There were more yards of pastel silk in this room than she'd seen the last time she raided a clothier's warehouse, Jocelyn thought sourly, and enough metal and stones to stock a very high class jewellers. It was just a shame that they came attached to the bodies that they did. The warehouse, or the jewellers, would have been more appealing.
"What do you see?" Lionel asked quietly, settling back on his heels beside her.
Jocelyn glanced over at him. He was watching the clusters of braying noblemen and tittering noblewomen sweep past them with probably the same faint derision she was feeling, but she couldn't help but think that there was a more avaricious glint in his eyes than would ever be in hers. After all this time, she still wasn't sure how much she trusted the man. Lionel Fusco was a good thief-taker. One of the best, in fact. She just wished she didn't find those rumours, that the best person to catch a thief was a thief, as plausible as she did.
But that wasn't the point right now. Jocelyn quirked her lip and looked back out into the sea of laughter and pale silk, shaking her head ruefully.
"Are we being honest?" she asked quietly, her hand resting gently on the hilt of her small sword. Lionel shot her a look, eyebrows raised appraisingly, but Jocelyn just looked back, a glint of knowing in her expression but no condemnation. Not anymore.
After a moment, Lionel snorted, and looked back out over the room. "Sure," he said, in as wry a voice as she'd ever heard. "Lets try that."
Jocelyn smirked, but inclined her head. "Then being honest," she said, her mouth turning down a little at the truth of it, "I've never seen as many people just asking to be robbed in one place before. Trying to pick out our girl's prey is going to be like picking out a snowflake in a damned blizzard."
He coughed, one hand darting hurriedly to cover his face, and glared reproachfully at her over the hastily disguise laugh.
"Hey now," he murmured, once he'd managed to straighten his face. "Rich people have got to do something with all that hard-inherited coin."
"Yes," Jocelyn agreed. "And highwaymen have got to do something to help them, too." She shook her head. "Practically providing a service, aren't they."
"That's one way of looking at it," said a politely amused voice at her other side, and Jocelyn's hand tightened convulsively her blade, only barely restraining the need to bare steel as she recognised the voice.
"Harold," she growled, turning to the shorter man on a snap of her heel before she remembered herself. Before she remembered where she was and, more importantly, who he was. "I mean, my Lord Crane." She paused, and huffed out an exasperated breath. "You know, for a crippled man you walk suspiciously quietly."
He shrugged lightly in answer, ignoring Lionel's curious look over her shoulder. His attire was a lot more restrained than most of the other noblemen in attendance, a quiet dusky blue given depth by a touch of gold brocade. If she hadn't spent the past half hour squinting around golds and silvers and pinks and that one shocking emerald green, Jocelyn probably wouldn't have noticed. As it was, she found herself oddly fixated for a moment. He looked ... like what he was, really. A rather more sensible and outwardly boring man than just about anyone else present.
"I try to remain as inconspicuous as possible at these things," he said wryly, looking out over the throng with much the same expression Jocelyn and Lionel had been wearing. "The only thing worse than being sneered at for my infirmities is being propositioned for my money. If I didn't owe a favour to a very dear friend, believe me, I wouldn't be here at all."
Jocelyn raised an eyebrow at that. "I wouldn't have thought any of these people were your set?" she asked, probably more curiously than she ought.
The Lord Crane had never struck her as a particularly sociable man, after all. Particularly not with this sort of nobility. He had more ... Well. He had more sense, and a lot less interest in drawing attention. Aside from the odd incident of tripping fleeing thieves with his cane, and that one time she'd met him squinting fiercely around a pillar during an anarchist assault on the House of Justice, defiantly and rather foolishly declining to exit the building despite the four violent political activists and the grey-clad assassin who'd been facing them right there ...
Alright. Perhaps the Lord Crane wasn't as sensible as all that. He still didn't strike her as the sort of man to be friends with any of this lot.
Harold opened his mouth to answer, looking decidedly sheepish, when a high, delighted voice cut across him and a cloud of wine-red silk and dark blonde hair descended on them. The woman, whoever she was, ignored Jocelyn and Lionel completely, her attention fixed on Harold as she seized his hand and brought it coquettishly to her lips.
"Harold," she gushed, with a lot less annoyance and a lot more suggestiveness than Jocelyn had. "Darling, I'm so happy you could make it! I've been bored out of my mind here without you!"
Lionel snorted softly behind Jocelyn. "Wouldn't be difficult," he muttered, sotto voce, and Jocelyn hurriedly stifled a rather cruel smile. She elbowed him surreptitiously.
"Zoe," Harold greeting, with a far more genuine smile than Jocelyn might have expected, retrieving his hand and leaning awkwardly forward to press a dry kiss to the woman's cheek. "My apologies for being late. Mr Reese had some problems with the horses en route."
The woman - Baroness Zoe Morgan, Jocelyn now recognised - raised both eyebrows at that. Something flickered through her eyes that stirred an instinct in Jocelyn, an odd intensity that had her straightening a little as she watched them.
"Oh dear," Lady Morgan murmured, fluttering her hand as though distressed. Her eyes, though, were cool as ice, and a touch calculating too. "Nothing too serious, I hope?"
Harold smiled disarmingly, shaking his head. "Nothing beyond Mr Reese's abilities to handle," he assured, and Jocelyn frowned, sensing that there was more to this conversation than she was getting, and finding that ... more annoying than she might have expected. Harold, though, just shrugged lightly and reached out to snare the fluttering hand gently in one of his own. "Not everyone is so well mannered as you, your ladyship. Fortunately, I didn't hire Mr Reese for his manners either."
Lady Morgan relaxed, that strange intelligence fading back out of her eyes, and brought his hand up to her cheek, cooing warmly at him. "Oh, I don't know," she said, her voice a little rougher and a lot warmer than before. "I've found him charming enough."
Harold chuckled softly. "I'm sure," he said wryly. "Your idea of charming has never been anyone else's, Zoe."
She laughed at that, the last of the tension bleeding out of her, and let go of his hand. In place of it, she moved to insinuate herself against his side, threading her arm through his and leaning into him as, finally, she deigned to grant Jocelyn and Lionel her attention.
Though more her than Lionel, Jocelyn noted. The baroness had just glanced at him, sweeping her eyes over him the once, and then appeared to dismiss him altogether. A little pointedly, maybe, enough that Jocelyn wondered if she'd actually heard Lionel's little sally before. Lionel stiffened a little, maybe in stung pride, but he didn't say anything.
"Are you going to introduce me to your friends, Harold?" Lady Morgan murmured, her voice still that rough, suggestive purr, and Jocelyn found herself glaring before she could quite catch herself. The baroness grinned at her for it, her teeth pearly and white as she bared them.
"Of course," Harold murmured, turning a slightly rueful, apologetic expression towards Jocelyn, as though asking silently for her patience. Jocelyn turned her glare a little on him, for a moment, but then took a breath and tried a less combative smile instead. "Ah. Jocelyn, this is the Baroness Zoe Morgan of Exeter. Zoe, this is Sir Jocelyn Carter, Servant of the Crown and, I think, late of the Continent. Behind her is ...?"
He paused, a little awkwardly, and Fusco spoke up for himself, stepping out around Jocelyn and smiling the sort of smile she usually saw in dockside taverns just before things got nasty.
"Lionel Fusco," he said, offering his hand with a small smirk. "Best thief-taker in York and London. If you ever need someone to retrieve all those pretty rocks of yours, I'm your man."
Lady Morgan's expression iced over. Jocelyn watched it in some fascination as the woman reached out to take Lionel's hand the way someone might take a live newt. Disdainfully, and looking to drop it again as soon as humanly possible. Lionel, for his part, grinned darkly and vengefully, and held on for a much longer moment than either politeness or decency warranted.
"Pleased to make you acquaintance," Lady Morgan murmured, in a tone that said it was anything but. "I'll keep that in mind, Mr ... Fusco."
"I would, actually," Jocelyn spoke up, resting her hand on Lionel's shoulder and feeling rather more warmly towards him than she had in quite a while. "Lionel's rough around the edges, but there's no-one in England better at tracking down stolen property. With the recent spate of crimes in the area, it might be well worth your time to remember him."
If anything, Lady Morgan's expression grew colder at that, her smile becoming more than a little rigid and that faint, dark intelligence flickering once again in her eyes. Jocelyn found herself leaning slightly towards the woman, found herself watching that expression hungrily. There was something about the woman, her instincts whispered quietly. The Baroness Zoe Morgan was somehow interesting.
And it seemed the Lady Morgan returned the sentiment. Her eyes had snapped to Jocelyn at the slight shift in posture, that dark thing in their brown depths leaping at the hunter in Jocelyn's own. Her eyes swept over Jocelyn with a lot more interest than she'd shown Lionel. Taking in, no doubt, the sword on Jocelyn's hip, the men's breeches, the dark silk coat that was probably the most practical garment in the room. And drawing, Jocelyn had no doubt whatsoever, more than a few conclusions from them.
Lady Morgan looked Jocelyn over, and then she leaned into Harold's shoulder, her head almost dropping down onto it as she used him, his friendship, as a weapon it was. She smirked out at Jocelyn and silently dared her to give voice to her visible suspicions in front of him.
Jocelyn, with a hard, vicious smile, offered her a small bow of greeting instead, and declined.
"Ah ..." Harold murmured softly, looking uneasily between them. "Is that ... Are you investigating the recent robberies, Sir Jocelyn? I had thought you were in town in search of your Man In Grey."
Jocelyn blinked, breaking off her silent battle of wills with the other woman, and looked back at him instead. He met her gaze with owlish, worried eyes, which would not ordinarily have spiked Jocelyn's interest, but with her instincts aroused by Lady Morgan's presence she suddenly found something odd about it. A flash of memory, perhaps. He looked ... he looked for a moment almost like he had that one time, in the House of Justice. Watching a pair of combatants with something almost like ... worry.
"... Yes," she said slowly, this time veiling her suspicion in time. Disguising it behind her usual vague annoyance, her gaze flickering to the woman on Harold's shoulder as a masking explanation. "I was called away from that search in order to deal with the recent spate of robberies on the London-York road. There was some suspicion that the highwayman - or woman - might be using society events to be sure of their victims."
His eyebrows winged up, genuine startlement, and lowered again in narrow-eyed consideration. "Was there," he murmured, thoughtfully. "Hmm. An unusual conclusion for the Offices to come to. Since it would seem to implicate suspicion towards someone of the victims' own class ...?"
Jocelyn met his cool look with a smirk, nodding faintly. "They don't normally like to think such things," she agreed. "But the fact is that none of the stolen goods have re-emerged. Our best people have been tracking the usual fences, and nothing has been moving." She didn't glance at Lionel. Didn't glance anywhere, in fact. Just kept watching his eyes, and the dead-calm intelligence behind them. "Whoever's been taking the best jewelry of half the county's peerage hasn't been selling them on. Which would imply that, whoever they are, they're doing this for reasons other than money."
"Really," Lady Morgan exclaimed, with a dead-on facsimile of ghoulish fascination. "Good gracious, how fascinating. But ... what other reason could one have?"
"We don't know," Jocelyn said flatly, shifting her gaze to stare impassively at the woman, just a touch of challenge, just a touch of question. "We just know that whatever it is, it isn't the money. Which led the Offices to believe that this person, this highwaywoman, might have enough money of her own for it not to be an issue." She paused for a second, and then asked with a certain light, vicious amusement: "Incidentally, would you say you were comfortably off yourself, your ladyship?"
Harold coughed, somewhere between amused and horrified, his attention suddenly fixed on the head of his cane. Lady Morgan, though, simply stared at Jocelyn for a long, long second, and then ...
And then she grinned, bright and vicious and richly, genuinely delighted, and held out her hand towards Jocelyn. Who took it, more from startled instinct than anything, and blinked at the sudden bonhomie in the woman's expression, the warm crinkles around delighted eyes.
"Oh, tolerably," Lady Morgan admitted, her voice the rough, light purr that had greeted Harold, though minus most of the suggestiveness. Most, Jocelyn noticed, but not all. "You must arrest me at once, Sir Jocelyn." She grinned. "At the very least, it would provide a point of interest in an otherwise utterly boring party."
Jocelyn blinked at her for a second, bemused, and then glanced around once more. At the swirl of pale silks and glittering stones, and the numbing inanity of the laughter. The lady had, she admitted, a fair enough point.
"Maybe next time," she said, with a touch more warmth herself, and maybe a small smile tucked into the corner of her mouth. "Harold's trying to avoid drawing attention, and he's a nice enough man that I'd like to oblige him."
The baroness blinked and turned her head to look at the man beside her. Who, to his credit, looked only mildly mortified. Lady Morgan frowned at him for a moment, before her smile took on a much warmer, much gentler cast, and she raised her hand to gently pat at the arm still threaded through hers.
"He's a very nice man," she agreed, her eyes crinkling softly at him. "It wouldn't be very nice to distress him when he's only here at my request, you're quite right." She nodded decisively, and turned to incline her head to Jocelyn. "Very well, Sir Jocelyn. It's agreed. You can arrest me the next time we meet, then."
Jocelyn felt her eyebrows beetle down, knew she was wearing a vaguely bemused, skeptical expression, but she inclined her head in turn regardless. "Until next time," she murmured, a little helplessly, and watched the woman sweep off back into the crowd with considerable bemusement, and more than a little suspicion.
"An interesting woman, Lady Morgan," Harold noted softly beside her, following her gaze to watch his friend re-insert herself into the harried flow of high society. "Wouldn't you agree, Sir Jocelyn?"
She looked at him. The short, crippled little man in his rich, restrained silks. A man who flushed faintly at a woman's touch and tried to hide at social events. A man she'd seen standing stock still and only slightly disgruntled while five men fought to the death a few feet away from him.
"Yes," she murmured softly. Raising her eyebrows at him, thinking Lady Morgan wasn't the only one. "Interesting enough that I wonder how you met her, Lord Crane."
Harold looked over at her, a sly, knowing smile on his face. "Oh, she cornered me on a dark and chilly night," he said, with considerable humour. "It was a rapid and rather brusque encounter, I must admit, though she was very gentle with me once she discovered some pertinent details." He waved a rueful hand down his body, and bit his lips at Jocelyn's steadily more disbelieving expression. "There was some awkwardness when we met again, at an event much like this one, and managed to actually introduce ourselves. But, well. Zoe is a charming woman and quite a wonderful friend, so I've never really held it against her."
Jocelyn stared at him, her eyebrows lodged somewhere under her hairline. She couldn't quite come up with something to say. Fortunately, Lionel didn't have that problem.
"Pull the other one," the thief-taker said, in raw disbelief. "You want us to believe that the Baroness Morgan, what, accosted you? And you just ... let it go?"
Harold smiled thinly at him. "You may believe what you wish, Mr Fusco," he said, cheerfully enough. "Every word I've said is the truth." He paused, shrugged lightly. "I did consider holding a grudge, at first. But in a world where people are generally snide at infirmity and flattering at wealth, Lady Morgan proved to be the opposite." A rueful smile. "I find that rather too rare and valuable to hold our first meeting against her, you understand."
Jocelyn gusted out a breath, shaking her head slightly. She leaned over and nudged him gently, catching his eyes when he turned back to them. "Yes," she said softly, holding his gaze. "We understand, my lord."
And she wondered, as he met her eyes with a surprisingly challenging stare, just how much he'd meant something else by that. Considering that a few minutes ago she'd almost accused the Baroness of being a highwaywoman, and Harold had immediately afterwards described a 'rapid and brusque encounter on a chilly night' with the woman. Considering that she'd said the robberies weren't financially motivated, and Harold then described Lady Morgan as being snide towards wealth, valuing other things entirely. Harold stared back at her, that dark intelligence in his eyes implying that he was perfectly aware of the potential implications. And asking her, under guise of self-pity, to ... what? Forgive them? Not hold them against the woman?
Yes, Jocelyn wondered, as she and Lionel left the party by the long drive down from Lord Aston's house. Just what was Baroness Zoe Morgan up to? Just how much did Harold Crane know about it?
And just how much, in the end, was Sir Jocelyn Carter willing to do about it?
There were times she hated being right, Jocelyn thought ruefully. Hiding in the long shadow of an elm just off the main York-London road, looking down the moonlit slope towards the road itself, the carriage forcibly halted there, and the single horse standing casually alongside it.
Baroness Morgan had looked pretty good in breeches and greatcoat, she thought. The pale half-mask and the tricorn hat weren't too bad either. It was the confident cock of her hip, though, that drew the eye. That, and the pistol held with almost negligent confidence in her hand.
Jocelyn kept herself carefully still, just watching the proceedings. In theory, she should have interfered before the robbery actually took place, should have galloped down the hill and challenged the thief where she stood. However, there were a couple of strong arguments in favour of an alternate approach.
The first was that galloping down a moonlit slope towards an armed and primed enemy was a good way to get shot, even accounting for the general unreliability of pistols.
The second was that the occupants of the carriage weren't in any real personal danger. Jocelyn had been over every reported crime by the Highwaywoman, the 'Gentlewoman Caller' as she'd been dubbed. There had only been one reported injury in over fifteen robberies, and since that had been against a Lord who was well known for taking ... for taking advantage of young women at his estate, nobody was particularly going to cry over it. The rather snide gentleman below her on the road wasn't going to be getting shot unless he did something stupid, and Lord Cavendish struck her as rather too timid for that.
And the third ... the third was that Jocelyn, for some reason, didn't want to have this conversation with an audience. She didn't want there to be eyes on her, on them, when there was a decision coming up that she wasn't sure yet how she was going to make.
As she said. There were times when she really hated being right.
A shadow detached itself from the carriage, moving back towards the single horse and vaulting casually into the saddle, one hand holding the tricorn firmly on its wearer's head, and perhaps holding something else as well. Something dark and bulging as it hung from confident fingers. Well, there wasn't much point in a robbery with no loot, was there?
Jocelyn straightened against the truck of the elm, feeling her heart pick up pace somewhat, her hand drifting first to the hilt of her sword, wrapped against the moonlight to hide the shine, and then moving over to the pistol slung beneath her shoulder instead. She watched the mounted figure wheel her horse around, the head pointed upslope right at Jocelyn, and breathed long and slow.
Right again, she thought. But then, the passage through the elms and up across the hill really was the best exit route from here. Only a fool would take a different one and this woman, of all women, really was no fool.
She waited until the horse was only a few yards away from her, well into the shadows of the elms and out of sight of the carriage that was slowly beginning to move on again beneath them. Jocelyn waited until the last possible moment, before stepping out into the moonlight and leveling her pistol right at the approaching rider's chest.
Zoe Morgan, visible now at close range beneath her rather dashing half-mask, cursed like a sailor, her horse rearing slightly as she viciously yanked it to a halt, dancing a few steps sideways away from Jocelyn. Who, it had to be said, found herself smiling faintly, grinning in the moonlight at the language pouring out of the noblewoman's mouth.
Alright, so there were some perks.
"... Stand and deliver?" Jocelyn asked wryly, when Zoe had managed to calm her animal enough to look back at her. The baroness glared bloody murder at her for it, and Jocelyn let her grin spread freely. "Your money or your life, your ladyship. Isn't that how this goes?"
"... That depends," Zoe said, after a few moments of simply staring at Jocelyn in bemusement, while her anger faded and a reluctant amusement crept up in its place. An amusement that was clearly audible in the woman's voice, wry and resigned, as her shoulders slumped, her hand dropping away from her own pistol, and she looked down at Jocelyn. "Do you plan to rob me, Sir Jocelyn? Because if so, I'd like to register a complaint."
Jocelyn moved cautiously forwards, taking the horse's bridle in hand to hold him steady as she warily raised an eyebrow at his owner. "Oh?" she asked, a little wry herself. "I'm not sure you're really in a position to do that, your ladyship. Under the circumstances."
She looked pointedly back downslope, towards the now empty road, and let her expression become a little barbed as she looked back. Zoe, smiling down at her, shrugged philosophically.
"It would be ironic, I'll grant you," the woman agreed, with slightly annoying sangfroid. "The robber robbed, and by a Servant of the Crown, no less." She grinned faintly, resting gloved hands on the pommel of her saddle, the reins barely visible where they tangled through the leather. "However, it wasn't what you promised me, Sir Jocelyn. The last time we met?"
Jocelyn pursed her lips, as though trying to remember. Taking a certain perverse delight in the flicker of anger in the baroness' eyes, and a slightly more uncomfortable one in the flash of something darker that followed it, the flash of heat that seemed to greet her little game.
"I promised to arrest you," she said quietly, and Zoe caught the change in mood, caught the weight that crept in under the words. The baroness dropped her smile, her eyes dark and serious as they met Jocelyn's, her hands carefully casual and unthreatening on the saddle. "The last time we met, I promised to take you into custody. I remember, your ladyship."
For a second, standing in the moonlight under the elms, they simply looked at each other. Remembering a very dull party, remembering the snap of challenge and the warm purr of delight, remembering a promise offered half in jest and half in earnest between two people who, even then, had had some idea that they were meant to be enemies. Two people who had had some idea that soon, it would come to this. Jocelyn looked up at Zoe, at the brown eyes half-invisible behind the mask, and couldn't quite hide the pain in her expression.
"And are you going to?" the other woman asked softly. No challenge, now, nothing hard or bitter, none of the icy temper that had slipped through that night at the party. She was calmer, now. Simply looking at Jocelyn. Simply waiting. "Are you going to arrest me, Sir Jocelyn?"
Jocelyn bit her cheek, her head twitching as she restrained the urge to lower it, to close her eyes and try to think without those eyes staring calmly down at her. She frowned instead, let her features shift into something thunderous, and glared up at the other woman.
"Answer me a question first," she snapped out, clipped and cold. Keeping her hand still and calm around her pistol. "Answer me one question."
"... Why I do it?" Zoe asked carefully. Guessing ahead. It wasn't quite what Jocelyn had been planning, but it would do.
She nodded, and Zoe tipped her head back, looking up at the high branches of the elms, at the stars, the moon. Without the weight of a pistol to keep her gaze chained along its sights, she took the opportunity denied to Jocelyn and looked away.
"It's not for the money," she said, still staring sightlessly upwards. "You were right about that, you and your little thief-taker." Her mouth twisted faintly at the memory of Lionel, more distaste than Jocelyn felt was warranted, but then Zoe was a thief. "I'm not sure quite how to explain it to you. But ..."
She looked back down, eyes searching out Jocelyn's dark face in the moonlight, and there was a sudden earnestness to her, a sudden intensity. The kind of intensity Jocelyn saw on people with a mission, the kind she saw on men sneaking into palace basements and huddled in dark offices, planning how best to fight for what they believed. The kind she remembered seeing on Harold, that day in the House of Justice as he watched a man in grey fight.
"I take back what was taken," Zoe told her, in that low, rough purr. "Not always the exact thing, it depends on the situation. I don't always rob them directly. Sometimes I just ... pull them over for a talk. To give them a warning. Sometimes I take things. Sometimes I ... Well. Once or twice, I've had to take something a little more personal. If you understand me?"
That Lord who'd raped his maids, who'd raped a young woman who'd been staying at his estate. The one injury reported, in all the robberies. An injury that caused the man to visibly limp ever afterwards, and to suddenly have little interest in women, young or otherwise.
Yes, Jocelyn thought she understood.
"I'm a fixer, Sir Jocelyn," Zoe Morgan said, leaning down over the pommel of the saddle, pained and intense. "I'm an inane, stupid noblewoman, the kind of woman no-one thinks twice about spilling all their gossip and their plans and their snide, vicious triumphs to. The kind of woman who laughs stupidly at them, titters blindly, and makes them feel good about themselves. The kind of woman no-one notices taking notes in the back of her mind. The kind of woman no-one would ever, ever suspect of trying ... to even the field somewhat, afterwards."
She smiled darkly, spread one hand as though to encompass the night and the moonlight, the pistols and the darkness, the road like a pale ribbon behind them. To encompass the snide, cowardly lordling she'd just sent on his way, lighter some treasure to remind him to behave. To encompass all those other lords, rich men and women taking what pleased them when it pleased them, never considering that someone might have the skill and the will to take them to task for it later. Zoe spread her hand as though to encompass all of that, and met Jocelyn's eyes in raw, savage challenge.
Jocelyn stared up at her, long and silent, her breathing heavy but even in the stillness. She held her pistol steady on the noblewoman's chest and let no glimpse of her thoughts show on her features.
Because they weren't the kind of thoughts she dared show. The things she remembered, in that moment, they weren't the kind of memories you shared. Things like the men she'd fought on behalf of the Empire. Things like the people she'd killed in the service of the Crown. Things like the crimes she'd found at the heart of the Empire she'd protected, when she'd come back and taken up a different kind of service. Things like the knife-edge of pain she sometimes felt, realising how much she had taken for granted about the people she'd served, when there was so much of their enemy's blood on her hands.
Things like the sudden, near-debilitating shock of sympathy she felt, for this woman who'd realised some of those crimes herself, and moved to redress them by whatever means presented themselves to a woman in her position.
Jocelyn didn't let that show. Not any of that. She locked her expression into the calm stillness she'd once used when interrogating foreign enemies, and met Zoe's eyes with cool, careful calm.
"And do all of them deserve it?" she asked instead, clipped and calm. Remembering Harold and his little 'rapid and brusque encounter', remembering a man who'd told her not to hold it against the woman. Finding it somewhat difficult to comply. "You've never robbed someone just because it was fun? You've never taken the wrong person to task, in your little nighttime excursions?"
Zoe blinked, and then straightened herself, leaning back up in the saddle. Her expression flickered from intense to rueful, a small and vaguely sheepish smile appearing on her mouth. And a flash of hurt appearing in her eyes, maybe, but that was hidden too quickly for Jocelyn to be sure.
"I've made a mistake or two," she admitted, with a tiny shrug of her shoulders. "I'm very good at getting adequate information before I move, but sometimes it's been a bit ... misleading." She smiled crookedly. "I usually apologise for those, though. One way or another."
She paused, looking thoughtfully down at Jocelyn. Taking her measure, as she'd done once before. But this time, Jocelyn thought, she saw more than just men's breeches and a weapon worn comfortably. This time, Jocelyn thought Zoe was seeing her, seeing the woman poised calm and regretful behind the mouth of a pistol, standing for something she believed in. Jocelyn was sympathetic. She always was, she had to be. It had been what made her as good as she'd been, asking gentle questions of battered men in those foreign cells and desert tents. But her sympathy was, ever and always, only a servant to her sense of justice, and that she would not compromise. Now or ever.
"... They deserved it," Zoe said quietly. Watching Jocelyn with serious eyes, seeing the divide within her. Gentle, as Harold had said, in the face of infirmity. "I can't prove it to you, Sir Jocelyn. But I promise you. Everyone who reported that I robbed them deserved what was taken from them. Most of them damned themselves from their own mouths." She shook her head, grimaced faintly. "They were too highly placed for most of their victims to dare challenge them. Too rich and too powerful, with too many friends in high places. They thought themselves untouchable." She looked down, met Jocelyn's eyes. "Do you want me to regret proving them wrong?"
Jocelyn held the gaze, held it for as long as she could bear. And then, with a twist of her mouth and a grimace of frustrated self-knowing, she lowered her pistol and finally let herself turn her head away. She closed her eyes and leaned in to rest her head against the horse's neck, suddenly exhausted.
"... No," she said softly. Mostly to herself. "No, I don't."
There was silence for a second, and then ... then there was a hand resting gently on her shoulder. Jocelyn startled, and looked up to meet the soft, slightly pained expression on the baroness' face. No. On Zoe's face.
"You know, you could still rob me, if it makes you feel any better?" the woman offered, her smile small and rueful. "Your gun is still primed, and you did say the right words."
Jocelyn snorted, shaking her head in reluctant amusement. "No," she decided, carefully unloading her pistol and slipping it back into the holster under her coat. "I don't think I'd make a very good highwaywoman." She glanced back up, a little challenge back in her own eyes, a little humour. "Not all of us can look dashing in a half-mask and tricorn, you know."
Zoe blinked, startled, and then grinned, soft and delighted. "Oh, I don't know," she purred, looking Jocelyn up and down until she almost flushed as badly as Harold. "I think you could carry it off, Sir Jocelyn. You already have the greatcoat. And the weapon."
She raised her eyebrow, grinning at the sword on Jocelyn's hip, and Jocelyn growled suddenly. She leaned up to grab the woman by the thick lapel of her coat and tug her down until they were face to face. Zoe went along with it, the eyes twinkling behind the half mask suddenly much more visible than they'd been before.
"You're on thin ice, baroness," Jocelyn told her, with a touch of purr in her own voice. "I'm still armed and here we are, all alone in the woods." She smirked faintly. "Are you sure you want to make a highwaywoman of me, under the circumstances?"
Zoe paused for a long second, before laughing, soft and breathless. "Oh, there are a great many things I'd like to make of you, Sir Jocelyn," she murmured, her lips only inches from Jocelyn's. "But for the moment ..."
Jocelyn saw it coming. Of course she did. At this range, it wasn't like she could miss. She saw the kiss coming, and did absolutely nothing to stop it. Zoe kissed like she talked, rough and warm and confident, with a sly touch of humour and a lurking intensity beneath it. She kissed like a highwaywoman, not a noblewoman, like a soldier not a lady. She kissed, Jocelyn admitted privately, like a dream.
"... For the moment," Zoe murmured, leaning back a little, her saddle creaking under her, "I should like to make you my lover, Sir Jocelyn." She smiled crookedly. "Do you think that might be arranged?"
"... I think so," Jocelyn managed, after a moment of resisting the urge to touch her lips. She looked up at the woman ranged above her, and managed a rather crooked smile of her own. "After all, I can always arrest you next time, can't I?" Listening to Zoe's laughter beneath the elms, she thought there were times when being right wasn't that bad.
Not that bad at all.