“Miss Juniper! A moment, if you would?”
Juniper sighed and came to a stop. She’d barely made it into the alley. Ahead of her, the three Purists stopped also, clustering together like frightened sheep, a habit which in her opinion revealed a lot about their character when they didn’t have swords and a lot of backup; in any case, Sniff immediately circled around in front of them to bar their escape while the dryad turned to deal with whatever this fresh nuisance was.
She recognized the woman who approached from the broken gates, wearing a kind smile and a clearly expensive fur-trimmed winter gown. Also, she recognized the four younger people who had taken up a formation around their leader and were all staring at Juniper with much more visible unease. Or at least, one of them.
“Rasha,” she said, pointing at the young woman in question. “Which would make you… Glory, right? And Trissiny’s other friends.”
“Yep, that’s us,” said the only male in the group. “Trissiny’s other friends, that’s our identity.” The two other girls aside from Rasha both smacked him in the chest.
Juniper ignored that byplay, focusing on Glory, who had one of the most interesting scents she’d encountered on a human. Her sexuality was something avid, even fierce, and remarkably unconstrained; she didn’t seem to have an orientation so much as a hunger for new experiences. And yet, it was a controlled ferocity, smoothly integrated into the rest of her personality and harmonious in expression. It was strange. Most humans who smelled of that kind of sexual fervor were deviants of some sort, but this woman had firm self-control and a seemingly perfect serenity in her carnality. Actually, she smelled rather like an Izarite, except more… For once, Juniper found herself at a loss to define the extra element she was sensing. It was rather inspiring, really; she had long been of the opinion that humans in general needed to be more in touch with their sexual natures and less hung up about it.
The dryad couldn’t help feeling a bit sad at the awareness that what she was sensing meant this woman was probably more intellectually dangerous than any human she’d ever met. It was disappointing that the world had to be that way. People deserved better.
As always, she perceived these details without betraying any awareness, out of respect for everyone’s privacy. There wasn’t much of interest about the other four, anyway, save that Rasha smelled of fairly recent self-acceptance and the younger girl was going to be firmly bisexual when she finished grappling with a hangup about her attraction to women, something Juniper had noticed wasn’t uncommon in Tiraan teenagers. Glory replied before she had the opportunity to consider any of it in more detail.
“I am Glory, yes. Thank you for interceding in that…mess. Surprisingly, I think you created the least disastrous possible outcome.”
“Right, well…you’re welcome. Now, I gotta deliver three idiots to the Temple of Avei, so if you’ll ‘scuze me…”
Glory stepped forward, her four apprentices surging less smoothly to keep up their protective ring around her. “Wait, please. Before you go, there is some outstanding business regarding those three we need to settle.”
“I’m gonna give you the credit of assuming you know you’re not about to finish what your Boss tried to start,” Juniper warned. Rasha narrowed her eyes, but it was a pensive expression rather than a hostile one, as if Juniper were a puzzle she was trying to solve. The other three looked various degrees of nervous and angry at the implied threat, however.
“Please.” Glory shook her head. “Your action was the right one. To say nothing of the catastrophe that could have unfolded from those baggages being harmed by the Guild, Eserites of all people respect a show of force toward a noble cause. When we are the abusive parties forced to back down, we more than anyone should accept it as earned. No, I’m fully behind Trissiny on this matter—and thus, I infer, behind you. My intent is to help address the political situation here, not make it worse.”
Juniper glanced behind her at the open gateway. Somewhat to her surprise, no other thieves were emerging to involve themselves, though she’d be amazed if several weren’t lurking just on the other side of the wall to listen. Well, Glory was undoubtedly savvy enough to expect that, too, which meant she didn’t intend this to be a completely private conversation.
“What’s on your mind, then?”
Glory shifted her own eyes to the prisoners. “Just a simple question. How did you three get from the custody of the Church-aligned Huntsmen to that of the Church-opposed Thieves’ Guild in the space of one night?”
“W-we don’t answer to you,” the Purist with the most remaining spine (for whatever that was worth) stammered, trying to lift her chin. “We’re going back to the Sisterhood to be judged by our own—”
All Juniper had to do to silence her was turn and meet her eyes. She added some verbal encouragement anyway.
“Do you really think you’re in a position to get shirty, here? Give me any more backtalk and either Sniff’s gonna bite you, or I am.” Sniff obligingly hissed, spreading his wings and flattening down his head crest in a universal avian warning; two of the Purists squeaked in a manner any Avenist would have found shameful. “Answer the woman.”
After three seconds she began to be concerned she would have to back up that threat as the three just clustered together again; really, they were like traumatized pigeons. What had the thieves done to these women?
Fortunately, it didn’t come to that, as one of them burst out in a rush as if she needed to answer just to vent the building pressure.
“They just handed us over! We were separated from our sisters and, and herded here like sheep, we didn’t even know where we were going until—” She broke off and made a gulping noise.
“The Huntsmen did this?” Glory asked quietly. One of them, not the one who’d spoken, nodded jerkily. Juniper pondered whether she should find out their names. On reflection, she didn’t really want to; these women had been bullying assholes when they had power and were sniveling cowards now that they didn’t, and she preferred the comfortable distance of not thinking of them as individuals.
“Just Huntsmen?” the older girl who wasn’t Rasha piped up. “Not Church priests?” Juniper wondered whether the apprentice was speaking out of turn, but Glory just shifted to give her a nod of clear approval.
“The—yes,” the previous speaker said, nodding. “Huntsmen. We didn’t—we never actually saw any parsons. They never took us to the Cathedral.”
“Sisters,” Rasha murmured. “That’s right, Glory, there were more of them than this.”
“I see,” Glory said almost as softly, then raised her voice, turning back to Juniper. “Well! Thank you, that was what I needed to know. Now then, Juniper, please don’t take this amiss, but before you try to carry them off to the Temple of Avei I must critique your strategy.”
“Oh?” the dryad replied irritably.
Glory inclined her head with an apologetic smile that actually did ease the sting of criticism; Juniper had met grove Elders who didn’t have that degree of facial control. Yeah, this woman was not to be underestimated. “Do forgive the presumption, but this is, after all, an acknowledged area of Eserite expertise. You are planning to chivy three reluctant prisoners across a crowded city, using only your own two hands and an exotic animal helper, and relying on the power of fear to keep them under control. That, I’m afraid, simply will not work. Trust me, we employ fear as a matter of course, and are required to know both its uses and limitations. Fear makes people stupid, jumpy, and impulsive. At the first opportunity they will bolt in three directions and get lost in the crowds; in the best case scenario you will be able to secure two. That’s if the sight of you trying to bodily restrain a priestess of Avei doesn’t set the military police on your own head. I trust I needn’t explain the can of worms that would open?”
“You have a point,” Juniper said grudgingly, turning a sour stare on the quailing Avenists. “Well, that’s a big old nuisance.”
“We won’t be any trouble,” one said tremulously, “we only want—”
“Oh, shut up,” the dryad interrupted in disgust. “Do you really think anybody’s going to listen to you? I assume,” she added to Glory, “that you’re about to offer your own help in handling this.”
“But of course,” the Eserite replied with a warm smile. “Perhaps not in the way you’re thinking; more force isn’t the best solution here. Rasha! Would you be so good as to do the honors?”
“Gladly,” the younger woman replied, stepping forward with a grim stare fixed on the prisoners. “All right, you three, I am going to recite several obvious facts. If this seems at all belittling, you’ll just have to forgive me on the grounds that you have not presented yourselves as intellectually noteworthy thus far. Right now, nearly everyone wants you dead. To the Huntsmen and the Church, you are inconvenient witnesses who need to be silenced. Most of the Thieves’ Guild wants your asses in retaliation both for what you tried to do to me, and the humiliation they just suffered. No, that second part wasn’t your fault, but do you really think that’s going to matter?” She actually paused, planting her hands on her hips to give them a long, skeptical stare. “Most of those people back there have a very similar approach to life as yourselves. Do you imagine they’re going to try to start shit with a dryad when they could just take it out on you? You wouldn’t.”
All three of her fellow apprentices grinned, the older girl braying a derisive laugh.
“Furthermore,” Rasha continued her lecture, “no one else into whose hands you’re likely to fall will be able or willing to protect you. The Church and the Guild can both get at you in Imperial custody, one way or another. None of the other cults are going to want anything to do with you; they’ll likely send you right back to the Church, where you will be silenced as the inconvenient political leftovers that, to Justinian, you are. You could try to flee the city, I suppose, but do you really think you can escape either of those networks of influence? To say nothing of the Huntsmen, who—well, it’s right there in their name. No, ladies, the Sisterhood of Avei is your only hope. After the way you’ve been behaving, High Commander Rouvad is not going to be gentle with you, let’s not pretend otherwise. But she will be fair, and she will not under any circumstances hand you over to any rival power.
“So!” Rasha folded her arms and lifted her chin superciliously, managing to look down her nose at the three cowed priestesses despite being a head shorter than any of them. “You will go with Juniper to the Temple. Not because she is scary and powerful enough to tear you limb from limb if you don’t cooperate. No, you will go with her because she is scary and powerful enough to protect you from anybody who might try to snatch you off the street, as you just saw. She is your best chance of still being alive in an hour, and you should thank Avei at the earliest opportunity that she happened along. I have to say, I didn’t see that coming, either,” she added, giving Juniper a speculative look.
“Wow,” the dryad said, looking back with much the same expression. “Triss was not kidding, you’re one to watch.”
Rasha’s face broke into a pleased smile. It made her latent attractiveness, which seemed to be at least half cosmetics, suddenly blossom into real beauty. Juniper might have been sexually interested, not having had the opportunity to have sex with a trans person yet, but the girl smelled of burgeoning infatuation with someone not present and she didn’t want to risk damaging that. Just because she wasn’t inclined toward long-term romantic attachments herself didn’t mean she valued them less in those who cherished such bonds. Love was too important to treat lightly.
“Our sisters,” one of the three said in a very small voice. “The…others. They’re still…”
Glory’s shoulders shifted in a quiet sigh, and her expression, for a wonder, was sympathetic. “The prospects are not good. Right now, you need to accept the reality that there’s nothing you can do for them from your position. Your paladin, as well as the other two, are working as we speak to break through the Archpope’s corruption. It may already be too late to help your comrades, but if you want to have any hope of helping General Avelea penetrate the Church’s secrecy, go to Rouvad and tell her everything you know.”
She stared intently at them until all three had nodded in acknowledgment. One began to silently weep again, scrubbing tears from her eyes before they could freeze.
“And Juniper.” Glory stepped forward, looking up at the dryad, who found herself surprised to notice up close that she was notably taller. The woman had a presence that made her seem bigger, somehow. “This is not a criticism of your own abilities, but I’d like to send two of my apprentices with you.”
“To do what, exactly?” she asked, raising an eyebrow.
“Not fight off attackers,” the Eserite replied with a grin. “In fact, if it comes to that, I must respectfully ask that you try not to involve my students. No, the Avenists, to their credit, are very particular about the procedures of justice. Rasha is a firsthand witness to the crimes of these three, and her testimony will be immediately useful to the High Commander.”
“They already have Zafi,” Rasha pointed out. “She was there, too.”
“But you were the intended victim,” Glory replied. “And the more witness corroboration, the better.”
“Oh, don’t even pretend you’re not dying to go see Zafi anyway,” the young man added, grinning broadly.
“And Darius,” Glory said, shooting him a look, “please accompany them. I would ordinarily come myself, for something as important as this,” she added to Juniper, “but politics are my area of expertise, and on that field there is a large battle about to unfold which demands all the attention it can be spared. I’m sure you will have your own business to return to afterward, and I’ll feel better if Rasha has someone to walk her home, given how frequently she has been the target of various ne’er-do-wells recently.”
“I am an excellent meatshield,” Dariues vowed, placing one hand over his heart and holding up the other. “Top marks in my class.”
“All the pastry he eats certainly helps,” his little sister added primly, poking him in the side.
“Sure,” Juniper said, a little bemused. “That all makes sense, and I guess some company I don’t automatically hate would be welcome.”
“Juniper…thank you.” Glory’s expression was solemn, almost grave. “For this, your intervention, the way you are supporting Trissiny. All of it. We owe you a lot.”
“You’re welcome,” she replied. “But nah, I don’t consider myself owed for anything. A person has to do what’s right. Don’t you think?”
“I very much do,” the older woman agreed with a pleased little smile. “It pains me more than you know that we must meet under such…annoying circumstances. You have my standing invitation to visit me at my home, at any time of your convenience. I would dearly love to show you proper hospitality. Not as thanks, if you’d rather not think of it that way! Simply because I want to. Entertaining guests is my great joy in life.”
She gazed up at Juniper, proud and serene, smiling warmly. The dryad tilted her head, studying Glory’s expression, taking in her scent, considering implications. Then, after several long seconds, she nodded and smiled in return.
“I don’t know when that will be convenient, but… Yeah, I’ll take you up on it. That’s very kind of you.”
They both nodded in unison, eyes fixed on one another, and Juniper was quite struck by the experience of being so in sync with someone she knew so little. The two women had just mutually decided and communicated, without any outward sign that any of the onlookers could have called flirtatious, that they would be making love at the earliest opportunity, and that both, despite being each more experienced than the average person, expected it to be a very memorable occasion indeed. Juniper found herself looking forward to that meeting almost as much to satisfy her curiosity as anything else. It was so strange to find such an instinctive harmony with a non-fae, non-Izarite, non-witch human, of all people. Glory didn’t seem one whit less dangerous to her, but… Trissiny trusted her. And respected her. That counted for a great deal. Plus, she was so intriguing.
“Until then,” Glory said, stepping back. “Tallie, Layla, I will need you back at the house; come, let’s not waste any more time. Rasha, don’t pout. I know you don’t need a minder, but with all that’s happening this is no time to take risks. You are a lightning rod for exactly the trouble that’s wracking this city. All of you, please be safe.”
“Don’t you worry, boss lady,” Darius promised. “I plan to live forever or die trying.”
Rasha rolled her eyes and started moving up the alley, which proved to be the impetus for both groups to separate. Glory retreated back into the Casino grounds with her two remaining apprentices, and the others herded their prisoners off toward the opening onto the street in the near distance ahead. The three Avenists were still subdued, but they seemed less panicky than previously, which Juniper had to think would help make this trip easier.
“So! I’m Darius, as you heard,” he said, falling into step alongside Juniper with an easy grin. “Lemme just apologize in advance for anything stupid I say; you’re my first dryad. Actually, I heard you were at Puna Dara that one time, but I didn’t see you. Pretty sure I’d have remembered that.”
“Yeah,” she said quietly, “I had…a lot on my mind that day. It wasn’t a good day.”
“Really wasn’t, was it,” he agreed, his own voice dropping. “That was… Well, it wasn’t boring, was it?”
She turned her head to study him thoughtfully as they walked. The young man put on a very convincing nonchalant expression and idly ambling gait, but she could tell from his scent alone that it was entirely an act. A really good act, something the Guild probably trained its apprentices to do. Outward attitude notwithstanding, he was terrified of her. And, of course, he desired her. Badly. The inner conflict was probably confusing enough that he preferred to bury himself in the pretense of feeling nothing. It was a complex tangle of scents and might have been tricky to puzzle out, but Juniper had encountered this exact reaction from numerous humans since coming to Last Rock. Fortunately, she knew a reliable way to put them at ease.
“Okay, then,” she decided with a smile, shifting closer to bump him very gently with her shoulder. “You, too, I guess. When the opportunity permits.”
“Uh…” Darius shot her a sidelong look, fear spiking in his scent. “Me, too…what, exactly?”
“Don’t worry, I’ll show you when we get there.”