I sat by the fire, listening to the gentle hum of conversation that surrounded me as I stroke the hair of the sleeping child in my lap. There were no children in the palace, so Oti was a whole new experience for me. He had laughed and twirled through the dance, and at one point I had lifted him up and swirled him round, laughing with such joy that I didn't know I could feel. Now he was tired out and lay between Irene and me, his head on my lap. I looked down at the peaceful sleeping face, at the dark locks that curled a little around his forehead. He was a precious child. He awoke something inside of me I didn't know I could feel; a maternal instinct and joy that made me want to hold him to me and protect him from the world. And I saw a similar look in the eyes of Kevin when he saw his adopted son.
"I can see why you wanted me to see the outside world so much." Irene whispered, careful not to disturb Oti. "It really is incredible."
"Of course it is. Nature is the wildest and strongest force of them all, except perhaps love." I said, smiling at her. She was watching the fire burn with a life in her eyes I had never seen before. It made me happy to see my friend so alive.
Kevin appeared back in to the circle around the fire and made his way through the dancers to where we were sat. He smiled fondly at Oti's sleeping face, then sat next to me.
"He likes you." He indicated to the child. "Both of you." He said, looking from Irene to myself.
"I like him too." I said, stroking Oti's hair and curling it round my finger. "And he is lucky to have someone who cares for him so much." I added, looking at Kevin.
"I was going to ask you to dance again, but it seems you are quite captivated by another man." He winked and grinned that crooked smile.
"I wouldn't joke about it. This little guy is going to be quite the looker when he grows up."
"I wish I could say he gets his looks from me, but you already know that not to be true." I laughed, then quietened, afraid of waking Oti. "I should put him to bed." Kevin stood and gently lifted Oti from between Irene and I.
I followed him, holding the wooden toy Oti had been playing with, in to one of the little homes where Kevin lay Oti down on some heather and blankets. The little boy blinked, yawned, then snuggled in to the little bed. I placed the toy beside him and smiled. When I stood, I saw Kevin looking at me strangely.
"The Warrior Queen has a soft side." He whispered, so I could barely hear him.
"What are you talking about?" I asked.
"Never mind. Did you get enough food?"
"Yes, thank you. You have such a nice, home here."
"I wouldn't think anyone would think it nice after living in a palace."
"But this is much better. What are riches and finery? They do not matter. Family, comfort, they are the things that matter. This I learned when I lost them."
"How did you lose them?"
"I was a thief. My family needed the money. I got caught, and sold as a slave to the palace. Since that day I decided that no one would get close to me, that I would live only to make the rich pay. But that is a lonely life, adn not all the rich are bad. Take Irene. She is so very rich, yet she has no idea of some of the best things in life. I pity her, but her strength of will makes me love her. And that is why I am so grateful to you, and your men, for giving her the freedom she deserves."
This little speech seemed to have surprised Kevin in to silence, although I could not see his expression in the darkness.
"You are a very passionate woman." He said at last. I blushed, thankful that it was dark enough for him not to see.
"It is in my blood." I whispered back, before slipping out of the entrance. He followed, and I laughed to see everyone still dancing. "Come on, I want to dance!" I cried a little breathlessly, finally reveling in my new freedom. I grabbed Kevin by the hand and pulled him in to the twirling, whirling circle, laughing and smiling all the way.