“All right, I believe you.” Danny threw his cards down on the kitchen table, his face wearing a peculiar mixture of disgust and admiration. “You really can make a living playing poker.”
“Was that a general ‘you,’ or a specific ‘you?’” Lakshmi asked with a sly grin. “Because he can, obviously. Me, possibly. You? Clearly not.”
“I think I was supposed to take offense at that,” Danny confided to Joe, “but it’s hard in the face of such irrefutable evidence that she’s right.”
“I salute your self-awareness,” Joe said solemnly, gathering up the cards and beginning to shuffle the deck with blindingly deft movements of his fingers. “Far too many folk take irrefutable evidence as some kinda challenge.”
“I’ve noticed that, too,” Danny agreed, picking up his teacup. He glanced into it, then at the pot.
“Also empty,” Lakshmi announced, pushing back her chair and picking up the teapot. “I’ll brew us another. Gods know I’ve no shortage of bloody tea. It’s never too early for the hard stuff in this house, but I always feel like some kinda lush, drinking with a teetotaler at the table.”
“Then my work here is done,” Joe announced still making the cards dance.
“Why don’t you let me do that?” Danny suggested, rising and reaching as if to take the teapot from her. “I know where everything is.”
Lakshmi pulled it away, raising an eyebrow at him. “What, and have the guest serve himself in my home? You trying to make me look bad?”
“I don’t have the talent or the energy to pull that off,” he said gallantly. “It’s just that you seem incongruous, to me, serving food. I picture you more with a saber in hand than a kettle.”
“Raiding, pillaging, generally buckling my swash?” she said dryly. “You don’t have the faintest idea what it is I do, huh?”
“Oh, let me have a few romantic illusions,” he said with a roguish grin. “You fit in them so well.”
Lakshmi rolled her eyes, stepping past him toward the sink.
Joe had paused in his shuffling to glance back and forth between them, then finally cleared his throat and dropped his eyes to the deck, resuming. For a few moments, the only sounds in the kitchen were the running of water into the pot and the whisper of his cards. Sanjay was off at school at this hour (theoretically); with the conversation halted, the room suddenly seemed smaller.
“I know you explained about the numbers,” Danny said in a thoughtful tone, before the silence could stretch enough to become really awkward. “I can take your word for that, though I won’t claim to understand it. There’s more to the game, though, isn’t there?”
“How do you mean?” Joe asked, seemingly grateful for the restoration of talk.
“Well, poker is as much about the players as about the cards, right?” Danny slid back into his seat, smiling disarmingly. “At least, that’s what I’ve always heard. I haven’t played since I wasn’t much older than you, and never seriously—as you could probably tell—but it’s sort of famous in song and story for that.”
“Yeah, you’ve got a point there,” Joe agreed, nodding. “Bein’ able to see the probabilities like I do makes a big difference, but they only go so far. You gotta read the other people at the table, too. Fact is, most people don’t understand probabilities, so their bets often aren’t rational. Playin’ rationally against ’em ain’t a winnin’ strategy, in most cases.”
Danny leaned back in his chair, folding his arms and studying Joe thoughtfully. The expression was amiable, though, not prying. “I guess you’ve had plenty of opportunity to develop that skill as well, then. You’re all too right; people aren’t rational, about just about anything. In some ways, human behavior is the opposite of math.”
“You’re…more right than you may realize,” Joe said slowly, frowning at his cards now. “But readin’ human behavior… That’s math, again. Way I do it, anyhow.”
“Oh?” Danny cocked his head to the side. “I guess everyone’s methods differ. I’ve had to make a practice of reading people, too, but for me it’s a more intuitive thing.”
“For you, an’ for most people,” Joe agreed, nodding. He finally lifted his eyes to study Danny right back. “My knowledge o’ most people’s strictly secondhand, of course…”
“That’s true for everyone, Joe,” Lakshmi said, setting the kettle on the stove and returning to the table.
“I meant my experience is a bit different,” Joe said with a grimace. “Danny’s right: readin’ people is an intuitive thing, for most folk. It ain’t a skill that comes naturally to me, at all. I guess…there’s a trade-off for bein’ able to do what I do. When I was little, I could do algebra before I could talk. Course, I didn’t talk till I was about seven…”
Lakshmi settled slowly into a chair, now watching Joe intently. Danny just nodded, a gesture of encouragement.
“It was people stuff,” Joe said after a short pause, shrugging. “People are charmed up from birth with certain basic things, the skills we need to be social creatures. You know, speech, reading facial expressions.”
“You…couldn’t read expressions?” Danny asked, raising his eyebrows.
“Not at first. Not naturally.” Joe finally stopped his shuffling and looked up at them with a reminiscent smile. “Folks ’round town reckoned I was just simple-minded. My pa, though, an’ Miss Ames—she was the schoolmarm—they stood by me. They were good folks, both, but to an extent it was just logic. A boy of nine who barely talks but can do logarithms clearly ain’t wrong. A mite peculiar, is all.
“So my pa worked it all out for me. The whole time I was a tyke, he was writin’ to learned folk around the Empire. Those that bothered to answer didn’t have anything to tell ‘im. Finally he got desperate an’ went to visit the elves.”
“Sarasio is right next to a grove, isn’t it?” Danny inquired. “That seems like it would be easier than writing to universities and such.”
Joe chuckled. “You haven’t had a lot of commerce with elves, have you, Danny?”
“A bit, here and there,” Danny said with a shrug and a disarming smile. “I think very few people have a lot of commerce with elves.”
“Yeah, that’s it exactly. Elves come to you, if there’s to be any coming; you go into a grove uninvited an’ the likeliest reaction is a polite but firm ‘go away.’ Keep comin’ in, an’ you’re like to have the point made with arrows. The elves were friendly-like with a few folks around town, but in general people knew not to go into the woods unless invited. My pa did, though. I guess whatever he said to the scouts made an impression, cos after three attempts they went and fetched a shaman for him to talk to, ‘stead of shootin’ him.
“Anyhow, apparently whatever my deal is, the elves knew about it. It’s somethin’ that happens from time to time in most races, it turns out. The shaman didn’t have any fixes for my pa; the way elves do it is let the kid grow up natural, however it works best for them. By the time they’re a hundred or so, they usually work it out so they can interact normal enough with other folk, an’ the tribe’s usually pretty patient with ’em.”
“Wow,” Lakshmi said wryly. “I guess if you live forever, you’ve got no reason to be in a hurry.”
Joe nodded. “Yeah. The shaman at least set Pa on the right path, though. The dwarves have some o’ the same kinda knowledge, an’ they actually do active research, lookin’ for treatments an’ whatnot.”
“The Five Kingdoms are renowned for their universities,” Danny agreed, nodding.
“Yep. Pa fired off another round o’ letters, an’ the dwarves were more responsive than the Imperials, funny enough. Took a little back an’ forth, but he finally got in touch with somebody who was studyin’ this particular thing, Professor Vyrnsdottir at Svenheim Polytheoric. She gave Pa the best advice she could, which is where things started lookin’ up for me.
“Pa ordered textbooks, next. Anatomy, an’ especially facial muscles. An’ then he made a game of it with me. We got a mirror, an’ the books, an’ made faces, worked out what every emotion did, how it made the muscles in the face respond. Then started workin’ on body language in general. As I started gettin’ a handle on one thing, we’d branch out to somethin’ else I was havin’ trouble with. Metaphoric speech, for example; we prairie folk love our similies, an’ I never could make heads or tails of ’em as a kid.” He grinned. “But pa got me thinkin’ of it like scaled-up language. Like how the letter ‘e’ is a symbol for a sound, an’ how the word ‘tree’ is a symbol for the thing itself. All language is parallel, you just gotta look for the correspondence. It comes pretty natural to most folk; I have to stop an’ think on it some, but thanks to Pa an’ the Professor, I manage just fine these days. One o’ her last letters said I must be a mild sort of case, to pick it up so fast; most o’ those she worked with took a lot longer to sort it out. Course, she also said the way I deal with numbers ain’t typical, either, so that was probably a factor. Might even be a separate condition.”
“That’s quite ingenious,” Danny marveled. “He worked out how to reduce human interaction to…equations. In terms a child would understand. Incredible!”
“Took the intuitive part out of it,” Joe agreed, nodding again, “made it math, an’ I finally started to figure it all out. He got Miss Ames in on it, an’ by the time I was eleven I could read expressions almost as well as anybody. I reckon I do just fine now. It’s habit, by this point, second nature. Differently, though. There’s things I miss, and then again, things I catch that others don’t seem to notice. I’m analyzing faces intellectually where most people sorta feel what an expression means. It’s different, but it works. At the poker table in particular, it becomes just an extension of the game.”
“Your father was a scholar himself?” Danny asked quietly.
Joe stared at the table. “A rancher. We raised cows.”
“He sounds like a truly remarkable man.”
“He truly was,” Joe said softly. “Him an’ Miss Ames both. Neither one of ’em survived the troubles in Sarasio.”
“Aw, Joe,” Lakshmi whispered.
Joe cleared his throat, and shook himself as if brushing off the memories. “Ah, well, that’s all history. With regard to more recent events, Danny, an’ speakin’ of Svenheim… I know your business here’s a secret an’ all—”
“One he’s in my house to protect, Joseph Jenkins,” Lakshmi said firmly. “Don’t you go digging, boy. You’re getting bad habits from Sanjay.”
Joe grinned at her. “I promise to pry with the utmost discretion, Shmi. Honesty I ain’t interested in your personal affairs, Danny, but in general terms, would whatever you’re hidin’ out from have to do with dwarves?”
“Dwarves?” Danny raised his eyebrows in surprise. “I suppose I ought to clam up totally, but frankly… No. I have no dwarf issues, unless something very surprising has happened at home while I’ve been away. Why do you ask? To my knowledge, hardy anyone has trouble with dwarves. They are remarkably inoffensive people as a rule.”
“Some friends an’ I were involved in a dust-up outside the city last week,” Joe said, now frowning. “With dwarves. Apparently at least some were actual agents of Svenheim. Imperial Intelligence came an’ put a stop to it, then warned us all to keep our mouths shut…”
“And yet, here you are, chattering about it with a total stranger,” Lakshmi said in exasperation.
“Now, I’ll allow Sharidan Tirasian’s government seems more beneficent than most,” Joe drawled, “but it’s still a government, an’ I’ve had brushes with it I didn’t like. A hungry bear in the woods an’ a trained circus bear with a silk ribbon ’round its neck will both maul you just as dead, in the wrong circumstances. A bear’s a bear, an’ a king’s a king.”
“You really have mastered those metaphors,” Danny said, grinning.
“And it occurs to me not for the first time that you’re half-Eserite in mindset already,” Lakshmi added. “You ever think about apprenticing with the Guild?”
“Nope,” Joe said immediately. “I’m on pretty good terms with Bishop Darling; from that I’ve learned pretty much what I need to, I think.”
“Don’t judge us all by him,” she muttered darkly.
Danny shook his head. “That guy really gets around.”
“Yes,” Lakshmi agreed. “That is what he does exactly.”
“Point being,” Joe continued, “I respect the Empire up to a point, but I am not in a hurry to bow an’ scrape when it comes barkin’ orders at me. For example, when instructed to keep my mouth shut about the Silver Throne’s secrets at the expense of bein’ left in the dark about who might be shootin’ at me next, I consider that a reason to make my inquiries discreetly, not suspend them.”
“Attaboy,” Lakshmi said with a grin.
Danny shrugged. “Well, I’m afraid I can’t help you there, Joe. At this point I’m not even sure when I’ll be heading home, but when I do I can put out a few feelers. As it stands, though, I find the idea of Svenheim agitating in Tiraas like that rather hard to credit. It seems…out of character.”
“That is pretty much my assessment,” Joe replied, “an’ exactly the reason for my concern. It’s when people start actin’ out of character that you gotta start watchin’ ’em more closely.”
“I couldn’t agree more,” Danny said, frowning thoughtfully. “Intuitively or logically, one can always develop a sense of another person. It’s when they start proving your sense wrong that you frequently wind up in trouble.”
Lakshmi pursed her lips, studying him as if she’d never seen him before, which he affected not to notice. Behind them, the teapot began to whistle.
“So for all these years, those three dryads have lived comfortably alone, with only you to look after them. They have their very own tiny world, and seem content to stay here—which I suspect has a lot to do with having a suave Avatar who knows how to push their runes. Which makes it all the more fascinating that I suddenly have a dryad wandering the halls of the facility above, unsupervised.”
“Hawthorn has always been the most assertive of the three,” Avatar 01 said blandly, wearing his customary smile. He hovered in the display attached to the floating teleporter door; Milanda took a step to remain at hand as the planetoid slowly rotated out from under her. “They are none of them terribly inquisitive by human standards, likely a deliberate design choice on Naiya’s part to keep them separate from sapient societies. Her alone, however, I have several times had to dissuade from leaving this chamber. The teleporter, as you have observed, is not programmed to block their passage as it is Walker’s.”
“Uh huh,” she said dryly. “And you have no idea why this would suddenly be?”
“In this case,” the Avatar replied, still with his neutrally pleasant expression, “her interest was piqued by your recent comings and goings. Understandably, I’m sure. Things here have been rather routine since Theasia’s day. The Nexus, fortunately, is equipped with the most advanced fabricators available, able to produce the stock for their hunting, as well as replenish the flora. The girls customarily do not damage plants, but some of their games can become rather…rough.”
Milanda blinked, momentarily forgetting what she’d been about to say. “Wait, your machines can make plants and animals?!”
“Only clones,” he said, as if this were of no significance. “Building an actual ecosystem is a rather more complex task—the life forms around you are mostly descended from specimens imported by the Empire. But yes, it suffices for necessary ecological spot repair, so to speak. I project that at the current rate of incident and replenishment, it will be roughly two hundred years before inbreeding becomes problematic among the local biosphere.”
“The more I learn,” she marveled, “the more I wonder what life must be like on this Earth by now…”
“This particular technology was not available on Earth, or to the Infinite Order for some time after their arrival here. It requires Naiya’s transcension field to operate. I am, of course, unable to say what conditions exist on that or any other world at present. Even my data regarding the majority of this one is severely limited by my present situation.”
“I see. How fascinating. And how also fascinating that even with the great skill at distraction you just demonstrated, you weren’t able to persuade Hawthorn to stay out of the teleporter.”
She stepped again to keep pace with him, and for once, the Avatar was silent. Milanda generally found his expression harder to read even than the conniving courtiers with whom she was accustomed to contending; now, though, he looked so overtly thoughtful that he had to have been doing it deliberately.
“Truthfully, Milanda, in this instance, I gently suggested that it might be an appropriate time for her to explore.”
“I see,” she said without surprise. The situation unfolding in the security hub when she had left had seemed too important to interrupt with matters of petty technicality, but Milanda had given it thought during her very short trip here. It had not been too short to come to a conclusion which had just been confirmed. “And you chose to break your decades-long policy right when I’m in the middle of dealing with a crisis, not to mention trying to cope with the revelations I can’t seem to stop tripping over down here. A lady could take that amiss, Avatar.”
“I assure you, Milanda, my intentions are not to do you or your government any harm. If I judged Hawthorn’s presence at large in the facility a danger, I would of course have discouraged her again. She is not unintelligent, but she and her sisters are distractable and lack social sophistication; you are correct that it would not have been difficult.”
“So you’re saying this is part of your attempt to help?” she said skeptically.
“Perhaps not directly, but in the long run, I believe the expanded possibilities this raises will serve you well.”
“Let me explain a bit about my position,” she said flatly. “I am an Imperial courtier—a politician, if not an actual government functionary. I am necessarily somewhat accustomed to being jerked around and fed meaningless flowery doublespeak. However, I’ve just learned that the last time this happened, it involved someone knowingly sending me into a nest of dryads without warning me. So if I seem less than patient with it just now, know that it isn’t personal.”
“Understood,” he replied politely. “In the same spirit, allow me to clarify my own position. I do not serve your government, either by compulsion or choice. My presence and activities here are in pursuit of the final directive given to me by my maker, Tarthriss, before this facility’s disconnection from all others: to work toward the betterment of humanity on this world. All of humanity, meaning all sapient life here, which is descended from human stock. I chose to cooperate with Theasia’s agenda because I saw utility in it; I have aided Sharidan more enthusiastically because I consider him and his government to be even more benign. However, I have a very long perspective relative to humans, and I understand the essential nature of societies. Because I consider the current administration of the Tiraan Empire by and large advantageous to humanity does not mean I suffer any illusions that every subsequent one will be. Eventually, one will come which I will find myself obliged to thwart if possible.”
“By,” she said softly, “for instance, neutralizing the Hands of the Emperor.”
“Separated as I am from the facility’s systems,” he said diplomatically, “I am not in a position to do so, for the same reason I cannot more directly assist you in repairing what has gone wrong with that transcension network.”
Milanda did not bother to point out his dissembling. He had been physically pulled from the facility’s systems and re-installed down here; it could be done in reverse, especially since he had three all-but-invincible individuals here who by this point who undoubtedly saw him as family.
And, she suddenly realized, there was now a fourth sister at large in the facility above. One who knew how to use the computers. Who was now forming a relationship with one of the dryads. For just a moment, she regretted helping that develop. Just a moment, though. Politics and strategy were all very well, but she wasn’t and refused to become heartless.
Milanda fancied herself quite good at masking her own expression, but the Avatar seemed to see something in her face which merited further explanation.
“I have run several simulations since your last visit, and while I will need more data directly from the systems above to make a definitive judgment, I consider it very probable that we will not be able to repair or replace the Hand system with only the resources we currently have. At the very least, not with those resources in their present configuration. When it was established, the dryads helped, as did I—from the facility’s main system. Removing me from here and replacing me there will interrupt the connection, perhaps fatally. Restoring it would be a very time-consuming process, at best. If your intention is to effect a repair, we will require additional help, Milanda. Someone extremely versed in fae magic, and either able to interact with Walker or to use the computers with her level of familiarity.”
“There is no one alive who meets that description,” she said testily.
“In fact, there are,” he replied with a wry note in his voice, “but I rather think introducing a kitsune to this situation would not simplify it, assuming you could attract one’s attention at all. Walker cannot come here because the security protocols we installed bar her from using teleporters—an even more important provision, if you are actively preparing to use them to access the city above. Beginning to acquaint her with the dryads is a stopgap measure, but I think it will be an important one. They can form a necessary link. We will also, however, require a fae user of great skill.”
She heaved a sigh. “The Empress has been working with an elven shaman… I’ll ask how trusted he is. Time is a factor; there have been no major blow-ups caused by the Hands and since we shut the Church’s operator out they won’t get any worse, but they’re less than stable in their present state.”
“Understood. If I can do anything to assist, you need only ask.”
Milanda nodded. “That was the first thing I wanted to talk to you about. Since I have some time while the computer maps the city and Walker and Hawthorn catch up, there’s another matter. You told me to come back and see about learning to use the additional abilities I gained from this…quasi-Hand thing. Thus far I haven’t noticed anything but strength, coordination, and an improved skill at functioning without sleep.”
He smiled. “The Hands tend to develop somewhat idiosyncratic powers, and you, I suspect, will be an even more unique case. There are some baselines, though, and they require additional intervention to activate. Sufficient time has passed, I believe, for you to stabilize and adapt; it should be safe now to proceed. The timing is somewhat unfortunate, however. This would be easier with Hawthorn present.”
“What do you mean?” she asked warily.
“If you would be good enough to proceed north to the Nexus, I shall demonstrate.”
“Well, I’m sorry, but I don’t know any other way to do it!” Apple said in exasperation, after several minutes of increasingly unproductive argument.
“It’s nice to see you again and all, Milanda, but I’m starting to take this personally,” Mimosa added, folding her arms.
“It’s not that at all!” Milanda said hastily. “It’s just… Well, it’s hard to…”
“Girls, I realize this is counter-intuitive for you,” the Avatar said soothingly from a nearby panel, “but we have discussed this, and I know you understand the issue. Milanda is definitely not trying to insult you.”
“I’m really not!” Milanda assured them.
The dryads exchanged a skeptical look, then sighed in unison.
“Yeah, all right, I know,” Apple said. “But you’ve clearly got an emotional aversion, here, so maybe you can understand why having someone put her foot down and insist she doesn’t want to kiss us can hurt our feelings a little.”
“Of course,” Milanda agreed, nodding. “You’re right; I’m sorry. I definitely didn’t want to offend you. I apologize for being thoughtless.”
“Well, I guess that’s okay then,” Mimosa said somewhat grudgingly. “She’s still right, though; we don’t know how else to do this. There’s not any other way. It’s not like the original granting, that the Avatar can change because we wanted to change the end result. You want to unlock your powers—fine. That’s just like what we do with the Hands. And this is how.”
“Besides, it’s just kissing,” Apple added with renewed asperity. “If you don’t wanna make love, I mean, fine, but really. I don’t get why you’re making such a fuss about this.”
“Okay, now, that part I sorta get,” Mimosa said, giving her a sardonic look. “Because somebody went on and on about how passionate and intimate it could be…”
“I was trying to make the prospect more attractive!” Apple exclaimed, throwing her arms up. “Excuse me if she reacted completely backward to what I meant!”
“Oh! Is this an…orientation thing?” Mimosa turned an inquisitive expression on Milanda. “I’ve read that’s a thing. Are you, just, like, specifically un-attracted to women? Because of it helps, we’re really more quintessentially feminine than biologically female.”
“I grew up in Viridill,” Milanda said wryly.
“Yeah, okay,” Mimosa replied, nonplussed. “I don’t know where that is or why it’s relevant…”
“It’s the seat of Avenist culture! It’s practically traditional for girls to… You know what, never mind. It’s not important.”
“Well, you’re the one who brought it up,” the dryad huffed.
“Hey, wait a sec,” Apple interjected, also peering closely at Milanda now. “Is it a monogamy issue? You’re only wanting to have sex with Sharidan? Because I should really let you know, if you hadn’t caught on by now, all three of us have. Y’know, sort of regularly. Almost every time he visits.”
“Yeah, with the Hands it’s just business,” Mimosa added, beaming. “We like Sharidan! A lot.”
“We are…hardly monogamous,” Milanda said wearily. Her life with Sharidan was certainly nothing she had daydreamed about as a child; she was his most frequent lover, at least of late, but had never had any illusions about being his only one. And honestly she had never felt jealous over it. Their arrangement was not for everybody, but it worked. Some women accepted it as the price of luxury and power; Milanda actually felt very satisfied with the peculiar family to which she now belonged. She wasn’t about to try explaining the matter to these two, however. She wasn’t absolutely sure she understood it herself, at least not well enough to put into words.
For that matter…what was she arguing for? There was the principle of the thing—she was being asked to extend a very personal intimacy, if, as Apple argued, a relatively small one. Besides, these were dryads. Everybody who knew anything about anything knew not to get seduced by dryads. Granted, these two were very unlikely to try to harm her, and anyway she had physical protection from them now, but still. What they were suggesting was that she step into the role of the fool who got killed in the first act of a bard’s story.
“All right,” she said, rolling her shoulders. “You’re right—I’m sorry for overreacting, it was just instinctive. This needs to be done, and it’s not so bad.”
“Wow,” Apple said tonelessly. “Way to sweep us off our feet.”
Milanda sighed and rubbed at her face with both hands. “…I’m sorry. I just wasn’t expecting this. Probably not a surprise I’m ruining it…”
“Oh, relax,” Mimosa said in a low purr that made her more apprehensive than interested, slinking forward. “She’s just teasing you. And you, knock it off—don’t make it harder on her. Now, I know you know how to kiss, Milanda.” The dryad drew close, sensually twining her arms around Milanda’s neck; the skilled intimacy of the gesture only heightened her unease. “We will handle the magic. You just…enjoy.”
“Enjoy,” she said, drawing in a breath. “Okay. Right. I can do that.”
Mimosa leaned forward, playfully rubbing the tips of their noses together, before angling her head to bring her lips toward Milanda’s. Slowly… Parting them just faintly, drawing near enough that Milanda could feel her warm breath. As if they were actually lovers, and not play-acting some ridiculous farce.
Oh, for heaven’s sake.
She finally followed the prompt and moved the last inch, pressing her mouth firmly against Mimosa’s, and tentatively placing her hands on the dryad’s waist.
It was over in a few seconds, Mimosa drawing back first. Milanda opened her eyes to find the dryad staring at her from inches away with a profoundly unimpressed expression.
“Okay, perhaps I should clarify, here,” she said. “This is fae magic. It’s all about emotion. For this to work, you need to be in a relaxed state, and feel the sensations, the feelings that come naturally from being in someone’s arms and being kissed. This thing that you’re doing right here? This is not helping.”
“I’m sorry,” Milanda said miserably. “I am new at sex magic! And I wasn’t warned, if I’d had time to prepare…” If she’d had time to prepare, she’d have worked herself into an even greater state of tension. The Avatar had been very wise not to forewarn her, she realized.
Mimosa rolled her eyes. “This hardly qualifies as sex.”
“Okay, take it easy,” Apple said soothingly from behind Milanda. A moment later, she felt hand brushing through her hair, and then the other dryad’s fingertips were resting on her temples. “C’mon, Mimosa, we’ve got methods for this, too. It’d be easier if Hawthorn would come help, but we’ve had to coax some of the Hands. I’m pretty sure I can do the role by myself.”
“My name,” Mimosa said haughtily, “is Tris’sini.”
“Yeah, yeah, less talk, more kissing.”
“Um,” Milanda said uncertainly, trying to turn her head despite the gentle but firm fingers holding it in place. “How does this helfmmr?”
Mimosa pushed in far more aggressively this time, and Milanda actually sighed against her lips in exasperation.
Somehow, awareness and thought fell away. She was peripherally aware of Apple’s hands on her head, and also of Apple’s very presence in a way that seemed strange, but most of her perception was filled by the other dryad, the one in her arms. Mimosa’s hot breath, her soft, questing lips, the firm grip of the arms around her, the dryad’s hand cradling the back of her head. A warm, lithe, powerful body pressing against her own, silky skin and feathery hair under her questing hands, the strength and softness of—
It was very fortunate she had the both of them effectively holding her upright, because when an entirely new set of senses suddenly exploded into being in her mind, Milanda shrieked and collapsed.