“So, what do you think of my odds?”
“Well,” Juniper said slowly, “it seems like either Professor Tellwyrn is crazy, or maybe just wrong, or you just couldn’t find what she sent you there to find. So, y’know, the way she likes to play mind games with people, I’m guessing the second one.”
Gabriels sighed heavily. “Damn it…that’s what I thought.” He shrugged, scowling, and folded the paper on which he’d scrawled his notes and citations and stuffed it in the pocket of his new coat. “But I went over it and over it, and even asked that asshat librarian for help. Imperial law is absolutely dead clear: anybody with human blood is legally human under the law. If I don’t commit a crime, nobody’s allowed to hurt me. The only way she can legally execute me on the spot,” he said this last in a sneering imitation of Tellwyrn’s voice, “is in self-defense. I don’t get it. She’s setting me up for something, that has to be it.”
“Maybe,” the dryad mused, “that is the trick. There’s no legal reason for you not to act like anybody else. Like, a hidden moral lesson?”
“Hm. So we’re in agreement that there’s a hidden trick of some kind?”
“Well, ch’yeah. I’ve got class with her too, y’know.”
He grinned at that. “I like your way. But…damn it, this is Tellwyrn. What’s more likely, a hidden moral lesson or a hidden trap?”
“…I see your point.”
The fine weather had continued to hold; indeed, it seemed the dry country of the prairie wasn’t prone to much besides clear skies and warm sun. It was enjoyable, certainly, but Gabriel was starting to feel twinges of homesickness for the interminable rain of Tiraas. Still, the company made up for a lot. He and Juniper were ambling slowly through the campus, not really going anywhere in particular. After the day’s classes and a further two hours on his part squirreled away in the library poring through legal texts, he badly needed to stretch his legs and enjoy the fresh air. The company of a gorgeous girl in a short, sheer, almost skin-tight sundress woven apparently of leaves just made everything seems brighter and more beautiful.
“Well, the hell with it,” he said, stretching his arms over his head. Amazingly, he wasn’t even hot, despite the hearty sunshine; the coat’s weatherproofing enchantment clearly applied to more than wind and rain. “It’s a sunny day, I’m strolling with a pretty girl, it’s hours yet till I have kitchen duty with our resident stabadin…and did I mention strolling with a pretty girl? Because that makes up for a lot.”
Juniper smiled up at him, a mischievous expression that was more than half smirk, but it faded just as suddenly as it had come, leaving something like puzzlement hovering around her large brown eyes. “Gabriel… I’m having a little trouble wrapping my head around all the customs here, and I don’t want to offend, so…um, you’ll let me know if I say something wrong, right? And not hold it against me?”
“Sure, June, what’s on your mind?”
She bit her lower lip for a moment. “Well, I’m just trying to figure out what to do here. ‘Cause you obviously want to have sex with me, but you haven’t asked. Did I do something wrong?”
He choked and very nearly did a spit-take, which was all the more impressive because there’d been nothing in his mouth.
“And I think that’d be really fun,” Juniper went on earnestly, causing him to trip while standing still, “but I didn’t want to ask you either, because there are rules about men and women that I just can’t wrap my head around and nobody will explain them to me. Shaeine told me to ask the humans, but when I do, Trissiny starts ranting about feminism and Ruda just tells dirty jokes. I haven’t tried Teal yet, but she’s not even into men, so I’m not sure what she even knows. See my problem? I sort of get that female humans aren’t expected to be forward, and okay, honestly, it seems pretty silly to me, but I want to respect the culture, y’know? Does that make sense?”
“I think I need to sit down,” he said weakly, glancing around. The nearest bench was thirty feet down the path.
“And now I’ve upset you,” she said, chewing her lip in earnest. “Darn it, this is exactly what I was afraid of. Cos even aside from issues about what’s expected of women, there are issues of what’s expected of men, and that I think I understand a little better. You’re supposed to make the overtures, right? It’s the whole hunter/warrior thing, it’s very primal, and I respect that. I really didn’t want to make you feel… Aw, I’m doing this all wrong.”
“Okay, whoah, hold up,” he said, taking her by the shoulders. She was starting to look genuinely upset. “Yes, there are rules, and yes, they’re pretty much as silly and arbitrary as you think, but I swear to you, Juniper, no guy will complain about you making the first move. Hell, guys dream of being approached by a woman like you. For the most part unsuccessfully.”
“You’re not mad?” She gazed up at him with limpid eyes.
“Mad?” He swallowed. “No…I am not…uh, that.”
“Oh, thank Naiya,” she gushed, beaming. “I didn’t want to cheat you out of anything. I mean, I really don’t object to being your first, at all. In fact it’d be an honor.”
“Whoah, wait, what?” Gabriel backed up, holding up his hands and frowning. “What do you mean, my first?”
“Yeah, I actually would really like to try that,” she said brightly. “I’ve never mated with a virgin before. I bet it’s interes—”
“Now you can stop right there,” he said firmly. “I’ll have you know I’m a witty and stylish half-demon from the world’s most cosmopolitan city. Girls go crazy over me. You really think I’ve never had any opportunities before now?”
“Um,” she said, nonplussed, “okay…”
“Besides, we went over this in Yornhaldt’s class, remember, when Ruda asked about witchcraft? Virginity as a magically significant state is an old wives’ tale. It’s nonsense, it doesn’t make any difference at all.”
“Well…uh, technically, that’s not really…”
“Look, I’m just saying, if you’re worried about offending people, maybe don’t throw around accusations about a guy’s manhood like that!”
“Okay!” Juniper raised her hands in surrender. “You’re not a virgin. There’s no such thing as virginity. But just for, you know, reference, dryads are a species of nymph, so I have senses specifically for…well, magically significant states. What’s magically significant to me, I mean. So, uh, lying to me about anything sexual is pretty much a waste of time.”
He stared at her for a long, tense moment, then suddenly sagged where he stood, dropping her gaze. “That’s not fair. He said it wasn’t really a thing…”
“Well, Professor Yornhaldt’s class is about arcane magic,” she said helpfully, “which is a whole different type of deal. Nature magic is…honestly, I’m not sure I’d even call it magic. It’s just what we do.”
“Sorry I snapped at you,” he mumbled. “Fuck…this suits the week I’m having. Why am I so good at pissing people off?”
“Gabe,” she said gently, “I’m not mad.” He finally lifted his gaze as she stepped close enough to him that they were nearly touching. Juniper was smiling up at him, amused. “Look, I’ve been exploring the campus a lot since we got here. I know a wonderfully private little spot where we can go and make love. If you’re up for it.”
Gabriel swallowed once, heavily, then had to clear his throat before he could speak again. “May I be honest?”
“I would prefer that, yeah.”
“I am so up for it I may have trouble walking there.”
Juniper laughed delightedly, taking him by the arm and setting off. He let himself be pulled.
“Hello,” Shaeine said politely, nodding as Trissiny fell into step beside her. She nodded back, opening her mouth to speak, but closed it mutely.
They walked in silence across the entire width of one of the University’s terraces, before turning right, ascending a stone staircase and continuing back in the other direction on a path that would eventually lead to the dining hall. The layout of the campus was unfriendly toward the goal of getting anywhere efficiently, a fact which Trissiny actually appreciated. Despite the lack of battlements, it would be an easy structure to defend from invaders; the terraces and numerous switchbacks created ample choke points and opportunities to ambush from above. There were actually ways to get directly from one point to another, but not all students felt equally about squeezing through tiny alleys, crawling under bushes and scrambling up dirt inclines. Neither she nor Shaeine had much interest in such, when it was easier to simply budget one’s time to allow for travel.
“Forgive me if I am impertinent, but something appears to be on your mind,” Shaeine said, her voice as calm as ever. Her expression was invisible; with the afternoon sun still high, she had her heavy cowl pulled forward.
“I don’t… I’m not good at…talking to people. At least, not at broaching uncomfortable topics…”
“Do you know anything of the political structure of Tar’naris?”
“I actually don’t,” Trissiny admitted, puzzled by the apparent non sequitur, but not ungrateful.
Shaeine’s hood bobbed as she nodded. “The organization of Houses is common to all drow societies, as is infighting between them. In most cultures, particularly among the Scyllithene drow who live in the deep underworld, a House is a self-contained political entity. In Tar’naris, however, our queen has reorganized the city so that each House provides one essential service. Agriculture, defense, construction, magic, worship… In this way, Narisians avoid the constant civil warfare that plagues most of our kind. To attack a House is to attack an essential point of the city’s infrastructure. In the unlikely event that any matriarch were mad enough or foolish enough to do so, the queen and the other Houses would instantly move against her.”
“Interesting,” Trissiny said, meaning it quite sincerely. It actually did sound like a very functional system, albeit rather arcane.
Shaeine nodded again. “House Awarrion serves as the city’s diplomatic corps. We arbitrate disputes within the city and serve as the queen’s voice and face to the outside world. This is what all of my family are trained for, specifically, from birth.” Her hood shifted so that she faced Trissiny somewhat more directly as they walked. “You may think of me as an ambassador and negotiator, Trissiny. I am very conscious of the difficulties people face communicating across differences in perspective, and trained to bridge those gaps. Above all, I will not take offense unless it is plain that you truly mean to give it. Please, I would have you speak your mind.”
Trissiny mulled for a moment, selecting her words carefully. Shaeine made no sound to hurry her along. “Last night, when I knelt to pray over the day’s events, Avei manifested to me in the chapel.” She grimaced. “It…wasn’t one of the more pleasant conversations I’ve had with her… But, well, most of that is irrelevant. Of course I’m ready to do anything she commands me to, but… She, in essence, ordered me to make friends with someone. And I…have no idea how to go about doing that.”
Shaeine cocked her head to one side. “Gabriel?”
“I think she has an even lower opinion of Gabriel than I do. No…I was referring to you.”
There was more emphasis and emotion in those two words than Shaeine normally expressed all day, but Trissiny couldn’t quite discern what emotion, exactly, it was. Fortunately, the drow continued before she had to think of something worthwhile to say.
“I have been trying, as I have time, to familiarize myself with the theological history of the surface world, but eight thousand years of lore are not easily condensed, and the Universal Church has codified much of it in service to its own political agenda. As such, I am in no position to make assumptions about what you may or may not know. Are you aware of the reason my goddess is not a member of the Pantheon?”
“I…no. We really were never taught anything about the pagan gods, good or bad. Mother Narny just said they were nothing we needed to worry about.” She kicked a pebble out of her way with more force than it probably deserved. “I’m sorry if that seems rude, I don’t mean it to.”
“The expectations taught to us in childhood are a powerful thing.”
She nodded. “My goddess said, specifically, that if I find myself opposed by a cleric of Themyrna it’s a sign I should reconsider my actions.”
“How flattering,” said Shaeine with a note of wry humor. “According to history as I was taught it, Themynra was an ally of your gods during the Elder Wars, and upon the formation of the Pantheon she was offered a place among them. She declined, largely in protest over their treatment of Elilial.”
“Before the Pantheon, during the Wars, three goddesses formed the strategic core of the rebellion against the Elders: Avei, Themynra, and Elilial. At least, this is history as my goddess has taught it to us.”
Trissiny stopped walking in sheer disbelief. Shaeine came to a halt alongside her without commenting on this, continuing with her tale. “The goddesses, respectively, of strategy, judgment and cunning, they were in effect the mind of the rebellion, and each a formidable warrior in her own right. We remember them as the Three Sisters.”
“You seem shocked.”
“Elilial is the goddess of demons.”
Shaeine held up a finger. “Ah, but you are mistaken. She is the goddess of cunning. Each deity is tied at the core of her or his identity to a concept, something which roots their power in the nature of the world. Elilial is the Queen of Demons, because she now resides on their dimensional plane and is sufficiently powerful to command the obedience of Hell’s populations.”
“That’s…that’s hair-splitting. The point is, Elilial has been at war with the Pantheon and all its members since they overthrew the Elders and then she tried to turn on the others and destroy humanity.”
“And does it shock you so that such enmity now comes from such closeness before? Your cult call themselves the Sisters of Avei; you address one another as ‘sister,’ I understand. Is this so?”
“Yes,” Trissiny said tersely. “What of it?”
“Just that you surely understand the nature of such a relationship. The bond between sisters is not easily broken, because it does not break; if tested more cruelly than it can bear, it twists, transforms into a bitterness like no other. Seen in this light, in context of the closeness the three once had, does not the present status quo make more sense? Elilial’s hatred, Themynra’s detachment?”
“Avei isn’t hateful or detached.”
“I think you know well how discipline and duty can sustain us when other motivations falter. It does not strain my credulity at all that the soldier could carry on when the judge and the trickster could not.”
Trissiny was silent for long moments, parsing these insights. Eventually she began moving again, and Shaeine fell into step with her.
“Are you…that is, do you have plans to meet with anyone over dinner?”
“Teal and Ruda usually join me, but it is not a plan, per se.”
“If you don’t mind, I’d like to hear more about this.”
Shaeine reached up and eased her hood back just enough to alleviate the shadows around her face and reveal a faint smile. “You have enjoyed our conversation? And wish to have more?”
“Very much. I think I could learn a lot from you. I mean…if you don’t object.”
“And that, Trissiny, is how you make friends.”