He nodded. “What about the locals? You’ve been lucky so far, but what will you do when they approach you?”
“I take it you have a plan.” A man like him always did, but she wasn’t sure she wanted to hear it. It would involve doing something for her own good, something she might not be inclined to do.
He topped off her coffee. Too late, she remembered the wolves tended to be dominant. Feeding was something a dominant did for someone under their care. Did he view her as someone he had to take care of? That could cause problems.
“The Pack is very interested in the possibility of your success. If you pull this off, there would be a large forest in the middle of the city, perfect for those of us who live and work here. We would pay for the privilege of training here.”
She looked at him skeptically. “You want to play in Bramble Burn? Even if I pull this off, it will never be the safest forest. We’re in the middle of a magic well; anything can spawn here.”
“That’s what makes it perfect. We don’t want civilized; we need a touch of wild. Hunting monsters would be a pleasure for us and a bonus for you.” He waved a hand. “But that’s for later. We’re concerned that without help, you might not survive. We’d like to offer that help.”
She sighed. It was way too early for wheeling and dealing, but at least there was coffee. She stepped back and waved them away from the bar. “I see this is going to take a while. I want a seat.” She pulled three bar stools from the floor, one after the other. They were formed of a column of twisted tree roots and coated in a light resin for durability. She formed a thick layer of spongy cork on top for comfort and carried a seat to the opposite side of the bar so she could comfortably look at her guests. The whole thing only took a couple of minutes, and a trickle of power. “Proceed.”
Her guests studied the stools and cautiously complied.
Mia wiggled experimentally. “These are comfortable.”
“Thanks. You were saying?” She looked at Kjetil. She hoped he was thinking about how easy it was for her to shape wood, and about what else she might be able to do with it…as a weapon, for instance. She wasn’t helpless, and she wanted him to realize that as he tried to bargain with her.
He nodded respectfully, his eyes warm with appreciation. He got it. “As you’ve demonstrated, you can do amazing things. If you let us provide security, you can concentrate on doing that, and not on whether or not something has you in its sights.”
Okay, that wasn’t nearly as patronizing at it could have been. “What do you want in exchange? Free access to my property?”
He shook his head. “You would designate the times and area you would allow visitors. We would have a lawyer draw up papers.”
Ugh. Lawyers. He’d just made the idea unpalatable. “I’m going to have to think about that. Meanwhile, I have stuff I need to do.” She slid off the stool and gathered the empty containers. “Breakfast was great. I appreciate your effort.”
He stood, taking the hint. “Will we see you at the station? We’re having a barbeque in the back yard soon. You’re invited.”
She thought about it. Food was good, and so far the firefighters seemed like a decent bunch. She wasn’t super social, but she wouldn’t get far in life if she didn’t make connections. “Sure. Grab a couple of acorn oil pods on the way out as my contribution.”
He raised a brow. “The cooks will like that.”
Juniper saddled Twix after they left, buckling on saddle bags. She had a list, but she’d see what city prices were and prioritize for food and cooking gear. She could live (reluctantly) without books, but a chef knife was essential.
“Hi! I got you a deal.” Grigori strode up, perky and alert. “I got an Indian place called the Kebab Palace to agree to use your oil in exchange for free meals. It’s owned by Mr. and Mrs. Chandra, and one of them is always there.”
Juniper winced. She hated Indian food. “I’m not fond of curry.”
He shrugged. “Take what you can get, I say. Also, the hardware store will trade oil for Black Adder chow. Ask for Bob, the owner, and tell him I sent you.”
She nodded. “Helpful. I appreciate that.”
“Mom says she likes the oil,” he said, handing her a sack of cookies. She used it to make these, and she likes it as well as butter. If you want, she’ll take some to work and tell her clients about acorn oil, and I’ll sell it for a cut.”
“Nice! I like it. I’d appreciate a sample of the things she makes with it, so I can see for myself how they turn out.” She put the sack in her house, taking two for the road. His mom was a good baker.
Juniper had checked up on him. The salon owner said he was a decent kid, a hard worker. His human mom had five kids and his dad had run off, so the family could use the money. The mom spoke English heavily accented with Russian, but the salon owner said her clients liked her. She also told Juniper she should come in for a haircut.
“Were are we going?” Grigori picked two acorn pods and handed them to her as she approached Twix. Twix was watching the tall hedge that separated the Iron Oak from the rest of the park.
Juniper raised a hand and listened to the grunting, snorting noise. Whatever it was didn’t care for the thorns, but she would be careful as they left the park. There was nothing to stop whatever it was from leaving her property.
“What’s that for?” she accepted the oil absently as Grigori handed it to her, tucking them in her saddle bags.
“You might be able to make a trade,” he said, one eye on the hedge. He fell in beside her as she mounted and rode out the gate. “You shouldn’t leave home without samples.”
“I’m not an Avon lady,” she grumbled. It wouldn’t do to become complacent; this was a bad neighborhood, and not just because of monsters. Derelict buildings were everywhere, crumbling to dust, and the slums didn’t breed softness. She hadn’t been approached by a gang yet, but it was a matter of time.
There might be a way to make the trip safer, however. She fished a couple of cherry pits from her pocket and tossed them on a strip of weedy ground next to the crumbling concrete. She touched her staff and sent a pulse of power into the fruit. The seeds sprouted, rapidly growing into young cherry trees loaded with ripe fruit. A wooden sign dangled from each tree that said, “Cherries.”
“You know this is gang territory, right? Why would you stop to plant trees?” Grigori didn’t say she was nuts, but he clearly wondered.
She nudged Twix. “Self-defense comes in many forms.” The trees would magically replicate until they formed a predetermined row. Next time she would plant apples, and so on.
“So what? You think if you give the gangs free fruit, they’ll leave you alone?” Grigori had a rapid speed walk, but it would be nice if he were mounted, too.
She smirked. “No. The people who think that way won’t move in until later, when the place is safer.”
“When will that be?” he asked skeptically.
“I’m a farmer, not a fortuneteller. Wait and see.” She was a long range planner, but the trees would serve an immediate purpose, too. They might look innocent, but the trees would be as much help as her oak in a fight.