35. Esfandar

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Esfandar looked up as the doors to his study opened and closed with a dulled thud. The metal doors slipped shut as Gita entered, dressed in her strange combination of military uniform and traditional warrior's outfit.

She seemed more stressed than usual, though no one in this city seemed to be carefree these days. Rations had been issued to the citizens in the event of a siege, his men were training night and day, and soldiers were everywhere scrambling to prepare for an attack and invasion. The air in Shiraz was thick with the sweat and smoke and tension of a city preparing for war.

It was only the two of them. Normally, Karim would be present to give out his sarcastic remarks and complete their trio. Tonight however, he was in the palace archives, researching for possible tunnels under the city walls. Which meant that this was the first time they'd been alone together in some time.

Gita didn't bother to bow. She walked towards him, her stride purposeful and her expression intent. Esfandar stood up from his desk and made his way toward her, equally concerned. He expected a dire report of the situation on the front lines, an unprecedented advancement of Soraya's troops. Something urgent.

He did not expect her to grab him by his collar and kiss him firmly. However his surprise was short lived. In a moment his arms curled around her and he returned her kiss in turn.

After their last embrace, they hadn't had the opportunity to talk things over or discuss what this was between them. Esfandar had been desperate for the opportunity to do so these past few days. Now he had that chance, but all he could do was pull her closer and tilt her chin gently to the side to deepen the kiss.

Gita was a passionate person, but rarely shared that side of herself openly with others. He was in awe that she had chosen him as one of the few to get to be with her like this.

Esfandar lost track of time, but soon they were forced to separate, gasping for breath. Their foreheads touched as he leaned forward, still close enough that he could see every stray hair hanging in her face, count every eyelash. She looked at him as well, her face unreadable. He wondered what she saw there.

"You're good at this," Esfandar said as soon as he caught enough of his breath. His fingers entwined with hers, their hands hanging at their sides.

Gita only gave him that small smirk of hers, the one that meant she knew something he didn't.

"You're not bad," she replied, making him laugh softly.

He needed to say something. He wanted to say something. To say that he remembered that look on her face all those years ago when she'd held the dagger against his throat and declared that she would spare his life. That he remembered every glance she'd given him since that day and every smile.

Gita was a force. That's the only possible way he could describe her and do her any justice. She was brave and unflinching in the face of an enemy, carrying herself with a self-assurance that he couldn't comprehend, and that he envied of her.

She was smart and strong and selfless- that last one was perhaps the most incredible of all. In Esfandar's short time in this world, he'd learned that he could trust no one to be good. Perhaps people could have good intentions, and genuinely wish to follow their morals. In the end, however, the desire to protect the self would always win. They would always lie, always betray. But not Gita.

First she had spared his life when he above anyone else deserved to die at her hands. He remembered his clenched fist at his sides, the sweat pouring down his face as he'd waited for her blade to finish him, and the utter shock when it hadn't.

She hadn't forgiven him, he'd come to find out, not by a hundred years. But she refused to take his life in revenge. Not because she didn't want to, but because she knew it went against everything she believed in.

How could one person be so strong and wise? His every moment spent with her after that was spent asking and wondering to himself at that question, wondering at her. She only proved that he'd been wrong about the world and the people in it again and again at his side through the years.

She'd once gotten into an argument with the elder of a small village they'd come through in the countryside. There had been a famine, one of the worst the empire had seen in decades. This elder, however, had hoarded what crops and grain was left to the village, only letting those with enough to bribe him receive their share.

Gita had been livid. When her words hadn't made the old man see any reason, Esfandar almost thought she'd raise a weapon against him but somehow she'd held herself back.

Not a full day later, a troop of bandits had emerged from the forests to sack the village and take the hidden stores for themselves. They themselves were little more than desperate villagers from other decimated towns, but the blades and axes in their hands made them dangerous all the same.

Esfandar's troops had defended the people in the village, and Esfandar and Gita had found themselves stuck protecting the village elder and his stolen food. Esfandar remembered watching from across the room where he fought off men viciously trying to get past him and to the food stores. Gita had been fighting off ten others who were raging to kill the elder.

The old man had panicked and fallen behind. One of the bandits brought their blade down swiftly. It would have killed the man in an instant, stabbing into his chest and stopping his beating heart.

Instead, Gita had shoved him aside and taken the blow. The bandit caught her in the shoulder, tearing through her skin and muscle. She'd continued fighting even through the horrible wound. The bandits were beaten back somehow and they'd all survived.

Esfandar remembered smiling at Gita at their victory, moving forward to ask her what their next step should be, when she'd grimaced and fallen over from her injury. The wound had come close to killing her. Esfandar still remembered those hours when they didn't know if she'd survive, some of the worst of his life. He didn't like to think about it often.

But still, it only proved her total selflessness, her dignity and grace. He squeezed her hand in his, closing his eyes.

"I don't deserve this," he said. "I don't deserve you."

"It's not about deserving it," she replied insistently. "You think I haven't done anything that I'm ashamed of, that I regret?" She brought her hand to cup his jaw and he opened his eyes. "We have each other. We always have. We'll fight, and we'll win, just like always."

That time it was impossible to tell who kissed who first, but Esfandar pulled Gita close to him and soon forgot to think of anything else at all. 


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