Chapter 192: A Stranger Gathering

on December 6, 2013 in Volume 2 Book 6: Career Counseling, Volume 2: Sophomore Effort

In Which Acantha Caters To Curiosity

Doubt began to creep in almost immediately.

Acantha had already lied to me about the night we’d started going over the mockboxes together. She’d lied to me about what she’d been doing that very night. Knowing that she was lying again… or still lying, maybe… shouldn’t make a difference, then, should it?

Maybe if she had just stuck to her story for whatever reason then I could have believed that, but the lie had grown. This was a new lie… and a new lie designed to wrangle information out of me. It wasn’t just more of the same status quo that I’d already accepted… and I’d only accepted that status quo because I wasn’t sure how much the first round of lying actually meant.

…but now I had my answer, didn’t I?

…and also, having chosen to accept a lie didn’t actually mean I was obligated to keep trusting the liar.

I knew that, but knowing that didn’t make it feel any different. I’d made up my mind to trust her despite feeling very ambivalent about the whole thing and now it seemed like I was stuck in that mode of thinking, despite having decided otherwise. It was like the original decision was lurking there under the surface of the new one. I wondered how often that happened… it was weird to notice it, but I felt like a lot of worse decisions probably came about on some level because I was sticking by my wands without thinking about it. If it was true for me, it was probably true of a lot of people.

I supposed this was another benefit of hanging out with the ridiculous owl-turtle thing, however hard it was to actually like the thing… having had an outsider’s perspective on the inside of my mind made me a little more aware of my thought processes. Being aware of them could help me head off their negative effects, hopefully, and might also allow me to change them over time, but I couldn’t just turn off my misgivings.

That was why I ended up going back to the lounge at the actual meeting time… well, a few minutes after, since I definitely didn’t want to be the first one to show up.

Maybe it felt like giving in… maybe it was giving in… but really, if I didn’t get the whole experience at least once, I’d always wonder if I was missing something.

When I returned to the lounge, I found a low-key sort of party in… well, whatever the low-key version of “full swing” would be. It looked like what I imagined a cocktail party would look like, though the beverages were just juice from the university catering department’s dispensers and a couple of bottles of sparkling fruit nectar on ice.

This time, Acantha wasn’t the only other person there… in fact, there was at least one person I knew. I had never actually sat down and had a conversation with Andreas, son of Andreas, of Clan Ironholt, but he’d been going out with Two’s friend Hazel for a year or so, with one interruption that I knew about. We had never shared a class, but he was effectively a couple of years ahead of me… dwarves who come to a human-style university bring the equivalent of years of work-study experience with them and can test out of a lot of the basic courses, depending on their field of study.

I recognized most of the other faces among the other six people there, not in the sense that I knew who they were or could have said where I’d seen them. I might have shared classes with some of them, but I felt it was more likely I would have seen them around the hallways.

Two of them were elves. One of them was dressed in the masculine style, which among the middling culture could have made them a guy or a girl who was into guys. The other was a girl wearing one of the flowing gauzy gowns favored by the girls-for-girls subculture of elf maids.

I probably shouldn’t have been surprised to find other elves among the students who had caught Acantha’s eyes, but I hadn’t thought about it and I kind of wished that I had… the long decades between the point where elves were physically mature and when they were welcomed into the adult elven world had given rise to their own separate society, the politics of which could be complicated, messy, and vicious.

That’s not to say that all elven middlings were bad. I was friends… sort of… with a couple of them. But that friendship could make any interaction with elves from other courts fraught with peril.

…although once I got a good luck at the elf maid, I was pretty sure she was part of Glory’s court. That didn’t eliminate the possible complications, but it did soften the consequences of it.

The other four all appeared human. One of them was a guy. I was pretty sure I was the youngest person in the room.

Acantha had been carrying on a conversation with Andreas and the masculine elf when I came into the lounge. She probably would have noticed my approach sooner than that, if not for the soundproofing. She excused herself as soon as it was convenient and glided towards me.

“Welcome, Mackenzie!” Acantha said. “I expected you’d join us eventually, but I wouldn’t have counted on seeing you again tonight.”

“Well, I did want to see what exactly you had to offer,” I said.

“Smart move,” she said. “You should always know the value of what you’re throwing away… I was worried that I’d made you uncomfortable, though.”

“No,” I said. “Not uncomfortable, exactly. Just… uncertain. Not knowing how to react to someone or what they want from me isn’t the most fun I’ve ever had, but it’s not the same thing as not feeling… you know… safe.”

“Good,” she said. “I want you to feel safe with me. Would you like me to introduce you around, or would you rather just mingle?”

“…I have absolutely no idea how to mingle,” I said.

“That’s not the same as saying you want to be introduced,” she said.

“I feel like that would actually be more awkward than standing in the corner,” I said.

“I can relate to that more than you can possibly know,” she said.

“Is there a third option where I just magically know who everyone is?”

“Well, there are name tags… yours is by the cheese tray,” she said. “You can grab it, have a bite to eat, and get to know the others through the course of the discussion. I mean, it’s just general socializing and snacking right now, but things will get a little more structured once we settle in… my purpose here may be to bring interesting people together and see what happens, but if that was all I wanted to do, I would have been a writer or something.”

“I don’t think that’s how writers do it,” I said.

“No?” she said. “It’s how I would. Excuse me, but there was supposed to be coffee here, too… I need to go check on where it is.”

I took her advice, but conversation found me anyway. Luckily, it was the one student in the room I did actually know.

“So,” Andreas said. He’d just sidled into the buffet line behind me, for a dwarven value of “sidled”.

“So,” I said.

“What do you make of our hostess?” he asked.

“I’m not sure yet,” I said.

“Neither am I,” he said. “But I thought you’ve said you have a class with her.”

“You don’t?”

“No,” he said. “No idea why she picked me out, to be honest.”

“Did you ever talk to her outside of class?”

“Nah. Suits make me nervous,” he said. “So do women, and elves.”

“Why’d you come?”

“She thought it would be good for my career,” he said. He didn’t have to tell me who she was… dwarven relationships had a winner and a loser, and Andreas seemed to be pretty cheerful about losing. “If I don’t want to join the clan business, I could see it… and I suppose if I do, some new ideas wouldn’t hurt.”

“What’s Clan Ironholt do?” I asked.

“Security,” he said. “Home security, I mean, not like guards and such… though, we do a little trade in arms and armor with an eye towards defense. I mean, if you’re getting your scry-eyes, wards, and locks from the same place, why go somewhere else to kit out your mercenaries?”

“Makes sense,” I said.

“You must have impressed her, though,” he said.

“How do you figure?”

“Could be I’m wrong, but I figure you’re the youngest one in the room,” he said. “I think all of the humans are seniors, or working towards their master’s.”

“Huh,” I said. Suddenly the whole meeting felt a bit like when I’d shown up and been the only one there. “Well, she might only be teaching the one low-level class? She might mostly deal with upperclassmen.”

“Probably,” he said, and then drifted away.

The food was all finger-food, sort of medium fancy… there were things I didn’t know the name of but nothing I didn’t recognize. Olives, crackers, and cheese featured heavily. The only thing that was recognizably meat was a bunch of cocktail shrimp. I’ve never cared for the sauce because it looks like lumpy ketchup to me, but I loved the taste of shrimp on its own so I took a bunch… I might have been self-conscious about that if I’d been the first one in line, but I figured everybody else would have had a crack at it by then if they wanted it.

I turned around and almost walked into the elf maid, who I could now see was named Sophia.

“I heard you say that you know Acantha?”

“Yeah,” I said.

“What is she like?”

“She… knows her stuff,” I said. I thought that was a little more specific than “she’s a good teacher”, especially when she freely admitted that what she had to offer was more in the area of expertise than classroom teaching skills. I didn’t want to say that, but I also didn’t want to give a false impression.

“What is her stuff, exactly?”

“Well, she works in product development, I think mostly as a consultant, which I guess could mean anything… she hasn’t said a lot about what she actually does,” I said. “She knows a lot about the business side of things, I guess? It doesn’t come up in class that often.”

“Does she know anything about enchantment?”

“Yeah,” I said. “She’s very well versed in that sort of thing… that does come up in class.”

“I see,” Sophia said.

I found it interesting that neither she nor Andreas seemed to have known Acantha before getting their invitations… it left me wondering not only what her definition of “interesting” was but how she’d found these people. Of course, it was only two out of a group of eight, but if they were the only people in the group who were strangers to her, what were the odds that they would have been the ones who spoke to me?

…well, actually, I supposed it was pretty good. Andreas had approached me because we knew each other socially and Sophia had followed because she’d heard the conversation. The lounge wasn’t that big… anyone who didn’t know Acantha and who heard that I did might have come over to pump me for information.

But still. If even a quarter of the group were people who’d never interacted with her before, it seemed kind of weird.

“On another subject… you are Glory’s acquaintance?” Sophia asked, with just a tiny hesitation before the noun.

I wasn’t sure if she didn’t know the actual relationship between the two of us, or if she just couldn’t come up with a word that wouldn’t be insulting to either of us.

If Glory succeeded in disentangling herself and her followers from the politics of Treehome, it might be safe to have friends, but she wasn’t there yet.

“We’re acquainted with each other, yes,” I said.

“Ah. I think it’s very bold what she is doing,” she said.

“I haven’t spoken with her recently,” I said… the success of Glory’s plans for moving her court out of Treehome depended on nobody else knowing what they were up to until it was too late to interfere with them, so I wasn’t going to mention anything specific. Even if she brought up something first, it could be a guess that she was looking for confirmation.

“Oh? Too bad,” she said.

“Yeah,” I said.

“She holds a small court,” Sophia said.

“I don’t have a lot of basis for comparison,” I said.

“Do you know if she would like a larger one?”

“I really don’t know,” I said. “She’s never mentioned it to me.”

I felt bad about not being able to give her a straight answer there, because it sounded like she was hinting that she’d like to join Glory’s group. If she was really sympathetic with Glory’s liberal views on topics like people who aren’t elves and not constantly plotting against everyone you know, then I would want to support her… but that would be assuming that she was sincere.

Also, I really didn’t have any idea. Glory wasn’t running a membership drive that I knew of, but we hadn’t had much contact recently. I could see pros and cons to expanding her sphere of influence, but it wasn’t my call to make.

Luckily, Sophie left it at that and wandered off. My desire to have nothing to do with the politics of Treehome was why I was avoiding Glory unless and until she pulled off her move onto campus.

Now that I had my nametag on, a couple of the other guests waved at me and gave some version of a greeting, but nobody came over to ask me about our hostess or anything else.

It was weird how the nametag broke the ice, even though nobody including the guy who’d already known my name was calling me by it. I supposed a lot of people had the same kind of “know I’ve seen her before” level of familiarity with me that I had with them, and the name tag could serve as confirmation that I was who they had been thinking I was, or else that I really wasn’t anybody they actually knew.

Acantha wasn’t long in returning, a couple of people in black catering uniforms trailing after her with a wheeled tray with coffee pots and related items on it. They weren’t from the university’s catering department. I’m not a big fan of drinking coffee, but I’ve always liked the smell of good coffee, and this smelled awesome.

There was a little step up from the lobby to the lounge, so there was a little difficulty in getting the cart up, but they got it into place at the edge of the bar.

“Sorry about that delay… I thought it would be cruel to ask you all to sit in a closed coffee shop and not have any coffee,” Acantha said. “I’ll give everyone a chance to caff up, if they need to, and then I think we’ll be ready to begin.”

“Begin what?” the other elf asked. Their name, apparently, was Memphis… neither that nor their voice shifted them into the male or female box in my head. “I’m not one hundred percent sure what we’re here for.”

There was a reassuring amount of nodding at that statement.

“A little polite conversation among friends,” Acantha said.

“About what, though?” Memphis asked.

“Well, about whatever anyone wants to talk about,” Acantha said. “If no one else has a topic, though, we could always talk about your futures.”


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38 Responses to “Chapter 192: A Stranger Gathering”

  1. tomclark says:

    The low-key party
    was in moderate swing when
    Mackenzie walked in.

    Current score: 0
  2. PrometheanSky says:

    I can vaguely understand not liking coffee, in a hypothetical sense. Not liking it, but liking the smell, is unimaginably strange to me.

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    • Cadnawes says:

      I know several people in that boat. And even more people who started out that way but intentionally acquired the taste so they would have an excuse to smell it. I didn’t have to do that as I was allowed to drink it as a child. I took it black as a five year old, a fact that boggles many. :)

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      • pedestrian says:

        I can remember as as a child in France drinking what is now called cafe leche.

        I’m terribly addicted to drinking coffee black now. At least two or three pots a day.

        I’ve always said, whoever can invent a way to trick the human brain into believing that coffee tastes as delicious as it smells, would probably become the world’s first trillionaire!

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    • zeel says:

      Well then let me explain. It smells amazing, like someone shoved heaven up your nose. But the three times I have tried it (tiny sips really) I found it intolerably bitter. I feel like I should like it, and I am tempted to just start drinking it for the heck of it. . . But. . . Soo bitter.

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      • Lyssa says:

        Me too! I compromise by drinking frappes and similar coffee-but-doesn’t-taste-like-coffee beverages. :)

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      • Tomo says:

        sugar and cream help with the bitterness…I’d recommend getting café du lait(basically half coffee, half steamed milk), and slowly lower the amount of sugar/cream you add until you’re only having one or two teaspoons of sugar or none at all.

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      • TheEyes says:

        It’s not just the bitter, but the combination of bitter and acid, which makes the bitter taste worse. One of my coworkers brought back this expensive low-acid Kona coffee from Hawaii once, and that tasted wonderful, even black, but regular coffee is disgusting.

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      • user@example.com says:

        I felt exactly the same. Then I learned the glory of cold-brewed coffee. The taste, the smell, even the temperature, without the bitterness.

        (dump a load of ground coffee in water for 12-24 hours, refrigerate, filter it into a convenient bottle. half a mug full topped up with boiling water is about right for drinking temperature for me, and it lasts a couple of days (unless you drink it all first))

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    • Amelia says:

      I loved the smell of coffee as a child.
      I found the stuff itself unbearably bitter and cloying (which shouldn’t be possible I’m sure).

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    • durragh says:

      i can totally relate, not coffee itself, but i can’t stand most vegetables, but i love the smell of onions and peppers on the grill, sizzling away.

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  3. Derp says:

    I can not stand the smell nor taste of coffee. Mix hazelnut creamer with it and I will flee the room. Also love milk and white chocolate, but can not handle dark chocolate.

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  4. Dani says:

    > once I got a good luck
    look?

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    • Lunaroki says:

      In Which Mackenzie Gets Lucky

      Typo Report

      That didn’t eliminate the possible complications, but it did soften the consequences of it.

      Either “it” should be “them” to agree with “complications” or else “possible” should be “possibility of”. Actually, I’m not so certain either of those fixes is right. This sentence is just a little bit weird.

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  5. Riotllama says:

    I never liked the taste of coffee, but it does smell delicious. I always said that if coffee tasted the way it smelled, I would drink it all the time. Then someone introduced me to coffee with so much caramel and cream and sugar in it that it tastes like candy. Now I occasionally indulge in candy drink, I mean coffee.

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  6. Cadnawes says:

    How to make an awesome cup of coffee that tastes as good as it smells: (according to me.)

    Start with whole beans that were roasted as recently as possible. Grind them coarse. Put grounds into a French press, which should be warm from a previous rinse of hot water. I prefer a tablespoon and a half per cup. Opinions vary. Pour steamy BUT NOT BOILING water over the grounds. This is the problem with drip coffee… heat begets bitterness. (same goes for green tea, actually.) Stir. Let sit for three minutes, then push down the strainer. Enjoy.

    The plus side: all those supplies I just mentioned won’t cost as much as a decent drip maker. And will take up less space in your kitchen.

    As for Acantha: supplying college students with high quality coffee late in the evening; now that’s just not fighting fair. She might even win me over with that one. ;)

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    • N'vill says:

      The bitterness in a good coffee is for some of us exactly what we want, however, to remove that bitterness and smooth it down, a tiny pinch of salt is all it needs. Start off with no more than a few grains in the cup, add more if not enough.

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      • Cadnawes says:

        I like the slight bitterness as well. But if it was brewed too hot or was terrible beans to begin with… then I will bear that in mind. I’ve salted lemons before but never thought of this one.

        I’ve had cold drip coffee which lacks bitterness whatsoever and frankly I thought it was too surreal.

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    • Zukira Phaera says:

      I’ve found that I can’t tolerate robusta but I can arabica. Bean type and roast method can mean a -lot- to how it is going to come across. I’m not a fan of bitter myself, and was turned off by it by the bitter as well. I grew to enjoy it when I started using vanilla ice cream instead of milk for a creamer, along with a bit of sugar and a tiny bit of salt (And nice to know I’m not the only one that does the salt trick). Sometimes now I’ll add a splash of vanilla extract to milk and sugar. The ice cream ‘travesty’ started out as my not having milk that hadn’t turned, and having made a cup, but not finding out about the milk til after and not wanting to let it go to waste.

      Personally, I put my sweetener, dairy, and (if I’m adding it) vanilla extract in my cup and then add the coffee to it, rather than the other way around. I also only brew a cup at a time. I don’t like to let it sit and ‘cook’ – and I totally agree with the don’t boil the water. Just how I prefer, I stick to french roasts for the beans, and I make absolutely certain that the beans themselves are arabica, not anything else, not even a blend. Picky, I know, but not only does it help with my appreciation of the flavor but it also means I’m able to enjoy a beverage of the variety without having my FM flare up.

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      • Eliska says:

        Don’t call it an ice cream travesty! Call it an almost-affogato! Affogato is a shot of espresso over ice cream, and is amazingly delicious.

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      • Gruhl says:

        Anyone drinking coffee made from something else than arabica ought to be admired for their tenacious masochism.

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  7. not her, the other girl says:

    Way to be weird Acantha. I wonder how she actually came across the others,elven senses overhearing things or what.

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    • SurahAhriman says:

      I assumed elven hearing. She’s probably aware of most of what’s being said anywhere in the building she’s in that isn’t shielded. And given her nature, I would think a listen check buffing item would be a high priority. Hell, she’s in a college, surrounded by beginnerw enchanting majors. They probably toss out ideas all the time that they’re simply too inexperienced or lacking in context to know are actually workable. Easy mode idea theft.

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  8. Tobias says:

    I really like the smell of coffee but not in a sense of it smelling delicious. It’s more an association of Sunday mornings as a kid and all things comfy I guess. It’s the same way with tobacco smoke – although I hate cold tobacco smell…

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  9. Zathras IX says:

    “If you tell the truth
    You don’t have to remember
    Anything” —Mark Twain

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  10. Eliska says:

    Am I the only one paranoid enough to expect the coffee is doctored in some fashion?

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    • Computer Mad Scientist says:

      …well, you’re not /anymore/…

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    • Cadnawes says:

      It flitted through my brain. But it wouldn’t HAVE to be to get people to go along with her. ;)

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    • Zukira Phaera says:

      I’m probably going too far into punstick

      It ‘filtered’ through mine

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      • pedestrian says:

        Now Eliska, upon what grounds do you base that bitter perculation upon?

        I don’t want to be a bean counter here but our favorite barista Alexandra, already gets our favorite demongirl Mackenzie, into enough hotwater as it is, without us mugs picking out the ‘quakers’.

        And in this host of TOMU characters, shouldn’t we readers be cautious about grabbing assumptions considering the pot and the kettle are equally hot?

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  11. 'Nym-o-maniac says:

    I love how we have a chapter with all these great plot hooks – Acantha inviting a bunch of people who don’t know her to talk about their futures, additional Treehome drama hints, etc., etc. – and the comments are packed with people talking about coffee.

    Which, for the record, I absolutely love and am so sad I cannot really have due to caffeine intolerance. I have a coffee substitute that can almost pass given some cream and sugar, but alas, it’s just not the same.

    Current score: 0
  12. Erm says:

    my purpose here may be to bring interesting people together and see what happens, but if that was all I wanted to do, I would have been a writer or something.

    Leaning on the fourth wall a bit here? :D

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  13. capthorn says:

    I’m one of those who enjoys the smell of coffee but not the taste. It happens.

    And I’m with you, Eliska! I have no clue in what way, but that was my expectation.

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  14. Helge says:

    For some reason the Acantha plot reminds me more and more of every story and movie about confidence games that I’ve read or seen. But, especially, “The Music Man.” Will Mack end up singing “Till there was you”?

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    • Seth says:

      I was thinking “Real Genius” with Acantha’s house being crushed in a freak incident involving a hacked mockbox and a bowl of popcorn.

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  15. Lakanna says:

    I finished this page, moved on to the next bookmark, then just had the thought. “She’s headhunting.”

    I think Acantha is going to be actively recruiting this little group. She works as a freelancer, and this is an opportunity for her to network with some new, talented people in the field. I can imagine several businesses would be interested if she manages to get a pool of the up-and-comers together, a group who also trusts her as an adviser.

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  16. That one guy says:

    Acantha isn’t really headhunting. She’s looking for ins, ways to get more of what she wants. After she gets what she wants, she’s perfectly willing to burn her bridges behind her. Look at how willing she was to throw Mackenzie to the wolves, for instance.

    Andreas is there because of the security background — she wants an in, tips or secrets or something on how to bypass them, what the master codes are. She’ll offer enough to make him (and everyone else) feel beholden, until she gets what she wants, and then she’s done with them.

    Like she said about trust, you can’t trust her, because you can depend on her doing whatever it is that most benefits her (and that’s probably going to involve you eventually getting screwed over).

    Current score: 0
  17. pedestrian says:

    I’m not sure if Acantha would act so short-sighted. Then again wasn’t it Steph who said “Elves are dicks!”

    It seems to me that Acantha is modernizing the Elvish traditions of noblese dickery and adapting it to a modern, corporate world. I gotta admire such inventiveness, as long as it isn’t happening to me!

    Current score: 0

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