Miri crested the top of the hill and sat on a tumbled-down stone wall, panting as her heart slowed and the light-headedness settled. Below her, the town spread over the valley like a blanket of red and white, the clean stone and bright roofs picturesque against the green of the hillsides.
Oren climbed up behind her, his pace steady – and his breathing steady, too. Habits instilled by his military training kept him in shape, and Miri was starting to reconsider her habit of sleeping through his morning workouts.
“Beautiful, isn’t it?”
Oren had passed her by to look down into the valley. As she spoke, he turned, a smile warming his expression. “It is.” He reached for the water skin hanging from his belt. “Thirsty?”
She made a beckoning motion with her hand and he passed it over. As she gulped down the cool stream water, he laughed. “You need to work out more.”
Miri narrowed her eyes over the skin. There wasn’t nearly so much hiking before I met you, she thought. I was perfectly content to walk back and forth to the market each day. She looked down. That was a lie — she’d hated her life in the Riverlands, resented it. After a childhood spent climbing trees and running wild with her cousins, she’d let herself get soft and lazy as a ridiculous sort of protest.
Miri refastened the opening and passed the waterskin back. “Maybe. Amunet knows…enough people think I already do.”
“Huh? What — oh.” Oren’s cheeks took on a rosy undertone. “Not that kind of exercise!” He found his own section of broken wall to sit on, and dropped with an embarrassed sigh.
Miri shifted her weight back, considering her companion. It was true – they hadn’t engaged in any ‘exercise’, despite the innuendos and sly winks of every innkeeper between Kolcura and here. But Oren wasn’t unhandsome, she thought, gaze traveling over his rounded calves and toned arms and settling, finally, on his face. If he asked…
“No,” she said, shrugging. “You mean push ups and running and whatever that ridiculous flailing is –”
“It builds stamina –”
“–and any number of other delights. I think I’ll pass.”
The regarded each other in silence for a moment. Then Oren relaxed, recognizing her banter for what it was. He came to sit by her. “Are you nervous?”
Miri looked away, down to where the town of Bedina nestled in its valley. Waiting. “It’s been so long. I barely remember her.”
“But she will remember you. Fondly.” Oren turned too, examining the town. “I can’t believe you grew up here. It seems so…small!”
Miri elbowed him halfheartedly. “City boy. I assure you, there’s plenty to keep young ragamuffins entertained.” She pointed at a steeple that rose above the other tiled roofs. “See the church? Two streets over and one up. That’s where their house was.” She moved her finger. “And there, on the edge of the green, is where my grandmother lives.”
They’d asked after her in the last town. Namira-Keladriset was alive and well and entirely ignorant of her granddaughter’s return to the country of her birth.
Oren leaned into her, his body warm from the exertion of climbing the hill. Miri shivered. I’m nervous. I’m nervous, that’s all. But there’s nothing to worry about. He wrapped an arm around her shoulders and squeezed.
“Don’t worry, iree. She’ll be so happy to see you.”
Miri smiled at his use of the Kolpatarian pet name. “I hope so.” Suddenly a thought struck her, and she pulled away, turning to face Oren. “I just thought of something.”
He frowned, his brow furrowing in a little wrinkle above the bridge of his nose. “What?”
Miri cradled her face in her hands, shaking her head. “It’s bad. She’s going to think…”
Oren took her wrists, drew her hands down. “She’ll think what?”
“She’s my grandmother. If I walk into her kitchen after twenty years with a man, she’s going to assume you’re my husband.” Miri shuddered. “She’s going to ask me where our children are.”
Oren went a little white, and there was sweat beading on his upper lip. Though that could just be the heat. “Maybe I should wait somewhere else then? Like outside? Or up here?” He stood, backed away, looked around. Miri watched him with growing amusement. “Up here is good. Family, you know. Very emotional. Wouldn’t want to interrupt.”
Miri shook her head. “Don’t be ridiculous, it’s going to be dark soon. You can’t wait up here.” She stood up too, grabbing his arm and bestowing him with a sunny smile. It was nowhere near as innocent an expression as it appeared. “Besides…if I have to suffer, you have to suffer!”
He fixed her with a solemn expression. “I regret having ever met you.”
At the time, he’d threatened her with a knife in the hopes that she would help him stop the assassination of his friend and monarch. They had succeeded, and in the process ended a war between their countries that had dragged on for years and kept Miri from going home.
Miri’s smile settled into something softer and bittersweet. She slid her hand down to intertwine with Oren’s. “I don’t.”
Hands clasped, they walked down the hill.