“Finally,” Gabriel groaned. “It’s about time the Sea gave us something good for a change.”
“Oh, you are such a whiner,” Ruda said, grinning easily. “This trip has been awesome! So far the Sea has given us free corn and all the beef we can eat.” She laughed at his slightly peaked expression.
Carving up, cleaning, parceling out and preparing the meat from the entire bison had occupied them the rest of the afternoon; Rafe and Juniper had been adamantly against letting anything go to waste, and their thrifty sensibilities had found enough traction among the group that Teal and Gabriel hadn’t gathered much sympathy when they’d suggested stopping once they judged enough meat to have been gathered.
Drying, smoking and curing meat were all very long processes, ordinarily the work of days at least, but Rafe, of course, had alchemical shortcuts a-plenty in his magic belt. Cheerily announcing that this would count toward their grade in his classes, he handed out reagents, walked them once through the processes involved, and then set the students to preparing meat for storage in a variety of ways while he built another alchemical fire, broke out his frying pan and cooked up some fresh bison steaks for their lunch.
By the time they’d taken a break to eat, their collective desire for food was diminished. Only Shaeine appeared completely unbothered by all the blood and effluvia they’d been handling. Juniper had somewhat spoiled her appetite; once she determined that nobody else wanted a share of the bison’s organs, she had been busily snacking while they worked. Watching this had seriously dampened everyone else’s appetite, albeit for different reasons.
Bison-carving kept them occupied till dusk was closer than noon had been. By then, the bison was reduced to bones, scraps of hide and various detritus that nobody wanted to touch no matter how Rafe nattered on about the uses of each bit. Evidently, wasting all that bowstring-worthy sinew offended his elven sensibilities. Juniper had eventually declared, in her cheery way, that nothing left to nature was truly wasted. She’d said this while cradling the animal’s skull, which she intended to keep as a souvenir (after having eating the brain, eyes and tongue), and was all but slathered with liquid bison.
After pausing a bit longer to clean themselves up with the aid of more of Rafe’s alchemy, they had finally continued on their way.
Sunset was far enough in progress that Trissiny, their most experienced trekker, had started making noises about camping for the night when they came across their next, and hopefully final, surprise of the day.
Now, they stood—or in Gabriel’s case, sat in the grass—around a house-sized formation of volcanic rock which put off faintly sulfur-scented steam, watching the two fae return from inspecting it.
“Safe!” the dryad yelled, waving. She had clearly taken the opportunity to scrub some of the bison bits out of her hair that had been missed earlier during Rafe’s alchemical cleaning. In fact, she was drenched from head to toe, her green hair plastered haphazardly in her face. “No elementals of any kind present—uh, that we didn’t bring with us, sorry Fross—and it’s stable, no current volcanic action. There’s a nice little current and it’s old enough the stones inside the pools are nice and rounded. It’s perfect!”
“Also, no curses or undead,” Fross chimed in. “No anything, really, I don’t think anybody’s been here in years. If ever.”
“Animals have,” Juniper said, “which is how you know it’s safe.”
“All right!” Rafe rubbed his hands together gleefully, wearing an even more manic grin than usual. “Hot springs, baby! Kids, you have not lived until you’ve had a soak in natural hot springs!”
“Um, excuse me, but I’m pretty sure I’m alive.”
“It’s a figure of speech, Fross,” Toby explained.
“There’s a nice flat area up on top where silt has settled in a depression and there’s grass growing,” Juniper said brightly. “Not as tall as down here, but it’s softer than the rocks and probably safer than camping on the flat ground where anything might come creeping out of the tallgrass.”
“Campsite ho!” Rafe shouted. “But first: WE BATHE!”
The rock formation looked like a tumbled heap of dark stone when approached, but as they explored it well enough to gain a sense of its proportions, it revealed itself to be rather like the stump of an old tree in shape. The “roots” of stone spread out in multiple directions, dividing up low areas between them and affording some privacy; a lot of these contained pools of water, the three lowest of which were large enough to swim in, though not deep. They were also, fortuitously, sufficiently separated by the mass of the formation that the travelers could segregate themselves by sex and soak in relative privacy. The broad, flat top of the “stump” was probably another such crater, now inactive for whatever reason. Over the eons it had filled with wind-blown dirt, and then a light carpet of soft grasses and moss.
“This is almost suspicious,” Trissiny said, leaning her head back against the rock wall; her utterly relaxed posture clashed with the tone of her observation. “It’s so…perfect. Like a gift from the gods. I almost can’t imagine it not being some kind of trap.”
“Anybody ever tell you you’re a real ray of sunshine?” Ruda asked lazily from the other side of the pool.
“Ever wonder why?”
“There’s stuff like this all over the world,” Teal said. “This planet wasn’t shaped by entirely natural forces, you know; lots of things that seem like part of nature are actually designed for the sake of people. And yeah, a lot of them are traps, but there are also quite a few that are gifts. The gods aren’t the only powers up there that like people. Anyhow, Juno and Fross would’ve noticed anything bad lurking around here.”
“Probably,” Jupiner said lightly. While the others were sitting around the edges of the steaming pool, submerged up to the shoulders, she was floating on her back in the middle with no regard for modesty. Teal flushed and averted her eyes whenever she happened to glance at the dryad.
“Paladins can also sense evil, as I understand it,” said Shaeine. “You would likely be the first to know if we were in danger, Trissiny.”
“For a given value of ‘evil,’” she replied. “Demons, undead…a few other, related things. Sometimes people who’ve had a lot of contact with them. Things not directly, specifically opposed to the gods can slip by my senses.”
“What’s that?” Ruda grinned at her. “You mean you’re not perfect? I am stunned.”
“Don’t you ever get tired of that?” Trissiny asked with a sigh.
“Not so far, but I’ll let you know! Sure you don’t wanna come in, Shaeine?”
“I am quite comfortable, thank you,” the drow replied politely. “The steam is invigorating.” She was sitting on a rock formation beside their pool, still in her robes, ostensibly keeping watch over their clothes. The whole time they’d been soaking, she had steadfastly refused even to glance in their direction.
“I just feel kinda bad, you missing out,” said Ruda.
“Not all cultures are okay with communal bathing,” Teal admonished her. “Don’t push. In fact, hell, Imperial culture really isn’t okay with communal bathing. I’m very privileged to be an acknowledged deviant.”
“Now, is it the pacifism that’s considered deviant, or the gay?”
“Take one of each, I’m feeling generous,” Teal said lightly, closing her eyes and shifting down in the water so that only her head was above the surface.
“My culture does, in fact, practice communal bathing,” Shaeine said, still watching the horizon, “but only among family.”
“Guess I can respect that,” the pirate conceded, then playfully sent a wave in Trissiny’s direction. “Gotta say, roomie, I’m surprised you unbent enough to be naked in a big tub with a lesbian. Not afraid you’re gonna catch it?”
“Ruda,” Trissiny said wearily, “would you at least read about my faith enough to mock it intelligently? Avei has always supported the right of women to love whoever and in whatever way they choose. In fact, I was raised in a barracks among other girls, in a culture that idealized romance among women. I was thirteen before anybody thought to reassure me that being attracted to boys didn’t mean I was mentally ill.”
Ruda blinked her eyes. “Well…damn.”
“We have a sort of legend,” the paladin went on, relaxing into the water, “about one of the early Hands of Avei and her traveling companion. She was a warrior from the Eastern mountains, who left home as a girl because the Shaathists there didn’t allow women to fight. Even after joining and training with the Sisters, she was a little rough around the edges… Till she fell in with a serving girl from some noble’s house who was practicing to be a bard. They traveled together, gradually growing closer over many adventures, becoming friends and eventually more… It’s sort of an ideal, I guess.” She sighed somewhat dreamily, gazing into the distance.
“Uh, Triss?” Juniper righted herself, landing on her knees on the pool’s bottom. She was in the deepest part; only her chin stayed above the water, surrounded by a green nimbus of floating hair. “I try not to tell people their own business, but… You’re, like, the straightest girl I’ve ever met.”
“I know,” Trissiny said glumly.
“This isn’t dangerous to you, is it, Fross?” Teal asked, looking up at the pixie, who’d been drifting slowly around above them, riding the updrafts of steam.
“What? Don’t be silly, I’m not made of ice. I actually kind like the heat. The contrast is soothing. Sort of almost painful, but in a good way, y’know? Like a really intense thing that kind straddles the line between good and bad. But no, it’s not dangerous.”
“Wanna try swimming, then?” Teal suggested. “Or are your wings not built for that?”
“Pshaw, my wings are built for everything! I’ll try anything twice. You know, cos nobody ever does something right the first time. Dive bomb!” With an uncharacteristic battlecry, she buzzed down, plopping into the surface of the water near Juniper.
Strangely, the intense glow that surrounded her seemed to wink out while she was viewed through water. For the first time, the girls were treated to a view of the tiny humanoid figure of Fross, white as fresh snow, as she plunged to the bottom of the pool, then fluttered back upward.
Unfortunately, ice had begun forming around her before she got there. Fross broke the surface, lifted off a few inches and fell back, encumbered by the clump of ice in which the lower half of her body was stuck. It expanded rapidly, and soon she was drifting in the hot springs, trapped in a thick, dinner plate-sized ice floe that steamed constantly as its edges melted and re-formed. Her wings buzzed impotently, lifting it no more than an inch out of the water.
“Um,” she said sheepishly, “help?”
“Gotta hand it to you, Professor,” said Gabriel, relaxing in the steam, “sometimes you do come up with a pretty damn good idea.”
“Hah! All my ideas are damn good, sonny Jim. You just lack the wit to appreciate my genius. I look forward to the day when you are educated enough to understand the sheer brilliance of everything I’ve tried to teach you.” Rafe paused, then amended, “Well, the day when most people would be educated enough to appreciate it. You… We’ll have to see.”
“Oh, up yours,” he said, but without rancor. “Let me just enjoy the steam, and the knowledge that there’s a half-dozen naked girls a mere few yards from here.”
“You do realize Shaeine can probably hear you,” Toby noted, fighting a smile.
“And Shaeine knows I’m not gonna go peek. Trissiny barely needs an excuse to stab me in the guts as it is.”
“Yeah, how’s that coming along?” Rafe asked cheerily, pushing his rubber duck around the surface of the water. The boys had steadfastly refused to comment on it. “Aren’t you two supposed to be all chummy by now?”
“Ugh.” Gabriel grimaced. “I’m trying. She’s completely immune to my charms.”
“Have you tried a love potion?”
“That’s right, Professor. I, a half-demon, will slip an illegal mind-altering potion to the Hand of Avei. Just as soon as I want the entire fucking Sisterhood to mount a crusade for my head.”
“You have got to learn to take a joke, kid.”
“I’d be careful with that kind of joke, Professor,” Toby warned. “Sisters of Avei consider the use of love potions a form of rape. So does Imperial law, for that matter, but Imperial law doesn’t get quite as…worked up on the subject as they do. I doubt Trissiny would find this conversation funny at all.”
“Bah! I will not be censored!” Rafe brandished his ducky, grinning wildly.
“I think I blew it with Triss pretty hard,” Gabe said more soberly. “It’s been weeks of dishwashing and… Well, she tolerates me. Exactly as much as she did on the first night. It’s like… She’s decided the status quo is perfectly fine and is done with the whole thing. And I wouldn’t mind that so much, she’s not exactly the most delightful company… But Tellwyrn’s got a bug up her butt about this. I dunno how long this can go on before she actually does chain us together.”
“She hasn’t done that in years, and it was a much more extreme case,” Rafe said airily. “You’re probably safe.”
Gabriel straightened up. “Wait, she’s actually done that?”
“Twice, that I know of.”
He slumped back down into the water. “Well, fuck. How do you get a grumpy paladin to give you a second chance?”
“Well, there’s the usual,” Rafe suggested. “Flowers, chocolates, poetry… Of course, she’s an Avenist, so maybe the still-beating heart of an enemy…”
“I’m not trying to court her, you lunatic. I just want to get things…civil. But I can’t have a civil relationship alone. If she doesn’t cooperate…”
“Aside from self-interest with regard to Tellwyrn,” said Toby, “and by the way, Trissiny doesn’t have a lot of self-interest… Why does she need to give you a second chance? She really doesn’t owe you anything.”
“She did try to kill me,” Gabriel grumbled.
“Gabe, you know I love you like a brother, but you were campaigning for that pretty hard. Seriously.” He sat up in the pool, water streaming off his shoulders, and stared at Gabriel. “We’ve avoided talking about it, but… What was that, Gabe? You’ve never done anything remotely like that before. It was like…the kind of thing the Church was always claiming you were going to do, and I could just never picture it. I still can’t.”
“Oh, it’s not so complicated,” Rafe said breezily. “A man can endure all manner of slings and arrows from the world at large, but when they come from a pretty girl he knows he can never, ever have? That shit’s personal.”
“Oh, ew,” Gabriel spat. “Don’t even joke, man. I’d sooner stick it in a termite nest.”
“You stuck it in a dryad, which is considerably more risky.”
“Quite aside from Trissiny’s personality, what there is of it, she’s a twig! I like curvy girls.”
“Again, let’s remember that Shaeine can probably hear us and dial this back a bit,” Toby said. “And my question stands. I’m not trying to give you a hard time, Gabe. I’m…worried.”
Gabriel lowered his eyes from his friend’s concerned face and sighed. Long seconds passed before he spoke.
“I just…had it all worked out in my head. It was going to be different here. Better, y’know? It was the University, run by Arachne Tellwyrn, famous anti-hero or anti-villain, depending on which stories you listen to. No more black and white, gods-vs-Gabriel bullshit. I was gonna meet people, maybe some like me, but at least people who wouldn’t treat me like a freak. People who understood the world was complex. And then…there she was.”
“Trissiny never treated you like a freak,” Toby said gently. “She was startled, once, when she found out you’re a demonblood. Honestly, I think half of that was her being upset because she’d accidentally hurt you.”
“I know!” Gabriel thew up his hands, splashing them both. “And this is why I’ve avoided talking about it, because there’s no way not to be reminded what an utter dumbshit I’ve been about the whole thing. She just… She gave me that look, and all I could see was every other fucking person in Tiraas who’d looked at me that way. Except it was at the University, my second chance where I thought things would be better… And it was a freaking paladin of Avei. Probably exactly the person they’d send to put me down if they found an excuse to. I overreacted.” He slumped down in the water, so low that he made ripples when he spoke. “Holy fuck, did I overreact.”
“Have you said any of this to her?” Toby asked.
Gabe snorted, causing a minor splash. “I’m terrified to even bring up the topic. I’m just trying to be nice to her, for all the good that’s doing me.”
“Half of diplomacy is understanding the other person’s perspective. Avenists don’t generally care much about nice, Gabe. But they’re reasonable. You basically have her as a captive audience when you’re doing those dishes, right? Just…try opening up like you did just now. Let her see you have reasons, even if they aren’t good ones. Right now, I bet all she sees in you is a berserk demonblood who thinks he’s funny.”
“Excuse me, I’m fucking hilarious,” Gabriel said with deep dignity.
“Yup!” Rafe grinned. “Now if you could just pull it off when you’re trying to, you might get laid by something that has a pulse.”
“Go fuck your—wait a second. Juniper doesn’t have a pulse?”
“Boy,” the professor said, shaking his head, “you have the observational skills of a deaf cave bat.”
“Oh, give me a break, I was distracted by the… Well, you’ve seen them.”
“Indeed, I may have to give you that one.”
“Really, it’s no trouble,” Fross said nervously. “I don’t mind at all.”
“And I appreciate that, Fross,” Trissiny replied patiently. “Regardless, we should set a watch. It’s an important habit to be in, when camping out in potentially hostile territory.”
“Oh, come on,” Ruda groaned. “Why the hell are you so allergic to anything being easy?”
“Because life is not easy,” the paladin said sharply. “This is a training exercise—its purpose is to prepare us to deal with the real world. How often do you expect to have a party member who doesn’t need sleep along on a mission?”
“Trissiny is correct,” Shaeine said smoothly as Ruda opened her mouth to object again. “Posting watch is an important habit to acquire. And we are on training maneuvers, for all intents and purposes.”
Ruda thew up her hands. “Fine, what-the-fuck-ever. Wake me when it’s my turn, I guess.” She turned and stomped over to one of the tents, leaving the rest of the freshman class behind. Rafe was already in the boys’ tent, snoring a touch too loudly to be believable.
Everyone was much refreshed after a long soak in the hot springs, but most were still tired from the day’s hiking—and butchering. Glancing around at her classmates, who were mostly standing near their three tents clustered around a campfire in the upper crater of the volcanic formation, Trissiny could plainly see the weariness in many of them. Shaeine as usual was all but unreadable and Toby had divine strength to draw on, but the others were visibly drooping—even Juniper. She, of course, was hardly even tired.
“I’ll take first watch, then,” she said, giving the rest of them a smile. “Sleep well, but…if you can, not too deeply. The Golden Sea’s odd geography may protect us, but in normal territory a campfire on top of a hill like this will be visible for miles in every direction. It isn’t improbable that we’ll have visitors of some kind before dawn.”
“And on that cheery note,” Gabriel muttered, turning and dragging himself toward the tent from which the snores were emanating. “Good news: looks like we’ll have that ‘don’t sleep deeply’ thing down. Without even trying.” Toby laughed, following him in.
The crater itself was uneven, the rim of stone surrounding it even more so. On the side opposite from their approach—the uphill side, closer to the center of the Sea—it rose to a rather steep lip that almost qualified as an outcropping. Trissiny, no longer in armor but carrying sword and shield, climbed this, taking up her perch as her classmates retreated into their tents. She noticed with some gratitude that Teal and Shaeine had joined Ruda, leaving the other tent for her and Juniper. And Fross, of course, should she want to take advantage.
That seemed unlikely; the pixie was more interested in keeping company with the only other member of the party who was staying awake.
“Fross,” she said some minutes later, which she spent slowly scanning the horizons for signs of movement and her companion spent buzzing about with no apparent aim, “I don’t mean to be rude…”
The pixie came to an instant halt, hovering right in front of her. “Are you mad at me?”
“What?” Trissiny blinked her eyes, taken aback. “No. Why would I be?”
“Oh. It’s just that… Well, I’ve kinda noticed a pattern when somebody says ‘I don’t mean to be rude’ or ‘not to be rude’ or ‘sorry if this is rude’ or anything along those lines, that whatever comes next is usually pretty rude. So, uh, I’m still having kind of a hard time untangling the colloquialisms around here, but I figure if you’re about to say something rude I’ve done something to make you mad.”
Trissiny stayed silent for a moment, digesting that, then had to smile. “That is actually pretty perceptive. It…probably doesn’t mean they’re mad, per se. People can be hostile for a lot of different reasons. Most are fairly silly, and it’s honestly best to brush them off unless they’re actually threatening you.”
“I don’t…man, that makes no sense. Social interactions aren’t a zero-sum game. I mean, that’s just not how it works.”
“That’s people for you,” Trissiny said wryly.
“So, uh…why were you wanting to be hostile?”
“Oh!” She clapped a hand to her forehead. “I’m sorry, Fross, I didn’t mean to give you the wrong impression…I’m not hostile. I actually just wanted to ask you something and didn’t want to hurt your feelings because I’m not sure if it would or not.”
“Oh!” The pixie buzzed around in a rapid circle. “Oh, that’s okay then, that’s not actually rude at all! Go ahead, you can ask me whatever and if I don’t like it I can tell you so we don’t have to have the awkwardness again, ‘kay?”
“Deal,” Trissiny said with a smile. “That being established…is it possible for you to turn down your glow a little? You’re sort of wrecking my night vision.”
The pixie vibrated in midair for a moment. “…aw, man, I’m so sorry. I didn’t even think about…I mean, I’d read about how human eyes work, I did all my research before coming here… Gosh, that’s embarrassing. Um, yeah, I can repress a bit, but…”
“But?” Trissiny prompted after a silent moment.
“Well… I don’t want to be rude.”
She laughed. “I will try not to take offense.”
“Is it, uh, okay if I sit on your shoulder? See, it’s kinda hard to stay aloft with my magic dimmed, and I try not to be on the ground as a matter of policy. That is a recipe for getting stepped on. Also, there’s snakes and rats and stuff in the grass, and getting eaten is really annoying.”
“I don’t mind that at all,” Trissiny assured her, still grinning.
She zipped over to alight on Trissiny’s shoulder, momentarily making the problem of night vision even worse. Almost immediately, however, her white glow dimmed, then vanished entirely, leaving Trissiny able to study her classmate up close for the first time.
Fross was about three inches tall, and…fuzzy. She looked something like an anthropomorphic white moth, her humanoid figure coated in white down that glittered like snow in the starlight, with reddish highlights where it caught even the glow of the distant campfire. Her eyes were enormous (proportionately) black jewels that dominated her head, leaving no room for anything else on her face but a thin little mouth and two arched, fuzzy moth antennae. From her back sprang four wings, long and narrow like a dragonfly’s, but without the network of veins. In fact, they were all but invisible except for their frosted edges. They buzzed in short bursts, apparently unwilling to be still even when Fross wasn’t flying.
She was also very cold. Trissiny quickly began to develop a numb spot on her shoulder. Despite thinking fondly of her metal pauldrons, she found herself reluctant to dislodge the fairy. A paladin’s life was sacrifice, after all.
“While we’re sharing stuff, I have a question,” the pixie said, sitting down and folding her arms around her knees.
“Go ahead,” Trissiny replied, slowly turning to scan the empty horizon.
“Why don’t you like Gabriel?”
She was silent for a moment. “Everybody doesn’t have to get along,” she said finally. “I don’t want conflict with Gabriel. I don’t really want to interact with him at all.”
“Yeah, I kinda got that, I’m just confused about why. I mean, he tries so hard to be nice to you. I don’t understand what’s going on with you two. I guess it’s not really my business, you don’t have to explain. I’m just trying… I mean, there’s so much about human relationships I don’t get. I want to understand as much as possible, that’s all.”
“Gabriel…is annoying. And he’s a fool.”
“Well, yes. He’s a lot like Ruda, which is an opposite thing. You keep trying to give her a chance and she keeps being mean. I don’t understand what the difference is.”
Trissiny stared hard at a fixed point in the distance, forgetting for the moment to turn her head and scan. “The difference is that Ruda, at the end of the day, is only human. Whatever her bloodline or responsibilities, she’s one woman and there’s a stark limit to the amount of damage she can cause. Gabriel is part demon. If he can’t control himself, the harm he could potentially do is…staggering.”
“Yes, well, I mean, sure, but…that’s a lot of us, right? You and Toby are both pretty powerful. Shaeine the same way, you’re all connected to gods. Don’t even get me started on the mess Teal could make with that demon she’s got, and Juniper… Well, Juniper’s pretty much a force of nature. I read up on hethelax demons, and… I don’t see why Gabe’s so dangerous, really. He’s only a halfblood, and even full hethelaxi aren’t any stronger than a human, and they don’t have any magic. They’re just really, really hard to stop or kill, so of course it’s really hard to contain them if they get into a berserk mode.”
“That’s just it: they’re berserker demons. The others…and myself…have basically understandable motivations. Without incredible self-control, Gabriel can be set off and cause untold havoc.”
“So…doesn’t it make more sense to encourage him when he’s obviously trying so hard?”
Trissiny glared at the horizon, refusing to look at the pixie. “It’s not that simple, Fross.”
“Because…some things are just not as simple as it seems like they should be.”
“Yeah, well, okay, but… Why?”
The paladin sighed slowly. “Because the world…is imperfect.”
Fross buzzed her wings once before speaking softly. “No, it’s not.”
“The world is perfect. It’s exactly what it was meant to be, whatever that is. If it seems wrong…maybe you’re expecting something from it that it was never designed to give.”
Trissiny found herself nodding. “Maybe I am, at that.”
They lapsed into silence for a moment before Fross spoke again.
“Also, I really don’t think you understand Juniper’s motivations. I know I pretty much don’t, but… She looks pretty human, yeah, but she doesn’t think like one. At all.”
“I’ve been getting that impression more and more.”
Teal relieved her without having to be awakened. Trissiny was initially unsure about leaving Teal on watch—the bard was likeable and making progress in their sparring sessions, but she’d grown up in the very lap of luxury, never having to work or struggle for anything. However, as Trissiny headed toward her tent, the blossoming of flames behind her meant that Teal’s other half was taking over. Trissiny lengthened her step. She really did not want to have a conversation with Vadrieny… But at least the demon could be trusted not to nod off.
In her bedroll, she stared at the ceiling of the tent for a long time.