225: High Hopes

on May 27, 2008 in Book 8

In Which Steff Takes What She Can Get

“Well, everybody, I’ve got to run,” Amaranth said as we exited the dining hall. “I wasn’t exactly slacking this weekend, but I didn’t spend nearly enough time on my life signs notes… I need to do some hardcore cramming before my first class.”

“Hardcore cramming?” Steff asked. “What exactly were you doing before breakfast?”

“No wonder Mack’s turned into such a brat,” Amaranth said. “Your influence.” She kissed me on the cheek. “Be good baby,” she said. She fingered the paddle, pulling it out and letting it slap against my leg.

“I will be,” I said. “See you at lunch.”

“See you, baby,” Amaranth said.

We all said our goodbyes. Dee had to prepare for a class, and Two had to get ready for a presentation, but my first class wasn’t until 10:15 and Steff asked me to walk back to Harlowe with her. It seemed to me like we got more looks and comments from passersby by ourselves than we did with Amaranth. Considering the sorts of comments, it didn’t seem like they were related to Steff’s true nature. Girls holding hands were actually less interesting if one of them was a nymph, it seemed. Either that or it had something to do with numbers.

Being with Steff made me conscious once again of how my new shirt hugged my body, of what a different image it projected. It was a cheapy Walled Market no-name brand, of course, but it had to put forth a different impression from my usual plain, dark solid color shirt.

“Can we go up to your room to talk?” Steff asked when we got back into the nexus. “I didn’t see you all weekend, and I’ve got some things I need to talk to you about, in private.”

The weariness that had been on her face earlier seemed to be coming back. I wished I could hug it away as easily as Two could.

“Sure,” I said.

We headed up the stairs in what had, at least for me, suddenly become an uneasy silence. “Some things” would almost certainly have to include my coming encounter with Viktor, our immediate future together, and the date we had set for Friday… if that was still on. I couldn’t help thinking that the news was more likely to be bad than good on all of those fronts.

We got upstairs and I unlocked the door, holding it open for Steff

“Whoops, wrong room,” she said a second later, backpedaling to the door. She stopped when she backed into me, as I was wrestling my key out of the lock. She stopped and looked at the key, then looked around the room.

“What?” I asked.

“Did you lose a fight with a housekeeping magazine?” she asked. She was being a smartass, but I smiled. It was better to see her like that than looking so tired and defeated.

“Amaranth and Two picked it out,” I said.

“Two,” Steff said, shaking her head. “She’s got such good taste in some things, but others… well, I guess you can’t really blame her, for anything, really.”

“The bed’s warm and comfy,” I said. “That’s all I care about.”

“Yeah,” Steff said. “Come here.”

“What?” I asked, taking half a step towards her.

I suddenly realized that my lips felt dry. I then realized that I was expecting her to kiss me. That made my lips itch. Itch. How did lips itch?

“Just c’mere,” she said, and I did. When I was in close to her, she took a step back and started picking pancake crumbs off my shirt. “You’ve got to start being more careful now that you’re not wearing rag-bin rejects any more, you know.” She sighed. “People are going to be looking at you.”

I sighed and rolled my eyes, turning away.

“People already look at me,” I said. “They stare. That used to drive me crazy.”

“So, um,” she said, rocking on the balls of her feet and swinging her arms back and forth at her sides. “Did you, um… you have a good weekend?”

“Yeah,” I said. That was what she needed to talk to me in private about? “Weird, but good… in places, anyway. You?” I asked, then regretted it. I’d seen how she had looked when she first came downstairs. I knew Viktor had found out about our fooling around behind his back.

“It was… it was okay,” she said, turning away and hugging herself. I tried to step around to get in front of her, but she turned to keep her back to me. “Viktor… well, we talked… a lot. He wants to see you tonight, after our last class. After history.” I swallowed. Amaranth had said Viktor didn’t want to delay, but that was sooner than I’d expected. Of course, if not now… when? “He says he wants to make sure you have a chance to recover before your next classes.” She looked down at the floor. “I’m sorry.”

“I should have said no,” I said. “To you, I mean. I should have told you no.”

“Either one of us could have,” Steff said. She turned around to face me. “Why would it have to be you? Why not me?”

“I could have said no.”

“I talked to Viktor about sharing the punishment,” Steff said. “I begged him.”

“What’d he say?”

“He said… he said I could take it all myself,” Steff said. “But it’s up to you. It has to be your decision.”

“I can’t let you…”

“No,” Steff said. “There’s more than that. See, you agreed to take the punishment as a condition for dating me. If you don’t do that now…”

“So, he’ll let you take the punishment… but then our date’s off?” I said.

Steff nodded.

“Not just that, either,” she said. She took a deep breath. “We’d have to… I couldn’t see you. Couldn’t hang out. I’d lose you completely. And Amy and Two… it would be hard to… I mean, I don’t really hang with Two at all except with you. I don’t want her to have to choose. I know how that would go, anyway.” She laughed. “At first, it was just… I mean, she’s so cute and helpless… all ‘do not would like’ and ‘I think you are mistaken.’ But, she’s never not happy to see me, and I just… I don’t know…”

She trailed off, her lips quivering.

“It’s okay,” I said. “You tried, but if that’s the only way… I’ll just do it. I wasn’t going to try to get out of it, anyway. What’s it going to be?”

“I don’t know,” Steff said. “He won’t say, but… it’s going to be bad.”

“Maybe not,” I said. “I mean, he’s never punished me before. Maybe he’ll go easy.”

Steff shook her head. She didn’t elaborate, but if she’d spent all of Sunday talking to him about it, like I thought she had, she probably had good reason for her impression.

“And I’m sorry, I can’t… I couldn’t go against him,” she said. “I can’t pick you over him. I love him too much. I… I’d love to fuck you, you know that, but I’ve been with Viktor for a year. I have a future with him.”

“Kilrest,” I said. “The Ogre Territories.”

Steff nodded.

“You don’t approve of my ‘lifestyle choice’, do you?” she said. It wasn’t a question.

“Amaranth… Amaranth said something about that, yesterday,” I said. “She said something like, ‘What do you think Steff and Viktor were doing on break?'”

Steff shook her head.

“You don’t want to know about that,” she said.

“I don’t,” I agreed. “But… I’d like to understand. I have to drink blood. If I’m not careful, I could kill somebody because… well, instinct. Why would you want to be a part of that, voluntarily?”

“You have to understand, Kilrest is practically a different plane,” she said. “It’s outside the Imperium, utterly beyond the pale. It’s… it’s freeing, being outside ‘civilization.'” She laughed. “I fit in there as well as anywhere. I mean, I’m used to people looking down at me, you know… half my life I was the clumsy half-breed and the other half I was the elfy faggot. It doesn’t really bother me to have a bunch of ogres treating me like somebody’s house pet. Especially when that somebody outranks them.”

“The thing is, when she said that… we were talking about… well, eating people,” I said. I decided to keep the mermaids out of it. Steff could think I was only talking about myself. “Did you…?”

“Not often,” Steff said. “I had Viktor’s protection, but I was just barely above the slaves myself. I mostly ate vegetables from the slave gardens, and a little bit of trade food, which was mostly junk food… but Viktor shared a little of his meat with me. That’s kind of a way of showing everybody I had his favor and they should keep their mitts off. Most of the time it was goats or whatever they could catch, but not always. I, um… I passed on the ogre, but when one of the slaves died, or was killed…” She shrugged. “After spending the past semester fucking around in the necromancy vaults, why not? It’s not like they die more because you eat them.”

“Did… did you like it?” I asked.

“It was better than the mountain goat,” she said. She gave a kind of silly, obviously forced grin. “And, whatever it tastes like… I mean, it’s kind of hot, right? Somebody dying so that you can eat… but, you know, ogre cooking’s not so great, and it was kind of greasy, and all charred on the outside.” She shrugged. “I’ll get used to it. If I ever get a chance to swipe fresh parts from the vaults, I’m going to practice… I mean, I am going to be the lady of the manor, right? I might be able to improve the state of the art a bit.”

“You could try to change things,” I said.

“That’d ruin things for Viktor,” she said, shaking her head.

“I don’t think Viktor’s in love with every part of his mother’s culture,” I said.

“That doesn’t mean he’s going to be able to change it from the top down,” Steff said. “And I wouldn’t if I could. Don’t you think I’ve earned a chance to be the one at the top of the shitheap for a while? Three more years and then nobody’s going to fuck with me, ever again. And if they try?” She shrugged. It was an unnaturally stiff motion, with none of the fluid elegance of her elven blood in it. “I’ll be able to do whatever I want to them in return. I’m good with my daggers. I’ll have a degree in necromancy. I’m already learning about torture. I’ve been practicing, on Amaranth and Gwynedd, on myself… I’m getting ready. I’m going to be prepared.”

She had a gleam in her eye, and her voice was so calm when she said this, it was scary. I’d bet money that if I had been a subtle artist like Dee and could have taken a little peek inside her head, I’d be seeing the faces of the guys who’d forced themselves on her outside the locker room, the people who’d harassed her in high school, maybe even the elves who had laughed when she’d started wearing skirts…

Nobody’s going to fuck with me, ever again.

Of course, in retreating to an ancient stone fortress outside the boundaries of Imperium, she was making it even less likely than it already was that she’d ever run across any of the people who’d wronged her ever again… but that was probably part of the point, too. She was retreating from the world that had hurt her, into a fantasy where she was the one who did the hurting.

I wondered if she talked about this with her mental healer. Somehow, I doubted it.

I also doubted that her fantasy would work out the way she thought it would. Even assuming Steff really had it within her to fulfill the role she and Viktor envisioned for her… and enjoy it… there were so many different things that could bring it crashing down. They could be attacked by another clan. The I.R.M. could decide to expand its borders, or simply eliminate the threat of another ogre war. Viktor could be the target of a usurper… who might try to get to him through his softer, squishier “pet.”

A lecture on good versus evil probably wasn’t going to do anything, even if I had been remotely qualified to give it. I felt the need to say something, though.

“Is that really the future you want, though?” I asked. “Torturing and killing people because they ‘fucked with’ you? Or because you can, or whatever?”

“Why not?” she asked. “I mean, what else am I supposed to do with my life?”

“Well, you are going to have a degree,” I said.

“Yeah, but you can’t actually get a job as a necromancer without a bunch of bullshit licensing and people looking over your shoulder all the time, making sure you’re doing everything exactly right and not doing anything that’ll shock the normal folk, and even if you do follow all the rules people still think you’re evil, anyway. I like necromancy, but I couldn’t do that if I wanted to. I’m just not the methodical type. I’d fuck it up, I guarantee.”

“But this can’t be the only thing you want out of life,” I said. “You weren’t dreaming of being married to an ogre prince when you were a kid, were you?”

“No,” Steff said. “I thought… well, I wanted to be an artist when I grew up, but… you know, you grow up.”

“Well, why not be an artist?” I asked. “I’ve seen your drawings. You’re… you’re awesome.”

Some people can pull the word “awesome” of without irony. I’m not one of them, but it was the best word for the situation. I was in awe of her talent.

“My doodles, you mean?” Steff said. She snorted and shook her head. “I spent five summers taking art lessons with some of the best teachers in the triprovincial area, and I still can’t draw for shit. The last year, the head of the school ended up giving my dad a refund for the entire course and made him promise he wouldn’t sign me up for any more lessons.”

I stared at her, trying to figure out if she was kidding, though I couldn’t see where the joke would be. Then two words registered in my brain: “my dad.”

“Um, so, this was an elven art school?” I asked.

“Well, yeah,” Steff said. “You don’t think I’d take lessons from humans, do you? I had to work so hard to convince my mom to let me go away for eight weeks that I was supposed to be with her. She only gave in because dad let her have me for Khersentide the next year.”

“He traded eight weeks for one holiday?” I asked.

“My dad’s a dick,” she said. “He said ‘Steffain wants this, not me,’ and pointed out that he wouldn’t see me much during those weeks.” She shook her head again. Tears were running down her cheeks. “It was all for nothing, anyway. The teachers tried to be nice about it for the first few years, they’d talk about ‘that’s a good effort’ and ‘oh, well, that’s an improvement’ and ‘maybe if you practice a bit.’ After the third summer, though, they couldn’t keep pretending… and the last one…”

“Did you ever show your art to anybody who wasn’t an elf?” I asked.

“My mom,” Steff said. “She told me they were great, which is what kept me going… but she’s my mom, and besides, she’s human. They’re practically blind, if you haven’t noticed. I used to have to read road signs for her when we were barely even half a mile away. She was always yelling at me for leaving the light in the hall to my room off, even though there was plenty of light from the bottom of the stairs, too. Oh, and one time? I was trying to figure out what kind of bird I was looking at, and she couldn’t even see it. At all.” She rolled her eyes. “I don’t even know how she managed the years I was gone. I don’t know what she’ll do when I move away for… when…”

She leaned against the bed, seeming surprised when the blanket wall proved less than solid, and then sat down and sank against the overhanging covers

I sat down beside her, putting my hand on her shoulder.

“It’s okay,” I said.

“Useless,” she said.

“What?”

“They’re useless,” she said, shaking off my touch and getting up on her feet. “Useless, stupid, savage brutes. Animals.” She was stalking around the room as she ranted now. “I’m surprised Amaranth is allowed to fuck them and not horses or pigs. That’s what they taste like, you know.”

“I know,” I said. “But, your mom’s…”

“Pigs,” she said. “Pigs!” she yelled, kicking my desk chair. It clattered against the desk’s legs. Steff jumped at the sound and turned around, looking sheepish. “I’m sorry,” she said, rubbing her eyes with the palm of her hand. “I’m sorry. I was supposed to take my potion before breakfast and then I ran into Amaranth and…”

“It’s okay,” I said. I held out my arms. She came to me, and I wrapped them around her.

“I don’t want to lose Viktor but I don’t want to lose you,” she said. “But I’m afraid if you go through with it, you’ll never forgive me.”

“I couldn’t blame you,” I said. “I did it, too. I knew the rules.”

“Maybe it’ll be better,” she said.

“What?” I asked. She didn’t sound like she was being optimistic, so I guessed she meant something I couldn’t guess by that remark.

“If you back out, we can’t see each other and we’ll both hurt,” she said. “But if you take the punishment and hate me afterwards…”

“Steff, stop,” I said. “I’m taking the punishment so I can be with you, afterwards.”

“I hope you’re right about that,” she said.

“I’m glad, actually,” I said, and I tried to make it true as I said it. “Because before I didn’t know that we’d get to stay with each other, but if Viktor’s making that the condition if I don’t…”

“He hasn’t said we get to stay together,” Steff said.

“But if he said we couldn’t if…”

She shook her head.

“He hasn’t said.” She emphasized the last word strongly. “And believe me, I asked.”

“But it doesn’t make any sense for him to say we can’t see each other if I don’t go through with it, if we won’t get to anyway,” I said.

“It does,” Steff said. “Because… because he knows you’ll take the hope of something good over the certainty of something bad.”

I sighed. I was stuck. Viktor seemed like he had some inner core of decency, at least. I could trust that. I had to. There wasn’t really any other choice.

Steff said something, very quietly.

“What?” I asked.

She said it again. I stepped closer.

“We could fuck,” she said. “For real. Just once.”

“Steff,” I said.

“Just once,” she said. “It’s not like you’re going to be in more trouble.”

“No,” I said. “If there’s any chance that he’s going to let us…”

I saw from the look on her face that she didn’t believe there was such a chance, and I stopped.

“I’ll take what I can get,” she said.

I shook my head.

“But why?” she pleaded. “Why? You’re going to be punished anyway.”

“It’s like you said… hope is better.”

“But that’s stupid,” Steff said. “He’s counting on you being stupid. Like a human.”

“Then I’m just going to show him how right he is,” I said. Steff was near tears again. “You should take your potion,” I said gently.

She started to say something, then nodded.

“You’re right, I suppose,” she said. “I’ll see you in class.”

“What about lunch?” I asked.

“We’ll see,” she said. “Bye, Mack.”

I didn’t like that “bye.”

“It’ll be okay,” I said. “Really.”

“You hope,” Steff said. It was dismissive.

“I do,” I agreed. “I do hope, and you should, too.”


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9 Responses to “225: High Hopes”

  1. pedestrian says:

    “When the situation is hopeless, it is useless to just give up!”
    Larry Niven

    Current score: 0
  2. Arkeus says:

    Well… Steff is being Steff, and Mackie is…not sure if she is making progress or in her willfully blind phase. Probably both.

    Current score: 0
    • zeel says:

      SPOILER warning! Stop reading the comments now.

      Not me, in fact I am only replying to this comment to make my comment come before the next one. If you are reading for the first time, please procede to tje next chapter, or risk spoilage.

      Current score: 3
  3. Anthony says:

    Sadly… this is not the end of Steff. As nice as it would be to have her written out of the story here, they end up working things out.

    Current score: 0
    • dracayr says:

      What the hell do people think of when they post comments that serve literally no other purpose other than to spoil?

      Wait, don’t answer. I know you only wanted to deprive other people of their fun a little bit.. yeah, I can totally get that.

      Current score: 1
    • anonymus says:

      thanks for the info
      realy nice …

      Current score: 1
    • C says:

      There exist times when I wish I could punch people, through the Internet.
      This Is One Of Those Times.

      Current score: 3
    • Leila says:

      Not only is this bad from a spoiler perspective, but WTH do you have against Steff?

      Current score: 2
    • zeel says:

      Oh god can we please get a “report” button for moderation? I don’t think anyone actually reviews comments on chapters this old, so spoilers get dropped every once in a while. . .

      Current score: 3