. "You are worrying over nothing. Sofia just has a sore throat that has made her cough non-stop. I have given her some prunella vulgaris which should help. She is not a...bloodsucker, nor do such things exist. I suggest you forget today's harvesting and come back tomorrow."

As the women started drifting away, Dionis looked at the shaman, trying to work out if what she said was true. "We really shouldn't worry about this strange sickness?"

"Don't tell me you believe in such nonsense, Dionis?" the shaman chuckled.

"Not the bloodsucking bit, but the coughing so much you bring up blood. Cornelius told me of a man named Darin and his wife Opal, they had a cough and it progressed to coughing up blood, until finally Darin coughed himself to death. He was found in his bedroom, blood everywhere."

"That is worrying," the shaman frowned. "I have never heard of such a thing. But I assure you, Dionis, Sofia merely has a cough. There was no sign of blood."

Dionis smiled. "Thank you, Shaman. I shall pass on the news to my wife."

"No need, I have asked for an appointment with her later today. I'll see you then."


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