“This is long overdue,” Ruda said firmly. “We owe a debt, and circumstances being as they are, it’s one we may never be able to repay. At the very least, we can offer our respects, and I say there’s no better time. A libation for the dead!” She upended her bottle of ale, pouring a generous slosh onto the floorboards, then lifted it high. “And honor to a memory. TO HORSEBUTT!”
“To Horsebutt!” the rest of the freshman class chorused, raising their glasses. With one exception.
“To Heshenaad,” Gabriel said, wincing.
“Aw, look at the froshes belatedly celebrating their victory,” Chase crooned from around the card table on the other side of the room.
“Everybody’s celebrating,” Hildred said. “Don’t be an ass. You remember the aftermath of our first excursion into the Golden Sea? It’s worth savoring, let them have it.”
“Not as well as I remember the adventure itself!” he proclaimed, grinning. “We had some good times, didn’t we?”
“Yeah,” said Natchua. “My favorite part was when you tried to sell me to those witches.”
“Are you still on about that? They weren’t buying, and anyway, it was obviously a ruse on my part.”
“Did they really find the tomb of Heshenaad the Enemy?” Hildred asked, tilting her head to regard the freshman class, who were arranged on a couch and set of loveseats flanking a low table. “Damn, that’s not half bad. Makes Connor’s magic sword seem like chump change.”
“She’s right! We’ve been shown up!” Chase nodded seriously, shuffling the cards. “Looks like we better find ourselves a new round of heroics! Hm, but if it’s extracurricular we’ll have to fund it ourselves. Anybody know what the going rate for a surly drow is on the black market?”
“Boy, do you know how many ways I could hurt you?”
The music building formed a U-shaped open space on three sides of the main auditorium. Balconies ringed the upper floor, leaving most of the space open for two stories up, with a dangling chandelier of crystal beads occupying the large, formal foyer inside the front doors. There in the front it was all decorative statuary and small potted trees, the chandelier hanging directly from a domed skylight, though the same open chamber became more intimate, furnished with a scattering of chairs and sofas, in the two wings. It was large enough to host a gathering of this size, all one room yet affording a semblance of privacy to those who sought it, and the balconies above made an excellent perch from which one could keep watch on the area.
Professor Tellwyrn idly swirled her glass of punch in one hand, seemingly studying the chandelier with a vague smile, but listening to conversations from throughout the space. She had the central stretch of balcony to herself, for the moment. The acoustics of the building were carefully designed; even someone without the benefit of elven hearing might have been able to keep an ear on the whole place from this perch.
Professors Yornhaldt and Rafe approached, her, the latter swigging a clear liquid from an unmarked glass bottle. Surely not vodka; he knew better.
“Anything of interest?” Alaric asked in the basso rumble that was his version of a whisper.
“Plenty, but nothing I feel the need to intervene in. Two hearts being broken and a couple more due to fall before the night is out. Several ill-conceived pranks being planned, most of which I will allow to unfold, but I am not going to permit the girls of Isaac Gallery to summon an incubus. I know you can hear me, Cailwyn. Tell your roommates to put that book back and drop this foolishness before I have to make them. All and all, lads, it’s a nice little party. Not often we encourage the whole student body to assemble, and it’s always a pleasure when it doesn’t devolve into gladiatorial matches.”
“Or an orgy,” Yornhaldt said, grimacing.
“Oh, come on, that was one time.”
“And there was no end of fuss and complaints from the parents, as I recall.”
“As I recall, there was an end once I taught a couple of them the meaning of Suffering. Anyway, we’re not going to have a repeat of the incident with this group. This, as I say, is a much better party.”
“Bah!” said Rafe, grinning and gesticulating with his bottle. “A party has drinking, dancing and debauchery! This is, at best, a social.”
Tellwyrn glanced at the bottle, noting the way the liquid within flowed slowly, clearly thicker than alcohol. “Admestus, what are you drinking?”
“Corn syrup! We got the most marvelous fresh elven corn from the Sea, and I do hate to waste good reagents.”
Yornhaldt shook his head and sighed.
“What in the world is wrong with you?” Tellwyrn demanded.
“Corn syrup deficiency! Don’t worry, I’ve got it under control.”
“Right. You do that.” She stepped past him, heading for the stairs. “I’m going to go terrorize people.”
“Mind if I join you?” Hildred asked, strolling up to the freshman alcove.
“Hey, Hil,” said Gabe, waving at her. “Sure, pull up a…” He glanced around at the fully occupied couches. “Um. Lap?”
“Oh ho! Are you volunteering?” she grinned.
“No distractions,” Fross said severely. “You’re helping me draw, remember? I can’t exactly handle a pencil. I mean, I can, but that’s using a modified levitation spell and while I got course credit for designing it there’s a lot of really fine control involved and it tires me out. Also, this is your project too!”
“Easy, Fross, I’m not abandoning you,” Gabe said with a grin, tapping the diagram sketched on a sheaf of parchment on the low table. “These equations are a bit over my head, though. Just tell me what to write down when you figure it out.”
“I’m working on it!”
“What’re you two up to?” Hildred asked with interest, perching on the arm of the loveseat next to Gabe.
“Oh, Fross had an idea after we covered the Circle of Interaction in Yornhaldt’s class. We’re pretty much just goofing around, but as the only two arcane majors here, it seems like nobody else is interested enough to join in.”
“You’re studying the arcane, then?” she asked.
“Enchanting, is the plan. But it’ll be next year before they let me take courses in it. Lots of ground work to cover first, apparently. Fross is doing a more general course of study.”
“I’m a wizard!”
“And a damn good one!” he said, grinning.
“So I’ve gotta ask,” the dwarf said, placing a hand on his shoulder and leaning subtly against him. “Did you guys really find the tomb of Horsebutt the Enemy?”
“Rafe thinks it was,” Trissiny replied. She was standing at the other end of the long sofa, next to Toby, who was perched on the end seat. “It could have been, though without any actual writing it’s hard to say for sure.”
“I’m pretty certain,” Teal said from the loveseat opposite Gabe and Hildred. “It was definitely a Stalweiss warlord’s tomb, and come on, how many of those would be out in the Golden Sea? I took a good look at the tomb paintings, and they seemed to depict a lot of the same scenes as we know of from history. Of course, that stretch of history is murky, and when you’ve seen one Stalweiss battle painting, you’ve sort of seen them all.”
“That’s pretty amazing,” Hildred said, squeezing his shoulder. “You’ll have to tell me all about it sometime.”
“Well, history isn’t really my thing,” he said, glancing up at her with a grin. “Teal can tell you a lot more than I can. Or Rafe, and we all know how he loves to hear himself talk.”
“Right. Yeah, maybe I’ll look into that,” she said disinterestedly, turning her gaze to the diagram over which Fross was hovering, chiming quietly to herself. Across the way, Teal exchanged a look with Shaeine, who was sitting beside her, and rolled her eyes, repressing a grin.
“I know going into the Golden Sea looking for specific things is pretty much a waste of time,” Ruda said, “but I’d still like to visit again. It doesn’t feel right, the way we left it. You shouldn’t disturb a warrior’s final rest.”
“You are really fixated on that,” Trissiny noted.
“It’s called respect, blondie. Look into it.”
“If only you showed the same regard for the floors in here,” Hildred said, grinning. “I just about slipped in your patch of rum.”
“That’s ale. Come on, what kind of dwarf are you?”
“The kind who doesn’t drink off the floor, you hooligan,” she replied, matching Ruda’s easy smile. “I feel sorry for Stew, having to clean up after all this.”
“I don’t. He enjoys a challenge, he told me himself. Also, whether he does or not, I don’t much care. The guy made me mulch flower beds.”
“Oh? What’d you do to deserve that?”
“She attacked Trissiny with a sword!” Fross said helpfully. Hildred raised an eyebrow, looking over at the paladin.
“Really? I don’t recall you looking any the worse for wear.”
“Imagine that,” Trissiny said dryly.
Ruda scowled. “All that’s beside the point. I’m a pirate, dammit! If I’m mulching anything that doesn’t involve the body of an enemy, a great travesty has occurred.”
“So!” Hildred turned her attention back to Gabriel, leaning more heavily on him to peer at Fross’s diagram. “What’s all this then? How’s it work?”
“It won’t work.”
In unison, they started and swiveled their head to look at Professor Tellwyrn, who had ambled up and was peering down at the parchment, idly swirling a glass of punch.
“You’re trying to design an amulet to cycle powers around the Circle of Interaction, right? Transmute one into the next around the ring so you can turn an enemy’s spell against him in the form of whatever he’s weakest against?”
“That’s the general idea,” Fross said, sounding a little put out. “Why won’t it work?”
“In the first place, that kind of power transmutation has to be done mentally, not with an artifact or static system. They’ve made amazing strides in enchantment in my lifetime; someday we may well be able to transmute forms of energy with static enchantments, but nobody is anywhere near that point now.”
“Oh,” said the pixie, crestfallen. “Well… We’ve still got the basic equations sketched out, maybe if we formulate it into a ritual circle…”
“In the second place,” Tellwyrn went on lightly, “you’ve misunderstood the method of converting power. You’re not actually changing one kind of energy into another; you’re draining energy out of a spell and using that raw, unformed energy to power one of a different school. They don’t alter around the circle, it’s more that they prey on each other.”
“And if you somehow got past those two fundamental reasons why this won’t work, there are practical considerations, too. The power loss is fairly significant in most cases, and it grows exponentially if you try to cycle energy between spell networks. If you hypothetically made this work, by the time you got three points around the circle your power would be down to effectively nothing. Plus, there’s still the fact that you’d need to personally be able to use all those schools of magic to do it, and battlemages of any type don’t try that as it precludes carrying magical objects or prepared spells; shifting schools messes those up something awful. That, and re-working a spell takes time. It’s rarely done in combat, and then only if you have a way to keep your enemy from reacting during a long casting.”
“Aw.” Fross drifted slowly down like a falling leaf, coming to rest atop her diagram. Gabe sighed and set the pencil down alongside her.
“Well, that’s that, then. Sorry, Fross. It sounded like a good idea to me.”
“No, no, this is good work,” Tellwyrn said, with an easygoing smile that was so unlike her usual predatory grin it was downright disturbing. “You’re thinking ahead of what you’ve been told, applying things in unconventional ways, doing your own research and working outside of class. This is perfect, kids; this is what makes for good students, not to mention good mages. Just have a sense of proportion, hey? What you were trying to design would have revolutionized the practice of magic. Generally speaking, if you were the kind of savants who could come up with something like that in their first weeks of formal schooling, you’d have seen signs of it before now.”
“Wait a sec,” said Gabriel, frowning up at her. “Hold that thought, I have an important question. Where’d you get fizzy punch?”
Tellwyrn chuckled and flicked a finger in his direction. The red liquid in his glass began to bubble cheerfully.
“Oh.” He blinked down at it. “Uh, thanks.”
“Keep it up, kids,” she said cheerfully, strolling off. “Enjoy the party.”
Hildred and the freshmen watched her go in momentary silence.
“Okay, that was weird,” Ruda said finally. “She was acting like a… Like a person. Think somebody murdered Tellwyrn and is walking around wearing her skin?”
“Um, that’s not as easy to do as it sounds,” Juniper said. “Believe me, we’d notice.”
A second silence descended, everyone turning to look at her.
“What?” she said, then her eyes widened. “Oh! No, I didn’t… I’ve never done that. Good grief, no, what a mess.”
“Well, that’s a relief,” Ruda said as some of the tension went out of the group.
“One of my sisters tried it like four times, though. Every time woodcutters came too close to our grove. I mean, get a hint, right? I’m pretty sure she was just being ghoulish by the third time. She can’t have been that dumb.”
“Anyway,” Gabriel said loudly, “Tellwyrn has her good points. Nobody’s all asshole, all the time.”
“She has at least some capacity for kindness,” Trissiny agreed. “More than you might think.”
“Also, she can still hear us,” Toby noted. “Those ears aren’t for decoration.”
“I’m a little surprise to hear that from you, Shiny Boots,” Ruda said, grinning at Trissiny. “Gabe, not so much, especially when he watches her butt all the way out—”
“What?” Gabriel exclaimed, almost choking on the last of his newly fizzy punch. “I wasn’t! I wouldn’t! I don’t… Damn it, I go for curvy girls! Um,” he added weakly, glancing quickly around the group. Ruda’s grin took on fiendish proportions as he tried to extricate himself. “Not that, I mean… You’re all very pretty. All due respect. Um.”
“I don’t know whether to be annoyed or relieved,” Trissiny said, arching an eyebrow.
“I appreciate your respect, Gabriel,” Shaeine said in such a tone of overwrought solemnity that Teal burst out laughing.
“Welp, that’s it for me tonight,” he said resignedly. “If you’ll all excuse me, I’ll just go die in a hole now.”
“Wait, what?” Fross buzzed about in alarm. “Don’t you think you’re overreacting just at little?!”
“Hyperbole, Fross. Remember? We talked about this.”
“Oh. Right. Yes.”
“Look on the bright side,” Hildred said cheerfully, “at least November wasn’t in earshot of that one!” Gabriel groaned, covering his face with a hand.
Teal frowned. “Who?”
“She’s in my divinity class,” Trissiny said, then frowned down at empty space next to the table. “An Avenist. Very…devout.”
“That’s one word for it,” Hildred said merrily. “Makes our paladin here look like a tavern wench.”
“I’m not sure I appreciate the comparison.”
“Oh, lighten up for once in your life, it’s a fucking party,” Ruda said. “I haven’t met this November, either. You already got on her bad side, Gabe?”
“I’m not on any of her sides,” he said firmly. “I stay away from her. Gods in kilts, Ruda, I’m not dense enough to mess around with an oversensitive Avenist. I manage to piss Trissiny off just by being in the room.”
“The fact that you think it’s that arbitrary is possibly why it keeps happening,” Trissiny noted.
“Come on, now, it’s a little arbitrary,” said Ruda. “Yeah, Gabe likes to stick his foot in his mouth, but sometimes I think you get even madder at him when he’s trying to be nice.”
“Maybe he should stop trying, then.”
“I believe they’ve forgotten I’m here,” Gabriel said to Hildred. “Think I could sneak away?”
“I’d offer to smuggle you out under my skirt, but I don’t come much higher than your chest standing up.”
“Well, it was worth a thought.”
“Might be worth a second thought, eh?” she said, waggling her eyebrows. “What with you liking curvy girls and all.”
“Yup. It’s official, I am never gonna live that down.”
“Aw, there are worse things,” she replied, patting him on the shoulder. “I’m not holding anything against you. Unless you ask me to, of course.”
“You’re a pal, Hil,” he said, then bent to pick up his empty glass from the table and stood, gently disentangling himself from her. “I’m gonna go grab some more punch. Anybody else want any?” A round of negatives answered this. “Cheers, then,” he said, ambling off.
Hildred stared after him, then turned to the others, wide-eyed. “He…that… I just got turned down, right? The boy can’t possibly be that thick.”
“You underestimate Gabriel,” Trissiny said dryly.
“Oh, he’ll realize what just happened sometime tomorrow,” Toby said, grinning. “Then he’ll come groveling. You can probably get major concessions out of it if you’re still interested.”
Shaeine stood smoothly. “If you will all pardon me, I believe I will return to the tower.”
“Not havin’ fun?” Ruda asked.
“On the contrary, I have enjoyed the conversation,” the drow replied with one of her polite little smiles. “However, I am accustomed to a much more…low-key form of socialization. Entertaining as this event is, it is somewhat emotionally taxing. I mean no offense.”
“None is taken, Shaeine,” Trissiny said with a smile. “We’re always glad to hang out with you, but please don’t feel obligated if you’re tired.”
“Thank you,” Shaeine replied, bowing slightly in her direction.
Teal cleared her throat, getting to her feet. “I’m a little worn out, too. If you’re not, uh, too overtaxed, would you mind some company walking back?”
“Not at all, that would be most agreeable,” the drow said politely. “Secure as the campus reputedly is, I always feel safer in company.”
“Great! After you, then, m’lady.”
“Good evening, all,” Shaeine said to the others, receiving a wave of farewells in reply.
Ruda managed to wait until they were fully out of the building before commenting. “Man, those two need to hurry the hell up. The suspense is drivin’ me nuts.”
“Wait, what?” Trissiny frowned at her.
Ruda gave her an incredulous look, which slowly blossomed into a sly grin. “…nevermind, Trissiny. I’ll tell you when you’re older.”
Having slipped away during the conversation, Juniper loitered on one of the small balconies off the side wing. She had shut the glass door behind her, muting the sounds of the party in progress, and was enjoying the relative quiet. Climbing roses covered the side of the building, where subtle trellises had been laid against the stone to give the support, and the dryad leaned herself against one of these, savoring the smell of the flowers and leaves, the subtle prickle of thorns against her skin, the communion with the earth provided by the plants. They hadn’t a very interesting story to tell; they were young, and domesticated. But all life was beautiful.
It wasn’t that she didn’t enjoy her new life at the University, but it didn’t afford her as many opportunities to enjoy the quiet and just…commune.
The balcony door swung open and Chase popped through, grinning. “Hey there! I thought I saw you head out here. Cuddling with the flowers?”
“Hi, Chase,” she said cheerfully, then added to the two boys who followed him onto the balcony. “Hi, guys! You got tired of the noise, too?”
“Eh, noise, crowds, you know, it’s all very oppressive,” said Jerome, a junior, dragging his gaze slowly up and down her and lingering on her chest. Juniper smiled in response, enjoying the attention.
“Evenin’, Juno,” said Tanq, nodding politely and leaning against the door after pulling it shut. She noted that he had loosened the interior curtains first, hiding them from the view of those inside. “This a bad time?”
“Nonsense, there are no bad times!” Chase proclaimed, sidling up to Juniper and wrapping his arms around her, nuzzling at her hair. “It’s just not our kind of party, is all. You know me, I prefer to be knee-deep in trouble.”
“I know you,” she said dryly, snaking an arm around to pat him on the back, “and you’re more interested in being penis-deep in me.”
“Alas, my clever ruse is uncovered!” he said, pecking her lightly on the lips. “Well, it was a thin one, anyway. At least now we can get down to the fun part.”
“You know how we treasure every moment of your company,” Jerome added smoothly, easing up to her other side while Tanq approached from the front. “It’s not just that so few women anywhere have a shred of your beauty.”
“It’s also that even fewer women enjoy a good three-on-one like you,” Chase murmured, ducking his head to lick the side of her neck.
“You guys are really sweet,” she said, gently pushing him away. “I had a lot of fun the last time. I’m just not in the mood right now, sorry. Another time?”
“Aw,” Tanq made a try of pouting at her, his grin spoiling it. “Well, no worries, June. You enjoy the flowers.” He stepped back, reaching for the door handle.
“Now, don’t be silly, my little blossom,” Chase said reprovingly, pulling her close again while Jerome wrapped arms around her from the other side. “Mood is a fickle thing, no? I bet we can improve yours pretty quickly.”
Both boys bent their heads to nuzzle at her neck from both sides, hands stroking her waist, but she frowned. “Um…no thanks, I’m pretty much in charge of my own moods.”
“Be fair,” Jerome wheedled, nipping at her ear. “Give us a bit to work.”
“Um, could you not?” she said, beginning to be annoyed. “Personal space, please.”
“Guys.” Tanq was frowning heavily now, his expression as much disbelieving as disapproving. “She doesn’t want to. That’s it, end of. It’s not a discussion.”
“Oh, she doesn’t know what she wants,” Chase said dismissively, slipping a hand between Juniper’s legs and trying to tug her thighs apart. “She’ll change her tune soon enough.”
“Excuse me?” she said incredulously. “That’s enough. Please let go of me.”
“She’s a dryad,” Jerome said, grinning over his shoulder at Tanq. “They don’t get to say no.”
“Something tells me that’s the least of the things you don’t know about dryads,” Juniper said.
“Okay, that’s enough.” Tanq stepped forward, glaring. “You two need to start thinking with your heads. She asked you to leave her alone.”
“It’s true, I read it in a book once,” said Chase, sliding around Juniper and trying to lift her up off the bannister. He might as well have tried to uproot a tree with his bare hands. “They’re always willing, it’s in their blood. She just needs a little reminder, don’t you, baby?” He squeezed her breast, none too gently. Jerome began tugging down her sundress in the back.
Juniper looked at one of them, then the other. Her previously cheerful expression had fully vanished.
“Juno,” Tanq said frantically, “easy. Jerome’s a noble, there’ll be hell to pay if he turns up dead. Goddammit, you two, get off her! You have no idea what you’re screwing around with!”
“Tanq, what are you going on about?” Jerome said irritably, glancing up at him. “If you’re not gonna join in, go away.”
Juniper took in a deep breath, raised her head and shouted at the top of her lungs.
“Oh, shit,” Chase hissed, instantly letting go of her and tossing himself backward off the balcony. It was only a very short drop into the bushes; Jerome landed right beside him and they made a terrific crashing and crunching as they struggled loose, then bolted off around the side of the building.
“Gods, Juno, are you okay?” Tanq asked, looking rattled. “I’m sorry, I should’ve just punched the morons instead of talking at them… You all right? I didn’t seriously think they’d… I’m so sorry.”
“Tanq, I’m fine,” she said, tilting her head in puzzlement. “What are you sorry about? You were perfectly nice.”
“I’m just… Those two assholes, I’m gonna bend them in half.”
The balcony door burst open and Trissiny stepped through, peering about with her hand on her sword. “What is it? Juniper, are you all right?”
“I’m fine,” the dryad said cheerily. “I’m sorry to take you away from the party! It was a false alarm, I guess.”
“Are you sure?” Trissiny squinted suspiciously at Tanq.
“No,” he said grimly. “There was a problem. It’s gone now. Thanks for coming, Triss.”
“Of course,” she said slowly. “Does anyone feel like telling me exactly what the issue was?”
“I hate to cause any more trouble,” Juniper said earnestly. “I’m already interrupting your evening. Really, I just wanted to enjoy the flowers for a bit, but it seems like something’s always happening around here, doesn’t it? Anyhow, thanks again for being so quick, Triss. I don’t care what anybody says, you’re a good friend.”
“Well…thank you,” Trissiny said, slowly easing up out of a ready stance and taking her hand away from her sword. “And you’re welcome. And… Wait, what?”
“Well, that was a wash,” Jerome said irritably, coming to a stop and brushing leaves off his suit. “Ugh, look at my jacket. This is the last time I follow you on one of your escapades.”
“Oh, you say that every time,” Chase said dismissively, flopping down on one of the benches. They had come to a stop in the little cul-de-sac outside Ronald Hall. It was well lit by the floating fairy lamps, but quiet and deserted at this hour. “And you’re being melodramatic every time. You know we end up having a blast more often than not.”
“Or getting blasted!”
“Don’t disallow for the possibility of some overlap there!”
“You’re such an idiot,” Jerome said, but couldn’t repress a grin. “Damn it, now I’m horny, too.”
“Why, Jerry!” Chase widened his eyes, affecting a shocked expression. “I had no idea! Yes, yes, a thousand times yes!”
“Shut the fuck up, you asshole.” Jerome aimed a halfhearted, easily-dodged punch at him. “And this little fleabait town doesn’t even have whores. Three years I’ve been here and I still can’t believe that. Feh, after getting an armful of dryad there’s no way I’m ending this night without getting laid. Think I’ll go try my luck with Amelie.”
“Ooh, now there’s an idea! Maybe we can talk her into a little menage!”
“First of all,” Jerome said severely, “Amelie is a nice girl who is not into any kind of outlandish modern kinkiness. More’s the pity. Second, I thought we agreed that dryads are a special case. Under any normal conditions, I don’t want to be in proximity to your naked junk. Or any man’s.”
“Spoilsport,” Chase pouted, slumping down on the bench and pouting. “What am I supposed to do, then? There’s a sad shortage of amenable womanflesh on this campus since last year’s seniors graduated. Bunch of terrible prudes, our generation.”
“Why don’t you go try your luck with Natchua?” Jerome replied, grinning.
“Hey, don’t joke, I’m working on that. It’s a process. It’ll take time. Ideally, I’ll be in and out of her bed without incurring some kind of vendetta, but if she’s still being obstreperous by the time we’re set to graduate, I’ll take my chances. When else am I going to have a chance to bed a drow?”
“Don’t make me laugh, you’d never wrestle her into submission. That girl can kick your ass without trying.”
“What the hell are you babbling about? I don’t wrestle women into submission, you brute. Honestly, the way you combine poetry with barbarism boggles the mind.”
“Then just what were we doing back there?”
“It’s like you said, dryads are a special case. Look, don’t worry about Juniper, she’ll have forgotten all about it by tomorrow. She’s not that bright. Come on, when has she ever said ‘no’ before?”
“You fucking idiots!” Tanq thundered, stomping up to them.
“Oh, look who decided to rejoin the party,” Chase said airily. “Tanq, my man, please tell me your chivalrous knight routine worked. If none of us managed to nail that dryad I’ll have to write this night off as a loss, and I’m just not ready to do that.”
“Do you hear yourself?” Tanq exclaimed, glaring. “What the hell is wrong with you two?! She told us no. That should have been the end of it. You do not push yourself on a woman who doesn’t want you!”
“That wasn’t a woman, you twit,” Jerome said, scowling right back at him. “She’s some kind of fairy plant spirit. Have you ever cracked a book in your life? Dryads are always either screwing people or killing them. And Juniper’s pretty obviously housebroken; Tellwyrn won’t have her killing people here. So what does that leave?”
“You can’t possibly be this stupid,” Tanq said incredulously. “This is a university. You got in. How are you hearing yourself say these things and not dying from embarrassment?”
“Now, let’s be honest with ourselves,” said Chase, grinning nastily. “Are you upset because we’re stupid, or upset because hanging out with us reflects on you morally? Come on, Tanq, unbend a little. We weren’t hurting anybody; it was a bit of harmless fun. She would have had fun too if she’d let us; she always does.”
Chase and Jerome bolted upright off the bench at the new voice, took one look at Trissiny, who had arrived just behind Tanq, then turned and fled in panic for the second time that night.
She turned her gaze on Tanq, who met it warily. “And you were going to what? Reason with them?”
“I think,” he said slowly, “I was going to just hit them, but when I got here… Damn it.” He looked away, folding his arms across his chest. “They’re my friends, have been even since I started at this school. We have fun, but we’ve never hurt anybody. But they were actually going to… I don’t want to believe it.”
“You’re a good man, Tanq,” she said quietly. “I think you should reconsider whether you want to associate with people who’ll try to make you forget that.”
He heaved a deep sigh. “Maybe. Yeah, probably. No, not probably, I know you’re right. Just having trouble with… Well, none of this is about me, anyhow. Is Juniper okay?”
“She says you asked her that several times,” Trissiny said, quirking an eyebrow. “It confused her. Yes, she appears to be fine. While I’m not about to justify anything those two were doing, they weren’t completely wrong about dryads. Juniper just doesn’t react to these things the way a human woman would.”
“She’s still a person,” he said, shaking his head. “It still matters what she thinks, especially about what’s being done to her. How can they look at her and not see a person?”
Now it was Trissiny’s turn to sigh. “The truth is, Tanq, there are some men who won’t be convinced that any woman is truly a person. Otherwise, there would be little need for people like me.” She turned to stare down the darkened path in the direction the two boys had fled, her expression cold. “I wonder if you’d do me a favor?”
“Probably,” he said warily. “What do you need?”
“Please give my apologies to Professor Tellwyrn, and tell her I’m leaving campus. I’ll try to be back before classes Monday morning, but we’ll have to see how things work out.”
“All right,” he said slowly. “I can do that. I…assume you’ll want me to wait till you’re well and truly away before carrying the message? Being that leaving the town is very much not allowed and all.”
“Exactly.” She turned her head; following her gaze, he jumped back and muffled a curse. An absolutely enormous white horse decked with silver armor was standing there. How the hell could anything that huge have arrived so silently? Where had it come from?
Trissiny vanished around the side of the giant animal, then reappeared atop it, springing lightly into the saddle. How she moved so nimbly wearing armor, even light armor, was uncanny.
“Are you going to kill those two?” Tanq asked warily.
“No.” Trissiny shook her head. “That might have been my first response, but…no. That would not be justice. Thanks for your help, Tanq. And for supporting Juniper.”
“I didn’t do much,” he protested.
“You didn’t need to. If she had been an ordinary woman, what would you have done?”
“Thrown the fuckers off the balcony myself,” he answered immediately.
Trissiny grinned down at him. “Good. I’ll see you in a few days.” She clicked her tongue and the horse took off, trotting toward the University’s gates. Tanq stood alone in the night, watching her go.
It was funny… More than a few people had complained in his hearing about Trissiny being judgmental. From what he’d seen, she mostly appeared awkward and uncomfortable, though his perceptions might have been colored by his first sight of her arriving at the campus, as lost and alone as they all were on their first day. But as he watched her slim form atop the massive draft horse vanishing into the night, he had the sudden thought that there went a woman he could have followed into Hell itself.