It was an odd thing, he thought, something that he had never considered: a female best friend. For many years of his life Gurney Halleck had been surrounded by men, and only men. There were few (if any) female fighters in the slave pits, and if they did perchance rise high enough to gain recognition they were kept separate from the male combatants. His sister Bheth had been the last female friend he had had, and she had been carted off before he was old enough to stop it. So yes, he thought as Jessica sipped her tea in the seat across from him, it is an odd thing to have a female best friend.
Jessica had summoned him that afternoon to the conservatory for “a conversation long overdue.” To anyone else, the words might have caused waves of anxiety, but Gurney knew the woman well enough to know this was nothing more than her toying with him. That was how their friendship had been, even from the beginning; back when she wore the front of the meek and eager Bene Gesserit sister; back before she had revealed the sharp wit and sharp tongue that hid beneath her aba hood.
The conservatory was not well hidden as one might’ve thought. On the contrary, the great glass room had been built directly on top of the Arakeen residence but had blended in so well with the rest of the architecture that even Gurney had not noticed it in their flybys over the ziggurat. As Gurney approached the entrance, he could see that its great ovaline door was metal, intricately carved and designed, very effectively sealing off the water-rich room from the dry world around it. The palm lock on the door did not seem to recognize his handprint, and after three tries he gave up and pounded his fist against the door in a secret knock that he and Jessica had developed. A moment of silence passed before a faint tapping could be heard from the other side of the door: Jessica’s reply.
“You summon me, then keep me waiting, my lady.” Gurney growled as the door swung open.
Jessica’s green eyes twinkled with laughter as she replied, “I could have your tongue out for speaking to me in such a way, Warmaster.”
“Aye, you could, my lady, but for nigh 20 years you’ve been saying that to me, and I’m starting to think you don’t mean it.”
Jessica made a disapproving clucking noise as Gurney followed her into the room. Behind him, the great door swung shut on silent hinges. “I suppose I shall have to make good on my promise someday then.”
“Aye, I suppose you shall.”
There was a small tea table set up in the middle of the room near the trickling fountain, and as Gurney settled in he took the time to absorb his surroundings. The room was so lush and full of vegetation that it made Gurney’s eyes tear at the sight. There was not near so much color anywhere else on this dusty planet. How he had missed the greens and blues of Caladan! The air was warm and humid, but not unpleasant (leastwise not after the scorching heat and dry of the outside), and Gurney closed his eyes and inhaled deeply as if trying to remember what it was like to breathe such moisture-rich air.
Jessica was watching him with an amused expression on her face. “You like it here, I take it?”
Gurney did not open his eyes. “The planet or this room?”
“I think you know that I do not like this planet, my lady.”
“Do I? It’s been so long since we’ve spoken.”
Gurney did open his eyes at that, and Jessica was smiling at him as she poured tea into two cups on the table in front of them.
“Forgive me my lady,” he said, softening, “I have been quite busy, as I’m sure you’re aware. The Duke has been at his wits end trying to prepare everything for spice operation…”
“I know,” Jessica said as she topped off one of the drinks. “I simply miss my friend.” She handed him one of the cups and Gurney accepted it, blowing on the liquid to cool it as he raised it to his lips. They sat in silence for some time, sipping their tea and listening to the trickle of the fountain beside them.
When he had first met her on Caladan, she had been a mere seventeen years, and Gurney had distrusted her from the moment she had set foot on the planet. He did not trust the Bene Gesserit and their plans within plans, nor the way that they moved so subtly in the shadows of politics. He did not trust the soon-to-be-Lady of Caladan, and the innocence that she feigned so easily. Most of all, he did not trust her for the color of her hair: a bronzened shade of auburn that reminded him too easily of the Harkonnens. When he had confronted the Duke Leto with the possibility that she might be a Harkonnen spy, perhaps even a relative of the Baron himself, his Duke had snorted and replied, “An awful effort to go through just to get to me, wouldn’t you say?” Gurney had played along, chuckling as if he had not meant it, but he could not shake the memories of how Gloussau Raban’s pale grin had made his red hair stand out as he brought the inkvine down towards Gurney’s face.
Gurney had kept a close eye on the Lady Jessica after that, determined to catch her in the wrong, determined to prove that she was not all she claimed to be. But while she occasionally made secret reports to the Sisterhood, and was not always wholly transparent about where she was or whom she was with, there was nothing that indicated to Gurney that she was anything other than a Bene Gesserit spy (which in truth, was what all those witches were).
It was one day when Jessica summoned him to her sitting-room that Gurney considered that it was not the Duke that the Harkonnens were after. But what would they want with an escaped slave? There is no information that I possess, nor have I shamed them in any other way than running. His suspicions were not alleviated when he entered the room to find a kind of… well, it seemed she intended to treat with him.
Gurney did not cross much further into the room than the threshold, instead standing rigidly near the door, baliset slung over his shoulder, ready to spring into action. Does she mean to poison me? Gurney thought, eyeing the tea and tray of cakes, Does she think I am foolish enough to trust her? She has been here less than half a year and already she has shown she slinks around like all the other witches of that damned school!
Jessica smiled at Gurney’s obvious hostility, and gestured to the seat across from her.
“Please, sit.” She said, and when Gurney did not move, “Come now, Warmaster, I wouldn’t wish to force you.”
It was then Gurney realized that she had not, indeed forced him. She had asked. He had seen in action the power of the Voice, and though he himself had never been victim to it, he had no doubt that if the Lady Jessica used it there would be nothing he could do to resist.
He approached her cautiously, removing his baliset before sitting down heavily in the chair. Jessica smiled at that and moved to pour the tea.
“Tell me Warmaster, why you and I haven’t had a one-on-one conversation?”
Gurney watched her slender hands as she carefully topped off each cup. The measurement had been impeccable, and each held an equal amount of honey colored liquid.
“I have made a conscious effort not to meet you, my lady.” He said as she placed a cup in front of him.
“And why is that?” Jessica asked as she brought her cup to her mouth, watching Gurney intently. He will watch my every move as he always does, and he will not miss my pause.
Gurney leaned back a little in his seat, folding his arms. “I simply don’t trust you, my lady.” He noted she had not drunk her tea, though she made the motions as if she had taken a sip. Posion? Surely not!
“Do you think I have some other motive than my duty to produce an heir?”
“I know you have other motives than producing an heir, my lady. You Bene Gesserit wi-… play games with the Landsraad and the Imperium alike, and you meddle in the affairs of loveplay as much as you do in matters of state.”
Jessica finally sipped her tea (truly this time), mouth quirking at the edges. “They are very often the same thing.”
She’s toying with me! Gurney realized as he watched the petite redhead daintily replace her own cup upon its saucer and reach for a lavender frosted pastry.
“What do you want?” He growled.
Jessica looked pointedly at the untouched teacup in front of Gurney. “I was wondering if I could offer you a… proposition.”
Gurney glared at her, but reluctantly took up the cup, toasting her with it as he raised it to his lips. The tea was sweet, tasting strongly of jasmine with a hint of sage and rosemary, and… something more perhaps? Cinnamon?
“And what proposition would that be, witch?” The word had slipped out before he could stop it, and Jessica flinched at the venom behind it. She had heard the word many years of her life, but never had she felt so unsettled by the implications.
Gurney softened immediately, knowing he had crossed a line. Ah-h-h-h, I should not have said that. I must be more careful. “Apologies, my lady I-”
“There is nothing to apologize for, Gurney.” Jessica replied. She picked up her tea again, taking another sip. “I believe that we should be friends, you and I.”
Gurney blinked, confusion slipping across his face. His inkvine scar twitched. This was unexpected. “My- my lady?”
Jessica eyed him over the rim of her cup. “I am already making acquaintances with Duncan Idaho and Thufir Hawat, and of course the Duke Leto and I are learning to be more familiar--- you are the only member of his council who I have yet to befriend. And the fact that you have avoided me has made you all the more intriguing. I have spent many a quiet moment pondering why you would do this, since none of the other staff seems quite so obviously disconcerted by me. And then it occurred to me: you believe me a spy--- but not simply of the Bene Gesserit. And then of course, if not the Bene Gesserit, who would I most likely be a spy for? Who would arouse such suspicion? The Imperium? Certainly not; there are several Imperium spies in the household already, as I’m sure you’re aware. The Guild, then? The Guild does not truly need spies, for they can bend space and time, and perceive things that are happening anywhere on anyworld. So,” Jessica set her cup down once more, folding her hands neatly atop her lap. “That leaves only one other option. The Harkonnens. The mortal enemies of House Atreides, who would have every reason to send a spy into the heart of this household, to end the Atreides line before it has the chance to continue. Knowing this, you would have every reason to suspect a sister sent by the Bene Gesserit, especially one that carries the characteristic Harkonnen trait: red hair.”
Jessica smiled again and said, “You suspect me of being a Harkonnen spy under the guise of the Bene Gesserit, sent here to seduce your Duke and murder him on the marriage bed. You think that because of the mysteries surrounding the Bene Gesserit I could easily feign mysticism about my origins, and about my purpose. You think that there is some truth to my training, but that even the very entourage I arrived with could’ve been a fabrication by the Harkonnens--- albeit a quite complex one--- just to get to your Duke.”
His silence was all the confirmation Jessica had needed. She was still learning to read people, but Gurney was a suspicious man by nature, and it had not been hard to guess his motives once she learned of his former imprisonment at the hands of that red-haired family.
“Your loyalty to the Duke is heartening Gurney Halleck,” Jessica continued, “For I too have come to love the man in only the short time I’ve been here. He truly inspires the other people around him to action and to affection. But know this Warmaster: the Bene Gesserit serve no other agendas than our own, and you would be remiss to interfere with those agendas. I like you, Warmaster, but if you do anything that would endanger Leto, or if you do anything that would stand in the way of my ability to do what I have been sent here to do, then I will be forced to remove you.”
Gurney met her gaze, blue boring into green, his steel meeting her stone, and finally smiled, inkvine scar rippling across his face. “And I you, my lady.” I have changed my mind about this one. She may be one of those witches, but I can see that she has grown attached to my Duke. I never expected such fierceness from a woman, nor such passion. For this I can respect her. She is right. We will make fine friends. Fine friends indeed.
Jessica held Gurney’s stare as she picked up her tea again.
“I would expect nothing less.” She said cooly.
“It amazes me that a man so fierce can remain so quiet.” Jessica said dryly, snapping Gurney out of his musings. He realized he had been staring at the water in the fountain, cup half-raised to his lips.
Gurney took a sip of the liquid and noted its temperature had lowered somewhat. I must have drifted too long into my thoughts. “Apologies my lady, I was merely recounting the start of this, ah, afternoon tradition.”
Jessica quirked her brow. “You're referring to the first real conversation we had, in which I threatened you?”
“Aye, my lady, the very same. Although, I believe mutual threats were exchanged.”
Jessica laughed at that, the clear sound blending in with the fountain and the rustling of leaves. “I believe there were.”
“I must say my lady, you surprised me that day.”
“I was not expecting to find a friend in you, for many reasons, and instead I found one whom I trust with my life.”
They did not look at each other, choosing to watch the water cascade down the fountain. Gurney did not mind the silence and was grateful that Jessica did not turn her gaze to him, for that would’ve only embarrassed him. Those kinds of admittances were few and far between for either of them, but Gurney suspected that it was Jessica’s soft, womanly nature that pried loose those confessions from him. She was strong, in her own way, but there was always something about a feminine presence that gentled a man. Perhaps if one was surrounded by women, one might not notice that tempering effect, Gurney mused. Maybe it’s obvious to me because I rarely was surrounded by women.
Not turning to him, Jessica said, “You are one of my nearest and dearest friends, Gurney Halleck. Try not to die, Warmaster.”
“I shall do my best, my lady.”
“I should very much hate to lose you to this planet.”
“And I you, my lady.”
Odd indeed, he thought as he sipped his cooled tea, the light of the Arrakeen sun throwing scintillations into the fountain’s pool, A female best friend. Odd indeed.