Chapter 192: A Stranger GatheringAlexandra Erin 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.”
“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.”